MOUNDRIDGE — Kansas Army National Guard Sgt. Ian Donovan of Moundridge is getting ready to retire at the age of 40.
A graduate of Canton-Galva High School, Ian's father encouraged him to join the military.
"I joined the Army at 17, went into active duty right after I graduated in 1997 at 18," Ian said.
After finishing basic training at Fort McClellan in Alabama, Ian did advanced training for military police work.
"I lost a full hundred pounds while I was in training," Ian said.
His assignments took him to Panama, Korea, Africa and Antarctica.
"I'm still not sure what we guarded there," Ian smiled.
He also has four tours of duty in the Middle East to his credit.
"I was there in 1998, when Clinton sent all the Cruise missiles in," Ian said. "I watched them fly over."
It was in the heat of Iraq where Ian had his first encounter with a camel spider. Hearing a noise behind him, he turned around and saw the 10-inch arachnid sitting in his shadow.
"I look at this thing and it's looking back at me like it's going to eat me for lunch," Ian said. "I screamed like a 12-year-old girl and started running. It starts running after me, so I pull my 9mm and I unload 15 rounds. I hit it nine times before it stopped chasing me."
He was later told the spider was probably just trying to seek out some shade.
"They didn't brief me on those things," Ian said.
As an MP, Ian worked combat operations, ran security missions and guarded checkpoints.
"I stood at the border — the berm, as we called it — with one foot in Iraq and one in Kuwait, directing the tanks as we mobilized in," Ian said.
He often volunteered for the most dangerous jobs, including being the gunner on the lead truck that drove down the frequently mortared and bombed Baghdad Airport Road.
"That was the actual run that my unit did every night," Ian said. "...We ran through the heart of the city of Mosul."
Ian also worked a security checkpoint in Mosul for six months of 2006.
"I was on the ground and there were people walking around us, the pedestrians, who were amazing people," Ian said. "...The kids used to come and play at our checkpoint because they knew we'd protect them and let them play."
One of the young girls he saw ended up moving with her family to the United States and has since become a Marine, Ian related proudly.
"We loved those kids. We would go out of our way to share food with them and help them out with things," Ian said. "When they'd call your name, recognizing you despite your full body armor, that was a good feeling."
On several occasions, local residents would warn them of impending mortar attacks. Ian recalled once seeing a civilian jump on the back of a soldier to bear the brunt of a blast directed at him. Another time, Ian had just grabbed a fellow soldier who had panicked under fire when a concussion grenade went off.
"I was picked up and thrown into a concrete barrier and my shoulder was pushed up into my chest muscle area," Ian said.
Days after marrying his wife, Akeisha, Ian returned to Iraq and again manned a gun on a truck traveling across the desert. The vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb, but the blast was small enough it didn't cause a problem until 25 miles later.
"It sent some fragments up underneath the truck and apparently had cut an electrical line and our cooling line," Ian said.
The flammable coolant ignited and flames came up over the truck's hood. While the others inside were able to escape out the vehicle's doors, Ian — wearing full body armor — was stuck between flames coming over the hood and in the doors. The heat was so intense, the truck's windows started melting.
"Here I had just gotten married and the first thing that's going through my head is 'I'm going to make a widow of my new wife,'" Ian said.
Just as Ian reached for his gun, determined to avoid burning to death, fellow soldiers ran over with fire extinguisher and were able to get his body armor unstuck and yank him out. The flames had burned off some of his hair, charred his uniform and melted parts of his body armor, but he was alive.
Ian left the Army as a sergeant and joined the National Guard in 2007, where he has worked back up to the rank of sergeant and works as a mechanic for the 170th Support Maintenance Company in Wichita.
Ian's last deployment came in 2012, during the troop drawdown. It was the same year his youngest son was born.
"From what we were told, that was the first time Newton Medical Center had ever done a Skype birth," Akeisha said.
Juxtaposed against the celebration of a new life were the tragedies of friends killed in combat.
"Every soldier, even our mechanics, came home with combat medals. We saw that much — and as a National Guard unit. We were actually more engaged than the active guys," Ian said.
Those memories return to his mind in fragments, one of several symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder Ian experiences.
"It never leaves you," Ian said. "When I'm hearing doors slam or train cars colliding, it's the same feeling. Your body just automatically goes into that same combat mode. This was the first Fourth of July I've ever been able to sit back and watch."
At one family gathering, Akeisha found her husband had gone into another room and was crying while hunched in a corner.
"I don't think I realized how bad it was for him until seeing a 6-foot, 4-inch, 300-pound guy hunched over, just boohooing," Akeisha said. "...It's hard to see somebody that you care about a lot have to go through that."
Ian said that time and support from his wife and fellow veterans relieves some of the anxiety he feels.
"Having somebody around who has been here makes the PTSD a lot lower," Ian said. "You can go talk about it, you can relive it."
Some of his fellow soldiers have died by their own hand after returning home.
"Memorial Day is hard for me because of how many I've lost — there and since," Ian said. "People talk about, 'you're home, you should be happy. You're home, you're fine,' but your mind's not home. Whenever somebody goes overseas, a piece of them does not come home."
Returning home after a deployment can be difficult for soldiers used to working as a team.
"You knew that the man or woman to your right or left, they were going to go down fighting alongside you. They were going to do everything they can to protect your back and you were going to do the same thing for them," Ian said. "When you come home ... you don't know who you can depend on."
Ian noted he would like to see veterans get more financial and medical support, and for employers to be more supportive of employees who are in the National Guard.
"The camaraderie and the love that you build with a family, that's something I miss," Ian said. "There are days I even miss the Middle East and the deployment life."
When asked what he'd like to do after retiring from the National Guard in a few months, Ian had a ready answer.
"Grow a beard."