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John F. Vanlandingham

Arkansas National Guard / Silver Star

Arkansas national guardsman repeatedly put his life on the line to save Iraqis he trained

Bullets, grenades, shrapnel and smoke seared the desert. Danger lurked where reed-lined ditches hid ambushers on the narrow, isolated dirt road.

“You couldn’t see anything from the dust and the smoke as we moved through the explosive area,” Capt. John Vanlandingham recalls. “I saw a black object coming through the air over the reeds. It landed about five feet from me in a tire rut. Luckily, it rolled away. I dove down by a wounded soldier and the grenade blew.”

It was Nov. 14, 2004, and the insurgency was rocking the Sunni Triangle. Leader of a 10-vehicle convoy that came under attack, the 37-year-old Arkansas Army National Guard captain from tiny New Blaine, 97 miles northwest of Little Rock, refused to leave behind the Iraqis he had trained to become guardsmen.

Twenty miles short of safety at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, blasts from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) ripped motors, trucks and human bodies during the enemy attack.

One explosion pitched 25 Iraqis from an unarmed troop carrier into a ditch. Three dead and others wounded. None, however, would be left behind.

Smoke hid the carnage. Some 200 yards toward safety, Vanlandingham realized one Iraqi vehicle was missing. He told his sergeant to reverse the Humvee and ordered a Mark-19 grenade launcher to cover one roadside, two 50-caliber machine guns to cover the other.

Vanlandingham then ran into the kill zone.

The first Iraqi was small. “I just scooped him up,” Vanlandingham said of pulling the victim from the 3-foot-deep ditch. The captain re-entered heavy fire and returned to his Humvee, 50 feet away.

He ran to another victim.

“He was a lot bigger. I could tell I wasn’t going to move him,” Vanlandingham said. “I yelled at an Iraqi close by to help move the wounded soldier.”

Pain seared Vanlandingham’s back as the pair hoisted the victim from the ditch. A ruptured disk and pain remain to this day.

The Iraqis whom he trained had performed well conducting raids, controlling traffic, preparing to protect their homes.

But trapped in the ditch, many shot wildly; some fired into the air. Others sat crying, numbed by shock.

Vanlandingham repeatedly entered the kill zone to pull out wounded and dead Iraqis, direct the able-bodied to safety and recover weapons.

Ready to depart after recovering the last body from the ditch, the bloodied and weary captain realized he had not checked the crippled truck.

“We had just started to move when an Iraqi in the Leland raised his hand,” he said. “We were about to leave him.”

The soldier was missing a leg. “His leg was a couple of feet from my face,” he said. “I saw that (another) man was dead.

“It was probably a 100-foot run with this (wounded) guy,” he said. “I threw him into the back of the Humvee.”

Vanlandingham returned to recover the body of the dead man — one last time into the battle zone.

All told, the captain saved about a dozen Iraqis that day. The insurgents eventually would have returned and killed the wounded, he said.

Vanlandingham didn’t hesitate to act. It was his duty, he said. It was his training.

His heroics earned him the Silver Star.

“God had his hands on me that day,” he said. “I don’t know how I wasn’t hit.”

Lewis Delavan writes for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock.

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vanlandingham-award

Capt. John Vanlandingham, a member of the Arkansas National Guard, stands near a display commemorating his valor in Iraq. Vanlandingham was awarded the Silver Star for rescuing and retrieving the bodies of about 12 Iraqi soldiers during an ambush in 2004. (Photo courtesy of John Vanlandingham)

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John F. Vanlandingham

Arkansas National Guard / Silver Star

Born March 30, 1967, in Clinton, Wis. Family moved to Paris, Ark., when he was 15.

Married to Lisa for 10 years.

Resident of New Blaine, Ark. Graduated in 1985 from Paris High School. Attended Southern Arkansas University-Camden on a basketball scholarship. Graduated from Henderson State University with a graphics design degree.

Joined Air Force in 1992 and served five years. Joined Arkansas Army National Guard. Completed Officer's Candidate School at Camp Robinson, Ark., and commissioned in 1999.

Assigned to Arkansas Army National Guard, 39th Infantry Brigade combat team, First battalion. Served from March 2004 to March 2005.

WHAT HE DID
Saved the lives of 12 Iraqis whom he had trained to become guardsmen when their convoy came under heavy attack in the Sunni Triangle.

WHERE HE IS NOW
Has worked at Wal-Mart's Clarksville, Ark., distribution center for seven years. Previously operated a stand-up forklift, but back pain resulting from rescuing Iraqi soldiers in 2004 made him unable to operate the machine. He is now an unloader.

WHY HE JOINED THE ARMY
“People don't know how good they have it here. We’re so much better off over here.”


Iraq / Camp Taji

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