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

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.