John Bailon and Jason Shelton were shooting the breeze last spring after leaving a meeting at Sandia National Laboratories when Bailon made an offhand remark about a tense firefight in which his Marine unit had been involved in Iraq in 2005.
Shelton stopped dead in his tracks.
“Whoa, whoa,” he told Bailon. “I think I was there!”
As Bailon, who served as a Marine lance corporal, and Shelton, who was an Air Force staff sergeant, compared notes, they soon discovered they had far more in common than being veterans working at Sandia.
“We were just walking back to our offices … and when John talked about this mission at a school – well it was just too similar to not be the same story,” Shelton said.
“A Marine unit helping out an (Air Force) special ops group at a school in the Haditha in July 2005 wasn’t very common,” he said.
The unlikely friendship between a young Marine from Santo Domingo Pueblo and an airman from DeMotte, Ind., is a small-world story sown during a tense standoff with Taliban fighters on July 31, 2005, outside the western Iraq city of Haditha.
Since that chance discussion last spring, it has grown into a rock-solid bond between two wounded warriors bent on moving their lives forward and helping fellow veterans deal with the aftermath of war.
School for terrorists
It was a typically sweltering summer day when the 24th Special Tactics Squadron set about its daily mission of, as Shelton puts it, “hunting bad guys” in and around Haditha, an agricultural center in western Iraq’s volatile al Anbar region.
Haditha is strategically important, because it’s adjacent to Haditha Dam, the largest hydroelectric facility in Iraq. It supplies about one-third of the country’s electricity.
Shelton, an Air Force combat controller, was part of a counterterrorism team that tracked prominent members of al-Qaida, the Taliban and other militant groups. On that July day, his team was tasked with checking out a large school building where, according to intelligence reports, Taliban fighters were likely storing weapons.
Shelton said militant fighters were known to use schools, mosques and hospitals as staging areas and for weapons storage, thinking that coalition forces would not attack them.
Approaching the “school” late at night, Shelton’s squadron sent specially trained dogs equipped with surveillance gear toward the building, which was found to be heavily booby-trapped.
Knowing it would be difficult for the small unit to secure the school on its own, Shelton’s squadron called for additional support.
While waiting for the chain of command to decide how to handle the situation, the squadron came under mortar, small-arms and grenade fire from a nearby palm grove, Shelton said. They took shelter in a small house near the school, but it wasn’t much protection, particularly from the mortars.
Not far away, Bailon’s unit was on standby at Forward Operating Base Haditha Dam, where they were enjoying what turned out to be an all-too-brief respite from the war.
They soon got the call to assist Shelton’s unit.
“Our task was to build enough of a cordon around the school that no one could get in or out,” Bailon said.
The situation grew even dicier for Shelton’s unit as daylight approached. Once the sun was up, they would likely have to stay in place until nightfall, Shelton said, making them even more susceptible to the incoming mortar and grenade rounds.
Finally, word came down to level the “school” and secure the area. The Marines, who had fighter jets, attack helicopters and tanks at their disposal, were happy to oblige.
Following standard operating procedure, the Marines left two, three-man sniper teams in the area to deal with anyone attempting to recover weapons or explosives that might have survived the onslaught.
“The next morning, they (sniper teams) missed their comm call,” Bailon said, meaning they failed to check in via radio at set intervals to ensure they were OK.
The quick reaction force returned to the area, and found five of the snipers dead. The sixth – Cpl. Jeffrey A. Boskovitch, 25, of North Royalton, Ohio – was briefly taken prisoner. His body was found about a mile from the school. Shelton said he was on the helicopter that returned to the Marine base with Boskovitch’s body.
“We were glad that we were able to do that for the Marines,” he said.
Back to civilian life
After four tours in Iraq and three in Afghanistan – which earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross and multiple Bronze Star medals, Shelton left the military.
Bailon and his younger brother, Cheston Bailon – who was in the same unit as his brother in Iraq – also left the military and returned to New Mexico to study business.
Today, the trio – all of whom have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress – are part of Sandia’s Wounded Warrior Career Development Program, which opens specific jobs at the labs to combat-wounded veterans. It offers individualized training and education that allows for a smoother transition from the military to rewarding civilian careers, Bailon and Shelton said.
In interviews earlier last week, both veterans had high praise for the program.
“It’s a well-structured program that moves people forward in their lives,” Bailon said. He and his brother are now working in a cyber security program at Sandia.
Shelton said the development program, which pairs each veteran with specially selected mentors at various levels in Sandia’s structure, drew him to the state.
“As you progress and do well, you can wind up in a permanent position with Sandia,” Shelton said, adding that he’s working in mechanical design.
Bailon, Shelton and a handful of other combat veterans are working with Sandia’s Military Support Committee to form a veteran combat stress support group. The informal group offers Sandia’s combat veterans a chance to talk about their experiences in a relaxed, nonjudgmental way with their peers.
“These are really great programs,” Bailon said.
“It’s been a huge thing to connect with both John and Cheston,” Shelton said.
“In the case of John and I, that battle was the icebreaker. It was like we had been friends for years after we discovered that we were there together. … Honestly, I count John and his family as some of my closest friends now. We talk and confide in each other like we’ve known each other all our lives.
“It’s hard putting into words how it all fits together and what it all means, but I guess if I knew that, I would be a psychologist instead of a designer,” he said.