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

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Triumph Over Tragedy

Images courtesy: McClung

During a phone conversation with the parents of Maj. Megan McClung, I referred to the loss of their daughter in Iraq as a tragedy. The fallen Marine's mother, Dr. Re McClung, offered a prompt, polite correction.

"Nothing about Megan's life was tragic," Maj. McClung's mom, speaking from Coupeville, Wash., told the Unknown Soldiers. "A tragedy does not occur when you have a compelling desire to serve your country in the best possible way."

Long before she fought for freedom, Megan declared her independence.

"When she was about 2 years old, I would try to lay her clothes out on the bed," Re said. "She would take the outfit and say, 'No, mommy, I want to wear this instead.'

"I knew she would go on to do something really important," Megan's mother concluded.

Whether it was learning to climb up the stairs, successfully arguing for admittance to an all-male strength training class, or becoming the first woman to attend the prestigious Admiral Farragut Academy in Toms River, N.J., an unjust "no" was something Megan refused to accept.

"In the military, you often hear about 'command presence,'" said Dr. Mike McClung, who served as an infantry platoon commander in Vietnam. "Megan had command presence as a young child."

As a Marine, Megan impressed her peers by sticking up for them.

"Megan was an interesting little force because she had no qualms about speaking up to a senior officer if she thought something was wrong," her father said.

McClung's military success was no accident. Her mom explained that Megan's laser-like focus on three key areas — mind, body, and spirit — helped her daughter become remarkably well-rounded.

"Megan used to collect quotes, and she'd write them on scraps of paper and stick them in a book," Re said. "One of them says, 'To give anything but your best is to waste the gift.'"

Megan gave her best as a marathon runner, gymnast and diver. She earned a master's degree in criminology from Boston University. And she was one of the most effective public affairs officers the Marine Corps had ever seen.

"She wanted to see first-hand what was going on (in Iraq)," Megan's mother explained. "She wanted people to write about the individual stories of bravery."

Determined that political divisions at home should not overshadow the heroism she witnessed on the ground in Iraq, Megan brought a profound sense of purpose to her job.

"Within a month of Megan being there, the whole attitude and feeling of the base had changed," her mom said. "Megan was focusing on the good things."

Spending almost all of 2006 in Iraq's then-volatile Al Anbar Province, McClung was tasked with helping journalists embed with units on the ground.

"She wanted to make sure the writer got the story he or she was looking for," her dad said.

In dealing with the press, Megan had a motto that rubbed off on fellow Marines: "Be bold. Be brief. Be gone." Today, those six words are engraved on her headstone at Arlington National Cemetery.

Image courtesy: Lisa Sileo

Megan didn't just repeat her mantra. She lived it.

On Dec. 6, 2006, Megan was helping escort Newsweek journalists through Ramadi when an improvised explosive device detonated beneath her vehicle. McClung, 34; Army Capt. Travis Patriquin, 32; and Spc. Vincent Pomante III, 22; were killed in the attack.

For five years, Mike and Re McClung have approached Megan's death with the same passion their daughter displayed in life. They support scholarships, marathons, and charities that embody Megan's focus on mind, body, and spirit. They learn more about Megan the warrior from her fellow Marines. And when they have a bad day, Megan's collection of quotes provides comfort.

"Do something you're passionate about," one quote reads.

That saying is rarely lived to the fullest. Yet Megan spent 34 years doing the things she was passionate about, which included helping some of the Iraq war's most compelling examples of valor end up on our kitchen tables.

After a revealing conversation with her parents, it's clear that the story of the highest-ranking female Marine officer to be killed in Iraq is not tragic. The real tragedy would be for us to forget Maj. Megan McClung's extraordinary life.


Note: In honor of Maj. Megan McClung, please consider supporting the Semper Fi Fund, Toys for Tots, Be Bold M3, and the 6th Annual Maj. Megan McClung Memorial Run.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Images courtesy: Kristi Pearson

Christmas will never be the same for Kristi Pearson. Instead of a day to rejoice and relax, the holiday is a time to remember and reflect.

During the 2006 holiday season, Kristi, at the insistence of her husband, Pfc. Andrew H. Nelson, flew home to central Michigan from Germany, where the soldier trained for his first combat tour. As the 19-year-old warrior spent Christmas fighting during the height of the Iraq war, he wanted his bride surrounded by loved ones.

After a Christmas-morning video chat with her husband and a nice afternoon with her family, the 19-year-old Army wife suddenly panicked.

"I looked at my brother and said, 'Something doesn't feel right ... I feel like something has been taken away, and I don't know what it is,'" Kristi told The Unknown Soldiers.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 26, military messengers knocked on the door of her family's home in St. Johns, where Kristi and Andrew met in 4th grade. At almost the precise moment that a sense of dread began to consume her, Kristi's husband lost his life on the battlefield.

According to the Pentagon, Pfc. Nelson died when an improvised explosive device blew up near his Army vehicle. The Baghdad terrorist attack also killed Sgt. John Bubeck, 25, and Spc. Aaron Preston, 29.

"All of this was a giant blur to me," Kristi bravely recounted four and a half years later, while admitting that the tragedy still spurs panic attacks. "I don't know how to explain it."

Kristi grew up in a military family. But when Andrew decided to join the Army after high school, she couldn't help but worry.

"It's different when it's your husband instead of a parent," she explained, while emphasizing Andrew's love for the Armed Forces.

Kristi and Andrew married on Nov. 5, 2005, just before the soldier left for Germany. She joined him there in the spring, when they would finally be able to take a honeymoon to London and Paris.

"I am really thankful we were in Germany together," Kristi said. "Whenever I think of our marriage, I think of all the amazing things we got to see and all the places we got to go."

Andrew was a "jokester," but as a soldier, he was intensely prepared. Fellow troops told Kristi that her late husband brought an almost ridiculous variety of tools with him on every mission, earning him the affectionate nickname "Ranger Rick."

"He was a soldier who had everything," Kristi said. "Everyone always joked about that and gave him a tough time."

After Andrew's sudden death, communities throughout central Michigan and the U.S. military embraced the soldier's widow, his loving parents, Alan and Tami, and Andrew's loyal siblings, Jessica and Stephanie. For Kristi, picking up the jagged pieces of her shattered life after the worst Christmas imaginable would not be easy.

In the years to come, Kristi fell in love with another brave American soldier, Staff Sgt. Aaron Pearson.

"I want people to know that it's okay to move on and be happy again," she said.

Sadly, Kristi's grandfather passed away last fall. With the horror of Christmas 2006 still looming, Kristi again flew to Michigan with a husband in a war zone; this time it was Afghanistan.

"I was terrified to go home because I was so scared that if I went there while my husband was deployed, something would happen again," Kristi recalled.

Staff Sgt. Pearson was injured in Afghanistan a few months later, within days of Christmas 2010.

