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

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Room at the Top

Daniel Parten, Lona Parten, Anna Laura Parten, Tyler Parten

Image courtesy: Tyler Parten Foundation

As Lona Parten stared into a sunrise atop the world's tallest freestanding mountain, she reflected upon the darkest year of her life. The last 3,000 feet of her August climb to Mount Kilimanjaro's summit took seven hours, through frigid, pitch-black conditions. Yet she was determined to equal a feat that her sons, 1st Lt. Tyler Parten and 2nd Lt. Daniel Parten, once fulfilled together.

"Come hell or high water, I was going to do it myself," Lona, 48, told The Unknown Soldiers.

On Sept. 10, 2009, her eldest son's life ended on a mountain in Afghanistan's Kunar province. Tyler, 24, was leading a platoon of the Army's 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment toward a Taliban stronghold when he was struck by enemy sniper fire.

On that terrible day, a life devoted to faith, music and concern for children ended brutally. Lona said Tyler's body remained on the hill for nearly 10 hours after his death, with enemy bullets repeatedly striking her son as fellow troops were pinned down by sniper fire.

"It is true pain ... indescribable," a tearful Lona said after recounting the dreadful details. Her voice shook throughout our conversation, on the day after what would have been Tyler's 26th birthday.

"Every fiber of your body hurts and sometimes you can't even breathe," she added.

Her surviving son, Daniel, 24; daughter Anna Laura, 20; and ex-husband Dave, 55, all wear memorial bracelets identical to the one I noticed on Lona's right wrist in a Birmingham, Ala. restaurant. The bracelets are never removed, nor are haunting images described by still-grieving members of Tyler's platoon. Yet despite his deployment's tragic ending, fellow soldiers said Tyler embraced his time in Afghanistan.

"They said he came into his own there and truly loved it," Lona said, briefly perking up. "He was full of compassion, music and love."

Tyler's private journals, which Lona treasures and has spared no expense to copyright and possibly publish, reveal that the warrior's heart was constantly aching for Afghan children savaged by terrorism, hate and war.

"When reading his journal entries, you see the pain and anguish, but then his words would end on a positive note," she said.

The words Lona used to describe what transpired in the hours and days after her family learned of Tyler's death — anger, blame, depression, screaming, crying — pierced my heart.

But like his journals, the fallen warrior's Marianna, Ark., memorial service ended on a positive note.

"My children sang, played guitar and did everything that Tyler would have loved," Lona recalled, reminding me that her son loved to play music for kids in Afghan villages.

Few American moms face a second son deploying to war after losing their first born in combat. Lona said Daniel and his wife, 2nd Lt. Tara Parten, will eventually head to Afghanistan after they complete training. Like Tyler, both are West Point graduates full of bravery, patriotism and purpose. But that doesn't make it any easier for a mother to bear.

"It is so hard to even think about him going into combat," Lona replied after I asked about Daniel. "How will I sleep? How will I deal with the phone ringing or knocks at the door?"

The light at the end of the Kilimanjaro darkness has helped Lona cope with her constant fears and deep emotional scars. She may have lost her eldest son on a mountain in southwest Asia, but she rediscovered his spirit at Africa's peak.

"When the sun came out, it all seemed better," Lona remembered. "It's not, but you have to come to peace with it."

"Something snapped: I can't continue to be sad all the time," she continued. "I'm not going to lose Tyler or forget Tyler just because I'm happy."

Perhaps the poignant closing sentence of 1st Lt. Parten's journal can comfort the loved ones of more than 4,600 American troops killed in action since Sept. 11, 2001.

"If there is anything I've learned, though, it's that the future is in God's hands."

For the families of America's fallen heroes, there is still room at the top of the mountain where one mom found hope.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Badge of Honor

Images courtesy: U.S. Army

After six hours of driving to and from Jordan's border with Iraq, an exhausted Maj. Gen. David Blackledge wrapped up an early dinner with fellow U.S. Army officers at Amman's Grand Hyatt on Nov. 9, 2005.

As Blackledge's group walked past the hotel bar, a man sat down and ordered an orange juice. Moments later, as the soldiers walked toward the elevators, he blew himself up.

"It was pandemonium," Blackledge told The Unknown Soldiers. "Between people trying to get in and out, and the emergency workers, it was full of gridlock."

