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Sandia Wounded Warriors discover they were united in battle years ago


BROTHERS IN ARMS — Jason Shelton (2998), left, and John Bailon (5627) reminisce while walking in terrain at Sandia Labs that reminds them of Iraq. They both fought for the US military in Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Jason Shelton and John Bailon left a recent Sandia Military Support Committee meeting side by side, sharing stories of combat in Iraq. John (5627) talked about a day in the summer of 2005 when his Marine unit was called to help a small Joint Special Operations team holed up and taking mortar and gunfire in a house next to a school booby-trapped with explosives.

The hair stood up on Jason’s neck.

“It sounded really familiar,” Jason (2998) says. “I asked if the mission involved bombing the building. He said it did. It was crazy. There could not have been two missions involving a Marine unit supporting a Special Operations team at a school at that exact time in Iraq. I was on the team that John’s unit came to help.”

John says it became clear as he and Jason talked that they were within 100 yards of each other during the tense conflict. “It was a weird, strange coincidence,” Jason says. “For the next few days we both kept saying, ‘I can’t believe it.’”

Both John and Jason are in Sandia’s Wounded Warrior Career Development Program, which opens specific jobs at the Labs to military veterans injured in combat. The program offers training and education, allowing combat-injured veterans to catch up to their peers who entered the civilian workforce instead of the military.

Dog sensed trouble

Jason was an Air Force Combat Controller and part of an elite counterterrorism team that tracked prominent members of al-Qaida, the Taliban, and other militant groups. On that day in Iraq, they were alerted to the possibility of a school being used to hide weapons and fighters. “They use schools, hospitals, and mosques, thinking we won’t go there,” Jason says. “We were dropped off in the desert and walked into this school.”

A K-9 team led the way in the dark of night, testing special equipment intended to make dog-handling in a combat environment more effective.

“That dog ended up saving everybody’s lives,” Jason says. “He alerted, and the handler could see that they had booby-trapped the school with trip wires and explosives and built fighting positions in stairwells with extra ammunition. We didn’t know how many people were in there waiting for us. It was bad.”

The team retreated to a small house next door and called for help. “It was too dangerous to send guys into a situation like that,” Jason says. “When things happen at that scale we request a kinetic strike in which the Air Force comes in and destroys the building. It was the middle of the night, so there were no kids around.”

The sun started rising as a decision was being made on the strike, not a good sign for Jason and his team, who, for the safety of support aircraft, did not go out in daylight. “We knew if we stayed there much longer we’d have to stay all day and into the next night, and we didn’t have provisions,” he says. “We couldn’t leave because there were enemy troops in the building, and someone had to keep ‘eyes-on’ the school until a decision could be made whether or not to destroy it.”

Marines take control

John’s nearby Marine unit had a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) on standby to help whoever was in trouble in the area. “They had assets we didn’t have,” Jason says. “With their numbers and tanks they could secure the area better than we could.”

Jason’s team asked the QRF for help and at the same time began taking mortar and machine gun fire from near the school. “They knew we were there because our team had discovered and destroyed a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device near the school,” he says.

The team held on while Marine tanks rolled in and secured the area. “They surrounded the school for us,” Jason says. “We were taking fire, we were getting mortared. John and his guys got there and took control. It’s nice when people bring tanks. With the Marines there our helicopters could come and get us out.”

John says his unit had attached assets, such as jets, choppers, tanks, and plenty of Marines, while Jason worked in a small team. “They needed our help and we all got down there,” John says. “It was a dangerous situation.”

Jason says the house that sheltered his team didn’t provide much protection, especially against mortars. “Having those guys show up was huge,” he says. “Our small group was limited on what we could do.”

John says the Marines received permission to destroy the building. “It was obviously being used for something other than a school,” he says.

The story has a tragic postscript. The Marines left six snipers to watch the school site after the mission ended. They were later ambushed and killed. Five of the bodies were recovered by the Marines, but the sixth was missing. Jason’s team went into a nearby city and recovered the body. “We leveraged all our assets to find him and we did. We brought him back to the Marines,” Jason says.

Different paths to Sandia

Jason, who joined the Air Force after graduating from high school in Indiana in 1995, left the service in 2007 after doing four combat tours in Iraq and three in Afghanistan. His first deployment was 10 days after 9/11.

He moved to Wyoming with his wife, whom he met in the Air Force, and in 2011 relocated to New Mexico, where he heard about Sandia’s Wounded Warrior hiring program from the Veteran’s Administration. He went to work in January as a mechanical designer.

“I love it,” Jason says. “I do miss the guys I was with in the Air Force, but I wanted to further my education and do something different with my life.”

John, a native of Shiprock, enlisted in the Marines in 2001 with his brother Cheston Bailon (5635), who served with him in Iraq and who also is in Sandia’s Wounded Warrior program. The brothers studied business at Arizona State University and were deployed to Iraq in March 2005. They returned in October and went on reserve status through 2008. John completed a bachelor’s degree in sustainability economics from ASU and in 2010 went to work for Oracle.

He learned about the Wounded Warrior program when Cheston was hired. John started at Sandia in 2012 and works in cybersecurity.

“It was pretty shocking,” Jason says of learning that he and John were in the same battle in Iraq. “It’s a very small world to know we were that close over there and now we’re both working at Sandia and in the Wounded Warrior program.”

John says it’s amazing that he and Jason were yards apart “in a country thousands of miles away eight years ago.”

“To randomly stumble upon it is very interesting and awesome,” he says.

The shared experience has brought John and Jason closer. “Things like that always do,” Jason says. “It doesn’t matter who you were with in the military or how long ago, having the same experience is powerful. You might not see someone for 10 years but run into them again and remember that one night, and you’re best friends again.”