Image courtesy: Pfc. David Hauk, U.S. Army. Kandahar, Afghanistan, November 12, 2009

Friday, December 24, 2010

Bowing our heads

Image courtesy: Spc. Luther Boothe Jr.

This Christmas, The Unknown Soldiers blog salutes the brave men and women in uniform serving our country in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world at this very moment.

We pay tribute to the military families that have an empty spot at the dinner table, but hearts full of love and patriotism.

We thank the veterans who have seen and done more in defense of freedom than many of us can imagine.

We remember the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and remind their loved ones that we haven't forgotten.

We honor our nation's fallen heroes, who in a time of war, uncertainty, and fears of terrorism, told their fellow countrymen "don't worry, I'll go."

We owe everything we have to the men and women who defend our nation. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Note: This video is not intended to endorse any product. It aired only once, during Super Bowl XXXVI, to honor victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Far from home

Image courtesy: Spc. Edward Garibay

On Tuesday, I had the honor of interviewing Maj. Gen. David Blackledge, Commanding General of U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command, for an upcoming Creators Syndicate column. While I can't wait to share more with you about this fine leader's incredible 35-year military journey, Maj. Gen. Blackledge said something about the holiday season that I think is important to highlight during Christmas week.

"I’ve got over 1,100 soldiers deployed right now who aren’t spending the holidays with their families," Maj. Gen. Blackledge said. "I've gone several Christmases in a row before, and you also miss birthdays and anniversaries."

For those of us who haven't served in the military, not spending special days with our loved ones is something that's difficult to imagine.

"It's hard to describe to people who don’t experience that," the general explained. "It's those special events like holidays where family is so important. It really affects you. And you’ve got to really hand it to our great Soldiers and all our great military members."

As I have written on this blog since leaving the national media, the vast majority of American journalists continue to fail their country by neglecting to give sufficient ink, airtime, and web space to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Judging by discussions I've had with journalists about this topic over the years, many reporters, producers, and news executives would likely respond by saying that it isn't their job to aid the United States during wartime. If that had been the overriding press sentiment during World War II, one could argue that defeating the brutal axis regimes in Europe and the Pacific would have been an even more colossal task for allied forces.

According to the Project For Excellence In Journalism, which is part of the non-partisan Pew Research Center, the war in Afghanistan received only five percent of news coverage during the week of December 13-19. That period includes December 14, when the nation learned the identities of six American heroes killed in a Kandahar province, Afghanistan terrorist attack.

During the previous week, which included the December 12 suicide bombing, two proud volunteer warriors, Lance Cpl. Michael Geary and Pfc. Dustin Finch, were killed on December 8 in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. Despite numerous events of significance, which were closely followed on this site and many other military blogs, Afghanistan coverage was even more scant during the week of December 6-12, getting only four percent of what PEJ calls "the news hole." Coverage levels of the war in Iraq did not even register in the weekly study.

The national press finds plenty of time to hype royal weddings and overanalyze celebrity mishaps, often using the drive for ratings as an excuse. While issues like the economy and health care impact millions of people and deserve ongoing attention, stories that received comparable coverage to the war in Afghanistan during this two-week span include the Elizabeth Smart case, WikiLeaks, and the deaths of longtime diplomat Richard Holbrooke and cancer-stricken political wife Elizabeth Edwards. Regardless of your political beliefs, it is clear that Ambassador Holbrooke and Mrs. Edwards were courageous individuals who did a lot of good in the world. Their deaths deserved attention and mourning, but so did the deaths of these valiant aforementioned American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I can't count how many holidays I spent working inside newsrooms over an eight-year span. Yet as a general reminded me yesterday, that doesn't compare to spending Christmas in a war zone. While there are still isolated examples of strong American war reporting, like a CNN special called 'A Soldier's Story' that aired over the weekend, the continuing lack of consistent focus on these post-9/11 conflicts by the national media is an insult to thousands of American troops spending the holidays apart from their loved ones.

The men and women of the U.S. military repeatedly risk their lives to preserve Constitutional principles like freedom of the press. The men and women of the national media can afford to risk a Nielsen ratings point to illustrate the breadth of sacrifice being displayed every day by our fellow countrymen. For a media industry that often revels in the failures of politicians, celebrities, and sports figures, it's time to look in the mirror.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A new morning

Image courtesy: Staff Sgt. Andy Kin

I can't imagine what it's like to wake up in a war zone. Many troops stationed in active combat theaters open their eyes each morning to immediate danger, never knowing which awakening will be their last.

As Sunday dawned, U.S. troops in the Taliban-infested Zhari district of Kandahar province were manning their posts and preparing for patrols as terrorists packed a minivan full of explosives. After a suicide bomber rammed the vehicle into a new military facility, six American warriors were taken from their families, friends, and fellow troops. According to The Washington Post, the Taliban has claimed responsiblity for the shameful terrorist attack on the farm village.

NATO forces immediately responded, launching a hunt specifically aimed at a suspected terrorist believed to have ties to Sunday's vicious assault. Officials said several insurgents were captured during the hard target search, and more missions will follow.

As much of America grumbled about blizzard conditions and freezing cold over the weekend, tragedy marked the early stages of winter in southern Afghanistan. Now, six American families will receive knocks on their doors, and solemn dignified transfer ceremonies, like the dramatic November 30 memorial pictured above, will be held by the military. The pain these service members, friends, and families will experience is overwhelming, and American citizens on the homefront should share in their grief.

Terrorism against our nation will not stand. No matter which political party is in charge, the U.S. military stands ready to strike back when we are attacked. That's exactly what's happening at this very moment in Kandahar province, and our thoughts and prayers are with the men and women standing up for the cause of freedom. To the families of the fallen, Monday morning marks a new dawn. We will never forget what your loved ones sacrificed in Afghanistan, so their fellow Americans could wake up covered by the blanket of freedom.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Agony and ecstasy

Image courtesy: Cpl. Daniel Woodall

Since December 1, the Pentagon has identified 15 American casualties from the war in Afghanistan, including six 101st Airborne paratroopers murdered by an Afghan border officer on November 29. The following nine fallen Soldiers and Marines were killed in action between November 30 and December 6. From frigid Sudbury, Massachusetts, where it snowed on Monday, to the shores of Honolulu, where this week's temperatures are reaching 80 degrees, military families are mourning tragic news delivered from the war on terror's central front.

1st. Lt. Scott Milley, 23, Sudbury Massachusetts
Cpl. Chad Wade, 22, Bentonville, Arkansas
Sgt. Matthew Abbate, 26, Honolulu, Hawaii
Sgt. 1st Class James Thode, 45, Kirtland, New Mexico
Lance Cpl. Lucas Scott, 20, Peebles, Ohio
Staff Sgt. Jason Reeves, 32, Odessa, Texas
Sgt. Nicholas Aleman, 24, Brooklyn, New York
Cpl. Derek Wyatt, 25, Akron, Ohio
Pfc. Colton Rusk, 20, Orange Grove, Texas

The dramatic image above, taken by Cpl. Daniel Woodall on November 28, shows the daily tension many of our troops experience in combat. It turns out that Sgt. Jacob Bublitz, a combat engineer with Engineer Company, Combat Logistics Battalion 3, 1st Marine Logistics Group (Forward), was providing security while fellow Marines worked on paving a roadway in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province. It may not have gotten many headlines, but Sgt. Bublitz and his brothers in arms put themselves on the line that day to make the lives of Afghans better.

