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Soldier badly injured in Iraq speaks to Hagen students

Army National Guard member Keith O'Donnell was on his way to support another military unit when the vehicle he was traveling in ran across an improvised explosive device.

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Scott Obrigewitch, left, and Keith O'Donnell, right, field questions from Obrigewitch's 7th grade leadership class. Both men are veterans of the Iraq War, where O'Donnell sustained serious injuries from an IED blast.

Army National Guard member Keith O’Donnell was on his way to support another military unit when the vehicle he was traveling in ran across an improvised explosive device.

It was 2004, and O’Donnell, a native of South Dakota and a resident of Bismarck, had been serving in Iraq with the 141st North Dakota National Guard unit when the IED exploded underneath his vehicle.

The shrapnel from the blast concussion was so powerful that it took his lower jaw, O’Donnell said, and “crushed my face like a hard-boiled egg.”

He regained consciousness after the explosion and actually stood back up to man the vehicle’s .50-caliber gun before he realized the extent of his injuries.

“The guy next to me was pretty white, and I reached up and felt blood,” O’Donnell remembered. “I didn’t really know how bad I was hurt.”

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On Tuesday, more than 11 years after the attack, O’Donnell came to Hagen Junior High in Dickinson to speak with students at a morning assembly just before Veterans Day.

Later that day, he spoke with students in Hagen teacher and fellow Iraq War veteran Scott Obrigewitch’s leadership class.  

O’Donnell said the commemorative day, which is today, is a “chance to reflect on the people before us and the people that are with us right now.”

It also provides a chance for veterans to reflect on the bond of service that they share, he said.

Hagen student Samantha Schostek, 12, said she thought the assembly was “really touching” and helped remind students what Veterans Day is about.

She believes the day is about “respecting all of the people who fought for our country and have given up their lives for us.”

Actually speaking with a combat veteran like O’Donnell was a good way to learn about the realities of war instead of “just looking at the movies,” Schostek added.

Schostek, who said her family has had extensive military participation, said the day’s events taught her a lesson on courage.

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“I learned that it’s OK to be afraid sometimes, but even when you are afraid, you shouldn’t give up.”  

Fellow student Kaiden Derby, 12, said he thought the assembly was “pretty fun, because (he) got to carry the flag.”

He added that he thought it was “pretty cool” because his mother had also been in the National Guard, just like the five veterans who attended the morning event.

He said O’Donnell provided the most interesting teaching moments of the day.

“He wouldn’t want to take anything back from what he did,” Derby said, even with the injuries he had sustained.

Obrigewitch said O’Donnell had been assigned as his “battle buddy” while the two attended a primary leadership course. The two soldiers developed a friendship and were both later deployed to Iraq.

They lost contact for some time after O’Donnell’s injury before reconnecting about four years ago at the National Guard Armory in Bismarck.

“I was walking down a long hall and I saw this guy walking towards me,” Obrigewitch remembered. “I hadn’t seen (O’Donnell) since the incident, and we kind of got this far apart and started looking at each other and, I’ll be honest, I started crying and I gave him a hug.”

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Obrigewitch said he had been interested in bringing his friend to speak at Hagen since watching O’Donnell speak about resiliency at a National Guard conference in Fargo in 2014.

The intention of the Tuesday assembly was to show students the sacrifices made by soldiers, he said. “We can say it all the time, ‘Hey, be thankful or grateful to the veterans for their sacrifices,’ and a lot of kids don’t know what that means,” Obrigewitch said. “But when they see a soldier that made a huge sacrifice … has the physical scars of combat, I think it means so much more.”

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