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

Monday, May 31, 2010

Tribute in light

Image courtesy: Spc. Jason Venturini

In National Cemeteries around the nation and cities large and small, millions of patriots turned out to remember the departed warriors who have paid the ultimate price for the gift of freedom. While every Memorial Day ceremony is special, one of the day's most poignant moments occurred thousands of miles from our shores.

At Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, left, and Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Capel, right, unveiled a beam from the World Trade Center in New York. The 950-pound symbol of the war on terrorism was donated to the military by Sons and Daughters of America, Breezy Point, New York. Under the hot sun, troops were told that the beam would remain standing at Bagram until President Obama or a future commander-in-chief declared the military's post-9/11 mission in Afghanistan complete.

As Gen. Stanley McChrystal reminded servicemembers at the ceremony, Memorial Day is ultimately about people. While we appropriately remember heroes from the battlefield throughout this emotional day, learning about the unique tribute at Bagram reminded me of the 55 military casualties suffered in the first moments on the war on terror. On September 11, 2001, Lt. Gen. Tim Maude became the most senior Army officer killed by the enemy since World War II when terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. His 35 years of military service were saluted as recently as Thursday, when the Lt. Gen. Tim J. Maude Building opened at Kentucky's Fort Knox.

Some of the brave servicemembers serving in Afghanistan were ten years old on September 11, 2001. One thousand Americans have since been tragically killed in the country where the senseless murders of 2,973 innocent people were planned. From Memorial Day 2010 until the moment al Qaeda and the Taliban are defeated, a beam that once supported the World Trade Center will remind younger troops why this war had to be fought.

The Unknown Soldiers looks forward to posting about the beam's arrival at North Carolina's Fort Bragg. When the gigantic piece of steel has reached its final destination, we will know the war in Afghanistan has been won by an exceptional generation of volunteer warriors.

The final lap

On August 15, 2004, NASCAR driver Tony Stewart wasn't sure if he could finish the race at Watkins Glen. Battling a severe case of stomach flu, the piercing pain nearly compelled Stewart to quit. Instead of letting his racing team down, Stewart persevered, outlasting 42 fellow drivers to win the road course race in dramatic fashion.

As Stewart and his crew celebrated on the New York track, a 13-year-old boy sat in his family's Iowa home with a big smile on his face. Future Lance Cpl. Joshua Davis, who would grow up to serve with honor in Afghanistan, deeply admired Stewart's refusal to give up during a time of adversity.

"Mr. Stewart was real sick but stuck it out and won," the Marine's father, Dave Davis, told The Unknown Soldiers. "That stuck with Josh and was part of his driving force of what made Josh Josh."

On May 17, The Unknown Soldiers told you about the extraordinary life of Lance Cpl. Davis, who was just 19 years old when he was recently killed in a Helmand province firefight. After learning from an article in The Des Moines Register that Davis was a Tony Stewart fan, I wished the driver could be made aware of this Marine's sacrifice. Thanks to the efforts of a wonderful blog reader named Dana Ulmo, I learned that The Tony Stewart Foundation wanted to help comfort the grieving family of one of the driver's biggest fans. With the help of Pastor Deb Parkison and Des Moines Register reporter Staci Hupp, I was put in touch with Davis' father, who sent me a dignified tribute to the humble hero he helped raise.

"Friends, teachers, coaches and fellow Marines that knew him [said] he had more character than most people," Dave Davis wrote. "He has never done anything for glory, but performs all tasks to get the team glory, on any team he was a part of."

Mr. Davis specifically thanked 1st Sgt. Brandon Eckardt for supporting his family during a time of tragedy. Instead of spending time with his wife and four-month-old child on Mother's Day weekend, 1st Sgt. Eckardt personally escorted the Davis family to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to salute Josh's flag-draped casket. Eckardt also told mourners in a Perry, Iowa, high school gym that during the fateful gun battle in Afghanistan, the former wrestling star chose to return fire with his machine gun instead of taking cover. The courageous actions of Lance Cpl. Davis shielded fellow Marines during perilous moments.

Soon, Davis' mother, father, brother, and two sisters will receive a letter and autographed picture from Tony Stewart, a compassionate superstar with a real commitment to supporting our men and women in uniform and their families. As the Marine's relatives look at the signed photo of one of NASCAR's biggest stars, the Davis family can be proud that their loved one became a hero to a sports star he respected so deeply.