Striking pictures like the one above only increase the emotional impact of images like the photo displayed below, which was taken by Lance Cpl. Andrew Thorburn on December 3. It shows Cpl. Cesar Rojas, a Marine with Battery L, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marines, embracing his family after a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan. This wasn't just a reunion at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, either. While kissing his wife, Arielis, Cpl. Rojas is holding his five-month-old son, Gabriel, for the first time.

From happy homecomings to tragic knocks on the door from military messengers, the far-reaching spectrum of war grips Americans on a daily basis. Due to a distracted media and largely disengaged public, however, it is relatively easy for citizens without personal connections to Afghanistan or Iraq to avoid boarding this emotional roller coaster. Yet I continue to believe that just like on September 11, 2001, we are all in this conflict together. Our nation's military families often experience periods of worry, grief, pride, and elation during deployments. Their fellow Americans should too.

Image courtesy: Lance Cpl. Andrew Thorburn

Note: This post was updated on December 7 at 9:53 p.m. EDT.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The surprise of a lifetime

Image courtesy: Foster family

When Jodi Foster stepped onto Nashville's LP Field during the Tennessee Titans-Washington Redskins game on November 21, she thought she was simply being recognized for an essay contest she won by writing about her husband, Sgt. Mark Foster, a 101st Combat Aviation Brigade soldier deployed to Afghanistan. Standing beside the couple's 12-year-old daughter, Kayla, the 33-year-old Army wife got a nice surprise when a video message from her husband played on the NFL stadium's jumbotron.

While it certainly made for a nice memory, the mother and daughter would still have to head home after the game and join Cody, 18, and Hunter, 17, to prepare for another holiday without dad. Maybe Sgt. Foster would get to call from his remote Forward Operating Base on Thanksgiving, but that would be about it.

Then, just after the video message played, 69,143 football fans started rustling, quickly growing louder and louder. The military wife sensed that something big was about to happen.

"I was looking around the field and didn't really see anything, nothing except the huge jumbotron" Jodi Foster told The Unknown Soldiers. "I could not believe it; he wasn't due on leave until [December], but then I saw him coming out on the golf cart."

As soon as the wife and daughter saw Sgt. Foster, they ran quicker than any Titans or Redskins running back, and clutched him tighter than any defensive lineman who brought down a ball carrier on the same field that day. As they embraced on the ten yard line, a capacity crowd and many more watching at home saw what it really means to be a nation at war. Fox Sports play-by-play announcer Dick Stockton put it best when he said "this may be the highlight of this game." As a big Redskins fan (my apologies to the Fosters), I was watching when this incredible moment occurred, and he was absolutely right.

Of the almost 70,000 people inside the stadium that day, the surprise meant the most to young Kayla, who the couple calls "daddy's girl."

"My dad loved me enough to adopt me," Kayla is quoted as saying in the family's winning essay. "No one gave me to him, mom; he picked me."

The improbable, emotional moment that captivated millions around the nation was one that the soldier himself never thought would occur.

"I didn't expect to go out on the field," Sgt. Foster, 38, told me from his family's home on Fort Campbell. "In fact, I didn't find out until after I landed in Nashville."

Many good folks inside the U.S. Army, Tennessee Titans, and Campbell Crossing housing community came together to give this military family a much-needed holiday boost. This is Sgt. Foster's fifth combat deployment, having served four previous tours with the Screaming Eagles in Iraq, and with a concerned wife and three children on the homefront, it hasn't been easy. In addition to missing his family, the soldier has also been dealing with the loss of brothers in arms like Staff Sgt. Brandon Silk, a departed warrior who was profiled by this blog in July.

"Staff Sgt. Silk was a great guy; there's nothing bad that I know of or can say about him, and so many of us knew him on a personal level," Sgt. Foster said of his fallen comrade. "People knew him when he was in Korea, and when he first got to Fort Campbell, and he was just an awesome guy, a great guy, who is truly going to be missed by a lot of people."

Having never served in the military and experienced this type of pain, I asked Sgt. Foster how he can carry on with his fellow troops after losing such a fine volunteer warrior and friend.

"Emotionally, we’re all in this job, and we know what we’re up against," the soldier explained. "It sucks, and next to losing a parent, spouse, or child, I don’t know of a harder feeling, but we all know the risk involved when we join. We also know that yes, we have a fallen comrade, and we'll all take time to mourn, but we still have a job to do."

While there are many unsung heroes of America's post-9/11 conflicts, I believe the courage displayed by spouses of our deployed troops and returning veterans is frequently overlooked. I asked the soldier's wife how she manages the household, children, finances, and many other critical responsibilities during her husband's frequent deployments.

"Like I tell my mom, I have to put on my brave face," Mrs. Foster quickly responded. "I have to...I have no choice, because if I fell apart, what happens to my kids?"

The newest member of the Foster family, adopted about two years ago, has been a rock during the last eight months, despite being just 12 years old.

"She’s stronger than I am," Kayla's proud mom said. "[After] we first dropped him off to deploy, I spent a few days crying and in bed, but she got me up, told me he'd be fine, and kept me strong."

Four days after the surprise of a lifetime, the family celebrated Thanksgiving together.

"It's the best feeling ever, having him home after eight months," the soldier's wife said. "It's been amazing."

"It's been a whirlwind, but it's great being home," Sgt. Foster added.

It won't be long before the soldier is back in Afghanistan to finish his deployment. The humble warrior calls himself "lucky" to be assigned to a Forward Operating Base with better communications capabilities than most in the rugged, war-torn nation where the September 11th attacks were planned. Despite relatively reliable phone lines and a decent internet connection, some of the calls back home are tense.

"[Jodi] still gets to hear my voice and I get to hear hers," he said. "But sometimes there is incoming fire in the background, and I hate when she has to hear rounds and we go to blackout, and she has to sit here for hours pondering."

Sgt. Mark Foster will almost certainly be wishing his family a Merry Christmas over the phone or Skype this year. But with the memories of the family's special, unexpected Thanksgiving together still fresh, Jodi Foster insists that her deployed husband will still be joining his loved ones for Christmas dinner.

"We'll put his picture on the head of a chair, and maybe even put a video camera on the chair. We'll stay connected. He may not be here this year, but he's still a part of Christmas and our lives."

Image courtesy: Jodi Foster/Facebook and The Tennessean

Friday, November 26, 2010

Putting the Troops First

Images courtesy: Cpl. Megan Sindelar

When the Marine pictured above signed up to serve our country and later deployed to Afghanistan, I seriously doubt she thought getting golf lessons from a British Open champion would be part of her benefits package. But thanks to the Troops First Foundation, Marines at Camp Leatherneck spent part of their Thanksgiving learning how to hit out of the sand from PGA Tour professional Tom Lehman.

