September 18, 2014

Medina
Intermittent clouds
67°F

Star-spangled soldier

Members of Medina’s Ohio Army National Guard unit learned last year they would be deployed to Kuwait. Five citizen-soldiers shared their thoughts about serving their country and their days with family and friends before they said goodbye. This is the first installment in a four-part series. For a multimedia version of this story, visit wp2.medina-gazette.com/2008/01/08/photo-journal/star-spangled-soldier/

“Be all that you can be” might be the former slogan of the U.S. Army, but ask Ralph Lawrence and he’ll swear his 20-year-old son, Spc. Damon Lawrence of the Ohio Army National Guard, has lived by such a motto his entire life.

“Everything he decided to do, he decided he was going to be the best at it,” Ralph said, placing a hand on his son’s shoulder.

At Cloverleaf High School, not only was Damon playing much of the four quarters as a tight end and defensive end, he also was on the field at halftime, in his football jersey, blowing a trumpet in the marching band.

When he decided he wanted his life’s work to be working with children, he started early. In high school, he spent much of his free time tutoring and was involved with SHUDDLE and HUDDLE programs designed to keep kids away from drugs and alcohol.

After he spent his childhood hearing about his grandfather’s war stories, he decided he would follow in his footsteps. Damon soon will be working out of a military base in Kuwait, supplying the Middle Eastern theater of U.S. military operations.

A portrait of Alfred Kimpton, Damon’s deceased paternal grandfather who supplied the lines in France and Germany during World War II, sits in the Medina apartment Damon, Ralph and Damon’s brother, Cody, 15, share. Above it hangs a picture of Damon clad in his sand-colored combat uniform.

Final straw
Growing up, military service was always Damon’s plan after graduation.

“After 9/11, my parents were not so happy with that,” he said.

After graduating in 2005 from Cloverleaf, he spent one semester at the University of Akron, where he majored in history and education. But bills started to rack up and Damon no longer could continue with school.

Instead, he worked full time with a landscaping business in Strongsville and eventually with Sealy Mattress in Medina.

“It was really killing me I wasn’t in school,” Damon said, shaking his head. “Like that was the final straw.”

After work at the landscaping job was canceled one day, he went into the National Guard recruiting office and explained his situation. Not only could the Guard offer him tuition help through the GI Bill, it also could give him a $20,000 signing bonus.

“I’d like to say that I had star-spangled dreams and that’s why I enlisted, but I think anybody tells you that’s the only reason isn’t being completely honest with you,” Damon said. “A lot of people are doing it for a lot of different reasons and no matter what they are, you’re doing a good thing.”

Damon brought the idea to one of his greatest role models: his father. Since Damon moved out of his mother’s house at age 17 and in with his father, the two have come to rely on one another. They once worked together at Sealy. They cook together. And on Good Friday of his senior year of high school, the two had the same cross tattooed on their right biceps.

“Even at the age of 20, he sits back and looks at me and says, ‘Hey Dad, what do you think of it,’ ” Ralph said. “Damon has made a lot of key decisions … I would say that Damon has made decisions that he knows he has to live with.”

He subsequently told his mother, Pam Lawrence, who was divorced from Ralph six years ago, about his decision to join the Guard.

“It’s his life. I do what I do. I can only hope for the best. It’s what he wants to do, so I’m not going to say anything,” Pam said, taking a long drag on a cigarette. “But for me, it’s scary. He’s a man; it’s reality.”

In April 2006, Damon made the decision to join the National Guard and he and his father went to the recruiting office.

“I went in there a protective father,” Ralph said matter-of-factly. “I went in there with hopes of getting a guarantee from one of these guys that he wouldn’t be deployed.”

Ralph did not get that promise and he later found his fears would be realized.

Life on hold
After more than a year on inactive service, Damon was called to active duty in July 2007. His unit was told a few months earlier it would be deployed at some point.

At the time, Damon was enrolled to start at Bowling Green State University in the fall as a prelaw major, but after his call to duty, he put his plans on the back burner.

“That was the scariest thing when I went to the special forces briefing (shortly after enlisting). They said that you have to be ready to put your life on hold for up to two years,” Damon said, explaining he was more than ready to make that sacrifice.

Since July, he has been stationed full time with the Guard. His workweeks, often beginning at 7 a.m., involved keeping the National Guard armory in Medina up and running along with soldiers like himself.

“It’s really making sure you have your stuff taken care of,” he said, noting he handles anything from paperwork to manual labor.

But his work there took on a greater purpose when it was officially announced around August that Golf Company of the 237th Brigade Support Battalion would be deployed to the Middle East.

Upon hearing the announcement, Damon said he had mixed feelings.

“I knew there was a possibility when I signed up,” he said, head cocked and eyes looking upward. “Did I tell my dad and everyone else, ‘Yeah, I want to go’? No. Did I kind of want to (be deployed)? Yeah.”

But he soon realized there is a lot more to combat than he originally expected. He heard little from his friends who had spent time overseas, but he could still see a distinct change in them after their return.

