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

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Fourth Day

Image courtesy: Crystal Tumey

As he boarded a helicopter in a volatile war zone, Spc. Cody Tumey sent his mom a heartfelt text message:

"I'm on the bird, takin' off," the young soldier wrote. "I love you. Don't worry."

Not worrying is impossible for this mother, especially as her son battles terrorists in Afghanistan's Paktika province, which has been called one of the most dangerous places in the world for an American. Yet for Crystal Tumey, the instinct to stand behind her son and his fellow troops overrides her worst fears.

"Our whole family tries to be the kind of supporters that Cody needs us to be through this, his first deployment," she said in an e-mail to The Unknown Soldiers.

Spc. Tumey's maternal grandmother, Dee Dover, said the most difficult part of the deployment for her daughter is the frustrating reality of sporadic communication. While the soldier always tries to warn his family when he expects to be out of contact during a mission, the waiting, wondering and worrying would wear on even the strongest military mom.

"She gets very anxious on that third day or fourth day," Dover said. "I tell her it's going to be OK, because every time it's the fourth day, he gets back and he calls."

As Tom Petty once wrote in his ode to the Hoosier State, Cody "grew up tall and (he) grew up right with them Indiana boys on them Indiana nights." While always good-natured, the future soldier struggled at times in high school and, according to his grandma, "bummed around" for about a year after graduation as he pondered life's next step.

"His paternal grandpa pointed him in the direction of the military," Crystal said. "Cody also had a great deal of respect for his maternal great-grandpa. Both of them were veterans, and they clearly had a big impact on him and his decision to join the Army."

As soon as basic training started, everything changed.

"The truth is, the Army has truly brought out the best in Cody," the soldier's mom explained. "Cody has become a young man with purpose, bravery and commitment."

The soldier's forward operating base recently withstood a "direct hit" by enemy fighters, an incident that greatly concerned Spc. Tumey's loved ones. When the soldier's dad, Chuck, asked his son about the attack, Cody had a simple response.

"The attempt happens every day here, Dad," the soldier said, according to his grandma. "It's not something isolated."

As day-to-day combat operations heat up during another volatile summer at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, patriotic Americans are praying for our troops, especially in small rural communities outside Indianapolis.

"We pray during the day, we pray at night, we pray every time we think about him," Dover said. "Cody has prayers beside him, over him and under him."

While faith sustains the soldier's family, the unknown is still terrifying.

"We have absolutely zero control over his safety," Cody's grandma said. "He has a job to do, and he's dependent on other soldiers to do their jobs right, too."

Awarded a leadership medal before he could legally be served a beer, the young specialist was serving with the Army's 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, known as the "Iron Rangers," when he turned 21 years old on June 15.

"I wish we could be together to celebrate this milestone birthday," Crystal wrote on June 14. "But I know that he is where he wants to be right now."

As another dreaded fourth day without hearing from her son approached, the military mom was again comforted by her son's poignant words:

"This was my dream and my choice," Spc. Tumey's text message continued. "If something happens, don't ever forget that."


Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Dogs of War

Images courtesy: Sgt. Jason Cartwright

The temperature hit 110 degrees as Sgt. Jason Cartwright and his specialized search dog hunted for improvised explosive devices buried beneath some of the world's deadliest terrain. During a perilous nine-hour search in the southern Afghanistan heat, the soldier tried to cool down Isaac, a 4-year-old black Labrador he trained to save lives.

With Taliban spotters looking down from mountaintops and radioing back American positions to fellow terrorists, the Army dog handler knew his patrol was a prime target as he and Isaac searched for bombs in a dry waterway, with a platoon depending on them following closely behind. That's when all hell broke loose.

"The gunfire started, and it was just everywhere. You could hear the echoes of it," Cartwright told The Unknown Soldiers. "All you can hear is the sound of automatic machine guns — you can hear the bullets whizzing by your head."

Immediately upon hitting the ground, the 28-year-old soldier, who went through five months of intense training to become a dog handler after returning from Iraq, screamed for Isaac. The dog was searching for IEDs about 35 feet ahead when the chaos erupted.

