FERNDALE - Justin Pike doesn't paint a rosy picture of war: Innocence is lost, painful decisions are made, good people die.
But those are the sacrifices you make for your country, said the Ferndale police officer and first sergeant in the National Guard.
Pike, 29, told his story to students at Ferndale High School during the school's Veterans Day assemblies Thursday, Nov. 8, giving them an unflinching look at what Army life was like during the war in Iraq.
Pike was inspired by his father's service in Vietnam and galvanized by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and his girlfriend's pregnancy, both of which happened in his senior year at Ferndale High School. After he graduated, he enlisted and married his girlfriend. He spent 18 months in Korea before being stationed in Colorado, and in 2005, with a mix of fear, celebration and sadness, he was deployed to Iraq.
On May 29, 2005, in a city 50 miles west of Mosul, he had one of the darkest days of his life.
He was dropping off a sniper team in the city when things went haywire. Soldiers were under fire and he saw an insurgent loading a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. He got the order to shoot, but the man with the RPG pulled two small children in front of him to use as a shield.
"Everything I knew, every innocent part of me knew I was there to protect those little kids," Pike told the students.
But he was also there to protect his fellow soldiers, who wouldn't survive if the man launched the grenade. Pike shot. The children died. The man was injured and ran. He was later detained but then ordered released for lack of information to hold him. Pike had to bring the man back to the place where he was found. It was difficult, to say the least.
"The very guy that tried to kill me and two other people, I was having to drive back," he said.
After the assembly, Pike said stories like that can be hard to share, but he enjoys having the chance to talk to students about doing something selfless, something bigger than themselves, whether it's military service or just helping their community.
"We have to get back to the World War II generation of helping your fellow man," he said.
Pike's stories made an impression on senior Jacob Anderson, who is in the leadership class that organized the assembly. Anderson was moved hearing about Pike's fellow soldiers who lost their lives, volunteers who made the choice to serve.
"That's very powerful," he said. "It's an example of how they make the supreme sacrifice."
The assembly honored two local World War II veterans, Joe Moser and Dick Stone, as well as a group of veterans in the audience. It ended with a memorial to two former Ferndale students who died fighting in Afghanistan: Army Spc. Aaron Aamot and Marine Capt. Daniel Bartle.
"Coming from a military family myself, I personally put a lot of pride in honoring our veterans," said senior Mari Kahle, who is also in the leadership class. "These are people who have taken so much time out of their lives, and they put themselves through such hardship. They need to be recognized. They do this voluntarily."
Reach Zoe Fraley at email@example.com or call 360-756-2803. Visit her School Days blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/schools or get updates on Twitter at twitter.com/BhamSchools.
Reach ZOE FRALEY at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2803.