When Shane Ardner graduated from Calvert High School in 2000, he went directly into the U.S. Army. He had no way of knowing about the terrorist attacks coming in September 2001 and how that day would affect his career.
After spending a total of four years in Iraq, staff sergeant Ardner was able to leave that country behind as U.S. troops withdrew and turned authority over to the Iraqi people. He returned to Ohio in November with Mary, his wife of three years, and their three children to spend time with Shane's parents, Tom and Margo Ardner, and other relatives.
Dec. 16, Ardner presented an early Christmas gift to the Seneca County Museum. Director Tonia Hoffert accepted a collection of items that included photographs, a Bible Ardner carried on all deployments, an Iraqi military jacket, a parachute, Iraqi currency and several other items he brought back. They are to be displayed in the museum's military room.
Ardner said he spent "a long time" at Fort Bragg, training in special operations. As a paratrooper, he was promoted early on. The occupation of Iraq began March 19, 2003, and Ardner arrived in northern Iraq a week later, March 26. He was featured in an A-T news article in 2004.
"I was in the 173rd Airborne. One of our first objectives was to take an airfield in Kirkuk. It was a military base. This was in one of their training rooms," Ardner said, pointing out a weapons diagram he had folded and mailed to his parents.
At another military site, Ardner's unit was looking for deserters when he found a journal that had been left behind. It was written in a language Ardner could not read. A poster came from one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad. He said the wool uniform jacket came from a supply room, and he thought it was unusual for the label to be printed in English.
"I didn't get this off a dead body or anything," he added.
Ardner had photos of equipment that coalition troops had destroyed or confiscated and other Ohio soldiers he had met along the way. Ohio sports teams often provided topics for conversation. An Ohio flag was among the items presented to Hoffert.
"I carried this flag for every Iraq deployment I went through. I took it from Tiffin when I graduated from high school at Calvert, and it's been through four Iraqs, one Kosovo, Hurricane Katrina and Afghanistan. I always had it in a pocket," Ardner said. "Every time I would get a group of guys from Ohio, I'd say, 'Take a picture with the flag.' If you're from Ohio, you're going to proud to be from Ohio."
The memorabilia included tokens used as change for dollar bills. Ardner said the troops were instructed not to use American money for any purchases because the Iraqis were skilled at counterfeiting U.S. currency. Soldiers had to use Iraqi money even at the PX. Any change was returned to them in the form of special tokens.
Ardner spoke about projects they had done at their camps and pointed them out in the pictures. The soldiers sometimes had to get creative to make do with what was available.
"This is a shower we built. This drum up here, we filled with water ... and it got so hot the water would almost be burning your skin," Ardner said. "We built these little tables and put checkerboards on them. We'd cut a broom handle (into disks) and color them with markers so we could play checkers."
During his deployments, Ardner estimates he made about 90 parachute jumps. As he unfurled the parachute, he pointed out the cord that secures it to his equipment pack. Inside each slender cord are 10 threads that can support 100 pounds of force.
"At the beginning of the invasion, we needed to tie down so many things that we would cut it and use it to tie stuff down," Ardner said. "We were getting these large weapons caches, so we'd tie all the weapons together. ..."
For training, troops jump in a group at about 800 feet, and the chutes open immediately. Ardner said avoiding collisions with other jumpers is just as important as landing safely. Keeping their feet and knees together, they try to land on five specific points that can absorb the intense shock and prevent serious injuries. Ardner said accidents happen when jumpers panic and forget what to do. The variety of conditions rarely allows a person to land as instructed. He has broken his tailbone and fractured a wrist and an ankle.
"You're going to land at a 30-mile-an-hour rate, so there's no standing up ... I don't touch anything. I just sail down and crush the ground," he said.
When he wasn't in Iraq, Ardner was deployed for natural disasters. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Ardner's unit was called to offer humanitarian relief. He recalled landing at the partially flooded New Orleans airport in C-130s. The soldiers were divided into two groups: one to retrieve bodies and one to stop looters. After the 2009 earthquake in Haiti, Ardner was consulted to offer his parachute expertise.
"When humanitarian things need to be dropped, and they put them on large pallets," Ardner said. "It was my job to inspect all the parachutes."
He didn't have to get off the plane, but he had to watch as the supplies for Haiti were dropped on the island before flying back to Fort Bragg. Ardner said he has jumped from just about every kind of U.S. military aircraft, including C-130s, C-141s, C-17s and some single-engine planes. He also has tested many of the new parachutes that are larger and heavier to carry the extra equipment now used by troops.
Hoffert asked Ardner whether he had been a collector prior to his military service. He said he did have some World War II artifacts from his grandfather, Paul Ranker. A Heidelberg graduate and veteran of the Army Air Corps, Paul is the former owner of Ranker's service station.
Hoffert said veterans she knows who have served in Iraq did not bring back mementoes. They are reluctant to talk about their experiences. Ardner said he likes to discuss the changes he observed over the years of the campaign.
"I had the special opportunity to be there on day one and to be there when everybody was leaving. I could see what happened from the first to the last and two in between," he said. "When we went to Iraq, and the actual order of operations was over, with President Bush landing on the Air Force carrier, the Iraqi people thought we were leaving shortly. When we went through the cities, they would throw us cigarettes and sodas. It was 'I'm so glad you're here' ... Then around November, they realized we weren't leaving."
At that point, al-Qaida and other groups started the insurgency movement to pressure coalition forces to withdraw. Ardner said he could understand why impoverished Iraqis would accept payment to work for al-Qaida against coalition troops.
Ardner also served during the surge and admired the leadership of Gen. David Petraeus.
"The guys who served in the surge, I would say, are a special breed to serve in that 15-month deployment. ... They got in there and got things done, and they lost a lot of guys doing it," Ardner said.
Having been in a leadership position for the past nine years, Ardner said he often wondered why people kept joining the Army, knowing they were putting themselves in danger with the U.S. in the midst of war. Ardner said he is not sure he would have enlisted if he had known the nation soon would be embroiled in an uncertain and unpopular conflict. He was glad to see its conclusion with Operation New Dawn to prepare the Iraqis for self-rule and security.
"It was a special moment for me to finally fly out of Baghdad International Airport and see the Iraqi lights and know that hopefully. ... 'It's all you. Handle it,'" Ardner said.
The military has moved Ardner numerous times, but this time, he is leaving some of his keepsakes in a permanent home in Tiffin. The gesture also is meant to honor the troops who perished and those who endured the extreme heat and cold, isolation from their families and military restrictions to defend their country.
"Talk is never going to put in words what those guys did," Ardner said. "I know there's a lot of people who don't agree with the stuff that goes on in Iraq and in Afghanistan. ... I lost quite a few friends in the Iraq campaign. I have to live with that, and I'd like to honor them by thinking that what we did in Iraq was something good."