"I saw bullets hit right in front of him, and he flinched a little bit and hesitated," Cartwright said. "But once the dog was back to me, I told him to stay, very loudly, of course, but he wasn't shaking. He laid down right beside me."

With Isaac safe, his handler frantically shot back before the firefight ended and the brave tandem finished a "hasty search" for IEDs. There were no American casualties in the battle.

Cartwright and Isaac are part of the Engineer Canine Company of the 5th Engineer Battalion, a unique company of valiant soldiers stationed at Missouri's Fort Leonard Wood. Along with their dogs, handlers deploy individually to combat theaters to support units across the military that are deemed to be at high risk of IED attacks.

"It's pretty much just you and your dog," the Alabama native said of deploying overseas. "You go by yourself and you don't know anybody."

While training Isaac was "fun," knowing the risks they would face together in battle heightened the stakes.

"I have no issues going to work every day because I love my job, but when you are deployed, it changes things up a little bit," the soldier explained.

"These are real IEDs — real explosives — and everything else is out of the picture."

Cartwright said he and Isaac found 28 improvised explosive devices during their year together in Afghanistan, saving countless Americans and Afghans from being killed or wounded. Today, one 40-pound homemade bomb, which was wired to a mortar round, sticks out in the sergeant's mind.

"The Taliban (plants) IEDs around schools and hospitals so villagers can't access them," Cartwright said. "There was a school, and we went to check it.

"Within 20 minutes, we get to a bridge, and Isaac lets me know that there is some kind of explosive that he detected," he continued. "I told everyone behind us to stop and get down."

Isaac was closest to the bomb, and the dog's odds of living were probably about 50-50.

"The dangerous part about calling your dog off is that I'm thinking he's going to step on a pressure plate," Cartwright said. "But I called him back to me, took care of him and secured him."

A heroic explosive ordnance disposal team was called to the area and subsequently disabled the device. Without this soldier and his dog, though, they never would have known where to look.

"You have guys coming up to you and patting you on the back and wanting to play with Isaac," Cartwright said. "They are saying, 'We appreciate it, we've lost so many guys from IEDs — you probably saved my life or someone else in my platoon.'

"It's a good feeling."

Seizing the chance to save even more fellow troops from the biggest post-9/11 threat to their safety, Sgt. Jason Cartwright will soon head back to Afghanistan. But he won't be alone.

"I couldn't imagine going back without my dog," he said. "We have a special rapport and special bond; I know I trust that dog, and that dog trusts me."


Monday, June 13, 2011

Wide Awake

Image courtesy: Cpl. Adam Leyendecker

As millions of Americans drink coffee and wake up for another week at work, or another week trying to find a job, thousands of U.S. troops are on patrol in the dangerous heat of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Tuesday's high in Kandahar is expected to reach 109 degrees, while Baghdad's forecasted high is 104. To many service members apart from their families in post-9/11 war zones, the day of the week simply doesn't matter; it's just another brutally hot day in a strange land.

Outside of base facilities and USO centers, troops in Afghanistan are not enjoying air conditioning and cold lemonade. They are wearing uniforms and carrying heavy gear, as enemy fighters look down from mountaintops, hide in caves, or use women and children as human shields.

Despite challenging conditions that are unimaginable to someone like myself, who hasn't served in the military, our forces are doing a spectacular job every day, night, and weekend. A successful Special Operations Forces mission to secure a village in Afghanistan's Badghis province is a perfect, albeit tough, example. Upon being attacked while arriving at the Panerak village, heroic American forces and their Afghan counterparts killed 23 terrorists, making the area much more secure for civilians caught in the hellish triangle of war.

These types of missions carry significant risk. The first of three U.S. Marines listed below to recently die in combat in Afghanistan was reportedly killed in the Panerak village firefight.

Cpl. William Woitowicz, 23, Middlesex, Massachusetts
Cpl. Matthew Richard, 21, Acadia, Louisiana
Lance Cpl. Nicholas O'Brien, 21, Stanley, North Carolina

As the tragic death of another soldier in Iraq shows us, on the heels of five U.S. troops being killed there last week, that country remains dangerous for thousands of Americans still serving there.