Lance Cpl. Joshua Davis could have quit before the finish line on the battlefield. Instead, he chose to stand up and fight for his teammates. Efforts are underway to have a street named after the brave local son in Perry, Iowa. While the checkered flag has been raised for the valiant 19-year-old Marine, his honorable legacy encircles the heartland in a victory lap that will never end.

Day of gratitude dawns

Thanks to thousands of volunteers, American flags are proudly flying in front of every tombstone in our National Cemeteries at the dawn of this special day. Every fallen servicemember buried in these hallowed grounds earned the honor of the American flag by doing everything in their power to protect it.

Memorial Day 2010 is upon us. Millions are solemnly saluting the men and women who have laid down their lives for freedom since the birth of our great nation. With valiant troops dying almost daily in America's ongoing war against terrorism, the meaning of this day should particularly penetrate the heart of a generation that was called to fight when America was attacked on September 11, 2001.

Sunday night, I watched the live HD telecast of the 2010 National Memorial Day Concert in Washington. While the event was both moving and inspirational, it was particularly refreshing to see so much unity on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, which has been plagued by so much political polarization over the past year. On this evening, prominent republicans, democrats, and independents came together to show that our troops are far more important than partisan bickering. After all, they sacrifice overseas to give us our freedom to disagree at home.

Less than 24 hours after actors Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna hosted the event, the military supporting stars are coming together again for Monday's 2010 National Memorial Day Parade. The festivities start just before 2:00 p.m. eastern time on Constitution Avenue between 7th and 17th Streets NW in the nation's capital. The American Veterans Center, which founded and organized this special parade beginning in 2005, should be saluted for recognizing the need for this large tribute for our fallen heroes, particularly during wartime. You can watch the parade live on The Military Channel on cable and satellite, and servicemembers around the world can tune in on The Pentagon Channel.

When I wake up in the morning, I will pause to look at a small flag given to me at the procession to honor fallen 1st Lt. Robert Collins on April 15, 2010, in Tyrone, Georgia. As I carry it with me to a local Memorial Day ceremony in the afternoon, I hope I have the opportunity to tell a child about a young man who selflessly swore to protect everything the American flag represents. For 1st Lt. Collins and his brothers in arms, I bow my head with eternal appreciation. To truly understand what they died for, their stories must be told.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The dauntless dozen

"A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on." ~President Kennedy

While progress continues to be made in Afghanistan ahead of this summer's Kandahar offensive, the price being paid remains enormous. As Memorial Day approaches, the Pentagon has announced 12 American casualties from the battlefield over the past week. Five are soldiers who tragically died in a Kabul suicide attack one week ago today, while the following seven heroes were all killed in combat around the war-torn country. The Army has endured ten of the casualties, while two volunteer warriors, Lance Cpls. Clark and Xavier, were proud Marines.

Cpl. Nicholas Paradarodriguez, 29, Stafford, VA (Helmand province)
Staff Sgt. Adam Perkins, 27, Antelope, CA (Helmand province)
Lance Cpl. Patrick Xavier Jr., 24, Pembroke Pines, FL (Helmand province)
Staff Sgt. Shane Barnard, 38, Desmet, SD (Zabul province)
Pfc. Billy Anderson, 20, Alexandria, TN (Baghdis province)
Lance Cpl. Philip Clark, 19, Gainesville, FL (Helmand province)
Pfc. Jason Fingar, 24, Columbia, MO (Durai)

As we look forward to a three-day weekend, it is crucial to remember what Monday represents. As these 12 American families spend Memorial Day mourning immeasurable losses, we must grieve with them, and renew our pledge to support Gold Star families around the nation. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, thousands of families have made countless sacrifices in America's time of need. Let's all keep asking how we can give something back to them.

"We will always remember. We will always be proud. We will always be prepared, so we may always be free." ~President Reagan

Monday, May 24, 2010

'Be ready'

Image courtesy: Petty Officer 1st Class Chad McNeeley

There are approximately 28,000 American troops stationed in South Korea. Today, our brave men and women are on a heightened state of alert after evidence proved that North Korea sunk a South Korean ship, killing 46 sailors.

"U.S. support for South Korea's defense is unequivocal, and the president has directed his military commanders to coordinate closely with their Republic of Korea counterparts to ensure readiness and to deter future aggression," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.

North Korea's communist dictator, Kim Jong-il, is believed to have personally ordered the torpedo attack. His government routinely issues insane statements threatening military strikes against any country that retaliates against its provocative actions, making the situation even more unpredictable.