I first learned about the Troops First Foundation back in February while writing a piece for the USO about a group of wounded veterans who got the chance to return to war zones as part of Operation Proper Exit, an incredibly valuable USO-T1F initiative. While researching the article, I had the honor of speaking with Rick Kell, who co-founded T1F along with CBS Sports golf analyst David Feherty.

Just moments after our phone conversation began, I heard Kell's passion for our troops and veterans. His admirable mission to dedicate his life to supporting our military began shortly after visiting with wounded heroes at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and he hasn't paused to think about himself since. He's donated significant personal time and treasure to put smiles on the faces of our troops, and has traveled into war zones to visit them about 20 times. In February, Kell told The Unknown Soldiers that Operation Proper Exit, which aims to help combat veterans heal emotional wounds and re-join society, is the organization's most important initiative.

"On these trips, I have seen 18 people change physically in front of my eyes," Kell said during the interview. "To simply tell you that does not do it justice."

In addition to Kell and Feherty, T1F board members include familiar faces like comedian George Lopez, ESPN and CBS Sports analyst Jay Bilas, Sports Illustrated columnist Jim Kelley, golf instructor Butch Harmon, college basketball coach Fran Fraschilla, PGA Tour golfer Tom Watson, and ESPN announcer Mike Patrick.

Marines stationed at Camp Leatherneck, located in Afghanistan's violent Helmand province, are tasked with extremely difficult missions, often completed amid grave danger. The day before Thanksgiving, Lance Cpl. Arden Joseph Buenagua, a 19-year-old Marine from San Jose, California, was killed in action while serving with the 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force. As Marines mourned his death while spending Thanksgiving apart from their families, these brave men and women needed something to smile about.

Country music artist Matt Snook was also part of the T1F visit, and he took requests from the troops during a special Thanksgiving dinner set. Snook also visited wounded heroes and handed over his guitar to Marines who wanted to relax, play a few chords, and forget about the Taliban for a few minutes.

I have great admiration for Rick Kell, David Feherty, Tom Lehman, Matt Snook, and all members of the Troops First Foundation, which gratefully accepts donations. In an age when America's battlefield heroes are often relegated to the background by a celebrity-obsessed, media-driven culture, this fine organization, which includes many influential sports figures, has hit a hole in one. As Wednesday's tragic death of Lance Cpl. Ardenjoseph Buenagua shows us, the realities of America's post-9/11 conflicts are often brutal, harsh, and unforgettable for the men and women who serve. So when a group of people step up to give our heroes some happiness, it truly means the world.

Friday, November 19, 2010

'One of the best'

'Restrepo,' the acclaimed documentary by filmmaker Tim Hetherington and War author Sebastian Junger, is full of indelible images and piercing sounds. After watching the film for the first time on Thursday evening, there is one particular scene, which I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about, that genuinely shook me. It is the tragic footage shot just moments after the death of Staff Sgt. Larry Rougle.

If I am affected so deeply by these images as a viewer, I can't imagine how the men who were actually in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley on October 23, 2007, are feeling three years later. A visceral window of pain will open as you watch Sgt. John Clinard react in disbelief upon learning that his brother in arms was hit by enemy fire. The moment, while gut-wrenching, is also a crucial eye-opener for civilians like me, who haven't experienced combat. More than 4,500 Americans have been killed in action since the 9/11 attacks, and in almost every instance, a fellow service member goes through the crushing onslaught of emotions that Sgt. Clinard tragically experienced.

I didn't know who Staff Sgt. Larry Rougle was when I visited Arlington National Cemetery on October 26, 2010, just over three years since the tragic 'Restrepo' footage was captured. Flowers had been laid at the base of his headstone, and a stand holding cards and more flowers were displayed on the left. Today, just hours after watching 'Restrepo,' I am thankful to have been guided to this warrior's final resting spot to pay my respects, even though I wasn't aware of his story at the time.

Image courtesy: U.S. Army

Staff Sgt. Rougle, 25, was on his sixth -- yes, sixth -- combat deployment when he lost his life. According to an October 2007 Salt Lake Tribune article, archived on the Arlington National Cemetery website, the Army paratrooper knew he probably wouldn't return to West Jordan, Utah, from Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, but believed it was his duty to deploy.

In 'Restrepo,' which will be released on DVD December 7, fellow soldiers make clear that the loss of this battle-hardened professional, who also served with honor in Iraq, was absolutely devastating to the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.

"He was one of the best, if not the best," Staff Sgt. Kevin Rice told Hetherington and Junger in the film. "I think that's what was tough for a lot of people, was kind of knowing in the back of your mind 'well if the best guy we have out here just got killed, where's that put me? What's going to happen to me, you know? What's going to happen to the guys on my left and my right?'"

On November 2, 2007, fellow soldiers gathered to honor Rougle, along with Sgt. Joshua Brennan and Spc. Hugo Mendoza. Sgt. Brennan and Spc. Mendoza, killed two days after Staff Sgt. Rougle, were casualties of the same battle for which Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta was awarded the Medal of Honor on Tuesday. The national media was certainly not focused on Afghanistan at the time, yet NPR, to its credit, covered the emotional service. Staff Sgt. Michael Gabel delivered a stirring eulogy for Rougle, and resolved to continue fighting in honor of his friend.

Staff Sgt. Gabel was killed in action six weeks later.

The documentary is titled 'Restrepo' because of Pfc. Juan Restrepo, a heroic combat medic who was killed in action on July 22, 2007. The tragedy also deeply affected the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, which braved enemy attacks to build Firebase Restrepo, an outpost crucial to troops in the unforgiving eastern Afghan valley before U.S. forces were withdrawn. Hetherington and Junger's film, which deserves to be nominated for an Academy Award, is a testament to the sacrifices of this incredible group of soldiers, living and fallen, who endured months of hell in one of the most dangerous places on earth. As America learned this week while honoring Staff Sgt. Giunta, and as we see in the documentary, the volunteer warriors who returned from the Korengal Valley live with harrowing sights and sounds that will never fade.

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about you or that day," a fellow soldier wrote to Staff Sgt. Rougle on the card displayed below, which I photographed at Arlington. "Rest in peace."

Thanks to 'Restrepo,' which I urge all readers of The Unknown Soldiers to watch, I will think of Staff Sgt. Larry Rougle and his brothers in arms every time I write about a fallen hero. This film, as well as Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta's Medal of Honor, ensures that the story of these paratroopers will teach future generations about the true meaning of bravery, service, camaraderie, and friendship.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Up in the air

Images courtesy: Jim Beam

Operation Moshtarak, a critical coalition operation aimed at crushing insurgents and terrorists in southern Afghanistan, has been filled with heavy fighting, incredible heroism, and painful sacrifices. Many valiant Americans who should be household names, like Lance Cpl. Eric Ward and Lance Cpl. Christopher Rangel, have lost their lives while taking the fight to al Qaeda and the Taliban. That important fact is certainly not lost on Capt. Adam Campbell, a Marine pilot who supported his fellow volunteer warriors in combat from the sky.

