OSWEGO – SUNY Oswego Public Relations major and Fort Ontario intern Alexis Bowering wanted to do something to the men and women of the 444th Engineer Company, 479th Engineer Brigade, USAR, stationed in Oswego.
With assistance from Friends of Fort Ontario, the daughter of the 444th’s former First Sergeant, organized the free program featuring personal stories from officers and soldiers of the company. The Francis Marion Brown Theatre, located on the grounds of Fort Ontario State Historic Site, hosted the event.
The college sophomore MC’d the program, introducing the four speakers.
Captain Donald Oechslin currently lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, Shelia and their two daughters.
He spoke about his 2012-13 deployment to Afghanistan from a leadership standpoint, highlighting the planning process going into and during the posting.
He was part of Operation Enduring Freedom (2012-13).
From Fort Drum they traveled to California for training and then, more training in Louisiana.
In January of 2012 they all met back at Fort Ontario for the beginning of their mobilization to Afghanistan.
“I know, for me it was hard, as was probably for everyone else, being dropped off by your family,” he said. “It takes a special kind of person to sign on the dotted line and serve their country.”
He urged the audience to keep in mind all those who didn’t come home.
Staff Sergeant Joe Pitre explained about his post to Fort Hood in Texas in 2003-04 as well as his deployments to Iraq in 2007-08, and Afghanistan in 2012-13.
“Our main mission was to support in-coming and out-going troops,” he explained. “We loaded and unloaded equipment and vehicle on planes. I got stuck at Fort Drum for about a month while some of our other guys were down in the sun (Fort Hood) having fun; I was stuck in two feet of snow.”
Then, they headed to Iraq in 2007.
The members of the 444th are often in harm’s way.
Fort Ontario conducted the memorial service for the three soldiers attached to the unit who were killed in action in Afghanistan in 2012.
Staff Sergeant John Madonna was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq in 2007.
When a military invades a country one of the first things they try to do is destroy the infrastructure, he said.
Afterwards, they have to replace all the stuff they’ve blown up, he pointed out.
He was badly wounded April 13, 2007, when his RG31 Mine Resident Ambush Protected Vehicle was blown up by a command-wired improvised explosive device.
“All of a sudden, the lights went out,” he said describing the instant of the explosion. “I don’t know of I was the first to wake up or if I didn’t lose conscious at all.”
The RG31 is a “big, monstrous truck.” “But when you get inside, it’s probably the tiniest space you’ve ever seen in your life,” he said. “I think the front operator’s compartment is about the size of a smartphone.”
He had to fit through a tiny space to get to the back of the vehicle and check the conditions of the other two occupants.
His leg started hurting, but he had to make sure the other two were alright, he said. He found out later that he had shattered both bones in his leg.
He found one of them, alive, in the back. The back door of the vehicle had blown off. The third man was found, alive, outside.
Sgt. Madonna was sent to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland for treatment upon his return to the US.
He currently serves as a company operations and training NCO.
The last speaker Bowering introduced was her father, First Sgt. Ralph Bowering, “Army Reserves 101.” He is currently a lieutenant with the Syracuse Police Department.
He joined the service near the end of the Vietnam War and has witnessed the lows and highs of how members of the armed forces are treated when they return home.
There have been a lot of ceremonies held at Fort Ontario, he said.
“We’ve had promotion ceremonies inside the fort, going away ceremonies, retirements and other special military,” he said. “It’s really interesting to see the history that’s there.”
What he found during his different deployments over the years is that people in different countries may look all the same to the US troops, Bowering said.
However, if you get to know them, and they get to know you, you discover they are just the same as everyone else
“It’s empathy, right? Those people in Iraq and Afghanistan, you know they want to do? They want to get up in the morning and go to bed at night. That’s what they want to do – they want to live,” he said. “In the mix of them, there are some bad people who want to do other stuff. But, for the most part, that’s their goal every day. When we get there and we’re able to show them that we are the same kind of people – ‘we are the same, too man. We just want to live. We are here to help you with some things, do this and do that.’ All of a sudden, these people who were potential adversaries can become assets to you.”
His daughter recalled growing up, along with her brother, as a part of the unit.
“We got to play on the tanks and all the big trucks and everything else,” Alexis said. “It was the best thing for a kid. We got to sit on anything and honk the horns and everything.”
When she started kindergarten, her father was sent to Texas.
“They thought there was something medically wrong with me,” the self-proclaimed Daddy’s Girl said. “Turns out, I just missed my dad.”
She went to visit him at Fort Hood and got a T-shirt that went from her shoulders down below her feet. She still has it today, but it’s bit shorter now.
At Christmas, they Skyped so he could see her open her presents.
“It’s like he wasn’t there – but he was still there,” she said, explaining how her mother would move the computer’s camera around following the youngster as she opened gifts, including a GI-Joe action figure.
Later, she was a regular visitor at the Reserve Center.
“I loved it. I was the daughter of the First Sergeant; you couldn’t touch me,” she said.
Her antics earned her the nickname “Trouble” and some of the older members of the unit still call her that, she added. The First Sergeant was referred to as “Top.” When she wasn’t Trouble, Alexis was called “Little Top.”
“They still treat me like a little sister, and a little kid, to this day,” she said.
When she was a college freshman, she posted on her Facebook page that she was dating someone.
She received several comments from her protective “big brothers,” such as – “Does he know what he’s getting into? Can’t wait for him to meet ‘the family.’”
“Now I don’t post my relationships on Facebook anymore,” she quipped.
“Literally everything where I am now is just because of these guys and how they helped me grow into who I am,” she said. “There’s no way I’d be over at Fort Ontario; most people at college don’t even know where Fort Ontario is.”
Other students would ask where is it? About five minutes away from campus, she replies.
Alexis said she organized the event to draw attention to historic Fort Ontario and the Reserve Center. And, to recognize the men and women at the Reserve Center. They are regular people just like everyone else, but sometimes they get called upon to do extraordinary things.
“We wanted to put on this program to give the public a new perspective on citizen soldiers, based right here at Fort Ontario in Oswego,” she told Oswego County today. “These brave men and women have served their country right here in your backyard.”
“Not all military experiences are good ones,” Alexis acquiesced. “But most of my memories are the best memories of my childhood. When I look at soldiers, I don’t see soldiers. I see my dad, see them as a husband, see them as a brother and I see them as my heroes. So, thank you.”