Operation Iraqi Freedom Vet speaks with St. Joe’s students about his experiences

Photo submitted to Times Observer Sam Harvey with the three of his children who attend St. Joseph Catholic School — Sara, Annabell and Johnny, after Harvey presented information about his service in the U.S. Army Reserves in observance of Veterans Day.

In observance of Veterans Day, St. Joseph Catholic School invited a veteran to speak to students.

Many of those students knew that speaker as Mr. Harvey. Three knew him as dad.

Sam Harvey served in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1995 to 2007. He was a staff sergeant and squad leader in the 299th Engineer Company out of Fort Belvoir, Va.

The 299th was activated in 2002 and earned the Presidential Unit Citation in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“We went to Kuwait before the second Iraq war started,” Harvey said. “We were some of the first Americans to get there.”

Photo submitted to Times Observer Sam Harvey presented information about his service in the U.S. Army Reserves in observance of Veterans Day.

As a bridge-building unit, they figured they would be in for some work as the invasion started.

So they trained. To do that, they needed materials. “We were there for months and months,” Harvey said. “We unloaded barges full of equipment and practiced.”

“Then the bulk of the fighting force came over after Christmas,” he said.

The 299th was attached to the 3rd Infantry Division.

“We were there for the initial invasion,” Harvey said. “Our unit’s role was to provide bridging.”

Photo submitted to Times Observer SSgt. Sam Harvey during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“The invasion was basically three weeks of no sleep,” he said.

Although there were only about 120 men in the 299th, their vehicles and equipment stretched for miles. “We had a lot of equipment,” Harvey said.

They would drive essentially 24 hours a day. At night, they weren’t allowed to make targets of themselves by using headlights, so the drivers wore night-vision goggles.

“That’s very stressful,” Harvey said.

When they did get a chance to stop to sleep, the 299th circled the vehicles, dug foxholes, and slept in shifts.

Photo submitted to Times Observer SSgt. Sam Harvey during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

On the first day of the drive, there were fatalities in the battalion related to the driving conditions, but everyone from the 299th made it home.

As retreating Iraqi forces fell back, they attempted to destroy infrastructure including bridges to keep the invaders back.

The 299th had to be ready to build a new bridge in a hurry, or attempt to prevent the destruction of an existing one.

“The primary one was called Objective Peach, a four-lane bridge across the Euphrates,” Harvey said. “We got up to the staging area where the attack was being made across the bridge.”

Engineers took boats called Zodiacs across the river.

“One of my guys went forward with that group, and hooked up with the Combat Engineer Brigade,” Harvey said. “They jumped in the water, they pulled wires out. They were able to save the bridge from being demolished.”

Although most of the original bridge remained, there was enough traffic that the 299th had to construct a new one. “We ended up building our bridge… mostly for traffic going back the other way,” he said.

After the Iraqi army was defeated, there was plenty of work left.

“We’d set up check points,” Harvey said. “I lived on an island and conducted river patrols to see if insurgents were trafficking weapons.”

Eventually, he got to see the whole country, taking civilian engineers all over to damaged bridges.

The stress level was much lower after the invasion.

“After the Iraqi army was defeated we didn’t feel in danger,” he said.

Harvey wasn’t just telling war stories. He wanted the students to get a feel for how someone becomes a soldier.

“What I tried to do was explain my whole career, not just when I was in the war — how the Reserves work, how you enlist, the difference between an enlisted man and an officer,” Harvey said. “A lot of them have no experience directly with service members.”

Harvey had not spoken publicly about his service. “It was funny talking to kids,” he said. “You don’t want to glamorize it, but you also have to make it appropriate for the age. It was a little bit of threading the needle.”

Even his own children learned some new things about his service.

The students enjoyed the slide show. One of the pictures showed Harvey driving next to a tank.

He even showed pictures of people protesting. He said protesting the reasons behind a war is different from being disrespectful to the men and women who are fighting it.

Following the presentation, Harvey took questions from the students, grades kindergarten through sixth. “The kids had some funny questions,” he said. Like “Were you in the Army?”

“The students and staff are thankful for all veterans and active military members for their service,” Principal Nancy Warner said.