"Those guys deserve all the credit," Capt. Campbell told The Unknown Soldiers. "Without them...they’re the ones living in the villages away from e-mail and images from home; they’re the ones making the ultimate sacrifice. They are truly the bravest individuals."

From November 2009 to June 2010, Campbell was stationed in Kandahar, perhaps the single most important strategic hotspot for America and its allies in Afghanistan.

"Our main mission was to provide close air support in combat situations," the Marine said. "We helped Soldiers and Marines on the ground, and our sensors helped them find IED's."

Campbell told me that flying daily missions in one of the world's most dangerous regions was "a dream come true," which might sound puzzling to some readers. Why would someone want to put their life on the line every day, and witness so much carnage on the ground below? For Adam Campbell, service had always been a lifelong goal, and the horrific events of September 11, 2001, cemented his resolve to fight for his country.

"9/11 hit close to home," Campbell, who was attending New Jersey's Monmouth University at the time, explained. "A bunch of my friends lost loved ones on 9/11, and that got the fire inside me going."

The three loves of Capt. Campbell's life are his spouse, flying, and horse racing, which he grew up enjoying on nearby Jersey Shore tracks. While he flew high above the Afghan mountains every day during his deployment, he missed his wife dearly, and frequently asked her to keep him up-to-date on all the big races. Unbeknownst to the Marine, Melanie Campbell would nominate him to be recognized by Jim Beam and Operation Homefront's "Salute Soldiers with the Spirit of America" program, which led to an experience every horse racing fan dreams of.

"Operation Homefront allowed me to go to the Breeders' Cup," Campbell said just a few days after returning from Louisville, Kentucky. "The whole weekend was first-class, they took care of everything."

Adam and Melanie Campbell witnessed a race for the ages, when previously undefeated Zenyatta's valiant comeback fell just short of Blame in a breathtaking photo finish. Even though the race was an unforgettable experience that he is deeply thankful for, Capt. Campbell couldn't help but reflect on more than seven months of tense moments up in the air, and fallen heroes who will never again get to enjoy time with family and friends at exciting sporting events.

"The first initial feeling I had was guilt, because everyone deserves this. There are other people more deserving than me, the people making the ultimate sacrifice," Campbell said. "I was humbled to be selected."

Simply put, Jim Beam and Operation Homefront support the troops. On September 11, 2010, I attended a Kid Rock concert at South Carolina's Fort Jackson that was free to everyone with a military ID. Thanks to these organizations, the thousands of troops in attendance had an incredible night, and Capt. Campbell's Breeders' Cup weekend is another example of their willingness to give back.

But at this very moment, there are about 200,000 Americans in war zones, unable to rock out at a concert or scream their lungs out at a horse race. They need our support, and Campbell has suggestions on how we can help.

"When I was over there, we got care packages, from family and people we have never met and never will meet," the Marine said. "That people are willing to send small things like deodorant, razors, or candy, it just meant the world to us."

Campbell also mentioned getting letters from schoolchildren over the holidays, which was also a big morale booster. If you have a son or daughter in school, perhaps you could ask their teachers to have classes write letters to our brave men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan this year. Few activities can better demonstrate the values of patriotism and selfless sacrifice to our youngest citizens, while also putting a smile on the faces of our heroes overseas.

After answering the call to serve when America was attacked, this Marine pilot saved many lives on the ground while navigating the uncertain Afghan skies. He is now stationed in Florida, giving flight instructions to aspiring aviators who will likely be called upon to protect the nation in combat. After having the honor of speaking with this war veteran, it is clear that he feels blessed to be fulfilling his dreams as a pilot, enjoying time with his wife, and watching the sport he loves. America is also blessed to have volunteer warriors like Capt. Adam Campbell protecting us from above.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The valley

Image courtesy: Sgt. Matthew Moeller

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.

Death and evil were all around Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta on October 25, 2007, in Afghanistan's perilous Korengal Valley. I don't know if the nation's newest Medal of Honor recipient is a religious man, but Psalm 23 came to my mind while thinking about his incredible story over the last few weeks. Aside from the parallels in prose, the verse was quoted by President George W. Bush in the Oval Office on the evening of September 11, 2001. On that night, the fires ignited by terrorists in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania still burned, and America was 26 days away from going to war in Afghanistan.

On November 16, 2010, President Barack Obama called our attention to this dark, remote eastern Afghanistan valley from the East Room of the White House. With Staff Sgt. Giunta at his side, the commander-in-chief described a setting few of us will ever experience.

"The moon was full, the light it cast was enough to travel by without using their night vision goggles," the president said. "With heavy gear on their backs and air support overhead, they made their way single file down a rocky ridge crest, along terrain so steep that sliding was sometimes easier than walking."

"The world happened in that next step," Staff Sgt. Giunta told Lara Logan on 60 Minutes. Islamic militants ambushed soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, killing Spc. Hugo Mendoza, a respected, caring combat medic, almost immediately.

"When the third [soldier] was struck in the helmet and fell to the ground, Sal charged headlong into the wall of bullets to pull him to safety behind little cover there was," President Obama explained. "As he did, Sal was hit twice, one round slamming into his body armor, the other shattering a weapon slung across his back. They were pinned down, and two wounded Americans still lay up ahead."

Giunta and his fellow troops began throwing grenades and shooting, pushing forward to one of their five wounded comrades. As another soldier tended to the injured service member's wounds, the 22-year-old Iowa soldier proceeded further inside the moonlit valley on his own, looking for the enemy and fellow troops through the unknown of night. He saw the shadow of death and the faces of evil in those moments, as two terrorists carried his dear friend, Sgt. Joshua Brennan, into the darkness.

"Sal never broke stride," the commander-in-chief told a White House audience that included fellow troops from his unit, several Medal of Honor winners, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and the Giunta family. "He leapt forward, he took aim, he killed one of the insurgents and wounded the other, who ran off. Sal found his friend alive, but badly wounded. Sal had saved him from the enemy, now he had to try to save his life."

Despite Staff Sgt. Giunta's incredible efforts to stop his good buddy's bleeding, Sgt. Brennan died the following day in surgery. Nothing could bring his friend back to life, but Giunta forever brought his friend back from the evil grasp of fear, hate, and terror. Instead of dying in a cave or having the images of his final moments paraded across al Qaeda and Taliban propaganda websites, Brennan died surrounded by fellow American troops, and was buried with full military honors by his loving family.

The ceremony's most moving moment came when President Obama and Staff Sgt. Giunta looked to the audience and paid tribute to the parents of Sgt. Brennan and Spc. Mendoza.

"There are no words that even three years later that can ease the ache in your hearts or repay the debt that America owes to you," the president said in earnest. "But on behalf of a grateful nation, let me express profound thanks to your sons' service and their sacrifice."

Someday, I would like to ask Staff Sgt. Giunta what was going through his mind when the camera panned back to him during this touching moment. I cannot imagine having to live with images and sounds of that valley, nor could I imagine watching my best friend in so much pain. Giunta, who was on his second tour in Afghanistan when his unit was ambushed, reminds us that caring for our veterans after battle must be a top national priority, and attention to daily events in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot continue to waver as it has in recent years.

