After a few close calls with roadside bomb attacks in Iraq, Staff Sgt. David Schalles came back to the Las Vegas Valley with a different outlook on life.
"The biggest thing is life is too short to worry about all the little stresses. There are so many precious things in life to cherish," Schalles said Friday after thanking the students of Priest Elementary School in North Las Vegas for the cards, letters and drawings they sent to soldiers of the Nevada National Guard's 1st Squadron, 221st Cavalry.
About 120 members of the unit returned in July after spending a year driving 5 million miles across the war-torn country, escorting convoys across Iraq from south to north and back.
It was a humbling but rewarding experience for Schalles.
He said he was humbled by enduring the hot, dusty tour as a volunteer and being one of seven from the unit who received Purple Heart medals for injuries from numerous explosions along the way.
"It humbled me as a person and made me a better person," he said.
Sgt. Maj. Robert Brown, who joined Schalles at a special flag presentation at the school, said he was rewarded by the looks on the faces of the Iraqi children who smiled when his convoy passed. After spending most of their lives with no shoes or running water, they were wearing shoes and had walked to school, some of them for the first time, he said.
"For them to go to school is a major event. They weren't able to go to school before," Brown said.
The soldiers spoke after they presented the North Las Vegas school's principal, Linda Griffith, with one of 200 U.S. flags that they carried in their vehicles and flew over Iraq. They also gave the school's namesake, Richard Priest, a special coin from the unit.
"I took that one on a 24-day mission from Kuwait to the Turkish border and back," Brown said about the flag he gave to Griffith.
Schalles, whose father-in-law, Kim Chesley, is a substitute teacher and former librarian at the school, said that for the most part their missions were safe.
"It was 99 percent boredom and 1 percent pure adrenaline," he said.
That 1 percent represented the attacks, particularly the one south of Tallil in southern Iraq where an improvised explosive device detonated, blowing the spare tire off his truck. Schalles suffered a concussion and eardrum damage.
"In the end it was OK. Nobody got killed. But it was close. We had a few of those," he said, noting that the attack on Jan. 4 was followed by another on Jan. 14.
Upon returning to Nevada in July, Schalles realized that "life goes on here."
"My daughter was only 4 months old when we adopted her before I left," he said, referring to his wife, Melissa, and daughter, Gabriella Olivia. "She wasn't walking and talking like she is now. I missed that."
Schalles added: "I wouldn't volunteer again. But if I was called to serve, I would go."