Twenty-five years ago, Elkin resident Mark Ball, who was from Maryland at the time, was part of the largest deployment of U.S. Armed Forces since Vietnam when he served in Desert Storm. On Monday, he and more than 500 Gulf War veterans are commemorating the 25th anniversary of Desert Storm by marching in Washington, D.C., in the American Veterans Center’s National Memorial Day Parade.
“I did it 25 years ago, and I’m now doing it again,” he said. “The aspect for me is I take pride with what I’ve done.”
Ball’s service turned into a 24-year career with the military, and he retired in September 2013 as sergeant first class from the U.S. Army.
“I’ve deployed five times, and Desert Storm was my first time,” Ball said Thursday as he prepared for his trip to D.C. “I was a young soldier trying to find my life, and this was the turning point for me to make it a career.”
While his key job was as a track mechanic, the Havre de Grace, Maryland, native served in many other roles throughout his career.
Elkin had always served as a second home to Ball, whose aunt met and married a soldier from Elkin in the 1970s. “I always made North Carolina my pit stop, and I retired out of Germany and without hesitation my first stop was here in North Carolina,” he said of how he became an Elkin resident, living in the Pleasant Hill community. “I felt it was a better environment and educational opportunity for my son here.”
After arriving in Elkin, Ball needed to find something to keep himself busy in retirement, so he began volunteering for Tri-County Christian Crisis Ministry in Jonesville.
In reflecting on his military career, Ball said when they deployed for Desert Storm he left a “frigid Kansas” and arrived on an 80-degree tarmac in Kuwait. “I left a baby, and came back to find a toddler,” he said of his daughter who now lives in Fayetteville.
“Desert Storm was very quick. The ground campaign is referred to as the 100-hour war,” he said.
His years of service also included serving in the first wave of Iraqi Freedom following the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedies. “With 9/11, I got promoted that day,” Ball said, noting he was stationed in Georgia at the time. “I told my wife to turn the TV on, and she said what channel. I told her it didn’t matter, it was on every channel.
“I was on standby for Afghanistan, but ended up doing the first wave of Iraqi Freedom,” he said.
He recalled being back in the Middle East and seeing the same things he saw when he was deployed for Desert Storm. “A telephone tower had collapsed on a building, and it was still there 10 years later. No one cleaned it up,” Ball said.
The decision to march for Memorial Day was “a natural thing for me to step up and do it. I’ve always been one of those who leans toward history, so it gives me an opportunity to participate in history.”
While in D.C., Ball said he would be stopping by Arlington Cemetery to visit the grave site of a friend of his, Command Sgt. Maj. Benjamin Moore, who was killed in Iraq in 2009. “It makes you reflect. I flew back from Hawaii to go to his funeral . That is one of the most respectful services you can have, but one of the hardest you can do,” he said.
He and Moore served in Iraqi Freedom together, but were in different units. “He was a mentor, but a friend,” Ball said.
Each of the Gulf War veterans marching Monday will be wearing commemorative T-shirts, which they were given when they arrived in D.C. The veterans are participating thanks to the National Desert Storm War Memorial Association and its mission to honor the legacy of the Gulf War through building a monument in the national’s Capitol on the 383 service members who fell during the war, according to a release about the parade participation.
“While foremost our mission at the National Desert Storm War Memorial Association is to build a monument to our fallen brothers and sisters, we are also committed to honoring the many hundreds of thousands of men and women who left homes, jobs, and families to stand up for America’s values,” said Scott Stump, founder, president and CEO of the association. “We are so glad that veterans like Mark Ball are marching with us to teach Americans about the service and sacrifice made by all veterans of Operation Desert Storm.”
Ball and other veterans will follow part of the same route service members returning from the Middle East marched 25 years ago, according to the release.
In 2014, Congress passed legislation and President Barack Obama signed a law approving construction of the National Desert Storm War Memorial in D.C. Since that day, the association has been working to build the monument and aims to raise the millions of dollars needed to support that mission.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.