Soldier with local ties returns |

Soldier with local ties returns

California Army National Guard soldier Jason Fincher wears a black band around his right wrist, and it doesn’t come off.

It stays on to honor his friend, Staff Sgt. Dan Schiele, who died in his arms after a roadside bomb exploded under Schiele’s armored personnel carrier while they were on patrol Sept. 24, 2005, near southern Baghdad.

“He was in the gunner slot,” Fincher said. “The carrier rolled onto him.”

Schiele was Fincher’s roommate during a year-long tour in Iraq with the 184th Infantry battalion that ended Jan. 16.

According to Army officials, no other California National Guard unit has endured more casualties during its tour in Iraq.

Fincher and his longtime buddy Jeffrey “Apple” Applegate of Stockton, both in the unit’s Delta company, were grateful to come out of their tour alive.

The men met nine years ago, when they were both stationed in Hawaii. Before their tour in Iraq, they had never fought in a “real war,” they said.

Sitting in their dress uniforms at a welcome-home party Saturday night in Nevada City, they took in the sunset and all the hugs and handshakes they could handle.

One of six medals pinned on Fincher’s dark blue dress coat was the Bronze Star, earned for six separate acts of bravery during the tour.

“I don’t want to say it’s for anything I did,” Fincher said with grave seriousness in his piercing blue eyes. “It was the whole platoon doing stuff together.”

He explained how on Oct. 1, 2005, while out on patrol with five brand new replacements for the three injured and five killed in the Sept. 24 bomb, the battalion hit another roadside bomb and the group was ambushed.

All the replacements were injured, including one soldier who was hit with shrapnel in his femoral artery and charged enemy soldiers with Fincher until he passed out from blood loss.

“I guess I was lucky that day,” Fincher said, careful not to take credit for the soldiers’ survival. “I repelled the attack.”

His sister, Kami Fincher, 24, mother, Susan Lund, both of Grass Valley and grandmother, Joanne Van Galdner of Rancho Mirage, said they are relieved to have Fincher back in one piece.

“It was really stressful having him overseas,” Kami said. “It seemed like a very unstable place to be.”

Van Galdner said she worried about her grandson, who was army-oriented since ever since he was a toddler setting up fake war scenarios and playing with G.I. Joe figurines.

But she took comfort in the strength of his convictions.

“I knew Jason believed in what he was doing,” she said. “He made sure I voted for his commander-in-chief.”

Fincher and Applegate plan to go back to Palm Springs, where Fincher spent most of his childhood, and they’ll both attend the College of the Deserts.

Fincher wants a degree in criminal justice, while Applegate is undecided.

In the meantime, they said, they will try to get their fill of what they missed most overseas: “Beer and women,” Fincher said.

“I’ll have to agree with that,” Applegate said.

Fincher said he plans to contact fallen soldier Dan Schiele’s family in Antioch to speak with them about their son’s service and death.

“Dan was a good guy,” Fincher said, cracking a smile.

To contact staff writer Robyn Moormeister, e-mail or call 477-4236.

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