"He called me later and said 'I was medevaced, but I am fine,'" Kristi said, her voice trembling. "There were a lot of coincidences, and it was really scary."

With her second husband home, Kristi feels a fragile sense of ease. But with her first husband departed, a sense of loss still remains.

"It's always there, and I always think about it," she said.

On Dec. 25, Kristi Pearson will observe the five-year anniversary of Pfc. Andrew H. Nelson's tragic passing in Iraq while also reflecting on how fortunate Staff Sgt. Aaron Pearson was to survive Afghanistan. Indeed, Christmas will never be the same.


Note: This story was originally posted on Oct. 8.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Christmas Miracle

Images courtesy: Facebook

The last time this blog updated readers about wounded Army 1st Lt. Nick Vogt, the situation was precarious. One of his sisters, Olivia, had posted an urgent prayer request on the family's Facebook page before another very serious surgery. First Lt. Vogt lost both his legs while serving in Afghanistan on Nov. 12.

Fifteen days later and just four days before Christmas, the wounded soldier's dad, Steve Vogt, posted this:

"What a great day," he wrote late Tuesday night. "New pain med seems to be working good. Nick seems a little clearer. There were several big smiles from him today. (None were for any of my jokes. Situation normal.)"

Vogt, who turned 24 on Dec. 13, faces a change in lifestyle that few of us could imagine. Yet judging by every Facebook status update and all the wonderful e-mails The Unknown Soldiers has received from the hero's relatives and friends, there is no doubt that Nick will conquer this new challenge.

"He got his new wheelchair today. A powered model," Nick's dad wrote. "They put him in it for a 20 minute trial sit but he wanted to stay in it longer so he went for an hour. What a stud."

Indeed. But another group of studs and angels are the parents and siblings of this wounded Army Ranger. From the very first day of this painful ordeal, the Vogts have invited the public into their lives, shared difficult details about their son's recovery -- even when the situation appeared dire -- and pleaded for prayers, which have been said everywhere from their quaint Ohio hometown, to the cold mountains of Afghanistan, to the candle-lit magnificence of New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral.

"I told Nick about what Fr. Mike said about Nick's current trials and relating it to Jesus falling under His cross during His passion," Nick's father wrote on Monday. "I think it made Nick feel good to believe that his current suffering could somewhat be compared to the pain that Jesus felt. He is being strong. I'm very proud of him."

As the war in Afghanistan continues at this very moment, 1st Lt. Vogt and his parents know that they are not the only ones who have suffered or will face extraordinary new challenges.

"Praise God for more answered prayers," Steve Vogt wrote. "Also please include prayers for a couple more wounded warriors that arrived this evening into ICU."

Vogt's heart briefly stopped after a roadside bomb robbed him of his legs. The amount of donated blood he needed to stay alive is among the highest any wounded service member has ever received. Some Naval Academy buddies even wore Army gear to show their support for the West Point graduate at the Dec. 10 Army-Navy game. In short, the military community and much of this nation have come together to pray for this fine young man's survival.

With Christmas approaching, 1st Lt. Vogt is alive, which is something to be thankful for. But as we spend the holidays with our families, we must continue to pray for Nick and his wounded brothers and sisters in arms, as well as families like the Sharps, who lost their loved one, Sgt. Ryan Sharp, after he was wounded in combat on Nov. 21. Our hearts go out to the Sharps and all families of fallen heroes.

After more than a decade at war, the conflict in Afghanistan is not over. But every once in a while, a reason for hope is revealed through war's dense fog. After witnessing the bravery, tenacity, and faith shown by 1st Lt. Nick Vogt and his family, it is clear that Christmas is still a time for miracles.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Letters From Afghanistan

Image courtesy: Spc. Louis Kernisan

Hours after their fellow soldier stepped on an improvised explosive device and lost his leg, Army 1st Sgt. Edward Mosher saw Sgt. 1st Class Dennis Murray sitting alone in the war zone's desolate moonlight. Murray, 38, felt responsible for the younger warrior's devastating injury.

"I went and sat with him there in the cold and chatted with him until it started to (reach) daylight," Mosher wrote. "He still felt very badly about (the wounded soldier) and he said that it should have been him that stepped on the IED."

Seeing their breath as they spoke in the frosty southern Afghanistan air, Mosher tried to console his brother in arms.

"I knew he was hurting," Mosher, 40, explained. "And despite my desire to help ease his pain, all I could do was just be there to listen if he needed to talk. It bothers me very much that I could not do more for him that night."

After a quick nap, Murray, from Spring Lake, N.C., with roots in Red Boiling Springs, Tenn., boiled with fury toward the enemy. The soldier bolted to the front of his patrol to clear roadside bombs.

"I had never seen him look like that before," Mosher, first sergeant of the Army's D Company, 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment, wrote. "I believe he was even more determined than ever that he was not going to let it be another one of his men that got hurt next time."

Later that night, after spending Nov. 21 finding numerous bombs and saving countless lives, Murray was dead. The previous and subsequent quotes are contained in two powerful letters written by Mosher, who emailed The Unknown Soldiers from the war zone.

"I cannot begin to say how sorry I am regarding the loss of your loving husband," Mosher wrote to Murray's wife, Shelee. "I would not begin to try to offer words that were intended to ease your pain or soften the blow."

Mosher recounted the moment he learned by radio that Murray had stepped on an improvised explosive device, just as they had discussed the previous night.

"My heart fell into my stomach, and I felt sick," the soldier wrote. "I had a feeling of hopelessness at this moment. I began to feel that no matter what we did now, we were all doomed to be maimed or killed this night."

With no moonlight to guide them, Mosher and his fellow soldiers wandered into the treacherous darkness and found Murray's body. As they carried their departed brother in a blanket, Mosher saw shadows of his own death.

"I saw a bright flash just to my left front, and there was a huge explosion," he wrote.

After being thrown into a wall, Mosher woke up on top of Murray's body. But in that confusing, awful moment, the soldier had a profound realization. Most likely, his fallen friend absorbed much of the explosion and saved his life.

"Had it not been for this, I am sure we all would have been killed or much more severely wounded," the soldier wrote.

In the letter, Mosher said Sgt. Ryan Sharp had suffered the Nov. 21 blast's worst injuries while also shielding his fellow soldiers. On Dec. 3, Sgt. Sharp, 28, died at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

A stunned Mosher sat down to write another difficult letter.

"I truly expected he would get better and soon be home in the states before the rest of us," Mosher wrote to the fallen soldier's parents, David and Lynette Sharp of Idaho Falls, Idaho. "I suppose these things are only for God to understand."

First Sgt. Edward Mosher shared these deeply emotional letters to help more of us understand the incredible sacrifices being made for our freedom. Some of the last words he wrote to the widow of Sgt. 1st Class Dennis Murray, whom Mosher believes saved his life after losing his own, should resonate with every American during this holiday season.

