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