In a ceremony filled with salutes, tears, applause, and pride, there was a lighthearted moment in the beginning.

"I really like this guy," President Obama quipped, which was immediately followed by laughter and loud clapping. Staff Sgt. Giunta offered his widest smile of the unforgettable ceremony, which ended about 30 minutes later when the soldier, wearing the majestic Medal of Honor, embraced his commander-in-chief.

Even though we've never met, I really like Staff Sgt. Giunta too. While he wasn't thinking about it at the time and still insists that his actions were ordinary, he did an extraordinary thing by charging into that valley. Sgt. Joshua Brennan's family will be forever grateful, and so will the families of 9/11 victims, who understand the pain of losing a son, daughter, husband, or wife at the hands of terrorists.

When my daughter someday asks me about what happened in the years after September 11, 2001, I will not start talking about about Bush, Obama, airport security, suspicious packages, or bin Laden. I will tell her about the valley of the shadow of death and the American soldier who feared no evil. The story told today at the White House is one we must pass on to future generations, to give them hope should they ever be called upon to fight. Even in these troubled times, America still has something -- and someone -- to be proud of.

Thank you, Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta.

Image courtesy: The White House

An American friend

"I have never given everything," Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta told 60 Minutes in an interview that aired on November 14. "Sgt. Joshua Brennan gave everything."

I have been in awe of the humility displayed by Staff Sgt. Giunta in every interview he's given since it became known that he would receive the nation's highest military award. On this day, when he will be presented the Medal of Honor by President Obama at the White House, it is clear that Giunta is awe of the soldiers he served with, especially fellow warrior Spc. Hugo Mendoza and his dear friend, Sgt. Joshua Brennan.

Joshua Charles Brennan was born on May 30, 1985 in El Paso, Texas. For most of his childhood, according to an article in The Capital Times, Brennan lived with his mom in Oregon during the school year, then headed to Wisconsin to spend the summer with his dad. Unlike me, a big brother who spent too much time teasing my younger brother and sister, Brennan was the model sibling. One of his five brothers and sisters, Jessica, wrote in a Facebook tribute group that her big brother was simply the best.

Not long after graduating high school in Ontario, Oregon, Brennan enlisted in the U.S. Army, training hard and earning his place in the storied 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade Combat Team, perhaps best known for the incredible human price it paid at Dak To, Vietnam. Sgt. Brennan took that fighting spirit with him to Afghanistan on his first combat tour, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star for valor.

During his second tour, much of which took place in a northeastern Afghanistan valley so dangerous that brave, battle-tested American soldiers knew it was too risky to go to the bathroom during the day, Brennan forged an even closer bond with the troops around him. He was close friends with Staff Sgt. Giunta, who says that either of them, or any other soldier in the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, would instinctively put their lives on the line for one another.

Sgt. Brennan was shot in the leg in August 2007, but healed up, received his Purple Heart, and willed himself back out to the battlefield. That's the kind of selfless dedication, rightfully regarded as extraordinary back home, that was almost commonplace for this remarkable unit in the mountains of Afghanistan. For these volunteer warriors, it was simply what had to be done.

Sgt. Joshua Charles Brennan, known as "Chuck" by some of his closest Army friends, died on October 26, 2007, in Asadabad, Afghanistan, of wounds he sustained during the previous day's ambush, which also killed Spc. Hugo Mendoza. Were it not for Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta's bravery in seizing this wounded warrior from the Taliban's grasp, the soldier's family, fellow troops, and American citizens may have been forced to endure a horrific ordeal of painful uncertainty, deadly rescue operations, and possibly more Taliban propaganda videos.

For more on exactly what happened just over three years ago, from the President of the United States and the brave soldiers who were actually there, I urge you to watch today's White House ceremony, which begins at 1 p.m. eastern. The Unknown Soldiers will write about this important event as well. On this momentous day, when Staff Sgt. Giunta's heroism is recognized by America's top civilian and military leadership, Spc. Mendoza and Sgt. Brennan's names will echo through the halls of the White House. Yet it's at home, in the thoughts of loved ones, where the sounds of children who grew up to become American heroes are loudest.

"Joshua, you are missed every minute of every day, no matter what day it is by so many people who love you," Sgt. Brennan's mother posted to the Facebook memorial group on November 12.

Staff Sgt. Erick Gallardo, who was awarded the Silver Star, was Sgt. Joshua Brennan's squad leader. During the 60 Minutes interview, when he and Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta recounted that fall 2007 day's tragic moments, Staff Sgt. Gallardo said something that will forever comfort the family of Sgt. Brennan, who earned three Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts during his illustrious career of service. Instead of spending his final moments with enemies of America and the world, he spent them with his friends.

"The last thing Brennan ever saw was us. He saw us fighting for him."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The warriors

Image courtesy: Staff Sgt. Mark Burrell

Since Friday, November 5, the Pentagon has released the names of 14 Soldiers and Marines killed in Afghanistan. The fallen warriors are being mourned by relatives and friends all over the country, from chilly New England to the Arizona desert, as well as on battlefields and bases around the world.

Spc. Anthony Vargas, 27, Reading, Pennsylvania
Spc. Andrew Hutchins, 20, New Portland, Maine
Sgt. Jason McCluskey, 26, McAlester, Oklahoma
Sgt. Aaron Cruttenden, 25, Mesa, Arizona
Spc. Dale Kridlo, 33, Hughestown, Pennsylvania
Sgt. 1st Class Todd Harris, 37, Tucson, Arizona
Spc. James Young, 25, Rochester, Illinois
Spc. Blake Whipple, 21, Williamsville, New York
Sgt. Michael Paranzino, 22, Middletown, Rhode Island
Lance Cpl. Brandon Pearson, 21, Arvada, Colorado
Lance Cpl. Matthew Broehm, 22, Flagstaff, Arizona
Pfc. Shane Reifert, 23, Cottrellville, Michigan
Staff Sgt. Jordan Emrick, 26, Hoyleton, Illinois
Lance Cpl. Randy Braggs, 21, Sierra Vista, Arizona

With Veterans Day quickly approaching, saluting the honorable prior service of our heroes is refreshingly widespread this week. The NFL and ESPN did a nice job paying tribute to our veterans during the Cincinnati Bengals-Pittsburgh Steelers Monday Night Football matchup, for instance. Yet I haven't seen much about the extraordinary sacrifices of the 14 heroic individuals listed above on national newscasts, nor is there much coverage of the important battles their comrades continue to fight at this very moment.

America has much to be thankful for as the Marine Corps celebrates its 235th birthday on Wednesday and our nation's veterans get their well-deserved official day of gratitude on Thursday. While pausing to recognize these events and what they signify, The Unknown Soldiers will also keep bringing you the personal stories of the men and women putting everything on the line to keep us free. To fully understand and appreciate their dedication, we must pay closer attention to these volunteers and their families.