"I will never forget that night. I will never forget your husband," he wrote. "He can never be replaced, and he will live on in all of us as long as we all still draw a breath."


"It would seem that even after his death your husband was still making sure he did not let anyone else get hurt if he could."

~1st Sgt. Edward Mosher to Shelee Murray, wife of Sgt. 1st Class Dennis Murray. The above photo was taken by Mrs. Murray in Verona, Italy.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Saving Lives

Images courtesy: Cpl. Reece Lodder

On Wednesday afternoon, I received an e-mail from Cpl. Reece Lodder, a Marine combat correspondent who is currently deployed to Afghanistan. It was a relief to hear from Cpl. Lodder, who I first spoke with before he left in the fall.

"I hope this message finds you well," the Marine wrote. "Please pray for (my wife) and I during our time apart this Christmas season."

With those prayers said, I began reading the story of heroism the Marine journalist relayed from Afghanistan's Helmand province. On a frigid Dec. 2 evening, an Afghan National Army soldier at the front of a joint patrol with U.S. Marines was hit by a car full of civilians, sending the soldier and eight Afghans in the vehicle plunging into a canal.

Many would be frozen after this shocking accident on a cold Afghanistan night. Marines from 2nd Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, however, jumped into the canal's cold water to save as many lives as possible.

"It took a split second to realize what happened," Lance Cpl. Nicholas Dumke, a 20-year-old rifleman from Huron, South Dakota, told Lodder. "We train for firefights, not for a vehicle going into a canal … we just snapped into reacting to a high-stress situation and did what we had to do."

Lance Cpl. Dumke's fellow Marines -- Sgt. Matt Garst, 23, of Charlotte, North Carolina; Lance Cpl. Ryan Gerrity, 21, of Cranford, New Jersey; and Lance Cpl. James Blomstran, 22, of Cortland, Ohio -- used every means at their disposal, including a bamboo pole used to find improvised explosive devices and their trusted explosive device detection dog, Sage, to rescue the Afghans. In the end, eight Afghan civilians and the badly injured Afghan National Army soldier were saved.

"I saw the problem, saw the security we needed and sent everyone else into the canal," Sgt. Garst, who also jumped into the canal, told Lodder.

In an irresponsible front page article on Thursday, the New York Times unsuccessfully tried to paint U.S. Marines as bloodthirsty murderers, based on a disputed incident that occurred in Iraq more than six years ago.

Flying in the face of some ugly media stereotypes, this important, recent story filed by Lodder from the front lines shows that in addition to being highly-skilled warriors, U.S. Marines are also champions of compassion, often risking their own lives to protect the innocent.

While I'm sad that Cpl. Reece Lodder and his wife are apart during the holiday season, thank God someone like him is in Afghanistan to bring the real story home.

"I'm humbled to have had the opportunity to tell it," Lodder wrote in his e-mail to The Unknown Soldiers. "It is another reminder about why service members do what they do. Not for themselves, but for others."

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The War on Christmas

Image courtesy: Sgt. Thomas Duval

Is there a war on Christmas? Yes, and that's not just an opinion.

No, I'm not talking about the "war" that traditional and progressive cable news hosts are having over whether the word "Christmas" is "under attack." No, I'm also not talking about the annual post-Thanksgiving midnight shopping "battles" for the best discount deals. (This year, a California woman is accused of assaulting 20 fellow shoppers with pepper spray at a Walmart.)

I'm talking about the real wars being fought by thousands of men and women in uniform in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the latter conflict scheduled to formally end on Dec. 31. In war zones, fending off a crazed woman armed with pepper spray would probably constitute the easiest part of the day.

Thirteen days before Black Friday, a U.S. Army Ranger named 1st Lt. Nick Vogt, 24, of Crestline, Ohio, lost both his legs when a terrorist-planted improvised explosive device blew up beneath him. Despite nearly dying after the devastating attack, the valiant soldier, as of Dec. 7, was hospitalized in Bethesda, Md., where he is fighting for his life after having endured multiple surgeries. His parents have requested our prayers, and they certainly have them.

Two days later, the Pentagon said Army Spc. David Hickman, 23, died in Baghdad, Iraq, after also encountering an IED. The ambitious young warrior was reportedly days away from starting his journey home to Greensboro, N.C., where he was already well-known for his success as a high school football player.

On Nov. 16, two soldiers, Spc. James Burnett Jr., 21, of Wichita, Kan., and Pfc. Matthew Colin, 22, of Navarre, Fla., were killed in Afghanistan's Kandahar province when a bomb detonated near their patrol. According to the Pentagon, they were preceded in death just days earlier by Spc. Johnathan McCain, 38, of Apache Junction, Ariz., and Spc. Calvin Pereda, 21, of Fayetteville, N.C.

All four soldiers were stationed at Alaska's Fort Wainwright, the home of America's arctic warriors. At a memorial service held on post, a grieving fellow soldier told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner what made the departed heroes so extraordinary.

"It takes a certain type of individual to enlist in the infantry," Staff Sgt. Johnathan Hand told the newspaper. "You know that your job is a little bit more dangerous than everyone else's."

As some Americans ate leftover turkey and clogged mall parking lots, a Marine field radio operator named Cpl. Adam Buyes, 21, was making the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan on Nov. 26. The proud Marine left behind a long-lasting imprint, from Salem, Ore., where he lived, to Okinawa, Japan, where he was stationed, all the way to the violent sands of Helmand province, where he died in a combat incident that is under investigation.

"Cpl. Adam Buyes was a truly dedicated professional who cared for his Marines as if they were brothers from the beginning," 1st Sgt. Daniel Wilson said. "He was often emulated and adored by many of the Marines he came in contact with."

You can't buy that kind of legacy in a store. You have to earn it.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with giving a holiday gift to someone you care about. There is something wrong, however, with pundits wasting time arguing over the so-called war on Christmas and reporters hyping shopping battles at stores, especially while the overused words are being defined literally by brave Americans on post-9/11 battlefields.

Here's something for civilians like me to keep in mind this holiday season: Not only are our troops risking their lives in faraway lands; they are doing so while separated from their families.

One of those troops is a talented Marine journalist named Cpl. Reece Lodder, 22, whom you may have previously read about in this column. The Everson, Wash., native's wife is spending this holiday season in Hawaii, which is no vacation. She's worrying about her husband's safety.

For loved ones of the aforementioned fallen and wounded service members, there is grief, confusion, and devastation during this holiday season. Their brave sons died or lost limbs in battles that only 1 percent of Americans have volunteered to fight.

Is there a war on Christmas? You bet there is.


Image courtesy: Cpl. Katherine Keleher

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Sister's Request

Image courtesy: Facebook

Late Monday night, Olivia Hoffman, the sister of seriously wounded Army 1st Lt. Nick Vogt, posted an urgent status update on the "Family of Nick Vogt" Facebook page:

"If you are reading this please say a prayer for my brother."

