Pile of Scrap Ep. 45: Honoring the Sacrifice - Portrait of a Warrior Gallery
As we commemorate Memorial Day, we acknowledge the brutal reality that each American service member faces. Jason Geis, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Portrait of a Warrior Gallery - Kern County and a veteran himself, gives John Sacco a heart-wrenching and surreal tour of the gallery to celebrate the twenty-seven men from Kern County who sacrificed their lives in combat post 9/11. By working directly with the men's Gold Star Families, the gallery keeps their memories alive through art and education. It holds their motto true when they say, “Always Remembered, Never Forgotten.”
Watch this episode on YouTube here.
Jason Geis and John Sacco
Introduction: The following is an original audio series from Sierra International Machinery. Pile of Scrap with your host, John Sacco.
John Sacco: All right. Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to another episode of Pile of Scrap. I'm here with a friend of mine, veteran, an extraordinary human… Jason Geis. Jason, thank you for joining me.
Jason Geis: Thank you for being at Portrait of a Warrior Gallery, John. We greatly appreciate you being here.
John: Well, this is, um, you know… Pile of Scrap is a podcast for recyclers, but we're coming into Memorial Day and, uh, you know, why not do something a little different?
Jason: Well, we're glad you picked us to be – to do something different.
John: Because, you know, recycling and the military have gone hand-in-hand since World War II. You know, the old posters they had… You know, “Save your metal,” you know, “for your bullets to beat the axis forces.” I mean, we have that in our trade association. So, this is really special. Before the cameras start rolling, I just looked up and saw this… Man, I gotta get through this without cracking every five seconds. But, Jason, thank you. Tell us about this gallery. Tell us what we’re in. The purpose of this gallery, the brainchild, and who is it.
Jason: Yeah, thanks, John. Well, welcome to Portrait of a Warrior Gallery where our motto is, “Always remembered and never forgotten.” And, that's our commitment to our Gold Star Families in Kern County, not just our Iraq and Afghanistan, but also our Vietnam, Korea and World War II. And, in this room, which is really the heart of this gallery is all we wanted to do. We wanted a little gallery that had the 27 portraits of the 27 men from Kern County that gave their life for us on the battlefield, and that’s who these 27 young men are.
John: Are these are the 27 post 9/11?
Jason: These are the 27 post 9/11 that died in combat. We have 14 post 9/11 veterans from Kern County that died an honorable service not in combat and we’ll see those later.
John: So, you served in the army. How many years did you serve?
Jason: 21. Active duty as a medic.
John: Okay. As a medic?
Jason: Yes. Mostly with airborne infantry units.
John: What airborne?
Jason: 82nd Airborne Division, 101st Airborne Division, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and 25th Infantry Division.
John: Again, I’m speechless at the thought of what a medic… You know, I have always had an interest in World War II because my dad served in it. And, I have been to the battlefield… All the beaches at D-Day beaches. And, the cemetery at Omaha Beach was so incredibly emotional that it’s something that until you walk that hollow ground there and you look out and see the sacrifice. And, that’s all – the word that keeps coming to my head as I look at – and, I’m sure you’re gonna explain some of this to me.
John: On who some of these young men are. Then I’ve been to the Battle of the Bulge; some of the different battlefields. And, how the 101st and the 82nd, I’ve been on the – and the 17th Airborne. I’ve been – I walked at Brecourt Manor where the 101st easy company of World War II where they took out the German 88s, firing down on Utah Beach.
Jason: It gives me chills just thinking about it.
John: Oh, so you were a medic?
Jason: Yup. Yup.
John: How many tours of duty did you do?
Jason: Five tours of duty, but not all Iraq and Afghanistan. I was in Kosovo when September 11th happened. So, the 101st Airborne Division was on a six-month deployment to Kosovo and I was the Senior Enlisted Medical Advisor to a One-Star General. And, while we were there, I was doing some training with some younger service members… Medical response training… And we got an alert over the radio that the United States was being attacked. And, here we were in Kosovo and, of course, I'm in the 101st Airborne Division… That – You know the history behind that division. We wanted to go get in the fight and we were stuck on a peacekeeping operation in Kosovo and got extended two more months before we could get back to the States because everyone was ramping up to go to Afghanistan.
John: And, on that day, did you feel your life changed?
Jason: Without a doubt. I mean, I knew that I was going to be in combat and that's what I trained my whole life for. I was a Sergeant First Class. I was a Platoon Sergeant at that time. And, I was like, “I want to take my men, and I want to go over there, and I want to get payback and I want to make this right for what happened to us.” And, we couldn't wait to get back.
John: So, from medic, though, to – How – Tell me that – The medic – You're saving the soldier wounded –
John: And, then having… At what point are you the soldier shooting back versus the soldier trying to help your wounded comrade?
