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Inspired to serve: Nevada’s post-9/11 soldiers share their stories

Updated August 25, 2021 - 5:55 pm

Pfc. Blanca Taylor
  • Age: 51
  • From: Las Vegas
  • Lives in: Las Vegas
  • Branch: Nevada Army Guard
  • Served: Iraq
  • Honors: Purple Heart

On New Year’s Day 2005, Pfc. Blanca Taylor was in Iraq, driving the first semitrailer in a convoy of about 25 when it was targeted by a roadside bomb.

The truck’s right side exploded, and the cabin filled with smoke.

But Taylor kept her foot on the gas, driving 2 more miles until the blown-up fuel tank depleted. The soldier in the passenger seat clung to her. Shrapnel from the explosion had impaled his eye.

“It just made me angry,” Taylor said. “I think that’s what helped me stay alive.”

A decision years earlier, when she was 31, led her to this moment. Three weeks after watching the hijacked planes decimate the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, Taylor enlisted in the Nevada National Guard. She would later become the first woman in the Guard to receive the Purple Heart.

She is among the approximately 15,658 post-9/11 veterans enrolled in the state’s two largest Veterans Affairs systems. They represent more than 7 percent of about 113,521 veterans who are enrolled.

Fifty-seven service members who listed Nevada as their home state have died in the war on terror, according to a national database.

In recent days, Afghanistan made headlines as U.S. troops withdrew and the Taliban again seized power over the nation. With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, those who served are reflecting on America’s longest war.

Their military careers were molded by the worst terrorist attack on American soil. Some felt called to join, others re-enlisted. They each felt a fierce sense of patriotism.

“I knew at that moment, this was going to change my life forever. I’ll never forget how the country came together,” said Nevada Army Guard 1st Sgt. Larry Harlan, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “If we reflect back, that might help us a little bit more today.”

I think that’s what helped me stay alive.

Pfc. Blanca Taylor

Nevada Army Guard Pfc. Blanca Taylor poses for a photo during her 2005 deployment to Afghanista ...
Nevada Army Guard Pfc. Blanca Taylor poses for a photo during her 2005 deployment to Afghanistan. (Blanca Taylor)
Staff Sgt. Dan LeBlanc
  • Age: 55
  • From: Reno
  • Lives in: Golden Valley, Arizona
  • Branch: Nevada Army Guard
  • Served: Iraq

‘Fight for survival’

After the 9/11 attack, Staff Sgt. Dan LeBlanc was so angry he ran 5 miles.

“I was hoping we would get deployed right away, so we could go and make them answer for what they did,” remembered LeBlanc, who is now retired from the Nevada Army Guard.

Before the Guard’s 1864th Transportation Company deployed in 2004, LeBlanc and his comrades waited on the flight line at Fort Lewis for another unit coming from Iraq to deplane.

That unit turned out to be the active-duty Army unit that LeBlanc’s son, Pfc. Michael Schullo, belonged to as a combat engineer. He walked through the gate in his body armor, and the two chatted briefly.

Schullo handed his dad a SureFire flashlight.

“You’re going to need this; it’s so dark over there,” he said.

LeBlanc still has the flashlight, which he refers to as the “God light” because it shined the way for him while he was in Iraq.

The 1864th Company, a truck company named after the year Nevada became a state, arrived at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, on Nov. 1, 2004. Its job was to escort convoys and haul supplies and equipment.

Also part of the company was now-retired Sfc. Seferino “Sef” Romero, a former Marine from Las Vegas. In a recent interview, he recalled the events of Palm Sunday 2005 vividly.

He was a convoy commander on March 20, a date that would later become known by him and his comrades as the Battle of Bismarck.

“That’s the one that pretty much changed my life forever,” Romero said. “I got attacked in one of the biggest coordinated ambushes in the war’s history.”

As a security convoy commander with 60 vehicles behind him, Romero got a message on the tracking system that anti-American rallies were up ahead. He immediately saw the black flags.

It didn’t raise an alarm until they passed through the checkpoint, and his Humvee was hit by a mortar. The entire convoy was at a standstill. Instinctively, Romero jumped out.

“It was basically a fight for survival,” he said. “We took a beating, but we gave a beating. And we all got each other out.”

During the battle, shrapnel pierced one soldier’s face and a bullet ricocheted off another’s helmet. A mushroom cloud nearby signaled another explosion. Romero made eye contact with the enemy, who pointed a rocket-propelled grenade in his direction.

“That’s the last thing I remember, just looking death in the face,” he said. “And I accepted it.”

Instead of striking Romero, the grenade hit the grille of the truck next to him. Romero operated on autopilot, snapping back to reality when he felt his gun jam. He now remembers only the sound of whizzing bullets.

The gunfire exchange was inadvertently caught on video by another soldier’s camera on the floorboard of the Humvee. When Romero sees the recording, he feels like he’s watching someone else’s experience.

“It tried a lot of us while we were out there,” Romero said. “It shaped who we are, who we were and who we became.”

I was hoping we would get deployed right away, so we could go and make them answer for what they did.

Staff Sgt. Dan LeBlanc

Staff Sgt. Richard Rohweder
  • Age: 58
  • Hometown: Idaho Falls, Idaho
  • Lives in: in Las Vegas
  • Branch: Nevada Army Guard
  • Served: Iraq and Afghanistan

‘Iraq and back’

On base, living arrangements for the soldiers weren’t easy. The Humvees reached 152 degrees Fahrenheit inside. The metal port-a-potties were hot to the touch.