The current condition of the wounded warrior, who lost both legs in Afghanistan on Nov. 12, is unknown. The Vogt family's privacy must be respected. Sensing urgency, though, more than 200 responses from all over the country 1st Lt. Vogt fought so hard to defend have poured in since his sister's request.

"Praying from Saginaw, Michigan...that God will continue his healing of Nick, guidance & wisdom for the medical staff, and that your entire family will feel God's presence in a might way!" Joan Cline posted.

"Praying for you Nick from Snohomish, WA," James Kellet wrote.

Several hours after the initial plea, the responses were coming in so fast that it was almost impossible to keep up.

"Praying in Colorado," Linda Shoemate wrote from the Rocky Mountains.

"Praying in Hawaii," Maureen Prather posted seconds later from the palm tree paradise.

Even as this weekend's Army-Navy football game approaches, the West Point and Naval Academy communities are united as one behind Vogt, who graduated from the former and was an academy exchange student at the latter.

"I am a parishioner at Most Holy Trinity at West Point," Nancy Belmont wrote. "The Military Council of Catholic Women meets tomorrow morning---we will be specifically praying for Nick and your entire family."

"Prayers from your USNA family in Philadelphia!" Carol McGowan wrote.

Before his sister's plea for prayers, the last public update had been from the soldier's mother, Sheila Vogt, on Sunday night.

"Quiet day for Nick today. He is resting up for another trip to surgery tomorrow morning," she wrote. "We met a soldier today that was with him in Kandahar. He mentioned how hard the medical staff worked there to keep him alive. We are so blessed to be with him now."

While I can't imagine what 1st Lt. Vogt and his family are going through right now in a Bethesda, Maryland, hospital room, I hope they know that tens of thousands of caring, loving, and praying Americans are there with them. Many of us -- including folks like me who have never served in the military or even met Nick -- say a prayer for him before we go to sleep and wonder how he's doing when we wake up.

Olivia Hoffman's request has been answered. Now we all have to hope that God hears our prayers, and that 1st Lt. Nick Vogt, who has fought so hard before and after his devastating injury, will continue down the bright, sunlit road to recovery.

"May God heal Nick physically and bless him beyond measure," Lisa Hadley-Kimbrell wrote. "Thank the Lord for courageous men and women like him."

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Guitar Hero

Image courtesy: United States Forces-Iraq

Since making it home from the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" battle in Somalia, Keni Thomas has become a successful country music singer, motivational speaker and author.

"I came out of the military with a pretty good skill set, and there were jobs I could have taken," Thomas told the Unknown Soldiers. "But music is a disease. It's incurable."

Of all his endeavors, there is nothing more important to this ex-Army Ranger than visiting with wounded heroes of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. He thinks every day about his conversations with combat veterans at various hospitals, including a female military truck driver who lost her leg when her vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.

"I told her it was okay to be upset about what happened to her, and she started crying," Thomas said. "She said, 'I just don't know if anybody will ever love me.' It was so basic and human."

Thomas will never forget the chaotic battle he and his fellow troops fought on the war-torn streets of Mogadishu more than 18 years ago. One reason he's so touched by his encounters with wounded veterans is because he knows he could have easily ended up in a hospital bed, wheelchair or cemetery.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about it in some sort of way," Thomas said. "I don't mean it in a 'Rambo' flashback sort of way; I know by the grace of God is the only reason I'm still around."

Thomas has a special talent for bringing the 99 percent of Americans who have never experienced combat into the minds of the one percent who have.

"It took me a long time to figure it out, Tom, but when you make it home from something like that, there's this weird sense of guilt," he explained. "Why did I survive when other people deserved to live?"

The Army Ranger lost several friends in the brutal urban battle. Even though Thomas threw himself into his music career soon after coming home, feeling content during the past two decades has been difficult. Instead of enjoying his success, he has often agonized over his fallen buddies who didn't get the same opportunity.

"They had families. They had kids. They were twice the soldier I was," Thomas said. "Whenever something good happens in your life, it's like you don't let it happen, because that little voice reminds you of your friends who didn't make it.

"It sabotages everything that's good in your life," he concluded.

In his songs, Thomas sometimes sings directly to fellow combat veterans.

"It's what I do," the singer-songwriter said. "I love to tell stories."

Another challenge recently conquered by the guitar hero was writing a book. In "Get It On: What It Means to Lead the Way," Thomas recounts the chaos of "Black Hawk Down" while using the battle's painful lessons to convey principles of leadership.

Thomas candidly admits that at the Mogadishu battle's outset, when U.S. troops set out to confront a murderous warlord, the highly trained Ranger did not expect the bloodiest American firefight since Vietnam.

"When you set a goal, it always takes longer than you think it's going to take," he said. "It's a good lesson for us."

Whether it's in a book, song, or conversation with a wounded veteran, Thomas tries to convey the same powerful message. Without faith, Thomas believes, he wouldn't be in a position to help others.

"That's one of the beauties of putting some mileage on your life," he said. "You can see with clarity that there's no way you ended up where you ended up on your own accord."

Thomas still thinks about the weeping young amputee who thought she'd never find love.

"Hopefully, she'll find that if she doesn't let the guilt, the wounds and the anger consume her, she'll get back into life and she'll do just fine," he said. "I hope someone will love her, and I hope everybody finds a sense of purpose."

Keni Thomas thinks he's found his.

"When I can't sing anymore, I think my life is going to be dedicated to teaching Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that it's OK to be happy," he said.


Friday, December 2, 2011

When You Wish

Images courtesy: HN Samantha Paulson

When I spoke with Hospitalman Samantha Paulson over the summer, she repeatedly made a wish. She wanted her husband, Hospital Corpsman Second Class Chris Paulson, a fellow Navy Corpsman, home from Afghanistan. At the time, he was in the middle of a very tough deployment that included the tragic loss of a brave Marine he was caring for on the battlefield.

Last week, I got an e-mail from HN Paulson. She got her wish -- her husband came home safely in September -- but she was actually e-mailing The Unknown Soldiers to relay another wish from U.S. troops on the front lines.

As a July column about the Paulsons explained, the first year of their wartime marriage has been filled with sacrifice and uncertainty, with one rarely knowing where the other will be ordered to go on a given day. But instead of asking for gifts during this holiday season, HN Paulson wants to give them, and is asking us to do the same.

"I'm sure that you are well aware of the (Wishbook) that the USO has created online for deployed troops," she wrote. "Of course it is a charity incredibly close to my heart along with Toys for Tots but I was hoping that you could mention to your readers that for as little as $15 they could make a service member overseas smile while they are away from their family during this holiday season."

I worked as Director of Story Development at the USO before joining the Travis Manion Foundation as Communications Director. The USO is a wonderful organization that does a stellar job of connecting deployed troops with family members, friends, and supporters on the home front. The USO Wishbook program is just the latest example of the forward-thinking organization's efforts to lift the spirits of our troops and their families.