Even with intense combat in Afghanistan and dangerous times in Iraq, the U.S. military remains the world's greatest fighting force, and stands ready to defend freedom against its oppressors. While we all hope the crisis on the Korean peninsula can be solved without more Americans having to lay down their lives on foreign soil, it is clear the United States will never back down to evil dictators like Kim Jong-il.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Why we write

Image courtesy: The Phillips Foundation/Doug DeMark

On May 11, I accepted a 2010 Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship for The Unknown Soldiers: How the Media Celebrates American Idols and Ignores American Heroes. Several elements of the project will be completed right here on The Unknown Soldiers, which will continue to tell the personal stories of our men and women in uniform. All too often, these extraordinary Americans are brushed aside by a ratings-driven national media that has become obsessed with celebrity flavors of the month.

During my acceptance remarks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., I talked about the sacrifice of Maj. Megan McClung, the highest-ranking female Marine to lose her life in the Iraq war. She was killed in action on December 6, 2006, alongside Army Capt. Travis Patriquin and Spc. Vincent Pomante in Al Anbar province.

Since visiting Maj. McClung's grave at Arlington National Cemetery in January, this fallen Marine and her parents have always been in my heart. The moving words on her headstone, "Be Bold, Be Brief, Be Gone," have kept me focused during some difficult personal moments after deciding to leave CNN and launch this website. In short, warriors like Megan are the very reason why this blog exists.

I had the honor and privilege of telling this Marine's heroic story to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was seated at the head table in front of me as I delivered an acceptance speech. As this site's readers know, The Unknown Soldiers puts our troops, who are ordered to carry out missions specified by the commander-in-chief, far above politics. Putting partisanship aside, being able to make sure the man who led the Pentagon during the first years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq knew about Maj. McClung's sacrifice was a special moment that I cherish. Secretary Rumsfeld listened intently to all eight Fellowship speeches, especially the three that dealt with military issues, and kindly wished me well after I left the podium.

As I said to the audience, I think the words Maj. Megan McClung lived during her 34 consequential years can inspire us all. "Be bold, Be Brief, Be Gone." Instead of embedding my speech below, I will link to it here. There is a much more important video, courtesy of MultiNational Force-West Public Affairs Office, that needs to serve as this post's humble conclusion. Rest in peace, brave Marine, and thank you for serving our nation with such bravery and distinction.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Five points of light

Five men of different ages, who all hailed from different states, shared a powerful common bond that no terrorist could ever break. They all put on uniforms to protect the United States and Afghanistan from a violent ideology that seeks to murder anyone in its path, including women and children.

Tonight, the Pentagon has identified the five shining American stars who were tragically killed Tuesday in Kabul, Afghanistan. As we mourn this senseless attack, which killed another coalition soldier along with more than a dozen civilians, our resolve to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban must remain strong. We cannot forget what 19 terrorists, all of whom received orders from fanatics harbored by the Taliban, did to innocent people in our cities in 2001. Our nation received reminders on Christmas and earlier this month, when a Taliban-backed terrorist tried to kill New Yorkers and tourists in Times Square.

Because of the five brave Americans listed below, who died together as distinguished heroes in the country where al Qaeda has repeatedly plotted to strike our homeland, we can kiss our loved ones and sleep tonight in relative peace. I only wish these five military families could too.

Col. John McHugh, 46, New Jersey
Lt. Col. Paul Bartz, 43, Waterloo, Wisconsin
Lt. Col. Thomas Belkofer, 44, Perrysburg, Ohio
Staff Sgt. Richard Tieman, 28, Waynesboro, Pennsylvania
Spc. Joshua Tomlinson, 24, Dubberly, Louisiana

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

5 U.S. troops killed in Kabul terror attack

Image courtesy: Lance Cpl. Khoa Pelczar

Americans are waking up to solemn news from Afghanistan's capital city.

According to the International Security Assistance Force, six international servicemembers were killed this morning when terrorists blew up a vehicle near a military convoy and civilians in Kabul. CNN and numerous U.S. media outlets report that five of the six fallen troops are Americans. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is outraged by the attack.

The Darulaman Road car bomb killed numerous women and children and wounded dozens of Afghan civilians, including some traveling on a bus. More than a dozen civilian vehicles were destroyed, along with at least five military vehicles. Several media outlets are reporting that the Taliban has already claimed responsibility for the brutal attack.

Five American families will soon receive terrible news from the Pentagon because of the cowardly actions of terrorists. While the U.S. military will undoubtedly respond with swift and firm resolve to this attack on our countrymen and innocent civilians, we must never forget the troops who perished this morning. As we pray for their families, The Unknown Soldiers pledges to bring each unique, important personal story to you in the weeks ahead.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Witness to sacrifice

America's most hallowed ground had an important visitor on Thursday: Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Over 1,000 U.S. servicemembers have died in Afghanistan since our nation was attacked on September 11, 2001, and Karzai got a first-hand look at the high price America has paid to rid the world of terrorism and give his country a chance at freedom. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen joined Karzai on the tour.

