Combat was ‘profound experience’ for Peterborough veteran

  • Peterborough resident Bill Edson served 13 months in Iraq during his time with the National Guard. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • Peterborough resident Bill Edson served 13 months in Iraq during his time with the National Guard. Courtesy photo

  • Peterborough resident Bill Edson served 13 months in Iraq during his time with the National Guard. Courtesy photo—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Wednesday, November 07, 2018 11:22PM

Some days, Bill Edson can’t quite make sense of why he’s still alive.

During his 13 months in Iraq, Edson saw three bombs explode close by, mortars that landed within striking distance that didn’t detonate and sniper bullets that came way too close for comfort.

But Edson was one of the lucky ones to make it back to his family – not the case for 16 from his original battalion.

“You don’t go through all that and not come out affected by it,” Edson said. “It was a profound experience.”

Even though Edson, a Peterborough resident, was the one in charge of a National Guard combat medic group called the Voodoo Medics that included 54 medics and six medical officers, he wasn’t simply giving out assignments from a base safely away from combat. He saw plenty of action while stationed in what was described at that time as the most dangerous place on Earth: Ramadi, Iraq. Edson was part of 120 or so of the 5,600 missions that his battalion conducted.

“Anywhere they went, we went,” he said. “Wherever we were needed.”

Edson always kept a picture of his family in the breast pocket of his uniform. In case something did happen to him, Edson wanted his loved ones to know that they were always with him. Thanks to a satellite phone, Edson was able to call home twice a week and corresponded through email, but it was no substitute for actually being there.

He was gone from May of 2004 through the end of June 2006, including training, and it was difficult for everyone. He had a wife and five children at home, his oldest daughter in college and youngest in sixth grade when he left. When he returned, his daughter was about to enter high school.

And soon after his return, Edson was up for another year-long deployment, which actually would have been about 15 months in all.

“(My wife) said ‘Would you consider retiring?’” Edson remembers. “She said I don’t think you realize how this affected our family.”

So after a 23-year career that spanned active duty and reserves in the Army and the Vermont National Guard, Edson closed that chapter of his life.

“The Army owed me nothing and I owed the Army nothing,” he said. “But it’s tough to leave it behind.”

Edson joined the Army in 1983 at age 19. He was in his first-year of college when he found out he was going to become a father, and seeing a need to care for his family, Edson enlisted. It wasn’t a quick decision, but with military service running deep in his family, Edson knew it was his calling.

“It didn't take long before I realized what it was all about,” he said. “It was about serving your country and being part of something bigger than yourself.”

Edson was trained as an operating room specialist/surgical assistant. Eventually stationed at Fort Bragg, he worked in the base’s hospital and saw a fair amount of injuries due to the airborne training at the base. In 1985, he was selected for Delta Force, a unit tasked with specialized missions primarily involving hostage rescue and counter-terrorism. He was one of six on the medical team.

“We’d be at the air base and be ready to go,” Edson said.

Later he helped form a surgical team that would be on the ready to provide 72 hours of sustained care. “Now it’s the gold standard of Army combat medicine,” Edson said. The group received alert orders eight times for events like the El Salvador-Nicaragua-Honduras border conflict, Desert Storm and 9/11. There were orders to prepare for missions to conflict areas such as Bosnia, Macedonia and Egypt, but not once was the unit deployed.

“As a soldier, you want to do what you’re trained to do,” Edson said. “So I’m ready to go. I’m chomping at the bit.”

Then in 2004, as a member of the National Guard, it looked as though he would finally end up in Kuwait for a border security mission. That is until he was pulled for his deployment to Iraq.

“Without even talking to my wife, I took the mission,” he said. “It was real combat.”

In those 13 months, Edson was right in the middle of the fight to liberate the people of Iraq. And there’s one story that he always likes to tell. There was this woman, an Iraqi citizen, who had her right arm amputated and a broken femur, injuries sustained as a result of the war. With fear of Americans still high, the woman was taken from the hospital by her family and moved to her sister’s house in a bad part of Ramadi. But she needed care, so for three months, under the cover of darkness, Edson’s unit provided it.

“We were in the worst of the worst,” he said, referring to the neighborhood in Ramadi.

They taught the woman’s family how to care for her wounds and built a relationship – one that would eventually save his life. One night, the woman told Edson he shouldn’t come back. She said Al-Qaeda forces knew what was going on and were planning a trap.

“They figured it out,” Edson said. “She said, you saved my life, and now let me save yours.”

Edson has no regrets leaving the military when he did. He received a Bronze Star, the fourth highest award you can get for combat service.

Now he gives talks at Rotary clubs and Lions clubs – really anyone who will have him – to tell his story.

This weekend, to celebrate Veterans Day, Edson and the men in his family will travel to West Point, N.Y., to watch the Army football team for a fourth straight year as well as reach out to colleagues he served with.

“It’s a celebration of service,” Edson said.

And Edson deserves the right to celebrate.