While the USO Wishbook is billed as "an alternative giving catalog," it is much more valuable than the dozens of catalogs filling your mailbox from department stores this holiday season. This catalog sells dreams that money usually can't buy, like a phone call home for a deployed service member, bedtime stories for children who will spend the holidays without a mom or dad to read to them at night, or sports equipment for forward operating bases, so troops can play football together while the NFL playoffs and college bowl games are going on back home.

HN Samantha Paulson is trained to care for the sick, injured, and wounded. This holiday season, as she feels thankful for her husband being home but worries about troops still deployed overseas, she is unfortunately facing some serious health challenges of her own.

"On a lighter note, I had a wonderful Thanksgiving with my husband, our roommate (whose husband is deployed to Afghanistan), as well as some co-workers who did not have anywhere else to go," she wrote. "I hope that your Thanksgiving was as equally as wonderful and full of family and good food!"

My wish is that this Navy Hospital Corpsman feels better, and that her New Year is just as happy as last week's holiday. To demonstrate that, I plan to support the cause that is so close to her heart: sending happiness to troops serving overseas.

As my family celebrates Christmas, we will send our wishes to men and women in uniform serving in Afghanistan and around the world through the USO Wishbook program. I hope you will join The Unknown Soldiers -- and HN Samantha Paulson -- in supporting this noble endeavor.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hanging Tough

Images courtesy: Facebook

Two recent posts about wounded Army 2nd Lt. Nick Vogt -- Why We Pray and In the Name of Love -- received an overwhelming response. During another holiday season at war, it is clear that the bravery, tenacity, and faith displayed by 2nd Lt. Vogt and his family in the two-plus weeks since the soldier lost his legs in Afghanistan is inspiring thousands around the world.

While every comment, e-mail, Facebook message, and tweet is appreciated, it was most meaningful to hear from some of the soldier's relatives and friends, who are still praying hard for their loved one.

"I have always felt that I have been blessed to have the family that I do - both immediate and relatives," a female cousin of the soldier wrote to The Unknown Soldiers. "But seeing the love and support that has surrounded Nick this past week has been like nothing I have seen before. There is no love quite like that of your family and I am fairly certain that is what helped him fight to live."

Ever since the Vogt family asked for our prayers, they have been echoing from Afghanistan all the way to Crestline, Ohio, where the family lives. As you can see in the below picture, originally posted on the Nick Vogt family Facebook page, prayers have also been said at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, just a few miles from where America was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Inside the historic Manhattan church, an unidentified supporter lit a candle for the wounded warrior.

On Wednesday, the soldier's mom, Sheila Vogt, updated Facebook followers on the condition of her son, who is being cared for in Bethesda, Maryland.

"Thanks to everyone for your kind words of support and prayers. These updates are not only for you but they help Steve & I too. It is a nice way to get a 'hug' from all of Nick and our friends," the post began. "Nick was in a long surgery again today. More work on his wounds. The General Surgeon gave us a very good report after the surgery was done. He was smiling a lot during this report."

A previous post made clear just how serious the soldier's condition has been since the terrorist attack in Afghanistan took both of his legs. The amount of donated blood that's purportedly been needed to save the soldier's life is startling.

"Before he was even sent from Afghanistan he received over 400 units of blood (the average body has 15), although not needing blood ever day he is approaching 500 units now," the post said. "For everyone who doesn't give blood because they think it just sits in a warehouse and goes bad, that may be true every once and a while but in many cases you could be saving a life like Nick's."

In addition to donating blood to help wounded troops and hospital patients in your communities, there is something else you can do to lift the spirits of this wounded warrior and his family. You can send him a card for his 25th birthday, which is Dec. 13, for Christmas, or both.

According to the family Facebook page, cards and messages of support can be sent to:

The Fisher House
Attn: Steve & Sheila Vogt
24 Stokes Road
Bethesda, MD 20814-5078

As 2nd Lt. Nick Vogt and fellow wounded troops in hospital beds all around him fight for their lives, we must keep sending cards, lighting candles, thinking, and praying. As this devastating, yet also inspiring post-9/11 saga has revealed, showing our troops that they have our undying support really does make a difference.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Inside the Envelope

Images courtesy: Facebook

Ten days after losing his left arm and both legs in Afghanistan's treacherous Arghandab River valley, Sgt. Rusty Dunagan lay in a Washington, D.C., hospital bed. After being too choked up to say much to his wife by phone from his previous hospital bed in Germany, he was about to see Angie for the first time since the explosion.

"I was so drugged up," Sgt. Dunagan told The Unknown Soldiers. "But I was calm, and (my wife and mother) were calm because they didn't want to scare me."

Shortly after the emotional reunion, a soldier brought an envelope into Dunagan's room, explaining that it contained some of the wounded warrior's personal effects. Given the violent, unforgettable chaos of the explosion, the delivery was a surprise.

Suddenly without a left hand, Dunagan asked his wife to open the envelope. What happened next may have been the most important moment of his life.

Dunagan, a native of Guthrie, Okla., said he joined the Army on Sept. 21, 2006, four years and one day before the explosion. He had spent the days since 9/11 working at Walmart, where he felt a sharp pull toward serving his country.

"My job in retail was interesting," Dunagan, 31, said. "But I wanted something more."

Though Rusty was still single when he went to Iraq in March 2008, being away from his family and friends was difficult. But as bullets flew, the deployed warrior had no choice but to adjust after deploying from Texas' Fort Hood.

"I made a lot of really good friends there, especially in infantry, because it's like a band of brothers," he said. "I missed my friends and family, but when you're (deployed), you really don't have time to think about it."

Even though the sergeant returned home safely from Iraq, he thought every day about the dozen soldiers from his unit killed during the deployment. It wasn't until his brigade relocated to Colorado's Fort Carson that Dunagan had something to smile about.

"When I met my wife, she knew I was in the military," he recalled. "I told her, you know, we are leaving within a year."

Undaunted by the unknown, they got married. Still, the newlyweds spoke frankly about the challenges Rusty's unit would face during its upcoming Afghanistan mission.

"We knew it was going to be a tough deployment," the soldier said. "I always tried to stay upbeat and keep her positive."

On Sept. 22, 2010, Dunagan set out for the day's fourth combat patrol to help fellow soldiers establish a battlefield position. From his latest hospital bed in San Antonio, where the attack's other wounded survivors are also recovering, the triple-amputee recounted the horror that followed a minesweeper's signal that something was wrong.

"There was a pause," Dunagan said. "I was on one knee, and my buddy behind me, a guy I was bringing out there, was talking to me."

"As soon as he got up is when he hit the landmine," the soldier continued. "Forty-five pounds of homemade explosives went off and blew me into the creek."

Dunagan said he remembers being lifted out of the water and bleeding profusely all the way to the hospital.

