It has been 10 years since my friend, SGT Todd Bates, gave his life in an attempt to save the life of his Squad Leader, SSG Aaron Reese. Todd and Aaron were patrolling the Tigris River on the night of December 10th, 2003, when SSG Reese fell overboard. SGT Bates took off his Kevlar vest and helmet and jumped in to the murky unknown to pull him to safety. Unfortunately, both lost their lives in service to this country. SSG Reese's body was discovered the next morning not far from where he fell in, still wearing all of his gear; Bates was still missing. The largest scale search operation since Jessica Lynch was initiated using all assets available to the Military. Every night, half of the 135th MP Company would walk the banks while helicopters hovered low. During the day, dive teams would be out while the other half of 135th would provide security and scour the river's edge. Countless other units from all of the service branches joined the search and provided all the assistance they could. It was the most emotionally taxing endeavor I have ever been a part of. Many of us held out hope that we would find Bates alive, that somehow he had found a way out of the river and was either taken prisoner or disoriented. A few days later, without the closure we truly wanted, the Army held a memorial service for SSG Reese and Bates. On December 13, 2003, after being out all night, someone came into our sleeping quarters and said, "They found him!" It is hard to imagine hearing that Saddam Hussein had been captured would have meant so little to us. The days and nights melted together as the search continued. Our leaders, to their credit, began to diminish our role in the search because we had our orders to go home. Packing to leave the place that had stolen the lives of our friends was extremely difficult, especially when many wanted to stay until Bates was found. On December 23, 2003, our convoy departed the desert to falling rain, without our beloved comrade. Unbeknownst to us, Bates' body was revealed because of that rain, the day the 135 left Baghdad, in a small inlet amongst the heavily reedy bank of the Tigris. We arrived in the safety of Kuwait on the 24th of December and received the bittersweet news that Bates had been found. Comfort came with the closure, but knowing that he was truly gone continues to be devastating.
Todd was an amazing person with many admirable qualities. The least of which was his willingness to do anything for anybody, at any time. He was the type of person who would take life's lemons, make lemonade and then give all the lemonade away. When they were selecting names for soldiers to get two weeks of leave to go home during our deployment, he withdrew his so that others who had a wife and kids would have a better chance. He was an incredible soldier with a positive attitude that was contagious. Bates had the ability to keep the mood light and relaxed in a setting that is neither light nor relaxed. He was always good for a prank or joke and didn't mind if he was the target. He couldn't carry a tune but loved to belt out "Strawberry Wine" at the top of his lungs to laughter. If he thought you were mad, he wasn't going to let you out of his grasp or stop kissing you on the cheek until you were happy. He loved being in the military and had dreams of becoming an Army Ranger. Not one person was surprised to hear that he attempted to save the life of SSG Reese. I consider myself lucky to have known him and to have him as an example to my children. I am just one of many who have a unique story to tell of how big of an impact this man with the southern drawl and "Slingblade" like delivery changed my life.
Bates was so proud to be from Bellaire. His username on his computer was Nelson and the password was Sparky, and he let everyone know about the Big Reds! He loved being number 75 and told me his favorite picture hung on his mother's wall of him engaged in a block arms extended upward and his belly hanging out of the bottom of his jersey. At a svelte 195lbs, it was hard to imagine Bates with a big belly, but he assured us that it was true! Unlike most 20 year olds who talk about hating where they are from and wanting to get out, he never had one bad word to say about Bellaire. Bates would go on about his home and we had an open invitation down there when we got back. As the national spotlight fell on the Valley last year, highlighting young people who had made poor decisions, I thought of Bates and his legacy. Bellaire, and the Valley as a whole, are fortunate to have SGT Todd M. Bates as an example for their young to look to. I wish things could be different and that he was still here but that is not to be. Ours is to honor the fallen by celebrating the life they lived and the legacy they leave. Bates now takes his rest in Greenwood Cemetery watching over the city he loved and the place he called home.
SGT Seth R. Williams