Flashing back to a harrowing 2004 ambush he barely survived during his prior Iraq war deployment, Blackledge knew the enemy too well to believe danger had passed.

"I told my fellow officers: 'We need to get out of here,'" Blackledge said.

The general's racing heart was met by the pounding pressure of another nearby explosion, which everyone felt in their chests as they raced through Amman's chaotic streets. Despite neck and shoulder injuries, Blackledge guided his group to an Italian restaurant, where officers were promptly whisked away to a safe house.

"The pain didn't really manifest itself until the next day because of adrenaline," the general said.

When Blackledge was blindsided by this terrorist attack on three hotels, which killed 60 and injured more than 100, he was still haunted by images of the ambush in Iraq 14 months earlier, which left him in a body cast. The general was heading to a tribal meeting near Iskandariya when heavy machine-gun fire blasted his convoy.

"My translator, who was sitting behind me, had been shot in the head," Blackledge recalled in a quiet, subdued tone. "As bullets flew through the windows, I was convinced that it was all over, and the next round was going to hit me, but I was going to go down shooting."

After narrowly escaping the flipped-over SUV and diving into a nearby ditch, the general ran back toward another one of three convoy vehicles, which had burst into flames.

"I tried opening the back door, got it open and saw it was just tangled bodies and blood," Blackledge said. "Then the captain said, 'Get me out of here,' because a translator was on top of him."

When Blackledge bent down to help his comrade, he felt a crippling shot of pain through his lower back. As the general later learned, his L3 vertebrae had been crushed in the SUV rollover. He was one of five injured in the enemy ambush, which killed one Iraqi translator.

While confined to a body cast for 11 months, Blackledge realized his injuries went far beyond his shattered back.

"I was constantly reliving the ambush," the general said. "It was nonstop and kept rolling in my mind."

Blackledge, who now commands the Army's Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne), admits that he returned to duty too quickly after being wounded the first time. The subsequent Amman bombings, coupled with the stress of leading men and women into battle, pushed him close to the edge.

"The thing driving me crazy the most was the short attention span and difficulty concentrating," he explained. "My wife is an Air Force nurse with three combat deployments, and she had concerns about me."

After some initial coaxing, this battle-tested military leader, who has received the Legion of Merit, five Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts since 1975, set the bar for a new, unofficial badge of honor. He asked for help.

"It was like a weight coming off my shoulders," the general said.

Blackledge, who still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder but has benefited greatly from treatment, has an order for active duty service members and veterans. If you're hurting inside, or know someone who is, it's time to speak up.

"It's just like helping out a soldier who has a physical wound," Blackledge said. "We wouldn't stop or hesitate at that, but sometimes we're too reluctant when it comes to injuries we can't see."

While a general's nightmares about a terrorist ordering orange juice and enemy bullets piercing his SUV may never cease, the stigma attached to post-traumatic stress disorder, at long last, is beginning to fade.


Note: To read more columns like this one in your local newspaper, please ask editors to contact Creators Syndicate.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Closer to You

Image courtesy: Travis Manion Foundation

Horrific news from Iraq's Al Anbar province was still sinking in when the Manion family's phone rang in Doylestown, Pa. On the line was Brendan Looney, calling in the middle of grueling Navy SEAL training. The strong, aspiring warrior was bawling hysterically.

Earlier on that Sunday, April 29, 2007, Looney's Naval Academy roommate and dear friend, 1st Lt. Travis Manion, was killed by a sniper's bullet as he drew enemy fire away from wounded Marines. Manion, 26, was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star with Valor for heroism and gallantry displayed in combat.

Before Manion left for what would be his final combat tour, someone asked him why he had to go back to Iraq. The Marine's response was simple, but direct: "If not me, then who?"

Looney asked himself the same difficult, poignant question as he contemplated quitting SEAL training to mourn his friend.

"(Brendan) just wanted to come back, but he couldn't leave," Travis' older sister, Ryan Manion Borek, told The Unknown Soldiers. "My parents said 'Brendan, you can't quit. Travis would never want you to quit.'"

Looney went all in on Navy SEAL training, perhaps the most physically demanding 30-week program known to man.

"He dedicated the rest of his training to Travis," Brendan's sister, Erin Looney, told me. "He would never give less anyway, but he was going to give that much more for Travis — that extra little edge."

On June 22, 2008, Lt. Brendan Looney graduated as "Honor Man" of his class. With his wedding and a deployment to Iraq just three weeks away, Looney made an emotional journey to Pennsylvania his top priority.