"I was conscious until I got to Kandahar Air Field," he recounted. "Then I woke up a week later in Germany."

Days later, he looked into Angie's tearful eyes at Walter Reed as she opened the envelope.

"That's when my wedding ring came out," Dunagan said. "It was really surprising to me, because it was my left arm that was blown off."

Inspired by an extraordinary moment, which the wounded warrior and his wife viewed as a new beginning, Rusty is focused on being a husband, father, and soldier. But as he trains with prosthetic legs, he still has one more battle to conquer.

"At 6'3", 225 pounds, I was my kids' protector, and now I'm in a wheelchair," Dunagan said. "I want to get up and walk with both legs."

He firmly believes that momentous day is coming. Yet when shadows of doubt inevitably loom, all Sgt. Rusty Dunagan has to do is look down at his wedding ring. He wears it tightly on the only hand he has left.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thank You

Images courtesy: Cpl. Reece Lodder

Last month, The Unknown Soldiers introduced you to Cpl. Reece Lodder, a Marine who, after having an early Thanksgiving with his loved ones, was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. Cpl. Lodder, who took the picture above of a recent feast, is now deployed to the war zone, apart from his wife and family.

The combat correspondent checked in via e-mail on Nov. 15.

"I'm doing well out here," he wrote. "Busy as ever, working past 10 every night. Putting out quality stories and imagery though, which is my purpose for being here."

Lodder is too humble to mention that he's risking his life to bring stories like this one home. But to understand the dangers our troops still face in Afghanistan, one should simply read articles like the one he filed from Garmsir, a district in the volatile Helmand province.

"The threat of improvised explosive devices still looms over the district, but the pervasive insurgency of two years ago has almost completely disappeared," the Marine wrote.

Even though the Marine reporter just arrived in Afghanistan, Lodder knows what is being sacrificed there. Since Wednesday of last week, at least seven American troops have been lost in battle.

Cpl. Zachary Reiff, 22, Preston, Iowa
Pvt. Jackie Diener II, 20, Boyne City, Michigan
Lance Cpl. Joshua Corral, 19, Danville, California
Pfc. Adam Dobereiner, 21, Moline, Illinois
Spc. Sean Walsh, 21, San Jose, California
Spc. James Burnett Jr., 21, Wichita, Kansas
Pfc. Matthew Colin, 22, Navarre, Florida

None of these seven American heroes reached their 23rd birthday.

As we enjoy the company of our loved ones around the holidays, let's pause to think about the Reiff, Diener, Corral, Dobereiner, Walsh, Burnett, and Colin families. Not only are there empty spots at their dinner tables, but in just the past few days, they've been forced to confront the incomprehensible reality that their loved ones have been killed in action.

If you're looking for something to be thankful for, look no further than America's newest Gold Star families. They have sacrificed more for this country than we could every repay, and our thoughts and prayers are with them.

While exchanging e-mails with Cpl. Lodder, I asked him if he needed a care package.

"I would love to receive a care package of any kind," he responded. "We don't have any kind of store or anything out here, so anything is welcomed!"

Despite the advice of misguided Massachusetts law professor, who scolded Suffolk University students for holding a care package drive, many helpful items are already on the way to Lodder and his fellow Marines in Afghanistan. And don't worry, Prof. Michael Avery, your care package, which contains photos of fallen troops you dishonored with your despicable e-mail rant, will be on its way shortly.

Every day, I worry about the safety of brave service members like Cpl. Lodder, who put their lives on the line in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world for our freedom and security. But what I go through is nothing compared to their relatives and friends, like this Marine's wife, who spend nearly every waking moment waiting, wondering, and worrying about their loved ones.

When I mailed Cpl. Reece Lodder's care package, I also sent a Christmas card to his wife. While troops overseas need our constant support, it's critical for all of us to remember that their families fight these wars too. Mrs. Lodder, your husband is doing extremely important work, and on this Thanksgiving holiday, I know God is watching over him.

Hopefully, all of our deployed troops will have enough time, as well as enough food and utensils, to eat a nice Thanksgiving dinner. Perhaps they'll even have the luxury of calling or Skyping their loved ones back home. When dinner is over, though, it will be back to war, and all the sacrifices that go with it.

To every active duty warrior, veteran, and loved one: Happy Thanksgiving. As thousands of military families spend holidays apart in a time of war, we thank these patriots for keeping our families together in a land of relative peace.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

In the Name of Love

Image courtesy: Facebook

Anybody who has heard the song "Bad," from U2's smash-hit album "The Unforgettable Fire," instantly recognizes the rock anthem's inspiring chorus.

Bono screaming "I'm wide awake!" was in my head immediately after reading this wonderful Facebook status update from the family of badly wounded Army 2nd Lt. Nick Vogt, who lost his legs in Afghanistan ten days ago.

"What a way to start the day!!!........Great news! Through the night Nick 'fully' woke up. He looks great. Everyone is very excited. He can't speak due to the trake but he understands what is being said to him. He acknowledges commands and has even given a 'thumbs up.' He is a very popular guy this morning. We are off to Walter Reed. Give thanks to God for He is good!"

Even in the harrowing moments after 2nd Lt. Vogt reportedly stepped on an improvised explosive device, when his heart momentarily stopped before doctors revived the brave soldier, the Vogt family never lost faith.

"We are hearing about all of the wonderful things that people are doing for Nick and our family," the family posted in an earlier update. "We love you all!"

While the national media has continued its neverending focus on political bickering and celebrity fluff, the tenacity of Vogt and his family has captivated much of the military community. And as the words of the West Point graduate's family prove, the thoughts and prayers are making a huge difference.

"Please just keep praying for more miracles, folks," the family wrote. "He's had so many aleady, but please continue to ask God to send more for Nick's healing and comfort and to guide the hands of the doctors and medical staff that are caring for him."

When this soldier returns to the country he fought for, he will begin a new journey. Adjusting to life as an amputee will be unimaginably difficult for this tough, proud patriot, but today and every day moving forward, let us all continue to surround him with love.

As another classic song on the same U2 album goes, Pride (In The Name of Love), love is the most powerful human emotion. It's something that evil men, like those who waste their lives fighting for the Taliban and al Qaeda, can never conquer.

With our love and support, 2nd Lt. Nick Vogt will win this battle.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

All Down the Line

On a gray, windy fall afternoon just south of Atlanta, 16 American soldiers lined up to tell ordinary people about an extraordinary man.

Pfc. Jeremy Faulkner, 23, and five fellow 101st Airborne Division heroes were killed in Afghanistan's rugged Kunar Province during a chaotic Mar. 29 firefight. Despite heavy casualties, American forces ultimately won the battle, and this long line of proud "Screaming Eagles" served as living proof.

"We survived it," Pfc. Faulkner's company commander said, emphasizing the heroism of all his soldiers. "When it's all said and done, Jeremy's actions speak louder than (anything) we can do here."

