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

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