OAK RIDGE, Mo. — Dozens of signs along Missouri highways memorialize service members killed in combat since 9/11. Head south on Interstate 55 from St. Louis, and they stand in the grass at exits to Festus, Herculaneum and on down.
Passing by at 75 mph, the collective weight can feel light, like anything carried by the shoulders of many. But slow down. Follow one sign off the highway. The sacrifice of an all-volunteer military and their families over the past 20 years is heavy.
Just take a turn at the sign for Army Sgt. Robert G. Davis.
It’s one of three options in Jackson. Go into the surrounding countryside, until the blacktop turns to gravel. Here, near tiny Oak Ridge, you’ll find his son, Brayden, 16.
“People ask me all the time, ‘How was your dad? Who was he?’” Brayden said. “I can’t answer them. They know he died in Afghanistan. They don’t really know how old I was.”
Davis, among the first service members from Missouri to die in Afghanistan, was killed by a bomb in August 2005. He was 23. |He’d just returned from a whirlwind trip home to southeast Missouri to see his wife, Mandy, and meet their son, Brayden, for the first time.
Of course Brayden doesn’t remember the two weeks he spent with his father. He was only 3½ months old. Pictures were taken, though. Stories are told.
One time, in the middle of the night while on leave, Davis was unable to sleep. He rushed off to Walmart with baby Brayden to buy a lawnmower and a weed eater. Another day, he, his mom and dad visited relatives in Granite City. On another, they went to Fort Leonard Wood to see an Army engineering commander Davis got to know during a previous deployment to Iraq and looked up to.
“I’ve seen pictures and some VHS tapes of him and my mom,” Brayden, now over 6 feet tall, said of his parents. “I’ve heard his voice. They look so neat and happy.”
Like so many before and after, Davis didn’t come from much. When he was 14, he moved in with his uncle. Before sunrise, he worked at a dairy. He’d come home to wash away the smell, then run off to Jackson High School.
He and Mandy met when they were teenagers. He often visited her house. She had a swimming pool and her parents, Shane and Joyce Johnston, liked him.
“He was like one of our kids,” Joyce said. “We welcomed him.”
Shane and Joyce recalled Davis as an outdoorsman who dished out healthy doses of sarcasm. They said he was very hardworking. He would run while mowing lawns, apparently to more quickly move on to the next one. He was particularly good behind the wheel.
“There wasn’t anything he couldn’t drive,” said Shane, who served in the Army in the early 1970s.
Davis and Mandy married after high school. Shane said Davis joined the Army because he was patriotic and wanted to provide a better future for his family.
Davis went to basic combat training at Fort Leonard Wood, which had an influx of new recruits following the 9/11 attacks. The south-central Missouri post has also been in high gear, churning out military police officers, truckers, chemical specialists and engineers, a catch-all of trades ranging from demolition experts to road builders.
After basic, Davis stayed at Fort Leonard Wood to specialize in running heavy equipment — bulldozers, dump trucks, backhoes. He ended up with the 864th Engineer Battalion at what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Mandy moved to the Northwest with him. As he was where they grew up, Davis was in awe of the water and woods. During his free time, he fished for salmon and hunted big game.
“He shot his first bear when he was in Washington,” Joyce said.
In 2003, Davis deployed to Iraq. Instead of driving heavy equipment, he was recommended to be the personal driver for battalion commander Kent Savre.
“He was doing very dangerous operations on a daily basis,” said Savre, who was responsible for about 800 soldiers during the deployment.
‘A whole different life’
When Davis deployed, improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, were just becoming well-known as a dangerous enemy weapon. IEDs killed and maimed thousands of U.S. service members, left survivors with the signature wound of post-9/11 warfare: traumatic brain injury, or TBI.
The 864th was supposed to go out and find IEDs before the bombs hit supply convoys circulating throughout Iraq. Doors on Humvees, like the one that Davis was driving, were still only made of vinyl.
“Bob was at the very front end of figuring out how engineers would do route clearance in both theaters, in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Savre, who retired from the military in 2018 as a two-star general in charge of Fort Leonard Wood.
Davis made it home safely from Iraq, but unlike with the draft, he and other service members weren’t done after their first deployment overseas, especially those in active duty. They and their families were just getting warmed up.
“Everybody in America after 9/11 said we will never forget,” said Savre, 61. “The reality is everybody moves on with their lives — everybody but the soldier.”
He added, “Bob is just one of many kids from Missouri that were living a whole different life than everyone else.”
