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03-25-03: Celina man recalls grave duties
The Daily Standard
    "I dug graves."
    The words echoed matter-of-factly as Karl Hagaman ex-plained his role in Operation Desert Storm more than a decade ago. There was no pride in his voice, yet no sorrow for the Iraqi soldiers he buried in the sand.
    "If there were three or less (dead bodies), I dug individual sites," he explained. "If more than that, I dug massive graves. And sometimes it just depended on how much time we had."
    Hagaman of Celina said he never handled the lifeless bodies < that job was left to the Puerto Rican National Guardsmen. About 70 percent of the time the slain Iraqis were already in body bags when he arrived. But not always. Some-times he saw the horrific and gruesome injuries firsthand, the mutilated bodies struck by artillery shells of all kinds.
   "It didn't bother me as much as I thought it might, even though I'd been to only two funerals in my whole life before I was sent (to Iraq)," he said. "I had no flashbacks or anything like that."
    Hagaman, now 32, said he likely was not scarred from the incident because he knew he was burying the enemy, a foe that would have killed him without wincing if given the chance.
    "I buried 186 people over there," he said. "Some were still in their tanks, trucks or whatever they were driving when they died."
    Hagaman began basic training in the Army Reserves following his junior year at Celina High School in 1988, and was amused when his fellow students dubbed him   "Colonel Karl" his senior year. He's still not certain how he began in an engineering unit in Germany after high school and ended up attached to the First U.S. Army Division in Iraq in 1991.
    "I got called on Christmas Day (1990) and left on December 26," he explained.
    Hagaman, who now works for Henkles & McCoy of Celina, initially trained for the military police but later switched to operating heavy equipment. Digging fire pits and shower trenches for military units kept him busy when he first arrived in Kuwait during Operation Desert Shield, he said.
    But by January 1991, Iraq refused to withdraw troops from Kuwait and Hagaman found himself driving a Mercedes Benz digger, equipped with a scoop bucket and back hoe as Desert Storm began to heat up. He followed a U.S. Army Colonel to various sites across the desert, cleaning up the human devastation left behind.
    "We buried the men four to six feet deep, just deep enough that they'd stay covered up with sand," he said. "Later, after the war was over, we gave the grid coordinates to (Iraqi) officials so they could give them proper burials."
    There were many things he hasn't forgotten about Desert Storm, particularly the 148 fellow American soldiers killed and the nearly 470 wounded in action.
    In '91, he was welcomed across the border into Iraq by the piercing look on Saddam Hussein's face on a billboard. Ironically, it was a billboard in front of the Dairy Queen in Celina that welcomed him home seven months later.
    He grins as he recalls the busload of friends and relatives who greeted him at Dayton International Airport, and can't thank the community enough for their letters and support.
    "I got letters from people I didn't even know. I remember this one from a nice, old lady," he chuckled.  "It started out, 'You don't know me from a hill of beans ... .' "
    We were all comrades, he said of his Army buddies, and we shared everything that came from home.
    "We read each other's letters from girlfriends and wives," he said with a boyish smile. "If it had perfume on it, we'd all ask to smell it."
    Hagaman, the son of Vietnam veteran Karl Sr. and Rita, has a family history of service veterans. His brother, Kevin, recently was released from the Army; his grandfather, John Gilbert served in France during World War II.
    "Vets are a different breed," he said. "It doesn't matter if you served in Desert Storm, World War II or Vietnam, we stick together."
    Remarkably, he received his Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) membership in the mail while still stationed in Saudi Arabia, he said.
    He cherishes the military medals he received during the Gulf War including a Kuwaiti Liberation medal. In a shadow box he keeps a limited edition pewter coin commemorating the crucial "89 hours to victory" from Feb. 24-28, 1991, given to him by a 1st U.S. Army Division General.
   It was during those five days that Marines, Army and Arab forces began a bloody ground war in Iraq and Kuwait, prior to a cease fire on Feb. 27.
    Hagaman said he supports President Bush 100 percent and the need to eliminate Saddam Hussein and his regimen.
   "If we wouldn't have left (Iraq) so quickly last time, we probably wouldn't be there now," he said. "Instead of 89 hours, maybe it should have been 89 days."


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