Walking through Section 60, where many heroes from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts are buried, is an essential American experience that I wrote about back in January. From the seemingly endless lines of white headstones to the exhaustive efforts to keep the sacred stretch dignified, touring Arlington National Cemetery is an overwhelming endeavor that will fill almost anyone with both sadness and pride.

One American hero who recently lost his life in Afghanistan is Cpl. Michael Jankiewicz of Ramsey, New Jersey. The 23-year-old soldier was laid to rest at Arlington on April 20 after a tragic crash in Zabul. While it is not known if Karzai saw this young patriot's grave, he should be thanking selfless soldiers like Cpl. Jankiewicz for giving Afghanistan a chance. Instead of being brutalized by the Taliban and terrorized by the same evil extremists who attacked New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, young Afghans will eventually be able to determine their own future thanks to the United States, Great Britain, Poland, and other coalition countries.

Karzai recently angered many Americans by reportedly saying he would one day consider joining the Taliban under certain circumstances. Hopefully, bearing witness to the sacrifices of volunteer warriors who laid everything down to defeat this common enemy will help the Afghan president realize how offensive that reported statement was. There is no negotiation with murderers of women and children.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Solemn Afghanistan news reaches homefront

Image courtesy: Cpl. Ryan Rholes

Throughout Monday, the Pentagon released casualty notices from recent fighting in the war on terrorism. Five fallen heroes were identified, and all were killed in action in Afghanistan. Four lost their lives in Helmand province, which continues to be one of the war zone's most dangerous regions, while the last volunteer warrior listed was killed at Contingency Outpost Zerok.

Lance Cpl. Joshua Davis, 19, Perry, Iowa
Lance Cpl. Christopher Rangel, 22, San Antonio, Texas
Capt. Kyle Comfort, 27, Jacksonville, Alabama
Cpl. Kurt Shea, 21, Frederick, Maryland
Spc. Jeremy Brown, 20, McMinnville, Tennessee

These brave Americans deserve more than simply having their names listed, and The Unknown Soldiers is committed to bringing you more about their extraordinary lives in the days to come. In the meantime, please keep the Davis, Rangel, Comfort, Shea, and Brown families in your thoughts and prayers.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The real stars

Image courtesy: Pfc. Beth Raney

During an intense firefight in mid-July, Sgt. 1st Class James Goodin repeatedly put his life on the line without hesitation. As U.S. forces fought hard while trying to apprehend a wanted Taliban leader, the soldier noticed two fellow troops in harm's way. With almost no regard to his personal safety, he helped his injured brothers in arms.

For his actions during the battle, which included volunteering to hold a dangerous position during an ambush by terrorist fighters, Sgt, 1st Class Goodin was awarded the Silver Star by Gen. George Casey on Friday. Pictured above is the Chief of Staff of the Army pinning the third-highest military decoration on the brave soldier's uniform in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province. Back in Hays, Kansas, where Goodin hails from, there are undoubtedly some very proud relatives, friends, and neighbors at this hour.

Gen. Casey also awarded Silver Stars to Spc. Keith Stickney of Salem, New Hampshire, and Sgt. Victor De La Cruz, from San Diego, California, for heroic actions during an October firefight in Kunar province. Both volunteer warriors made split-second tactical decisions that saved lives during an insurgent attack on Combat Outpost Keating. Even though the two men live thousands of miles apart at home, they came together in defense of freedom on that dangerous fall day.

While the latest rumor about Lindsay Lohan will often command extensive media coverage in the United States, the fortitude being displayed on a daily basis in Afghanistan and Iraq is mostly unnoticed. This needs to change, and consumers need to demand more of journalists who are entrusted with enormous responsibilities in our Constitution. Write letters to the editor, send in feedback forms on news websites, and vote with your remote.

