PARIS, ILLINOIS — Paris, Illinois is a patriotic town awash in red, white and blue. American Legion Post Commander Tom Noel said it’s been that way since the Iraq War began in 2003.
“Instantly, the flag sales went up, you see flags flying everywhere,” said Noel.
Noel said that while the patriotism has not faded, the mood did change in 2004, when news of the mounting casualties from the town’s Illinois National Guard unit - the 1544th Transportation Company - starting filtering in.
“Five right here from our unit, right next door, all at once, that was a real shock,” recalled Noel.
Army Sergeant First Class Jeremy Deters served in Iraq with 1544th Transportation Company. He is still with the unit. The cost of the 8-year long war is clear to him. He lost five friends in that mortar attack near Baghdad in 2004, including Sergeant Shawna Morrison, the first female Illinois National Guard soldier to die in the conflict.
“We heard the mortars falling… went over there and saw what had happened and everything,” said Deters. “You come to terms with it, but it never leaves you.
“I think about my colleagues, my comrades, my brothers in arms every day,” said Kristopher Skinner, another veteran.
Skinner served as a U.S. army officer near Mosul, an area now under the control of ISIL militants.
“Seeing what’s happening there, it almost feels as if some folks gave their lives in vain. It’s hard not to consider it, especially now. But that’s a freedom, I guess that’s a liberty that I have because I came back and I am still here safely,” said Skinner.
Marine Sergeant Michael Hjelmstad spent part of three deployments to the region training the Iraqi National Army, which has suffered dramatic defeats in recent weeks.
“It is hard to watch them struggle and to know that maybe some of those guys [we] were training are the ones getting killed right now,” said Hjelmstad.
In a training environment using lessons learned from two combat tours in Iraq, Sergeant Deters now prepares a new generation of soldiers for the harsh realities of war.
He doesn't second-guess past decisions. Deters said that instead, he focuses on the mission ahead and passing on information that could help save lives in the future.
“We can’t just let the future generations go in it blind and not know what’s going to happen. Myself and the others that have stayed in, it’s because we believe it’s our job to pass on the knowledge, because we believe in it,” said Deters.
And if they are called to serve again, Tom Noel says they will return to a town that continues to be grateful for their service.
“We regret that we had to give lives, but to give service, there is no regret,” said Noel.
But a constant reminder of the cost of the Iraq War exists behind Noel’s American Legion hall… a baseball field named in honor of Shawna Morrison.