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Published: Saturday, 12/13/2003

Elida native dies after falling into Iraqi river

Staff Sgt. Aaron Reese, 31. Staff Sgt. Aaron Reese, 31.

ELIDA, Ohio - American flags and bright, yellow bows were proudly displayed in Ed and Joanne Reese s front yard - symbols of the family s anticipation of the safe return of their son from Iraq.

Yesterday, this Allen County community learned that Staff Sgt. Aaron Reese, 31, an Elida High School graduate, never would return to see his parents patriotic front yard.

Sergeant Reese was on patrol Wednesday on the Tigris River when he fell from the patrol boat, the Ohio National Guard said. Spec. Todd Bates, 20, of Bellaire, in eastern Ohio, dived in after the sergeant but did not resurface in the river south of Baghdad. The military has classified Specialist Bates as “duty status whereabouts unknown.”

Both men were members of the 135th Military Police Company from Brook Park. Sergeant Reese, the father of a 5-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter, was the first Ohio National Guardsman to die in Iraq, the Guard said.

The Reese family, in a statement released through the Ohio National Guard, acknowledged the support received from friends and community but declined to speak publicly.

“Aaron was a loving husband, son, father, and brother. He loved doing his job and serving his country. He felt that it was his duty to serve, and he loved the soldiers in his squad,” his sister, April Engstrom, said in the statement.

Sergeant Reese left his hometown of Elida, about 80 miles south of Toledo, shortly after graduating from Elida High School in 1990 and joined the Army. There he served seven years as a military policeman and attained the rank of specialist, said Maj. Neal O Brien, of the Ohio National Guard office in Columbus.

After leaving the Army, he joined the Ohio National Guard, also as a military policeman. Sergeant Reese served six years in the National Guard and had attained the rank of staff sergeant and squad leader before being stationed in Iraq, Major O Brien said.

Sergeant Reese lived most recently in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus.

The sergeant came from a family with a long military history. His grandfather, Paul Shafer, served during World War II, and his uncle, James Shafer, was killed in 1967 in Vietnam. Two other uncles also served in the military.

“They are clearly extremely proud ... with a long and distinguished history in the military,” Major O Brien said.

News of the sergeant s death was a blow to the staff of Elida High School, even though it had been nearly 14 years since he roamed the halls.

High school Principal Don Diglia taught Sergeant Reese in middle school and served as dean when he was in high school. Yesterday, as he flipped through the yearbook from more than a decade ago, Mr. Diglia remembered a young man who always had a smile on his face and always put a solid effort into everything he did.

“He never appeared to have a bad day,” Mr. Diglia said. “He was the kind of guy who was content on being on the team instead of being the star of the team. He was a team player all around, not just on the athletic field but in the classroom as well.”

Teacher Gary Evans said he coached Sergeant Reese as a hurdler on the high school track team and served as an assistant coach of the football team when the young man suited up as a defensive back in a Bulldogs uniform.

Mr. Diglia said Sergeant Reese s death brought home the harsh reality of war to the 2,700-student district. “He s one that walked these halls, sat in seats in these classrooms,” he said. “It s no longer a number, but a face.”

Information about the type of patrol boat Sergeant Reese fell from and its crew size was not available, Major O Brien said. Ohio Guard officials were uncertain whether the two soldiers were wearing heavy body armor when they entered the Tigris River.

The family of Specialist Bates also declined to speak publicly.

“Todd loves the military and feels his mission in Iraq is very important. We remain hopeful he will be found as soon as possible,” a family spokesman said through the National Guard Office in Columbus.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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