ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A chance conversation led two Sandia National Laboratories workers to discover they fought in the same battle in Iraq in 2005.
John Bailon and Jason Shelton have become close friends since Bailon mentioned last spring that he had been in an intense firefight in Haditha while serving as a Marine Corps corporal.
Shelton told the Albuquerque Journal (http://bit.ly/1gCxHl5 ) the comment made him stop dead in his tracks. He was there too, as part of a U.S. Air Force special operations unit trying to seize a school where the Taliban was storing weapons.
“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 friendship between a young Marine from Santo Domingo Pueblo and an airman from DeMotte, Ind., is a small-world story that began during a tense standoff with Taliban fighters on July 31, 2005.
They never met in Iraq, but since they discovered their connection have become fast friends.
The battle began after Shelton’s unit, the 24th Special Tactics Squadron, set about its daily mission of “hunting bad guys” in and around Haditha, an agricultural center in western Iraq’s volatile Anbar region. The counterterrorism team tracked prominent members of al-Qaida and other groups and was tasked with checking out a large school building where fighters were reportedly storing weapons.
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.
They called for additional support, but before it arrived mortar, small-arms and grenade fire erupted 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 got the call to assist.
“Our task was to build enough of a cordon around the school that no one could get in or out,” Bailon said.
After the Marines called in air power and destroyed the booby-trapped school, they pulled out, but left two three-man sniper teams behind to head off anyone trying to retrieve arms from the school. All six were killed, and Shelton was on the helicopter that carried out one of the dead Marines.
“We were glad that we were able to do that for the Marines,” he said.
Today, both Bailon and Shelton have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. They’re 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 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.
Shelton said his connection with Bailon makes them incredibly close.
“In the case of John and I, that battle was the icebreaker,” Shelton said. “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.”