Note: This post was updated several times on November 9 to reflect new casualty information from the Department of Defense.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Iron Mike

For the loved ones of Sgt. Michael Woodliff, something was missing this Halloween. While walking through Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery last week, I noticed two pumpkins resting by this fallen warrior's grave, along with tribute stones and an American flag. Just by looking at the mementos at his grave, it was clear that six and a half years after his death, many people miss Sgt. Woodliff just as much as the day he left for Iraq. I immediately wanted to go beyond the headstone and learn more about this soldier's life.

Perhaps Halloween is special to some who knew Woodliff because he used to dress up as his favorite childhood characters to entertain others. A touching 2007 Herald-Tribune article by Thomas Becnel mentions a teenage Woodliff posing as Rocky and Vanilla Ice to make his friends laugh in school. It also tells a story of a young Michael taking a magic marker to his face, just to make his mom laugh during a drive through Florida.

Loved ones filled the pumpkin they left at Arlington National Cemetery with Halloween messages.

So who was this 22-year-old man who made everyone around him laugh? On the homefront, he was a prankster who loved to have fun, but also had a powerful inner drive to serve his country. He was deeply in love with his fiancee, Crystal, with whom he was making wedding plans.

On the battlefield, he was like a piece of iron, nicknamed "Iron Mike" by fellow soldiers, in fact. He also had a penchant for luck. According to a 2004 article in the same newspaper, a screaming suicide bomber ran straight at Woodliff and his fellow troops in 2003, and almost certainly would have killed them if the bomb hadn't malfunctioned.

Sgt. Woodliff escaped several other close calls before March 2, 2004. On that tragic day in Baghdad, an improvised explosive device struck the soldier's convoy, leaving him with catastrophic injuries. Woodliff passed away at a nearby medical facility later in the day, devastating friends, family members, and fellow troops from Iraq, to Friedberg, Germany (where the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, 1st Armored Division is based), all the way home to Port Charlotte, Florida.

I didn't know this soldier's story when I bowed my head at his grave. Yet I was comforted when I read that the Woodliffs believe Arlington National Cemetery is the right place for their hero to be buried.

Sgt. Michael Woodliff was there for us on that fateful spring day in 2004, when he put his life on the line and fought hard for our country. As evidenced by a pumpkin full of moving messages, many were there for him on Halloween 2010.

Image courtesy: Project Compassion, painting by Kaziah Hancock

Sunday, October 31, 2010


Image courtesy: U.S. Marines

Thirty thousand participants from all 50 states and around the world, including wounded veterans from every branch of the military, are running and wheeling between Arlington, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., for the 35th Marine Corps Marathon.

Amid tight security in light of recent shootings targeting the National Museum of the Marine Corps, Pentagon, and a northern Virginia Marine recruiting station, the massive, sold-out race got underway without a hitch just after 8 a.m. Sunday morning.

You can watch live streaming coverage of the event by clicking here. You will see thousands of Marines, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, veterans, and running enthusiasts making the 26.2 mile journey as a sea of military supporters line the streets of the nation's capital to support our troops. Good luck to all 30,000 participants and thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for your service to our nation!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

An emotional journey

It was a gray, windy fall afternoon in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where I spent part of my Tuesday after a meeting in Washington. While paying respects to several heroes I have had the honor of writing about on this blog, my emotions were all over the place. As someone who hasn't served in the military, walking among the spirits of my protectors made me question whether I've given all I can to my country. I also felt a strange mixture of grief, pride, resolve, and even panic. Are the greatest men and women of my generation getting the credit they deserve outside this cemetery's walls?

Please join me in looking back at the stories of five post-9/11 heroes resting peacefully at Arlington National Cemetery. Visiting their graves was a solemn, poignant experience that I will always cherish.

1st Lt. Scott Fleming, 24, made the ultimate sacrifice on September 17 while protecting Afghanistan's parliamentary election. He was a young man who took 9/11 personally as he watched the attacks on television from his high school classroom. The future Marine, who was known and respected for the grit he displayed on the basketball court, vowed to step up and fight so future generations wouldn't have to. And that's exactly what he did.

On October 11, I sat in his high school auditorium, learning about 1st Lt. Fleming from some of the people he touched in life. Just over two weeks later, I bowed my head at the volunteer warrior's grave. While his place of rest is currently marked with a temporary sign, the place this fallen Marine has in my heart is permanent. He was from my community in Georgia, and risked his life so others could vote. When I cast my ballot in next week's mid-term elections, what 1st Lt. Scott Fleming died for will be in the forefront of my mind.

Sgt. Joe Wrightsman, 23, jumped into the Helmand River on July 18 and attempted to save a drowning Afghan officer. Tragically, the Marine and his Afghan counterpart did not survive. A valiant warrior with a ferocious spirit and genuine commitment to those serving beside him, Sgt. Wrightsman "will stay forever in the history of Afghanistan," according to the governor of Nawa District. As I wrote in a follow up post, this story of selflessness is one that Americans and Afghans desperately need to hear.

Capt. David Wisniewski, 31, suffered devastating injuries in a June 9 southern Afghanistan helicopter crash that killed four fellow airmen, Tech Sgt. Michael Flores, 1st Lt. Joel Gentz, Staff Sgt. David Smith, and Senior Airman Benjamin White. He fought hard for three weeks, making it through a Purple Heart ceremony and his 31st birthday, before succumbing to his wounds on July 2 at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Capt. Wisniewski flew over 280 combat hours, including missions that saved the lives of fellow troops.

1st Lt. Travis Manion, 26, and Lt. Brendan Looney, 29, once roomed together at the United States Naval Academy. The former was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for gallantry displayed in Iraq, while the latter was an elite Navy SEAL warrior who lost his life in Afghanistan. They were also best friends. After emotionally shattering ceremonies on October 1 and October 4, respectively, the former Annapolis roommates are now spending eternity next to one another. The bond between 1st Lt. Manion and Lt. Looney is one of the most gripping, tragic stories of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

1st Lt. Manion, Lt. Looney, 1st. Lt. Fleming, and Capt. Wisniewski all rest in the same row of Section 60, with Sgt. Wrightsman not far away. They are five heroes buried among so many men and women that did not return alive to a country that desperately needs their honor, dignity, and patriotism. We can never replace these fallen warriors, but one way we can show our appreciation to their families is by helping keep their stories in the national consciousness. While I believe walking through Arlington National Cemetery is something every American should do at least once in a lifetime, we should already know that our brothers and sisters are dying overseas so we can live at home in peace.

Monday, October 11, 2010

'There has to be somebody'

Homecoming weekend is a large annual celebration at Blessed Trinity Catholic High School. 'Welcome back alumni' signs, tents, and ribbons in the school's yellow and green colors lined roads as I drove through the Roswell, Georgia, campus on Saturday, October 9. Yet while approaching the school itself, it became clear that Homecoming 2010 would be different. Patriotic displays lined sidewalks near the entrance, and flags flew at half-staff against a bright, blue sky. On this warm southern fall day, citizens would unite to honor a humble protector.

