Iraq veteran Ben Parrish won't ever forget why he served
By Steve Herring
Published in News on November 8, 2009 1:50 AM
MOUNT OLIVE -- Ben Parrish doesn't need a holiday to remind him of the sacrifices generations of veterans have made.
He wears his tribute to one of them on his wrist every day.
The inscription on the bracelet reads: "Sgt. Lance O. Eakes 1132nd MP (Military Police) Co. KIA 18 April 08 Rashadiyah Iraq" -- a fellow soldier during Parrish's tour in Iraq who did not make it home.
But that is not Parrish's only tribute.
He also has a small U.S. flag first carried by his father, Ron Parrish, inside his helmet during Operation Desert Storm and later by Ben Parrish inside his helmet during two tours in Iraq -- a flag he thought was lost after the attack that injured him and killed Eakes.
Ron Parrish, who is retired from the U.S. Army, has lived in Kuwait for about 12 years and is a civilian government contractor there.
He gave his son the flag in 2003 -- as Ben was deploying for Operation Iraqi Freedom. After his tour, Ben gave the flag back to his dad, when their paths crossed in Kuwait.
It was not the first time the treasure had been passed from father to son -- Ron's father gave it to him when the two met up in Saigon during the Vietnam War.
Parrish met his father again last year when he was getting ready to begin his second tour in Iraq. His father gave him the flag for the second time.
It was a sort of soldier's good luck charm, Ben said.
It was April 18, just days after Ben and the rest of his unit of military police of the 1132nd MP Co. had attended a memorial service for fellow Guardsman Emanuel Pickett of the Wallace Police Department who had been killed during an assault just two days prior.
Parrish volunteered to ride with a group leaving on patrol from Camp Taji, located about 12 miles northwest of Baghdad.
Parrish was riding in a Humvee in a four-vehicle convoy. It was about 1:50 p.m., and the convoy had just passed through an Iraqi police checkpoint.
That's when his vehicle was hit.
"Everything started going in slow motion," Ben said. "The vehicle started lifting up off the ground in a forward flip motion. I had complete auditory block. I couldn't hear anything. My gunner, Lance Eakes, started slumping down in the turret that he was manning. We started flipping forward. We flipped about 20 feet in the air and landed upside down.
"When we finally stopped moving I knew right off that we had been hit. I couldn't really move. I was bound up. I couldn't get out because my vest had me pinned in. Somehow, during the incident, my helmet had come off and I was face to face with my gunner. We were about three inches from each other face to face. There was no life in his body and I knew right then that he wasn't with us anymore."
The driver, Josh Freeman, was able to get out of the vehicle.
Freeman and others later told Ben what happened.
"He came around to the back to my side trying to get my door open yelling in, 'Sgt. P, Sgt. P are you all right?' I yelled back, 'Josh I'm fine, I'm fine. Are you OK.' 'Yes I'm good, I'm good.' 'Good then get me the hell out of here.'"
It took about 10 minutes to free Parrish. Finally, another vehicle had to be hooked to the door to rip it open. Sgt. Shannon Carroll reached in and cut Parrish's vest off to free him from the wreckage.
As his hearing returned he heard the sound of machine guns on both sides as the unit provided cover fire.
He knew he was hurt, but he wasn't ready to quit, not yet.
"They said I unholstered and was ready to get back into the fight," Parrish said. "They kept telling me, 'No man you need to get into this other vehicle so that we can get you out of here.' I said for what? They said, 'Man you are bleeding all over the place.' I reached up and felt my head and realized my scalp had been laid open and I had a nice little seven and half inch gash right there on the right side.
"Josh and I both looked at each others and said, 'Naw we are not leaving until you get Lance out. When you get Lance out, we will get out of here.'"
The gunner's body was recovered and placed in one vehicle. Ben and Freeman were placed in separate vehicles and the convoy began the 15-minute trip to Camp Taji.
Ben said he and Freeman were "patched up" when they reached camp.
As soon as they could, they went to say one last good-bye to Eakes -- as did the rest of the platoon.
"We did one final salute," Ben said.
Parrish was transported to the main support base for more treatment.
"I was able to call my wife up and let her know," he said. "I didn't want anybody else to call her. I knew she'd freak out. I said, 'We got hit today. I'm OK and I will be home in a few days.'"
Ben was transported to a base in Germany where he stayed for five days before returning to North Carolina. He had hoped to get back in time for Eakes' funeral, but arrived at Pope Air Force Base around noon on the day of the funeral.
His wounds have healed and he is thankful for the care he received at the VA hospital. He continues to drill monthly with the National Guard as he awaits a determination to be medically retired.
Parrish remains in contact with others from his unit including Freeman, who lives in the Oxford area.
He is glad to be back to work, but says he will never forget that day in Iraq, or the loss and personal journey that changed his life.
"I appreciate life a lot more," he said.
Yet, even with all that he has gone through, he supports the country he swore to serve and the work that his fellow soldiers are continuing in the Middle East.
"I know we went in for the right reasons," he said. "The public is not going to know all of the details. Just like during Vietnam, the public didn't know everything that was going on over there. There is no way whatsoever to explain what it is like to someone who has never seen combat. For those who have never been, they will never understand what we have been through, ever."
And then there was that helmet -- lost briefly in the attack, with the flag still inside.
Ben thought he would never see the flag again -- or be able to keep the promise he had made to his father to bring it back to him when he came home.
The chaos of that day made it almost too much to hope that the flag would once again be transferred back to his father.
Little did Ben know, there was a friend watching out for the Parrish family momento.
"When I was injured, I wasn't able to bring my helmet back out with me. The helmet had gotten lost during the shuffle of the incident. A friend of mine (Jerry Davis of Duplin County) actually recovered the flag for me out of my helmet. He was one our unit medics."
Davis kept the flag in safekeeping for Ben.
"He knew that it meant a lot to me," Ben said.
So when his father came to the States for a visit, Ben and Ron headed over to see Davis.
"Jerry gave it back to me, and I was able to turn and give it back to my father," Ben said. "He still has the flag."
Ben said his military experiences, as well as his family history give him more perspective on Veterans Day.
"I really don't think the country as a whole pays enough attention to it and the meaning of it," he said. "Our veterans have fought for our freedoms. I don't think the public realizes how important our veterans are."
He doesn't hear the cheers like he used, too, he said.
"In 2004-05, an Iraqi Freedom solider would be walking through the airport and crowds would stop and just start clapping. It has died off you don't see that anymore. Its' like, 'OK it's a passing phase I'm through with it' -- it seems like that is the way a lot of veterans are treated."
So that's why he agreed to be one of the grand marshals for this year's Warsaw Veterans Day Parade -- to honor those who have and are serving, and to remind the community about the heroes they meet every day.
"I just think the public needs to be reminded how important all of our veterans are, not just the veterans, but our public service workers -- your EMTs, your doctors, your teachers," he said.
It's a way to say thank you, he added, to those, like Lance Eakes -- who choose to serve -- their communities or their country.