Story

From Classroom to Combat

Steven Drees' high school senior class photos.  Image by Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. United States, 2011.

Steven Drees' high school senior class photos. Image by Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. United States, 2011.

Peshtigo, Wisconsin is a small town where the high school graduating classes are tight-knit because pretty much everyone has known each other since kindergarten. Each graduation class has a large framed picture with individual photos of every graduate. They date back decades and line the halls of Peshtigo High School. Smack dab in the middle of 2008, second row down, about six pictures in from the left, is a smiling blond proudly standing in front of blue and white basketball jerseys displayed on hangars.

That's Steven Drees.

When the picture was taken he had already decided to join the Army. He would leave this small town the summer after graduation to head to boot camp. He would leave for Afghanistan on the day he turned 19. A few weeks after his birthday, his platoon would get ambushed in the Korengal Valley. Steven would fire hundreds of rounds from his machine gun during the firefight. A sniper's bullet would strike him in the head.

When Steven returned to Peshtigo, his hometown turned out to pay their respects. The high school gym where he played basketball was filled to overflowing. Many of the young men and women whose graduation photos are in the same picture with Steven's were there. They cried and consoled each other. They remembered the boy in the graduation photo, the guy with the big smile.