I wanted to write about 1st Lt. Scott Fleming, who was from my community of Marietta, Georgia, since receiving a September 20 Pentagon release about his tragic death three days earlier. Instead, I set out to learn more about why this 24-year-old man joined the Marines and how he felt about deploying to Afghanistan. A poignant, deeply affecting celebration of the Marine's life inside the Blessed Trinity auditorium provided those answers, starting with why his high school was such an appropriate venue for the Memorial Mass.

"From the fiction of G.I. Joe to reality, we remember the day, time, and moment that we were attacked in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and of course, New York," Rev. Ricardo Xavier-Zawtown Bailey, the high school's chaplain, said to mourners. "It was an enemy that many of us thought never existed. We knew about terrorists, but surely they wouldn't have the gall to attack us."

"This young man was so moved by that single event, that on that day, as a Blessed Trinity student, he resolved to stand up."

As a smart, popular, tall basketball player nicknamed "Scottie Too Hottie" by adoring females, why would Fleming strive to spend part of his early adulthood in Afghanistan, one of the most desperate countries on the planet? As I listened to the grief and pride in the voice of his high school basketball coach, who stood at a podium in front of a gigantic American flag and cross, it started to make more sense.

"It was his self-sacrifice and determination that led to the turnaround of our basketball team," assistant principal Brian Marks said. "He earned the respect of all of his teammates and coaches."

Blessed Trinity had a terrible basketball team when Fleming arrived, but by the end of his senior year, the team had won its first-ever playoff game in an unlikely upset. By fully dedicating himself to a cause he cared deeply about, the young man believed victory was possible, no matter the odds.

"He will be remembered as a leader who took initiative to change things for the better," Marks said.

The overflowing crowd, including respectful mourners in suits and dresses sitting in the huge auditorium's aisles, left no doubt about the impact Fleming had on his community. Half a world away, the raw emotion on display at a September 25 remembrance ceremony at Patrol Base Jaker in Afghanistan showed how much he meant to his fellow Marines.

Image courtesy: Sgt. Mark Fayloga

"As a Marine officer and friend, he made a big impact on our lives," said Sgt. Jorge Diaz, a squad leader with Kilo Company. "He died doing something he cared about."

When an American service member is killed in Afghanistan or Iraq, we often hear that they died protecting freedom. 1st Lt. Fleming was doing exactly that when he was hit by small arms fire and killed. Just over nine years after watching the Twin Towers fall on television from his high school classroom, Fleming was guarding a polling station in Afghanistan's Helmand province as citizens braved threats from insurgents and terrorists to vote. I recently forgot to vote in a local primary election here in Georgia, but after hearing about what Fleming and fellow Marines in the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force did on September 17 to give civilians a chance to cast ballots in a war zone, I will never fail to exercise my right to vote again.

Back at Blessed Trinity, the priest delivered a fiery, passionate sermon, challenging anyone who complains about being an American to think long and hard about the fallen hero's sacrifice. He even led mourners in the singing of 'God Bless America,' which led me to recall the famous scene at the end of 'The Deer Hunter,' when working class characters stunned by the horror of losing their friend in Vietnam spontaneously sing the song in earnest. Yet the most personal, unforgettable moment of the dignified two hour ceremony came when Rev. Xavier-Zawtown Bailey walked to the middle of the auditorium, stood in front of Fleming's grieving family, and spoke to them one by one.

"The love you and Scott shared will sustain you for many, many days," the priest told Fleming's widow, Brandi, whose sunglass-shielded eyes still managed to meet the chaplain's.

"He is proud of you and he wants you to continue being a good young woman," he said to the fallen Marine's younger sister, Andrea, who clearly had a special place in her sibling's heart.

"There is nothing more difficult than to see parents who lost a child," he said to Joseph and Joanne Fleming, who stood proudly to honor their son. "You raised a good one, you raised a brave one, you raised a good Christian."

As Van Morrison played softly over the loudspeakers while mourners quietly exited and wiped their eyes, a refrain the priest repeated was already in my head. "There has to be somebody." When America was attacked, this young man didn't hope that strangers would hunt down the terrorists responsible or protect his loved ones. He decided to spend the next few years educating, training and preparing to do it himself.

1st Lt. Scott Fleming was buried on October 7 at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors, in what was undoubtedly a painful ceremony. Yet the brilliant blue sky two days later, above the place where he first decided to serve his country, makes the following passage on the last page of his Memorial Mass program ring true.

There will be no more darkness.
There is no more night, no more night.
There will be no more sadness,
only joy and light, joy and light.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Something to talk about

Image courtesy: Cpl. Derek Carlson

Every single day, important events on the ground in Afghanistan are missed by the national press. From clearing roads of improvised explosive devices and capturing or killing insurgents, to protecting innocent children and making the ultimate sacrifice, American troops are doing their jobs with humility and diligence.

On October 6, coalition troops killed three insurgents and detained three more during an IED-sweep in southern Afghanistan. According to an ISAF Joint Command article, an Afghan civilian said the terrorists demanded food and water from her, threatening to harm her family if she didn't surrender her belongings.

On October 1, men and women fighting on the ground helped get an injured ten-year-old out of the Qadis District of Baghdid province after he was wounded by shrapnel from insurgent-launched mortar fire. A Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force release said that after the boy was hurt, the child's uncle rushed the child to a coalition base to try to save his life. Hopefully, more and more Afghans are realizing who they can turn to during times of crisis. It isn't the Taliban.

As airmen continue flying long, grueling missions through terrible weather and American service members continue training Afghan police cadets, there are many positive developments from Afghanistan to report. Tragically, fallen American heroes continue returning to Delaware's Dover Air Force Base in flag-draped caskets after volunteering to fight in America's post-9/11 conflicts. Over the last three days, the Pentagon released the identities of seven departed warriors, all killed in action in Afghanistan.

Lance Cpl. Scott Lynch, 22, Greenwood Lake, New York
Spc. Joseph Prentler, 20, Fenwick, Michigan
Sgt. Brian Pedro, 27, Rosamond, California
Pfc. Ryane Clark, 22, New London, Minnesota
Sgt. Karl Campbell, 34, Chiefland, Florida
Pfc. Cody Board, 19, McKinney, Texas
Senior Airman Daniel Johnson, 23, Schiller Park, Illinois

The loved ones of the fallen Airman, Marine, and five Soldiers killed in action have seen their lives altered forever over the last 72 hours. We grieve for them, and also recognize that our lives are also deeply affected by the sacrifices being made every day by valiant men and women willing to risk everything to give us a chance at the American dream. If you ask me, that's worth talking about.

Monday, October 4, 2010

In the middle of it all

Image courtesy: Sgt. Mark Fayloga

Over the last five days, the Department of Defense has released the names of nine American service members killed in action in Afghanistan. The fallen warriors hail from eight different states.