Many of these soldiers returned from Afghanistan just weeks after the bloody battle. Nearly eight months later, as they check up on wounded buddies and miss their fallen friends, the Fort Campbell-based paratroopers flew by helicopter to Griffin, Ga., to present Pfc. Faulkner's family with the soldier's posthumous Bronze Star for Valor.

During the emotional ceremony, their minds must have wandered back to eastern Afghanistan's hellish mountains, where explosions and gunfire filled dark, treacherous valleys.

"I try not to think about that day so much," one soldier said, as Faulkner's family sat just a few feet in front of him. "I just think of the days before that."

While saluting Faulkner's bravery on the battlefield, remembering the good times is important to this tight-knit group.

"I miss Faulkner a lot ... he was a good friend of mine," another soldier said. "There was never a dull moment with him."

While laughing isn't easy, especially after seeing close friends killed and wounded, several Task Force No Slack troops, who spoke despite enormous grief and pressure, tried to lighten the mood.

"Jeremy was one of the smartest soldiers I met," a fellow paratrooper said. "He was always trying to learn and know his job.

"But he was always the first to get yelled at," the soldier added, prompting laughter.

Still, tears began to flow when one tall, strong warrior, who looked like he could singlehandedly destroy a terror cell, could barely speak through his grief.

"I really can't say too much or I'm going to get choked up," he said.

One Army specialist, who appeared older than the troops standing to his left and right, touched the audience with his candor.

"I miss him," the soldier said before a painful pause. "And I loved him very much."

Nobody loved Jeremy more than his mother, Judy Berry. We spoke two days after the Nov. 10 ceremony.

"It made me real proud," Berry said. "But no matter how many medals or stripes — whatever your soldier gets — you'd much rather have him."

Jeremy's mom feels a close bond to her son's brothers in arms, who approached telling his story with the same fearless dedication they showed on the battlefield.

"I didn't realize how many lives he had saved until I got a call from Afghanistan," she said. "Those boys are like my boys now."

While Berry had spoken with several soldiers by phone, the mom was overwhelmed by seeing them recount her son's final moments.

"(I have to) forget about myself and try to lift them up," Berry said. "I didn't really understand that a lot of them were hurting the way they were."

She wants Jeremy's friends to know that her son's death was not their fault.

"It's very emotional for all of them," she said. "I know a lot of them feel like they should have been out there instead of him."

While Nov. 11 was Veterans Day, the raw, dignified emotion inside the Georgia National Guard Armory showed that for some, every day is Veterans Day. Combat veterans live with emotions that few can comprehend, and concern for their well-being must be paramount.

After the last soldier spoke, the audience paused to admire this remarkable line of heroes, who stood together in silence before the moving ceremony's conclusion. It was then that I reached a conclusion of my own.

While survivors of the Mar. 29 firefight are still being challenged, they have already won another battle since returning home. They have succeeded in keeping Pfc. Jeremy Faulkner's spirit alive.

"We know where you are," a brother in arms said. "And we'll see you again."


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Why We Pray

Images courtesy: Facebook

When a Gold Star mother sends me an e-mail or gives me a call, I drop everything to read or listen. Tuesday afternoon, the proud mom of both a fallen hero and an active duty soldier sent me a story that I am compelled to share.

Second Lt. Nicholas Vogt, pictured to the left, reportedly suffered catastrophic wounds on Saturday when the soldier stepped on an improvised explosive device. According to The Mansfield News Journal, 2nd Lt. Vogt, while still Army strong at this hour, lost both of his legs in the tragic terrorist attack.

This news is both incomprehensible and heartbreaking. However, when reading the Facebook page of the soldier's mother, who is politely asking everyone to pray for her son, it's impossible not to come away inspired.

"The phone call finally came this morning at 5:30. It was our German Angel, (name removed for family's privacy)," the Army mom wrote on Wednesday. "He said, 'Mr & Mrs. Vogt, I'm here with Nicholas right now. I'm going to put the phone up to his ear so you can talk to him.' It was the most amazing minute of our lives."

There had been some uncertainty over whether the 24-year-old wounded warrior could survive a flight from Afghanistan to the hospital in Germany. Considering that the soldier's heart briefly stopped after the explosion, according to the aforementioned article, Wednesday's development is being viewed by many as nothing short of miraculous.

The newspaper reported that on Monday night, hundreds of concerned citizens poured into a Shelby, Ohio, church to pray for the soldier and his family, who hail from nearby Crestline. The community came together for the service despite heavy rain.

Less than 48 hours later, it's clear that the prayers of these good people are being heard.

As an American soldier fights for his life, let the prayers of northern Ohio stretch across the entire nation, and echo so loudly that they are heard not only in heaven, but inside a hospital in Germany and inside the unit where this warrior so bravely served in Afghanistan. Even though he's left the war zone, this soldier is still fighting, and we should all be fighting for him.

"Nick is still the same good lookin son we all know and love," his mom posted. "Keep praying, people. Nick still has such a long way to go for recovery that we can't stop yet. Our prayers (and his strong will) have gotten him this far and they will carry him even further, we know it."

Later this afternoon, by coincidence, I will be speaking on the phone with a combat veteran who lost both legs and an arm while fighting in southwest Asia. I plan to tell him about 2nd Lt. Vogt and the soldier's family, who shine brightly even during one of their family's darkest hours. I won't need to ask this valiant veteran to pray, because he already knows how many people prayed for him after he was badly injured.

Despite dozens of surgeries, the wounded warrior I will speak with later today survived. Through the strength of 2nd Lt. Nicholas Vogt, the skill of his doctors, the devotion of his family and caregivers, and the graciousness of God, we all pray that this selfless patriot will too.

Brave soldier: as you heal thousands of miles from our gentle shores of freedom, America is with you.

Friday, November 11, 2011

'Last Kiss'

Images courtesy: Monica Velez

In the middle of a grueling 26.2-mile Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 30, Monica Velez felt her calves tighten, prompting her to gasp amid the uncharacteristically frigid fall air.

"I just kept reminding myself of something," Velez told The Unknown Soldiers. "This isn't really pain."

Real pain, she said, is losing both your brothers on post-9/11 battlefields in less than two years.

"When my body hurt, I reminded myself that they didn't get to slow down," she said. "There was no time-out."

While time has often stood still for Monica, 32, over the past seven years, rarely does a day go by when she doesn't remember the good times she had with Cpl. Jose "Freddy" Velez and Spc. Andrew Velez while the siblings were being raised by a hard-working single father in Lubbock, Texas.

"My fondest memory was that we had a band when we were kids," Monica said. "I would be the singer because I'm the oldest. Andrew was the drummer and Freddy would play guitar."

Their favorite song to perform was Wayne Cochran's "Last Kiss," which was memorably covered by Pearl Jam in 1998.