Jason: So, when you're in the 82nd Airborne Division, you're an 82nd Airborne Division Infantry Soldier until your specialty is needed. So, we… I trained with the infantry guys. Everything that they did; kicking doors in, being a shooter… We do all of that. I have a nine-millimeter, I have an M-4 with all the tools and toys on it… But, when somebody gets hurt, you have to go from being a killer to being a saving person for the guy that's wounded. You're their only survival between that moment and when that helicopter comes in to get them to a surgical suite, and if we can get them there within 60 minutes, the survivability rate in Iraq and Afghanistan? 97% chance of survival.
John: That's phenomenal. That’s – Alright, we’re not gonna go into the details of that. We don’t have – I don’t have the emotional capability and I just don’t really think you wanna talk about that. That – So, tell us. Okay, we’re in this wonderful – tell us what I’m looking at here.
Jason: I want to tell you about this young man from Shafter. Ricardo Barraza, Second Ranger, Battalion serving our country. Multiple tours. He gets killed in the middle of a firefight and a gentleman named Matt Best, who started Black Rifle Coffee Company, avenged Ricardo Barraza’s killer immediately thereafter. And, Matt Best wrote a book and a chapter of this book is dedicated to Ricardo Barraza. And, you and your brother, Philip, have been sponsoring Ricardo Barraza’s portrait since September 10th of 2018. Your guys' name has been proudly on this wall, sponsoring the portrait. And, I know his parents very well. They're both field workers in agriculture and they have a scholarship fund for three Shafter high school students. They write essays and Mrs. Barraza picks three high school graduates that are going to college. And, the father who still works in the fields, they save money to be able to give to these three promising students. And, there's a Memorial Highway that runs through Shafter called the Ricky Barraza Memorial Highway. And, they're getting ready to name a park after him in Shafter. And, if you look behind you, that original portrait was done by the man that started this whole thing, Ken Pridgen in Baytown, Texas. And, Ken found out that we were doing this and Ken said, “I want to paint one of Kern County's portraits because I'm thrilled that another community is doing what I did.” And, that is the original Ricardo Barraza portrait and we had a duplicate made to fit the size in our gallery. So, that belongs to the Barraza family. But, their house is so small, it won’t fit, so they keep it here so we can display his portrait in two places in the gallery.
John: How often are people coming through here?
Jason: Every day that we're open. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday… 11:00am to 3:00pm, run by all volunteers. And, if you call and you want a tour, it doesn't matter who you are in the community… We will have a private tour for anybody that calls and asks and arrange for it on our calendar.
John: What made you want to do this?
Jason: Serving on the Board with Honor Flight in Kern County, working with Lili Marsh, whose really the idea concept person of this gallery… Her and a gentleman named Tom Zackary, who painted that incredible mural across the street…
John: I noticed that when I drove in. I wondered if it was part of this.
Jason: It kind of is. He was working on that… Lili saw a YouTube video of Ken Pridgen, who painted your guys’ portrait right there – Ricky. And, Lili went across the street and said, “Hey, do you paint portraits?” And, he said yes. So, the four portraits on this back wall, Tom Zackary painted. Ken Pridgen painted your portrait. And, Nelly Scarborough painted every other portrait and will complete all the portraits in the gallery.
John: Well, I do want to have a tour of this. Like I said, this is my first time here. I'm looking at this by him… Pedro. And, this little picture here just… How many baseball games my son played in.
Jason: Yeah. His mother was here the day we opened and we unveiled this portrait. She's from Utah. She works for UPS, and she came here and she cried tears of joy when this was unveiled. ‘Cause we don't show any portrait to the community until we show it to the Gold Star Family.
John: Well, that sounds…
Jason: You see this one right here, John? In the corner. this portrait right here is Aiden Gonzales. And, his parents came in from Washington State and Aiden wrote a letter to his grandmother and it said, “Grandma, thank you for telling me who Jesus was, because I believe, and I need you to pray for the Iraqis and I need you to pray for my fellow Marines that aren't believers. And, thank you, Grandma, for the faith that you give me. I'm going to be fine.” And, when that letter was in the mail to the grandmother, he was killed. And, the grandmother was here when we unveiled the portrait and we put her letter there so that people could read the impact that a grandparent can make on their grandson with respect to their faith. We think it's incredible.
John: You know, recycling and the military have gone hand in hand since World War II.
John: I don't know. Fate makes certain things on why you come in, you know… You – we help, you know, my brother and I, because it's – it's important. You know, my father, like I said, was in World War II and neither my brother and I had any military service, but they've always – the soldier has always been in our heart and always will be in our heart. And, I’ve had the honor of meeting General Tommy Franks, Stanley McCrystal… At our trade association – the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries – ISRI. Stanley McCrystal… He was one of my keynote speakers in 2011 in Los Angeles. Tommy Franks was a couple years before that. And, it was just an honor to be with them. Great conversation, great… Just great – great insight to the mind of these leaders. Because they were leaders to a lot of men and what they did and what their time in the field was. Stanley McCrystal – how he – his bunkroom was nothing but plywood because he wasn’t going to have anything more special than anybody else.
Jason: That’s awesome.
John: There’s a –
Jason: That’s called leadership.
Conclusion: This has been a Sierra International Machinery original audio series. Thanks for listening. Please share this podcast and make sure to subscribe.