"When he graduated from SEAL school, the first thing he did was visit my parents," Ryan, 31, said.

Looney made it home safely from his first combat deployment and would fight overseas three more times, with "if not me, then who?" always in the back of his mind.

"Brendan never wanted us to worry or think about him being in danger," his younger sister, 23, said. "He was always going to protect us — even protect us from worrying and stressing about him being over there."

On Sept. 21, 2010 in southern Afghanistan, Looney, 29, boarded a Black Hawk helicopter with three fellow SEALs and five soldiers. The chopper crashed in Zabul province, killing all nine American service members aboard.

Erin, one of Brendan's five siblings, was sitting at work on that tragic September day, half a world from the crash site. She still mourned Travis, who "was like another older brother," when she lost Brendan.

"Our family is really close, and seeing everyone else upset is what upsets you the most," Erin said.

"The Looneys are an amazing family," Ryan, the executive director of the Travis Manion Foundation, emphasized. "They are very tightknit, like we are."

Amid dual tragedies that could tear any family apart, the Looneys and Manions came together. After Brendan's wife, Amy, said she wanted her husband resting close to his best friend, Travis' parents agreed to move their son's grave from Pennsylvania to Virginia. The heroes now rest side by side at Arlington National Cemetery.

"The ceremony was amazing, beautiful and heartbreaking," Ryan, who witnessed her only brother's burial for a second time, said.

Erin said that as kids, she and her siblings, three of whom went on to serve in the military, always wanted to hang out in Brendan's room — "the cool room" of the house. Today, she spends hours sitting in the Arlington grass, next to her big brothers in arms.

"We were so lucky to get to know them and be a part of their lives," Erin said, bringing tears to my eyes. "One is rare enough, but to have two, both brothers to you, is on a whole other level."

This new column's mission is to introduce you to the men and women who defend our freedom. As these stories arrive on your kitchen table every week, I hope you will feel as close to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as I did on Christmas morning, while bowing my head at the graves of 1st Lt. Travis Manion and Lt. Brendan Looney. Surrounded by fellow Americans, they will never be divided.


Image courtesy: Eileen Horan

Note: The Unknown Soldiers now appears in newspapers as a weekly, nationally syndicated column. To read more personal stories of our nation's heroes, please call or e-mail your hometown paper and urge its editors to contact Creators Syndicate.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Through the morning, through the night

Image courtesy: Senior Airman Gino Reyes

Every morning for the past nine years, American service members have watched over the Joint Task Force Guantanamo detention facility in Cuba. Steps away from the bright blue ocean and some of the world's most dangerous terrorists, troops like Spc. Emely Nieves, pictured in the Honor Bound Guard Tower on January 7, are responsible for some of the war on terror's most sensitive work.

While Guantanamo became a symbol of ideological differences in the United States, especially in the latter portion of the last decade, the men and women in uniform there are not politicians. They follow orders, whether that means interrogating, guarding, or providing medical care for suspected terrorists, or taking the first steps to release detainees cleared by courts.

Eight thousand miles away in Afghanistan, where many alleged members of al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations were captured, volunteer warriors patrol America's post-9/11 battlefields as the sun goes down. Over the past week, the Pentagon has announced the deaths of five U.S. service members in Afghanistan. The first three soldiers listed below were killed in action, while the soldier and airman at the end of this tragic grouping died in non-combat incidents.

Spc. Omar Soltero, 28, San Antonio, Texas
Spc. Joshua Campbell, 22, Bennett, Colorado
Spc. Shawn Muhr, 26, Coon Rapids, Iowa
Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Venetz Jr., 30, Prince William, Virginia
Tech. Sgt. Leslie Williams, 36, Juneau, Alaska

Tuesday in Uruzgan province, U.S. Special Forces helped Afghan police destroy 15 improvised explosive devices that could have killed, maimed, or terrorized innocent civilians in Shahid-e Hasas district. While these stories no longer make headlines in the United States, I believe saving lives is both noteworthy and extraordinary.

As sweeping changes in Egypt rock the world community, let us not forget all the daily sacrifices being made by brave Americans serving in our military. From guard towers at Guantanamo to the runways of Kandahar Air Field, between sunrise and sunset, flashes of freedom peek through the clouds.

Image courtesy: Spc. Edward Garibay