"That song will always have a lot of meaning," Monica said.

Freddy joined the Army first.

"It was a peaceful time," Monica said of the year 2000. "But I'm old enough to remember Iraq the first time."

Freddy was in boot camp on Sept. 11, 2001. As America went to war, the soldier wanted to fight.

"He said, 'I'll be fine. I'm an American soldier, and nobody's going to hurt me,'" Monica recalled.

Andrew decided to join the Army in 2002, following in his brother's footsteps and helping provide for his family. Monica was worried.

Freddy deployed to Iraq in February 2004. Andrew left for Iraq about a month later. All of a sudden, both of Monica's brothers were at war.

"I spent more than half my days on my knees, crying," she recalled. "I would see the casualties coming home, and I prayed and prayed that God wouldn't do that to me because I don't know who I am without Freddy and Andrew."

On Nov. 11, 2004 — Veterans Day — Cpl. Jose "Freddy" Velez, 23, was killed while clearing an enemy stronghold in Fallujah. While his date of death is listed as Nov. 13, Monica said her family later learned Freddy died two days earlier.

Amid the chaotic confusion of war, a hysterical Andrew called home.

"He started screaming," she said. "It was non-stop and it felt like forever."

The screaming wouldn't stop until July 25, 2006, in Sharona, Afghanistan. Overwhelmed by the unrelenting hurt of his brother's death and a crumbling marriage, Spc. Andrew Velez, 22, killed himself.

Monica, who said she had raised concerns about her deployed brother's emotional state just before his suicide, broke down while discussing her family's second crushing loss.

"There's nothing I can do to change it," she said, in tears. "But maybe I can change it for somebody else."

While Freddy and Andrew's deaths divided Monica's family, the bond with her father, a retired police officer who spent his entire adult life providing for his kids, grew stronger.

"(He) tries to increase awareness," she said. "He also advocates for Andrew's death to be recognized by our community."

When Monica Velez crossed the marathon's finish line, Roy Velez was there to greet her, thanks to a grant from the Travis Manion Foundation.

"I ran back through all of our memories throughout the course," she said. "My dad always instilled a great sense of pride for our country."

While the pain in her legs would subside, the ache in this grieving sister's heart remains. But like "Last Kiss," she knows that someday, she'll sing with her brothers again. Monica Velez also believes her family's pain can help heal a nation at war.

"I tried to enjoy every moment of my run, because at the same moment, someone is fighting for me," she said. "And they wear the same uniform my brothers wore."


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Happy Birthday

Image courtesy: Sgt. Ray Lewis

For several months, Marine Sgt. Ray Lewis, 29, has been known as the guy who asked "Golden Girls" actress Betty White to the Marine Corps Ball, only to be turned down because of a scheduling conflict and asked instead by "Terminator" star Linda Hamilton.

As I'm sure Hamilton, who is instantly recognizable for her legendary film portrayals of "Sarah Connor," would agree, Sgt. Lewis is much more than a man asking a lady to dance. He's a brave United States Marine.

Sgt. Lewis was working his way through college when he first heard about the United States Marine Corps. One of his instructors had served in the Marines, and Lewis never forgot the values he espoused.

"His attention to detail and his's always going to stay with me," Sgt. Lewis told The Unknown Soldiers. "It's something I'm always going to remember."

After graduation, Lewis struggled to find a new job in his hometown of Oceanside, California, even with a college degree. The Taco Bell employee made several visits to the local Marine Corps recruiting office, asking how he could serve his country while also pursuing a career related to the spoken word. As an aspiring rapper, Lewis loved telling a story, and he hoped he put that to use as a Marine.

"I didn't go because of 9/11," he explained, "But I thought, 'hey I'm definitely going to war.'"

That's exactly where he went. After heavy training, Lewis deployed to Iraq in 2005 as a combat correspondent. While travelling Iraq's dangerous roads and photographing the war, he said one particular incident, involving children he encountered during a patrol, changed his life.

"This time, instead of asking for candy or pencils, the Iraqi kids, they asked for water," the Marine said. "It was around holiday time, and I have little brothers and they have friends...and they're asking for X-Boxes and toys.

"On the flip side, on the other side of the world, in Iraq, they're asking for water," Lewis continued. "Just drinkable water, because the river was contaminated."

When the Marine later deployed to Afghanistan, his life-altering experience was still in the front of his mind. To the combat correspondent, who took his responsibility to tell the story of war very seriously, the conflicts were about people.

"A lot of (Americans) go by what they see in the media and on the news, and they don't realize that there are people out there that need help," the Marine said. "A lot of them live out in tents in the desert, very primitively, but they're people like you and me."

With a new perspective on life after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Lewis, now stationed in Fort Worth, Texas, with the 8th Marine District, decided to have some fun. After Marine Sgt. Scott Moore invited actress Mila Kunis to a Marine Corps Ball from Afghanistan -- an invitation she accepted -- Lewis decided to have some fun and invite actress Betty White.

The video quickly went viral:

White responded with regret, saying a scheduling conflict made attending the Ball impossible. Lewis said he actually breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that the media blitz that accompanied his viral video would finally calm down. Then, out of nowhere, Hamilton posted this YouTube video:

The next thing the Marine knew, he was picking up Hamilton from the airport. He didn't know what to expect. Was she the tough, hard-nosed woman she portrayed in "T2?"

"A lot of our conversations after she got to Texas were just like a regular person, real down to earth," Lewis said.

One of the most fun aspects of a "surreal" experience was seeing the reactions of his fellow Marines at the Oct. 29 Westlake, Texas, Marine Corps Ball.

"A lot of them were like ' that Sarah Connor?'" he said. "Or some people would come up to me, and say 'hey...Linda Hamilton's right there, she's in the hotel!"

For Sgt. Lewis, though, the Marine Corps Ball was not about him, nor the Hollywood celebrity who accompanied him there. It was about celebrating the 236th birthday of the Marine Corps, which falls on Nov. 10, and thinking about Marines who are risking their lives, as he once did.

"While we speak right now, there are Marines out there patrolling, just to make sure...we set an example and set a standard so (enemies) don't come over here and attack us," the Marine said. "When I start to take things for granted, I think about them."

Too often, Hollywood and the national media unfairly brand Marines on the battlefield as soulless killing machines. Lewis, who served soft drinks to thousands of Americans at Taco Bell before a desperate Iraqi child pleaded with him for water, proves that ugly stereotype false. Like thousands and thousands of fellow Marines, Sgt. Ray Lewis serves his country because he cares about people.

In the final scene of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," Linda Hamilton's solemn voice closed a blockbuster film that almost every American remembers.

"The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it for the first time with a sense of hope," she said. "Because if a machine -- a terminator -- can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too."

Marines, while trained to kill on the battlefield if necessary, are not terminators. They are among the very best people to populate and protect the greatest country on earth.

Happy birthday, United States Marine Corps.