“A lot of guys don’t want to talk about it. You don’t get into the really nitty-gritty,” he said. “But if you were talking to them, you can tell something different. They have a different calmness about them.”

Preparations
After learning of the deployment, Damon worked on preparing himself mentally and physically for the challenges ahead. He exercised regularly. He practiced Arabic with computer software provided by the National Guard. And he habitually read newspapers, listened to National Public Radio, and discussed foreign policy with Ralph.

“We’re going up against thousands of years of the way things are over there,” Damon said. “Whether I agree or disagree with what’s being done or said isn’t my place. It’s my job to do what I’m being told and to do it to the best of my ability.”

But that’s a terrifying thought for a mother. Pam said all the “what ifs” race through her mind about her child entering one of the most tumultuous regions of the world.

“That’s always on your mind. That’s all you think about, but you keep going, doing the practical thing,” Pam said, tears welling. “It’s just emotionally stressful. They send them out at 20. I had a baby at 20.”

And Dad shares the same concerns.

“Not talking to him every day, not waking him up: it’s not something we’re looking forward to,” said Ralph, who lovingly calls Damon “Buck.” “It’s going to be a lot different, but you know what? It’s tough. But, wow, what are we going to do?”

Ralph and Damon have grown closer since they became roommates.

It’s a home whose décor pays homage to all things important to the Lawrence men: crosses on the wall, a table with Damon’s military memorabilia and a virtual shrine to the Lawrence men’s football careers with the Lodi Buckeyes Youth Football team, on which Damon played and Ralph coached.

All these hold lessons and memories that Damon said he will carry with him overseas.

Fears
In the months before his deployment, Damon had plenty of fears of his own. He has not traveled outside North America. He wondered what combat would be like and how he would deal with it.

“I like to think I’d rise to the occasion. I’d like to think I’m the kind of guy that will go out and win medals and stuff. But I can’t say that until I actually experience it,” he said.

“I did everything in high school. I wasn’t at the very top of the class, but I did pretty well. People had high hopes for me. I enlisted trying to do the all-American boy dream, and I’d really hate for something stupid to happen to me,” Damon said.

He placed his hands flat on a table, looked straight ahead and struggled to find the right words. “I’d really like to come back safe for my family and myself. It’s always the stories you hear about, the kid who was trying to live the American dream, trying to do everything growing up. I guess that’s my biggest fear,” he said.

But Damon said it’s all part of the job: the excitement, the hard work, the anticipation, the fear and the unknown.

Goodbyes
Damon and his family spent the holiday season with Damon’s deployment looming.

“The truth of the matter is this is a special time of the season. It is a little bit more special because the young man is leaving for the year,” Pam said. “Trying to spend a lot of quality time, that’s all you can do.”

A family holiday party found Damon at his grandmother’s house, surrounded by the chaos of dozens of relatives. He played with little cousins. He sat on Santa’s lap. And he kept company with his maternal grandmother, who has problems speaking due to a recent stroke.

“Damon’s my mother’s jewel,” Pam said. “This is her pride and joy.”

Damon had a party of his own with some of his closest friends. Ralph prepared pizza, one of his specialties. Seven friends sat around the dining room table playing cards. They laughed in unison as they talked about high school, elementary school and old football days.

Damon told stories about his military experiences. And eventually they made their way into the living room for a guitar jam session.

His farewell to his family arrived as Damon made his final preparations for departure from the Medina armory. Damon was one of 12 men and women chosen to go to Fort Hood, Texas, early and prepare for the arrival of the rest of the troops from their unit.

After months and one last day of goodbyes, Ralph and Cody dropped him off at the armory last week and each gave Damon one abrupt, but heartfelt, hug and walked off.

There’ve been a lot of goodbyes in the last three months, Damon explained.

After training for three months at Fort Hood, Company G is scheduled to be deployed to Kuwait in the spring. Once in Kuwait, Damon said, he’ll have time to think about the future that awaits back home. He wants to see shows on Broadway and walk the Vegas strip. He wants to go back to school. He also wants to make a career out of the military.

“I’ll have a year in the sand to think about that, though,” he said, explaining he really wants to make the most out of the experience.

“There’s a lot of good things that would come out of (a career in the military), and there would be some hardships. Nothing comes easy, right?” he said. “But I want to be that poster boy. I want to be that boy on the poster jumping out of the helicopter in the recruiter’s office. I’m almost there, I’m working on it. Not quite yet.”


Heading for duty
- About 1,600 troops from the Ohio Army National Guard will be deployed to Kuwait this spring. It is the largest single-unit deployment since World War II.

- The Medina unit, Company G, 237th Brigade Support Battalion, will deploy 33 soldiers from Medina County.

- Two of the soldiers are female.

- During their deployment, three soldiers are expecting babies.

- While on active duty, soldiers are granted 2½ days per month of leave.

- The Medina unit will be in charge of base and convoy security in Kuwait, which includes entrance points, perimeters and securing the movement of vehicles in and around the country.

- The oldest soldier being deployed is 49.

- The ranks of soldiers from the Medina unit range from private to captain.