Student recalls military service in Iraq
September 25, 2006 —
As Ben Lanning dresses in his army fatigues, he casually mentions that he was being shot at the last time he wore them. And while most would be surprised at the nonchalant manner in which he discusses putting his life on the line, it doesn't take long to recognize that he tells most his stories this way. His truck exploding in Beiji, Iraq, being awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal - all told with the same sense of duty. For Lanning, it was just about doing his job.
Lanning, an Oakland County native, returned home in December 2004 after a year-long tour of duty in Iraq. Today, the Engineering Technology and Management major is busy doing research with the chemistry department, working to develop alternative fuels that will decrease the country's dependence on oil from foreign lands. Yet, ironically, it was only two short years ago that Lanning gained first-hand knowledge of one such foreign land as a member of the Army Reserves, and he tells a story of a time in which alternative fuel was the last thing on his mind.
For Lanning, the decision to join the Reserves came natural. With a grandfather, uncle, and aunt all having been in the Army, he says it was a sense of patriotism that drew him to serve. In addition, the educational benefits and training he would receive made enlisting a logical choice.
"Here I am just getting ready to graduate school, and I wanted to move on and get some experience and a job to help get a career started," he says. "I thought it would be a good stepping stone."
And so Lanning joined. One weekend a month and two weeks a year, Lanning trained with the 401st Transportation Company from Battle Creek. In the meantime, he worked as a contractor at General Motors and Delphi and attended school at Delta College.
But then everything changed. The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 and Lanning knew it was only a matter of time before he too would be headed overseas. Five months later, Lanning received the letter he knew was coming: he had been involuntarily activated and was to report to Battle Creek with the rest of the 401st.
From Battle Creek, Lanning's company was sent to Fort Lewis, WA where his company spent several months training before being sent to Mosul, a city in Northern Iraq. In Mosul, Lanning and his company ran convoy security, escorting supplies from one base to another. For the most part, his time there went as planned, until a day in July 2004 when chaos erupted.
The day started as routine as any other. Lanning and his friend and fellow soldier, Sgt. 1st Class David Hartman, were running convoy security. Hartman was driving the truck while Lanning was the gunner on the passenger side. That's when the truck hit an IED - an improvised explosive device - essentially, a bomb insurgents set up alongside the road and remote detonate as trucks go by.
After the truck exploded, Lanning says he wasn't sure what had happened, just that it was something bad.
The force of the explosion was so powerful that he would have been thrown from the truck had something on his gear not caught hold of a piece of the truck and kept him inside the burning vehicle. Though Lanning says he is uncertain whether being thrown from the vehicle would have caused greater injury or less, he does know the explosion left him momentarily incoherent.
"You're just knocked into a daze," he says. "You don't know what is going on. You know a bomb went off.... It felt like someone hit you in the head with a baseball bat."
As Lanning worked to unhook himself, he looked over and saw that the entire driver side of the cab had been destroyed in the explosion. Immediately, his attention turned to Hartman. Ignoring the piece of metal shrapnel imbedded in his leg, Lanning ran around to the other side of the truck. At the time, Lanning knew his leg was injured, but was unsure as to the extent of the injury.
"I knew I couldn't walk," Lanning says. "Basically, I was limping and my leg was bleeding, but you don't really comprehend what is going on."
By the time Lanning reached the driver side of the truck, there was nothing he could do. Hartman had been killed in the explosion.
"You don't know what is going on," Lanning says, "All you know is total chaos."
After the explosion, Lanning underwent surgery on his wound. To this day, he still carries a small piece of metal in his leg that doctors were unable to remove. After the surgery, Lanning spent several months on crutches. When he was healed enough to return to duty, he was given a choice to just stay at the base and work on trucks or to continue doing missions. Lanning chose the missions.
"You just suffered this huge loss but you can't let it beat you," Lanning says of his decision to return to the field. "You can't let that situation affect you for the rest of your life."
After his injury, Lanning was awarded the Purple Heart, a decoration given to those wounded or killed while serving with the U.S. Military.
While Lanning expected the Purple Heart, he had not expected to be awarded the Bronze Star Medal, the fourth-highest award for bravery, heroism, or meritorious service. He was awarded both decorations during a ceremony while still in Iraq.
While Lanning is proud of his medals, he doesn't brandish them, instead choosing to keep them in his closet at home.
"I felt I was just doing my job," he says.
A short time after returning to active duty, Lanning's tour was up, and he was sent back home in December 2004.
Now that he has returned home, Lanning's life has regained some normalcy, though he still trains with the 401st as a member of the Reserves. In addition, Lanning's experiences both inside and outside of Iraq left him with opinions about the United States' involvement.
"We need to either stay and finish or stop endangering the troops," he says.
And while Lanning suffered injury and saw a friend killed in action, he is quick to point out that he still feels a call of duty and would return to Iraq if needed.
"I am very proud to have served and I'd go back if I had to," he says. "I always think about the soldiers that are still there.”