For Army veteran Andrew Baker, the memory of five fallen soldiers will never fade.
By Theresa Miller
Army sergeants Schoon, Nunez and Moody, and specialists Alt and Ellis: They were all from one company, killed within six months during Operation Enduring Freedom.
They were among 55 soldiers serving in Andrew Baker’s unit. Baker, now part of Prudential’s corporate real estate team in Newark, New Jersey, was a newly minted 22-year-old second lieutenant on his first command—a deployment to eastern Afghanistan in 2012. He oversaw a convoy security mission, running gun trucks and keeping passages safe. His platoon exchanged fire with Taliban fighters as they worked to find and destroy improvised explosive devices, roadside bombs made of hundreds of pounds of explosives and buried under just enough dirt to keep them hidden.
The soldiers drove MRAPs, or Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles, designed to withstand IED attacks or ambushes.
IEDs struck twice, each time powerful enough to rip through the MRAPs, taking Schoon and Nunez. The third time, a rocket attack at the Bagram Air Base took three more from Baker’s company, and a fourth from another unit.
“They just kind of pop into your mind, you know,” Baker says, recalling his soldiers. “I remember the good stories and the things we did to train up. I don’t really remember the days—what happened.” Although he won’t dwell on those days of loss, each one stays with him. “That’s there, though, and I reflect on it, especially around Memorial Day, because it’s always there.”
Baker paused, and thought a moment about his soldiers.
“There is rarely a time when I don’t think of them in some sense. I remember the good times and what they’ve done. I think about their families a lot, too. The job over there is hard, but it’s also difficult at home.”
Baker is among the volunteers from Prudential’s VETNET business resource group who have helped to organize Memorial Day events at Prudential offices nationwide. Events include wreath-laying ceremonies in communities or local offices, and flag placements in cemeteries around the country, including the Fort Bliss National Cemetery in El Paso, Texas.
Baker always wanted to be in the Army, but his father, a former artillery gunner, talked him out of enlisting out of high school. So, he joined the Reserve Officers Training Corp at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and upon graduation was assigned to Fort Carson, Colorado. He soon learned his company would be deployed, and, despite all his training, he could not have prepared for the losses his soldiers would endure.
First came Staff Sgt. Mark Schoonhoven, 38, of Plainwell, Michigan, nicknamed “Tin Cup” because he “had this tin coffee cup,” Baker says, shorthanding his name to “Schoon.” He was on his fifth tour, serving under Baker with the 32nd Transportation Co., 4th Infantry Division. He loved the Army and was proud of a previous stint with the 82nd Airborne. Most of all, he adored his wife and six children, and enjoyed a bit of fishing now and then.
Baker’s company was in-country just three weeks when the roadside bomb struck in December, injuring Schoon and another soldier. The other soldier recovered, but the sergeant never bounced back. He was stabilized, sent to a hospital in Germany and then home. He died in January 2013.
“He held on for a solid month,” Baker says. “If there’s anything to be said, at least he was home with his family around him.”
The first fatality brought reality home.
“There were people who cried and let out emotions, but it was really just a shock and disbelief,” Baker says, adding Schoon was born to be in the Army—and was a great teacher. “We continued on,” Baker says.
The platoon enjoyed a few quiet months when “fighting season ended,” as winter set in and snow blocked mountain passes, forcing the Taliban to retreat. The spring thaw brought an uptick in activity and by May 2013, one route Baker’s platoon patrolled—a 109-mile span from Bagram to Ghazni—became saturated with roadside bombs.
“We got into some engagements, so started to get seasoned, going through some firefights,” Baker says. “Mostly small strikes.”
Until May 30, when Staff Sgt. Joe Nunez, 29, of Pasadena, California, and his crew hit an IED so powerful that Nunez was ejected from his MRAP and killed instantly. Two other soldiers and an airman who served as the company’s medic survived their injuries.
As Nunez left for his doomed trip, Baker had just returned from his own patrol. They had high-fived as the shifts changed.
“That was a really tough one to go through,” Baker says. “As a squad leader, Nunez was one of the closest to me. He knew his soldiers very well. He was very easy-going and a good guy to be around. His loss was really felt in the platoon.”
The Bagram rocket attack came a month later, on June 19, following a day of routine training as soldiers walked to a bus stop. Three more were killed, bringing the total to five in just six months: SPC Ember Alt, 21, of Beech Island, South Carolina; SPC Robert Ellis, 21, of Kennewick, Washington; and Sgt. William Moody, 30, of Burleson, Texas.
Alt, a standout on the Lady Roos track team at Killeen High School, and Ellis, a Seattle Seahawks and Mariners fan known for being helpful no matter what, both joined the Army in 2011 and were on their first tour. Moody, on his second deployment, enjoyed driving anything with wheels and loved his wife and three kids more than anything.
“You kind of prepare for it when you’re out on the road,” Baker says, “but when it comes in like that, it feels like they were just taken. It was such a cheap shot.”
After the attack, with less than two months of the tour to go, everyone just wanted to go home. “I’ll never forget it. You could feel the life of the platoon was totally drained. We just stood there. We really didn’t say anything because you really don’t have anything to say,” Baker remembers. “You just kind of sit with each other.”
But the platoon still had work to do. Everyone wanted to avoid the route to Ghazni and the painful memories of losing Nunez, but they continued on. “You do what you have to do,” Baker says.
Before going overseas, Baker celebrated Memorial Day like many Americans, even sometimes confusing it with Veterans Day, the holiday meant to thank those who served.
“Memorial Day was just the start of summer,” he says. That’s all different now. “I still barbecue. I still enjoy the time, but I do so in remembrance of those we lost—our five soldiers who ultimately can’t be there to celebrate,” Baker says. “It’s not to be a doom-and-gloom type of day, but to celebrate their lives and be thankful that we have men and women willing to go out and sacrifice.”