On Davis’ second deployment in less than three years, the 864th helped build infrastructure in Afghanistan, including major roads that didn’t previously exist. This time, Davis expected to drive a bulldozer. Early on, though, his services as a driver for a different battalion commander were requested.
“He wanted to be back with his buddies operating the equipment, but because of me he said he would take the job,” recalled Sgt. Maj. Neville Lewis, the highest ranking enlisted soldier in the battalion. He is now 65 and retired from the military. “That is why it hurts. Every day, I think about it.”
On Aug. 18, 2005, Lewis was in the vehicle right behind Davis. They were on their way back to Kandahar Airfield, the day after a ceremony for a 45-mile roadway that was nearly complete. Driving across a dry riverbed near a small town, an IED went off right underneath Davis, blowing him from the armored Humvee.
The battalion commander and gunner survived the blast. The bomb killed Davis and 1st Lt. Laura M. Walker, 24, the first female U.S. Military Academy graduate to die in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are among 7,054 U.S. service members who died in both conflicts — 4,598 in Iraq, 2,456 in Afghanistan — including hostile and non-hostile incidents.
Mandy was notified when she was with her parents in southeast Missouri.
“She was hysterical,” said her mother, Joyce.
Davis had just been on leave with her and Brayden for two weeks.
“She was very, very depressed for a long time,” Joyce said. “She knew how to function, but she didn’t know how to make decisions. She was very unsure of herself. She wasn’t sure how she was going to live life without him, even though she had the baby. She moved on, but she never got over losing him. There was always a voice there.”
Heroes Way eventually contacted the widow about putting up a sign on I-55.
“The signs are there to remind the community of the sacrifice somebody made,” said Ross Gartman, president of the nonprofit organization. “It’s not just the sacrifice of Davis, but the sacrifice of his family. Soldiers’ families, there’s stuff they will never be able to get back once a soldier is killed. My dad taught me how to throw a football. To shoot a bow. My dad gave me direction when I needed guidance growing up.”
The group has put up about 60 signs statewide, with more in the queue. They started in southeast Missouri, worked up from there, toward St. Louis and beyond.
Davis was in the first group of four signs. Gartman remembers the ceremony well. It was at an armory in Jackson. He got up to the podium, started bawling. He’d tried to explain that Davis’ son wouldn’t remember his father’s touch.
Brayden, about 4 or 5 years old at the time, walked to him out of the crowd.
“He tugged on my legs,” Gartman said. “Brayden was down there, holding his hands up to me, to pick him up.”
After the funeral and other ceremonies, interest in Davis’ death tapered off. Mandy went on to work as a medical coder for hospitals. She married Robert Scheffer in 2012. They had a daughter together. But Mandy’s health went into decline.
Mandy suffered from migraines and other medical issues, said Joyce. She once spent several months in a St. Louis hospital recovering from sepsis. A few years later, in 2018, Mandy died from pneumonia and a blood infection, said her mother. Mandy was 38.
Joyce and Shane are raising Brayden. Their grandson is in the same life stage as Davis when he first left an impression on them. They see some similar mannerisms. There’s usually a smile behind abrupt answers to questions.
Brayden is a junior at Oak Ridge High School. He spends half of the day at school learning how to weld. He’s weighing two other career paths, including the military.
“If I did join, I know I’d join the Army,” he said. “Dad was in the Army. Grandpa was in the Army, and Great-Grandpa was in the Army.”
He said he also thinks about being a therapist.
“I’ve always liked the human mind,” he said. “It’s neat how people relate. People laugh at things and half the time they don’t know why.”
He said there’s about 30 people in his class at school. He enjoys hanging out with his pals, including a group of them who have lost a parent.
“I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve heard a lot. I just want to help people,” he said. “Most people in Oak Ridge has a sad story, pretty much.”
Brayden said he was upset about his father’s death and proud of his service. His father had been asked to do a mission and died trying to do it. He said he wished there was a month dedicated to veterans instead of a day.
Brayden lamented the people killed in the 9/11 attacks and other civilians caught in crossfires.
“They had their country torn apart,” he said of Afghanistan. “By now, it’s a sad thing. War just brings death and leads to more war.”
He still has lingering questions for his father to explain.
“I want to ask him how his life went,” Brayden said. “And if he enjoyed most of it or all of it. ... And if he knew if he’d gone in the military that he might die.”
Joyce answered his last question on Aug. 30, the last day of the 20-year war in Afghanistan. They were all sitting on the front porch, with the sun setting. An outdoor cat crouched nearby, patiently watching a group of hummingbird feeders, bustling with activity.
“He did know that,” she told the boy.
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