Mark Strahle never got to finish his tour of duty in Iraq, a roadside bomb took care of that. But he did come home and get a chance to rebuild his life.
But not everyone who goes off to war gets to come home and now Strahle is part of an effort that shows Americans the level of sacrifice many of his friends made. The Bryan native works with “Eyes on Freedom Memorial: Lima Company” a traveling exhibit that features life-size portraits depicting the fallen of Lima Company 3/25, one of the hardest hit units in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The paintings are the inspired works of artist Anita Miller and with the helmets and electric candles, the exhibit gives these fallen heroes a chance to be recognized and honored.
It also has given Strahle a new direction in life.
Strahle joined the Marine Corps Reserve in 2003 right after graduating from Bryan High School. His long-range plan was to become an officer. That’s why he joined the Reserve, so he could take college courses to help him qualify for Officers School.
He became a part of Lima Company in 2004 and deployed to Iraq in January 2005. He was based in the Anbar Province. The area included a hydroelectric dam and touched the border with Syria.
They did house to house searches looking for insurgents and met the people of Iraq who Strahle considered good.
“It was a wonderfully successful deployment,” Strahle said.
That is until May 11, 2005, when two roadside bombs exploded as his vehicle drove over them. He was severely wounded and his deployment was over.
“I almost didn’t make it,” Strahle said of his injuries.
Changes in technology since then to the vehicles would have spared him of the injuries he incurred, he said.
Of the company’s 240 days in combat, it saw 210 days of combat.
He was first sent to Germany for immediate care and then stateside to Maryland to recuperate. After he was released from the hospital, he returned to Bryan.
He came home to a hero’s welcome with a parade in Bryan and then tried to put his life back together. He returned to school.
“I recovered in Bryan for two years,” Strahle said. “I went to school at Defiance College for two years.”
He was working at JP Morgan Chase in Columbus when he crossed paths with Miller. She invited him to help out with the exhibit.
The timing was perfect.
Strahle would help out at first as a volunteer, but as more and more of his time was taken up with the exhibit, he had to resign his full-time job in February 2012. Now he works full time for the exhibit as it travels to 35-40 events a year.
“When I became involved I was not in the greatest place,” Strahle said. “I was still drinking a lot (a consequence of post-traumatic stress disorder).
“The memorial came into my life and put the focus outward to the veterans and the public.
“It helped me more than anything. I have been doing this for five years and I am in a much better place.”
During his time with the exhibit he has learned about resources available for veterans.
At first the exhibit covered northwest Ohio with stops in Bryan, Montpelier, Wauseon and Defiance College. The short trips helped the team shake the dust off and get their travel legs back, Strahle said.
“Northwest Ohio has always been great to us,” Strahle said. “The troops today still get a warm reception, a far cry from the troops coming home from Vietnam. It’s completely opposite of what you see now.”
While the exhibit features the 23 fallen Marines from Lima Company, the surviving members didn’t at first want to see it. They supported it, Strahle said, but it was still too close to the actual events.
Things changed in August 2015 when the unit had a big reunion in Columbus, Strahle said.
“Almost all of the Marines attended,” Strahle said. “They viewed the paintings. Time had passed and they didn’t mind being around the exhibit.”
Since then many members have attended other events.
The response from non-veterans has been positive as well. The full-size paintings can be an overwhelming experience the first time people view them, Strahle said.
He encourages people to watch a short video about the project so they can get to know the full experience. This puts a positive light on the event, he said.
The public is looking for a way to say thank you (to the veterans) and many do by coming out and attending the exhibit, Strahle said. “Or they want to be part of the motorcycle escort when the exhibit comes to town. It’s really great.”
The exhibit has opened the eyes of the public to how many veterans work and live amongst them without their knowledge, Strahle said.
“When older veterans view the paintings they recognize other veterans and tell stories their family members have never heard,” Strahle said.
The Marine Corps is a strong supporter of the exhibit. The display will spend a few days in September in Nashville for Marines Week, Strahle said.
Looking back on his life, Strahle said he has no regrets. Early on he had regrets about living while other guys were getting hurt.
“We were a heavily engaged unit,” Strahle said. “We saw 210 days of combat out for the 240 days in country.”
When he went into the service there was a lot of politics being played out at home about whether the United State should be in Iraq. After seeing the carnage left by the insurgents, those political arguments faded away.
Now he sees himself working with the exhibit for a long time. While he’s on the road a lot, he still finds time to come home to Bryan and spend time with his family.
Anita Miller got a vision in 2005 to create a display honoring the men who died in Lima Company. Her vision also included showing it at the Statehouse in Columbus. That dream came true in 2008.
The Fellow Marine
Strahle saw the initial unveiling and three years later asked Miller if he could host the display at a Veterans Support fundraiser he was hosting. That started the process where Miller handed over the baton to Strahle for coordinating the display.
•Private First Class Christopher R. Dixon
•Lance Corporal Christopher P. Lyons
•Staff Sergeant Anthony L. Goodwin
•Petty Officer 3rd Class Travis Youngblood (Navy Corpsman)
•Sergeant Justin F. Hoffman
•Staff Sergeant Kendall H. Ivy II
•Lance Corporal Nicholas William B. Bloem
•Corporal Andre L. Williams
•Lance Corporal Grant B. Fraser
•Lance Corporal Aaron H. Reed
•Lance Corporal Edward A. Schroeder II
•Sergeant David Kenneth J. Kreuter
•Lance Corporal Jourdan L. Grez
•Lance Corporal William B. Wightman
•Lance Corporal Timothy M. Bell, Jr.
•Lance Corporal Eric J. Bernholtz
•Corporal Dustin A. Derga
•Lance Corporal Nicholas B. Erdy
•Lance Corporal Wesley G. Davids
•Sergeant David N. Wimberg
•Lance Corporal Michael J. Cifuentes
•Lance Corporal Christopher J. Dyer
•Lance Corporal Jonathan W. Grant
•Cpl. David Stephen “Bear” Stewart
•LCpl. Kevin Waruinge
•Sgt. Bradley Harper
James Pruitt may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org