If Britney Spears trips and falls on a sidewalk today, it will, without question, receive more media attention than a U.S. servicemember saving the lives of fellow troops or civilians in Afghanistan or Iraq. As Saturday evening's events in New York show us, Americans live under a constant shadow of terrorism. While the heroic New York Police Department officers who neutralized the Times Square car bomb volunteered to protect the homeland, these three Silver Star winners signed up to play on the offensive side of the ball overseas. Aren't sacrifices of the men and women standing guard over our post-9/11 nation a bit more important than the celebrity flavors of the week?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Iron man

Images courtesy: Rivers family

As Lance Cpl. Thomas Rivers Jr. patrolled Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province, he knew God had his back. The Marine often carried a Bible, but even on days he didn't have room for anything but essential combat gear, Rivers felt protected by Psalm 91:1, which was tattooed on his back.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

Faith guided Lance Cpl. Rivers from youth into manhood. In an essay the future Marine handed into his ninth grade teacher on November 12, 2003, Rivers explained why he had been yearning to serve his country since age ten.

"I think if I put my mind to it, and with God's help, I could make it in the Marines," Rivers wrote. "I believe that joining the Marines would be a good experience for me because it will teach me to rely on God to make it through."

For Rivers, joining the Marine Corps would not be as simple as signing a piece of paper. The Marine's father, Dr. Thomas Rivers Sr., told The Unknown Soldiers that dyslexia made classroom work very difficult for his son, who also faced some early physical limitations that made success in sports equally elusive.

"He was my hero before he joined the Marines," Dr. Rivers said. "He overcame so many obstacles to transform from a thin child into a ripped warrior."

Dr. Rivers credits the Marines for giving his son extra motivation to hit the books, as well as the gym, with an unbreakable vigor.

"He was the iron man," Dr. Rivers said with pride. "He struggled in high school until one of the Marine recruiters told him he needed a diploma to enlist. We never heard a word about low grades after that."

While basic training and deployments change almost everyone, Rivers stuck to his strong values in the unforgiving humidity of South Carolina's Parris Island and raw desert heat of the new Iraq. He returned from his first overseas tour in February 2009 to his proud parents, friends, and relatives in Birmingham, Alabama. During his Iraq deployment, the Marine's loving mother, Charon, often whispered her son's favorite Psalm verse during frequent prayers for his safety.

Word soon came that Lance Cpl. Rivers and the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force were needed in Afghanistan. The young Marine, now 22, already had a combat tour under his belt and prepared for another deployment with the same focus, faith, and strength that guided him through Iraq. Both of his grandfathers had served in the military, and protecting America in the years following the 9/11 attacks was a duty Rivers believed fell to him.

"He was never a conformist," Dr. Rivers explained. "Thomas always knew he was a warrior."

During a six-week period in Afghanistan, Rivers had started a Bible study with one of his best friends, Lance Cpl. Matthew Proctor. With weapons in their laps but their Bibles open, the Marines would search for answers on how people could love one another, even in the war-ravaged mountains of the war on terror's central front. Before a Wednesday mission that Rivers volunteered for after a fellow Marine suffered severe exhaustion, he prayed with Proctor before leaving together on patrol.

According to the Pentagon, Lance Cpl. Rivers was killed on April 28 in Afghanistan's Helmand province. Three military messengers arrived at the Rivers household in Birmingham just hours later to deliver the solemn news, and his devastated parents, who are still "numb," according to Dr. Rivers, hoped to get more details on their son's final moments. As friends, family, fellow churchgoers, and the Birmingham community sprung into action to support Dr. and Mrs. Rivers, a phone call came from Afghanistan from someone also in deep mourning. It was Lance Cpl. Proctor.

"He told us that after Thomas stepped on the IED, three of his best friends in the Marine Corps, including Matthew, kneeled down beside him," Dr. Rivers recounted the day after receiving the phone call. "Matthew held his hand, and they said the Bible verse tattooed on Thomas' back."

After the grieving father thanked Lance Cpl. Matthew Proctor and his family for their selfless service and extraordinary support, Dr. Rivers said something, through a father's tears, that moved me deeply.

"It is comforting to know that Thomas was with three people who loved him when he died."

In the final hours before Lance Cpl. Rivers deployed to Afghanistan, he also held hands with his mom and prayed, as the precious below photograph, graciously provided by the Rivers family, shows us. Six weeks later and half a world away, he would hold hands and pray with three beloved fellow volunteer warriors in his last moments on earth. Today, I believe this brave Marine is holding hands with his two grandfathers, praying for the loving family and grieving nation he left behind.

Lance Cpl. Thomas Rivers Jr. stood for overcoming obstacles, finding common ground, and offering love, even amid uncertainty and violence. To truly honor his sacrifice, we can learn from how he lived, and another Psalm verse, 91:4, that deeply struck his passionate heart.

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

Note: Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Rivers are creating a Memorial Fund in their son's name. More information about how to contribute will be posted here when the foundation is established.