FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Dustin James Feldhaus was a slim 112-pound young man when he enlisted in the Army right out of high school. His short stature and slender frame earned him the nickname “Mouse” in school, but what Feldhaus may have lacked in height he made up for in heart and tenacity.
This unwillingness to back down from a fight was on full display the day he died.
It was March 29, 2011, when he was shot and killed in a battle that wouldn’t end for nine days – Feldhaus was just three weeks from coming home.
Now, Feldhaus’ boot rests among the more than 7,000 boots that are placed in honor of fallen service members post 9/11 during Fort Campbell’s annual Boots on the Ground Display. The memorial is part of the installation’s Week of the Eagles celebration.
“For me it’s not only holding his memory but it’s all of their memory,” said Nikki Harrison, his mom. “It’s thinking about the boots that are out there on that field, and what every one of those Soldiers meant, all of their Families that are standing beside them.”
The 101st Abn. Div. hosted an opening ceremony for the display June 17. Major General JP McGee, commanding general of the 101st Abn. Div. and Fort Campbell, welcomed Families and community members as they paid respect to the fallen.
“The boots displayed here are a physical manifestation of a price we have paid as a nation to keep us safe after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” McGee said.
Operation Strong Eagle III
Feldhaus was one of six Soldiers to die at the Battle of Barawala Kalay Valley during Operation Strong Eagle III.
The objective was to cut off a Taliban supply route and remove the Taliban warlord, Qari Ziaur Rahman, from the Barwala Kalay Valley, and between March 29-April 8 in 2011, Soldiers from the “No Slack” battalion were relentlessly fired upon in the Kunar province of Northeastern Afghanistan.
During the nine-day assault, seven helicopters made attempts to provide air support and medical relief before they were finally able to extricate the Soldiers who had become stranded in the valley.
Feldhaus was one of the casualties. He was just 20 years old — it was his first deployment.
Heart of a Screaming Eagle
Harrison was devastated when she learned what had happened in the valley but said that it gives her peace knowing that her only child was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he died.
“He always wanted to be in the Army,” she said “He always knew that he wanted to be in the 101st Airborne Division.”
Harrison treasures the memory of her son’s graduation from basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. Afterward, he reported to his first duty station, Fort Campbell.
He was living out his dream of becoming a Screaming Eagle.
“His graduation was amazing, because we weren’t sure if he was going to graduate at first,” she said.
Feldhaus initially struggled with academics during basic combat training, but he worked hard and finished strong as a result, she said.
Harrison said pinning the blue ribbon on her son’s arm at Fort Benning was one of his most exciting experiences.
“We were so proud of him at that moment, and he was so proud of himself, and it was great,” she said.
Small but mighty
While her son’s nickname was appropriate because of his size, he was incredibly strong, and that while he may have looked like a “Mouse” that his spirt was fierce, she said. He was a powerful, albeit small, wrestler throughout high school, and that strength served him well in the Army.
“He wrestled at 112, so he was a little thing, but he was tough,” she said “I know that they would laugh when he was over in the Army, and that over there he would wrestle anybody and take down the biggest guys.”
This indomitable will and fighting spirit, despite his small size, defined his character up until he drew his last breath, something that Harrison said gives her some solace.
Keeping his memory alive
Feldhaus’ life was given in the same vein of selflessness and service that all the other boots of fallen Soldiers surrounding his own represent, and for Harrison, this is how she honors her son’s memory.
“Just knowing that they’re never forgotten, and that they’re always remembered every day,” she said. “I think that’s the biggest thing for me.”
Harrison said what she misses most about her son is his smile, and she described him as a happy young man with a wonderful sense of humor, and that this is how he should be remembered – as a Soldier, a son, and a young man with a tremendous heart.