Shepherd’s military service concludes with Purple Heart
Editor’s note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of articles profiling those who have ever served in the U.S. military, be it overseas or stateside. Every Thursday, a new profile will be published in the T-R.
After seeing his step-brother join the Marines and finding a friend who was interested, Robert Shepherd of Marshalltown signed up for service in 1984. He was excited for a new journey, and to do it alongside someone he knew well.
It turned out his friend didn’t make it in, due to bad knees. Shepherd’s interest didn’t diminish and he went in solo.
The following year he was sent to boot camp in San Diego, Calif., and there it was determined he would be a gunner.
Camp Geiger, N.C. was his next temporary home. There he attended infantry training school, specifically focusing on becoming an M16 machine gunner. After his first term ended he chose not to re-enlist.
The following year the first Gulf War began. Shepherd would have been sent in to fight on the front lines if he had still been a Marine.
“I was torn in missing that war,” Shepherd said. “I would have liked to serve my country, the timing just wasn’t right.”
Though he didn’t fight his time with the Marines was still something he loved. Normal life was too different and he missed the camaraderie he had with his fellow servicemen, so he joined the National Guard.
“I didn’t want to be in the military full-time,” Shepherd said. “I missed being away from it, that’s why I joined the National Guard.”
Fifteen years of reserve duty sent him to areas like the Pacific side of the world, namely the Philippines and Okinawa. There he helped build military structures and other infrastructure.
It seemed like he was going to miss out yet again on seeing battle, with one year left on his contract.
The year was 2004, the war against Iraq was intensifying and Shepherd was soon to join the thousands of American troops overseas.
Leading up to being sent to the Middle East, he and his battalion were training in Maine.
“There was two or three feet of snow where we trained, also being -20 degrees,” Shepherd said. “Then we were sent there, where it was between 110-120 degrees.”
That stark contrast took a hit on many of his men, himself included. While trying to adjust to the extreme temperatures he became sick, so sick he couldn’t leave his bed.
“I just lay there with an IV in me,” Shepherd said. “There was nothing I could do for about a week.”
Missions for the battalion consisted mainly of convoying between Mosul and Kurdistan. They would bring materials down to Mosul, and then construct and bolster fortifications.
“Seeing images recently of ISIS controlled Mosul brought me back there,” Shepherd said. “We drove by the al-Nuri Mosque everyday, I remember it vividly.”
The Mosque, one of the structural relics in the Middle East, was blown up in late June.
In 2004-05 Mosul wasn’t an enemy base, but there was plenty of fighting occurring all around. Many times the convoy Shepherd was part of could have been shot at, or have run across an IED on the roadway.
“I think God was watching over us and kept us safe,” Shepherd said.
One day the danger came closer than anyone expected. The enemy was rolling into Mosul, firing off mortars which were falling all around American troops.
One mortar landed about 15 meters away from Shepherd, the blast knocked him over with the sand slicing through the air. All seemed okay until he felt different, quickly realizing he’d been hit by flying shrapnel.
He and some others who were hit were rushed to the medics tent, evaluated and then released to their infantry.
“If that had been any closer I could have easily died,” Shepherd said.
He went back to work, doing some work in Kurdistan. There he helped build roads, bridges and some schools, while getting to know the Kurdish peoples.
It was a change of scenery, farther from immediate battles and with more gracious hosts.
“They were such an oppressed people under Saddam Hussein,” Shepherd said. “It was nice to see them see some good in their life for once.”
After his year concluded overseas he came back to the states. His military service was complete.
Soon after he was awarded the Purple Heart, having being injured in the line of duty.
“That was an emotional ceremony for me,” Shepherd said.
He was then honorably discharged from the Marines and National Guard.
Life adjusting wasn’t easy for Shepherd, and still isn’t to this day.
He deals with PTSD, including being wary around others and tends to stay away from loud noises. He has two main escapes: the VFW and his faith.
Recently he was elected Junior Vice Commander of the VFW post in Marshalltown. It gives him a chance to meet up with other comrades once or twice a month and keep his military life alive.
He’s also an active member of the Faith Assembly of God, with faith playing a big part when he was overseas and still helps him cope with struggles.
The memories live on one of his basement walls, old photos and various Marine wear prevalent as well.
In the center of it all hangs a simple enclosed frame, holding all his medals he earned, his most proud accomplishments and a testament to who he is.
“Things would have ended differently if I hadn’t gotten to fight,” Shepherd said. “I’m proud I got to serve my country.”
Do you know a military veteran who should be profiled? Send your suggestions to Editor Jeff Hutton at: firstname.lastname@example.org or contact American Legion Post 46 Commander Randy Kessler at: email@example.com