Two U.S. Marines met during turbulent times in Afghanistan. The chance encounter occurred while they were on their 2011 deployments and it was “really dangerous over there,” said Marine Sgt. Daniel Erlandson.
“We knew we were going somewhere where it was bad,” he said.
No truer words were ever spoken.
On that hot summer day, Erlandson, a machine gunner assigned to Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, remembers his battalion being ambushed from several fighting positions. He was taking cover behind a wall when he turned to talk to his Patrol Leader and was shot in his left shoulder after a bullet ricocheted off a wall during a firefight in Afghanistan.
The pain dropped Erlandson to one knee.
“I’m hit,” he recalls screaming in pain.
For a few seconds — what must have felt like an eternity — Erlandson was a stationary target. Then he was rescued by Marine Cpl. Paul “Rocky” Zanowick Jr., who dragged him to a safer area where he received medical attention, was transported to Germany and eventually flown to the United States.
June 3, 2011 was the date.
A few hours later, Zanowick, 23, a 2006 Miamisburg High School graduate, was killed in action, news that reached Erlandson days later. For Erlandson, that deadly scenario started a mental game of “What If?” A game no one wins.
In the six years since, he has replayed that day over in his head, and each time it ends the same way: If he hadn’t been shot, maybe, just maybe, Zanowick would still be alive today.
Being responsible for a man’s life weighs heavily on a soldier’s mind.
“It was hard,” Erlandson said while sitting in an office at the Start Skydiving, where he’s taking lessons. “It was hard enough knowing what my guys were going through and I couldn’t be there. That’s when I pretty much started getting to my worst.”
Two years ago, Erlandson, 33, now living in Huber Heights near Dayton with his wife, Theresa, was convinced by a veteran to attend Team Fastrax’s Warrior Weekend to Remember, held in conjunction with the Ohio Balloon Challenge, Middletown’s premier event. For four days, wounded combat veterans and Gold Star Families participate in “real life-enriching activities,” said John Hart, owner of Team Fastrax, the Middletown-based skydiving team.
“Most who served in combat or lost a loved one have a lot of emptiness and not happiness and we hope to put some of that in there and help the healing process,” Hart said.
He said the weekend, which included attending a Dayton Dragons minor league baseball game, shooting guns at the Miamisburg Sportsmens Club, riding to a private party and concert in vintage cars, flying in World War II and Vietnam aircraft, bow hunting for carp at Caesar Creek Lake, and being honored during a dinner and at the balloon event, is “inspired by love” and its success isn’t judged by the money raised.
This was the fourth year for the weekend that drew 55 participants, the largest group, and was supported by 750 volunteers. Every attendee was adopted by a local church, Hart said.
“Pretty powerful” is how Hart described the weekend.
“We let them know that we truly appreciate them and their sacrifice is real,” he said.
When wounded warriors and Gold Star Family members are not attending an event, Hart said the healing continues for them as they spend time together, sharing stories.
“That’s a moment not to think about nightmares and to develop friendships and relationships,” he said.
Erlandson, who served three tours in 2009, 2011 and 2013, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorder, ankle sprains, shoulder and back pain. He was honorably discharged on Feb. 27, 2015 and was granted medical retirement. He drives for an armored car company and is taking online college courses.
He returned to the Warrior Weekend to Remember this year as an ambassador.
“It was a different type of healing process,” Erlandson said when asked to compare his first- and second-year experiences. “Last year I was really focused on myself because that’s what they want for you. Coming back as an ambassador, it’s all about helping others and their experience.”
Also during the weekend, he was afforded an opportunity to spend time with the Zanowick family, what he called his “most pivotal point” of the event.
“I had some guilt I had been struggling with,” he admitted. “Part of me felt like if I had never got hurt he may not have been sent out there. So I have been struggling with that for quite awhile. There has been a lot of healing, and a big part has been going through this program. The love they gave me put me at ease.”
Sometimes, he said, the worst part of being in the military is leaving the military.
“Being separated from my brothers meant there was a lot of feeling of loneliness,” he said. “You feel like a big part of you is missing.”
Other veteran programs, he said, are enjoyable, but when they’re over, you go home. You’re alone. Again.
“That bond, that connection is different,” he said. “There are lifelong friendships that form and I’m like family to these guys. They make you feel loved, like family. It helps to mend open wounds that have been there for a very long time. It helps you to feel like yourself again. For me, that was big because I hadn’t felt like myself since my first deployment.”
All because of a weekend in Middletown.
And where would Erlandson be if someone had not convinced him to attend two years ago? You know, play that “What If” game.
“Sometimes I’m worried where I’d be,” he said softly. “I’ve been in some pretty dark places and if I hadn’t connected with people around here, I think I would have continued to go down that path and been in a dark place.”