Sgt. 1st Class Lance Vogeler, 29, Frederick, Maryland
Sgt. Anthony Matteoni, 22, Union City, Michigan
Staff Sgt. Willie Harley Jr., 48, Aiken, South Carolina
Spc. Luther Rabon Jr., 32, Lexington, South Carolina
Lance Cpl. Ralph Fabbri, 20, Gallitzin, Pennsylvania
Senior Airman Mark Forester, 29, Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Lance Cpl. Timothy Jackson, 22, Corbin, Kentucky
Sgt. 1st Class Calvin Harrison, 31, San Antonio, Texas
Sgt. Justin Officer, 26, Wichita, Kansas

As an extraordinary terror alert grips countries in Europe and beyond, we can take some time to appreciate what these men fought for in the country where the 9/11 attacks were planned and the terrorists responsible were harbored. Because of the bravery of volunteers who have stepped up since September 11, 2001, America is not sitting on the sidelines while al Qaeda threatens the world.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Into the fog

Image courtesy: Spc. Eric Cabral

The above Army photograph, taken from a C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft just before it landed at Afghanistan's Kandahar Air Field, is both magnificent and ominous. The same can be said for what many of our troops overseas are experiencing at this hour.

For an American service member, going to war is a rare opportunity to defend your country and put your training to the test against the enemy. But it can also be a scarring, horrific experience that permanently alters your life. As someone who hasn't served in the military, I cannot speak to what these men and women are going through. I can only guess that for some, it won't be easy to sleep tonight beneath the shadow of tomorrow's unknowns.

Since Friday, the Pentagon has announced the deaths of six U.S. troops in Afghanistan. From Illinois to Guam, families have been notified that flag-draped caskets carrying their loved ones will soon be greeted with solemn salutes at Delaware's Dover Air Force Base.

Lance Cpl. Anthony Rosa, 20, Swanton, Vermont
Pfc. Clinton Springer II, 21, Sanford, Maine
Pfc. William Dawson, 20, Tunica, Mississippi
Pfc. Jaysine Petree, 19, Yigo, Guam
Sgt. Mark Simpson, 40, Peoria, Illinois
Spc. Donald Morrison, 23, Cincinnati, Ohio

The Department of Defense also released the names of three American soldiers killed in non-combat related incidents supporting Operation New Dawn. The first two departed warriors listed were killed in Iraq, while the third fallen hero lost his life in Kuwait.

Spc. John Carrillo Jr., 20, Stockton, California
Pfc. Gebrah Noonan, 26, Watertown, Connecticut
Spc. Marc Whisenant, 23, Holly Hill, Florida

The colors in the picture above are appropriate, as war's daily events can sometimes be portrayed in black and white, when reality is often more akin to shades of gray. At this moment in Afghanistan and Iraq, some troops are engaged in fierce combat and some are playing video games. Some are happy, some are at ease, some are melancholy, and some are battling feelings of desperation. All are putting their lives on the line for future American, Afghan, and Iraqi generations, and deserve our gratitude and respect.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rising souls

Image courtesy: Petty Officer 2nd Class Aaron Burden

For nine American families and the close-knit Navy SEAL and 101st Airborne communities, the last 48 hours have been filled with devastation and grief. Since Tuesday's tragic helicopter crash in Afghanistan's Zabul province, the Department of Defense has been delivering official casualty notifications to loved ones of the fallen. All nine departed warriors hailed from different states, and leave behind powerful legacies of service and sacrifice.

According to the Pentagon, four Navy SEALs were killed in the crash.

Lt. Brendan Looney, 29, Owings, Maryland
Senior Chief Petty Officer David McLendon, 30, Thomasville, Georgia
Petty Officer 2nd Class Adam Smith, 26, Hurland, Missouri
Petty Officer 3rd Class Denis Miranda, 24, Toms River, New Jersey

Five U.S. soldiers assigned to 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Kentucky, died alongside the SEALs.

Lt. Col. Robert Baldwin, 39, Muscatine, Iowa
Chief Warrant Officer Matthew Wagstaff, 34, Orem, Utah
Chief Warrant Officer Jonah McClellan, 26, St. Louis Park, Minnesota
Staff Sgt. Joshua Powell, 25, Pleasant Plains, Illinois
Sgt. Marvin Calhoun Jr., 23, Elkhart, Indiana

The Unknown Soldiers will have much more on the lives of these patriots in the days and weeks ahead. In the meantime, as Gold Star families fly American flags at half-staff from Owings, Maryland, to Orem, Utah, we share their pain. Years of rigorous training and personal sacrifices preceded these nine men climbing aboard a Black Hawk helicopter in the middle of a rugged war zone on September 21. While one chopper may have gone down, nine courageous souls did not.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Day of tragedy

File image courtesy: Capt. Mindy Yu

On Tuesday, Americans woke up to tragic news from southern Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are taking the fight to al Qaeda and the Taliban. According to numerous media reports, nine American service members were killed in a helicopter crash in the Daychopan district of Zabul province. Tuesday's tragedy marks the deadliest coalition chopper disaster since the spring of 2006.

Predictably, the Taliban is claiming it shot down the helicopter. As this Fox News article notes, terrorists notoriously try to claim involvement in any incident that takes the lives of our troops, even if it is potentially accidental. NATO said there were no reports of enemy fire in the area before the crash.

Also over the last 24 hours, the names of eight fallen heroes killed in Afghanistan over the last few days have been released by the Pentagon.

1st Lt. Scott Fleming, 24, Marietta, Georgia
Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Grider, 30, Brighton, Illinois
1st Lt. Eric Yates, 26, Rineyville, Kentucky
Staff Sgt. Jaime Newman, 27, Richmond, Virginia
Spc. Timothy Johnson, 24, Randolph, New York
Pfc. Barbara Vieyra, 22, Mesa, Arizona
Maj. Paul Carron, 33, Missouri
Spc. Joshua Harton, 23, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

From Pennsylvania to Arizona, these families are grieving incomprehensible losses. In the coming days, they will be joined by loved ones of the nine volunteer warriors lost in Tuesday's helicopter crash. Even though the war in Afghanistan is more than 3,200 days old, it is difficult to ever be prepared for this devastating form of news from the front. As we hope the relatives, friends, and fellow troops of the departed already know, they do not grieve alone at this tragic hour.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Election Day

Image courtesy: Capt. Tristan Hinderliter

The polls have opened in Afghanistan, where about 2,500 Afghan politicians are on ballots for 249 parliamentary seats. As al Qaeda and the Taliban's totalitarian zealots fume in anger, Afghans will enter voting booths hoping for a smooth, legitimate outcome.

While Voice Of America reports that an apparent rocket attack hit Kabul early Saturday morning, terrorist efforts to derail the elections have failed due to the sacrifices of Americans, Afghans, and coalition partners determined to give citizens clear paths to polling places.

Of course, the road has not been easy. U.S. troops helped Afghans fend off the enemy while delivering ballots, and even recovered voting materials from a vehicle damaged by a roadside bomb attack. While it is not clear what this election will ultimately mean for the future of Afghanistan, it is undeniable that blood has been shed to achieve this goal. As an American, that makes me extraordinarily proud of our troops.

2010 has been the most difficult year of the war in Afghanistan for U.S. service members. Hopefully, Saturday will be remembered as a turning point. Instead of listening to the usual media pundits bloviate over the weekend, I will be listening to our commanders on the ground, like Col. James Johnson.

"We can't fix the problems of 30 years, or more than that, in seven or eight years," he said. "We have to be patient. We are making progress."