The soldiers wrapped their weapons with a cloth as not to burn themselves and taped water bottles around the side of their knees to buffer the heat. Showers were scarce, and Pfc. Taylor cut her hair off to make it more manageable.

Staff Sgt. Richard Rohweder said he knew the transportation company was going to be imperative in the Middle East. He hit the ground on his 38th birthday in 2004.

“Iraq and back,” he told his granddaughter. “Never say goodbye. Just see you when I see you.”

He would later serve another tour in Iraq and also be deployed to Afghanistan.

One of the hardest parts of being a leader was when he had to instruct the younger soldiers to do what they needed to do to survive. Sometimes, that meant running over kids who strategically jumped in front of their vehicles. The youngsters would do so in an attempt to stop the convoy and steal the trailers.

Looking back, he said he knows it’s crude and horrible. But it was war. And riding the convoy was like a roulette wheel.

“Everybody had their own lucky socks to wear,” Rohweder said. “I was just damn lucky. That’s it.”

I was just damn lucky. That’s it.

Staff Sgt. Richard Rohweder

Retired Lt. Col. Neil Oscarson
  • Age: 46
  • From: Reno
  • Lives in: Reno, NV
  • Branch: Nevada Army Guard
  • Served: Iraq

‘Call to service’

During the yearlong deployment, the 1864th completed 310 missions, drove 1.6 million miles and came under attack 64 times.

Neil Oscarson, now a retired lieutenant colonel living in Reno, was a captain during the 2004 deployment. He had left the Army but was motivated to enlist in the Nevada Army Guard after the 9/11 attacks.

“It was a call to service,” he said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the experiences we had as soldiers.”

To him, the most important aspect of leadership was the establishment of trust and discipline.

There came a time in 2005 when reality started to sink in for some soldiers. While escorting an Iowa National Guard convoy back to Kuwait, Spc. Anthony “Tony” Cometa’s Humvee flipped rounding a curve. He was thrown from the truck’s machine gun turret and flown by helicopter to a field hospital.

He died June 16, 2005 — a day after his 21st birthday. It was a mission for which Cometa had volunteered.

Oscarson, who was home in Las Vegas on mid-tour relief, rushed back to be with his soldiers.

“That changed things on a personal level,” he said. “The unit changed. It made combat real to us.”

Cometa became the first Nevada National Guard soldier to die in the nation’s post-9/11 wars. Two others were killed the same year.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the experiences we had as soldiers.

Retired lieutenant colonel, Neil Oscarson

Spc. Anthony “Tony” Cometa
  • Age: 21
  • From: Rochester, NY
  • Lived in: Henderson
  • Branch: Nevada Army Guard
  • Served: Iraq

Fallen soldier

Cometa, a Silverado High School graduate, was described by his buddies as having “caveman feet” because he would walk across the gravel with his boots off.

The Nevada National Guard’s Las Vegas Readiness Center named its training complex after the gunner in 2015.

Every day, Rohweder walks by Cometa’s picture. He remembers clearly the day it was taken, and how he had criticized the young soldier for not tidying up his uniform.

The portrait would be distributed to media outlets in the event of a casualty during the war.

“I said, ‘Look at you, you rag bag. These are our death photos,’” Rohweder recalled.

Though he maintains a tough exterior, the self-proclaimed “old warhorse” tears up when he talks about Cometa.

The death also was an emotional point for many soldiers, who remembered that Cometa and his garage band buddies would play music during downtime. Cometa played the bass guitar.

“It was then you remembered that you’re still human and you still had a life,” Taylor said. “It made you feel like you were family, like you were camping.”

Before Cometa enlisted in the Nevada National Guard, he and his friend Patrick Brosnan took a trip to New York City, where they saw Ground Zero.

“I remember him telling me, ‘You know, this is just a validation of why I’m doing what I’m doing for my country,’” Cometa’s mom, Nancy Fontana, remembered.

His dad, Joe Cometa Sr., who lived with him in Henderson, said he was proud of his son but had been worried about the risks of war. Cometa had dreams of buying a house, playing music and owning a Datsun. His father now owns the same car.

Cometa had “11:11” tattooed on his arm, a time he would always see on the clock. After his death, his mom, dad and older brother, Joe, all got the same tattoos. They later realized the numbers had another significance: Veterans Day is Nov. 11.

“Every time 11:11 comes on the clock, I feel like Tony is coming to say hi,” Joe Cometa Sr. said. “And if he were alive today, he would probably tell people interested in joining the Army that they should.”

Outside Fontana’s house in Rochester, New York, she looks at an American flag with her son’s picture on it.

“I think about where he would be today and what he would be doing,” Fontana said. “I don’t want people to ever forget that Tony sacrificed his life. And we also had sacrificed him.”

I remember him telling me, ‘You know, this is just a validation of why I’m doing what I’m doing for my country.’

Cometa’s mom, Nancy Fontana

She promised her son that she would be there when his unit returned.

And when his comrades came home on Nevada Day in 2005, she kept her promise.

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.

A previous version of this story incorrectly characterized Staff Sgt. Richard Rohweder’s military service.

5 Marines killed in aircraft crash in desert, Corps says

The aircraft was based at Camp Pendleton and was part of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing headquartered at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego.