ZION, Ill. - The Army values were on display Aug. 25 when citizen soldiers from the Wisconsin and Illinois National Guard volunteered their time to search for the remains of a murdered five-month-old child in a landfill in Zion, Ill. Two current Wisconsin National Guardsmen joined a former Wisconsin Guardsman and nearly a dozen from Illinois in searching for Joshua Summeries, who was allegedly suffocated by a Zion man, placed in a backpack and disposed of in a large trash bin.
Police and fire personnel began searching for the boy’s remains, and after three full days were joined by a group of Guardsmen who had volunteered to help.
After seeing news reports on social media, James Stroh, of Racine, Wis., who recently completed seven years of service in the Wisconsin and Illinois Army National Guard and eight more in the U.S. Navy, called Zion Police Chief Wayne Brooks and offered his assistance.
Soon, Stroh was on the phone with his former comrades in Wisconsin and Illinois. Within hours, he had assembled an ad-hoc team of Soldiers from two states, who volunteered their Sunday to go search through a landfill for a complete stranger. Joining him from Wisconsin were Staff Sgt. Andrew Whelan, a Waukesha, Wis., resident and recruiter from Detachment Three, Company B of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion in Milwaukee, and Muskego, Wis., resident 2nd Lt. David Dicker, from Detachment One of Headquarters Company of the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry, based in Clintonville, Wis.
With a crew of exhausted rescue personnel and after several unsuccessful days of searching, Chief Brooks was all too happy to have extra help from a trained and professional force.
“I knew going in that these guys would follow directions, especially from each other, because we had to form the search lines and skirmish lines,” Brooks said. “People going off and doing their own things was not helping,” Brooks said. “Everyone else I had was burnt out by that time.”
While the search for Joshua’s remains ultimately proved unsuccessful, the contributions of the National Guardsmen who sacrificed their personal time to slog through a foul-smelling, teeming landfill under a punishing late-summer sun to assist a family and emergency crews in need still reflected a high degree of service above self. The odor was so intense that the volunteers applied vapor rub under their noses to combat the smell.
“I was trying to explain the harsh conditions they were dealing with,” Brooks said, describing his initial conversation with Stroh. “It’s not what you think up there. It’s completely beyond what you can comprehend, and he [Stroh] said, ‘you’ve got the right guys.’ They went beyond my expectations and just stuck with the task. You sent them on a task, and they just followed it and did everything you asked.”
Stroh, Whelan, Dicker and the volunteers from the Illinois National Guard, most of whom had recently returned from Afghanistan, worked from approximately 8 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., when authorities finally called off the search.
“It was really beyond my expectations, and I couldn’t be more happy or thankful,” the Zion police chief said. “We had a lot of people wanting to volunteer, but I didn’t have people that had the proper demeanor, the proper experience, or the proper structure or discipline. And I knew they did.”
As a parent himself, Whelan never hesitated when asked if he could help.
“We all kind of looked at it like it was something we needed to do if we had the opportunity,” he said. “I have a son that’s six, so it’s one of those things where, as a parent, it hit home.
“It was a despicable way for anybody not only to die, but their final resting place,” Whelan added. “I figured that if I had time to go out and spend a day trying to bring that kid home to have a proper burial then that is important, and that’s worth my time.”
For Whelan, it was just a matter of living the Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.
“It was just selfless service, and it was the right thing to do,” he said.
“I looked at it as if it were my kid, I would want as many as people as possible looking for it,” he said. “It was complete selfless service, going out there and doing something for the community. I think that is another thing that makes the Guard the Guard, being able to have that community connection.”
The service on display that day was representative of the quality of people serving in the National Guard, Stroh said.
“Every single one of them that was involved with this, it was right in line with [the Army values],” he said. “It shows the character and the quality of the Soldiers that are serving in the National Guard and that sense of duty, sense of honor, to go out and try and complete a task that you know is not going to end well. Obviously, going out there, we knew it was a deceased baby.”
The volunteers ultimately spent more than nine hours raking, and at times, digging through trash with their hands. But they never lost sight of why they were there.
“The stolen innocence of the victim, and just the way that Joshua was discarded literally like a piece of trash … certainly for those that have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, it didn’t take much to convince people to come out and give up their time to come and search,” Stroh said.