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SOUTH WHITLEY â Like a fresh wound, the memory of Anthony Wagnerâs death is a sensitive and raw memory for Travis Leon â even after a decade has past.
Wagner, of South Whitley, and Leon, of Fort Wayne, were childhood friends and found themselves in the 293rd National Guard Division of Indiana in 2002.
Wagner joined the National Guard in 2001, a little more than a month after his 21st birthday. Leon was right behind him.
Private First Class Wagner received notice in October of 2002 that he had been activated and would be leaving the states to serve in Iraq.
After his last months of training before deployment, PFC Wagner was joined by a few Army buddies traveling back to Camp Atterbury after a weekend off of training. Heavy fog and poor visibility created hazardous conditions the morning of Nov. 21, 2002. PFC Wagnerâs vehicle was struck by a truck on I-69 killing him. He was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident.
Leon was supposed to be in that vehicle, but it was Wagnerâs parental-like advice that kept him out of harmâs way.
âI had been studying to take a test,â said Leon. âTony had been helping me get ready. He would help me study. Tony wanted me to pass that test. It was just as important to him as it was to me. That weekend, I wanted to go out with Tony and he told me, âNo, you stay here and get some rest and be ready for your test.â Had I been there with him, I would have been sitting right next to Tony in that vehicle. Who knows what would have happened. He saved my life.â
Wednesday marks the 10-year anniversary of PFC Wagnerâs death, but Leon doesnât want his friendâs memory to fade.
âI think it is important for us to remember those weâve lost, those whoâve served our country. Actually, I think it is important for the families to know that we havenât forgotten them,â Leon said.
âTony was the one who talked me out of stupid situations. He looked after me. He was a protector. He was more concerned about helping others than he was about himself.â
Out of the 293rd National Guard Division, three soldiers, including PFC Wagner, were lost. The other two were SFC Craig Boling, of Elkhart and SPC Brian Clemens, of Kokomo.
In a 2003 Congressional release, Rep. Mark Souder stated, âThese soldiers of the 293rd National Guard Division gave the ultimate sacrifice so the rest of us may be free.â
Souder further commented on the entire division, âBecause of their efforts, we are fighting in the streets of Baghdad, not in the streets of Indiana.â
While in Iraq, Leon credited Wagner with another life-saving encounter.
Traveling down a road outside of Baghdad, Leonâs division was lined up in a convoy. Wagnerâs picture was on the dashboard of Leonâs military vehicle when a gust of wind blew the photo off the dash. The convoy came to a halt to allow the photo to be retrieved. In turn, the line of military vehicles were removed from an IED (improvised explosion device) explosion.
âHad that picture not blown out, we would have been right there for that IED,â said Leon.
For a more in depth look at this story, see the Nov. 20 issue of The Post and Mail. Don't have a subscription? Call (260) 244-5153 or subscribe to our e-edition. For breaking news, sports updates and additional coverage, bookmark the homepage and find us on facebook.