Pfc. Matthew England, 22, Gainesville, Missouri

As the hot, hard sun beats down on their backs, brave American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are wide awake. Good townsfolk in Massachusetts, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Missouri are also thinking about our men and women in uniform at this hour, as they mourn the loss of hometown heroes.

It's time for the rest of America to wake up too. Now would be an appropriate time.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

All the Young Dudes

Images courtesy: Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell

Since arriving in Afghanistan in October, Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell has witnessed a lifetime's worth of tragedy and triumph. As a military journalist attached to the U.S. Army's 210th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, his job is to carry the news.

"It's a long war, but there's progress," Burrell told The Unknown Soldiers from Jalalabad, Afghanistan. "Just the littlest things like going out, and maybe you got shot at for a month in this one village, and then, a month or two months later, they're giving you (food) and shaking hands with you."

Getting shot at is a part of life for this 30-year-old soldier from Highland Park, Ill., who was at Forward Operating Base Fenty when we talked over Skype. Burrell, who appeared upbeat and focused, had just returned from several days in the field, two of which he spent holed up while the unit he was on patrol with took enemy fire.

"Eastern Afghanistan, in Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan, where I operate, is one of the — if not the most — volatile areas in Afghanistan," Burrell said. "And (the Taliban) is still here, but these guys have really good morale, and we're doing some really good stuff in terms of kicking butt."

Burrell, who spent two years in Iraq, calls recent events in eastern Afghanistan "the most ferocious fighting I've seen in all my tours." He has experienced some terrible things.

"In combat, I've seen such different reactions," the soldier said. "When bullets start flying around, people act different."

After recently meeting and bonding with Staff Sgt. Bryan Burgess, 29, and Spc. Dustin Feldhaus, 20, Burrell learned that both of his buddies had been killed, along with four other 101st Airborne Division paratroopers, during a chaotic Mar. 29 battle. Instead of meeting again and sharing some laughs with his friends, Burrell packed up his gear and traveled through the mountains to photograph their memorial service.

"I was in an eight-hour firefight with those dudes, you know?" Burrell said. "I got pretty close to them. I heard about their passing, and I really wanted to go and cover (the memorial service) for them and for their families."

Less than two weeks later, Gen. David Petraeus arrived at a remote forward operating base to award Silver Stars to Capt. Edward Bankston and Sgt. Joshua Bostic, two of the many surviving heroes who helped the 101st win the crucial battle. After the emotional ceremony, Burrell became overwhelmed when several grieving soldiers thanked him for caring enough to interview them and take their photos.

"To me, that's a better feeling than any sort of award or any sort of recognition that someone else could give me," Burrell explained. "It's the dudes that I'm actually with telling me thanks."

Like many fellow troops in Afghanistan, Burrell is frustrated that stories of sacrifice from the 10-year conflict aren't filling up television, computer and smartphone screens at home.

"That's the stuff that the media — the mass media — doesn't care about," Burrell said. "They have a 24-hour news channel that doesn't cover things as important, I think, as the soldiers and their loved ones."

Regardless of where his stories end up, Burrell will be in Afghanistan until at least the late summer, giving his countrymen a window into a war that's mostly out of the spotlight. When asked how he copes with his job emotionally, Burrell, who usually asks the questions, paused.

"It's sort of cathartic to write about it — it's cathartic to take all those photos and keep them all," he responded. "It's crazy; I've seen guys pick up their battle buddies and run through a hail of gunfire to get their guys to a medevac.

"Sometimes, I feel happy with a camera in my hand — I almost hide behind it," the humble warrior admitted. "I feel like I'm looking at (war) through a movie screen or a video."

Along with his camera and heavy backpack, Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell hauls scores of haunting images around the treacherous mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The news he risks his life to send home — always unpredictable, sometimes unforgiving — carries tremendous weight.


Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Family of Value

Image courtesy: McEvoy family

The scariest moment of Deb McEvoy's life came on Oct. 24, when her phone rang just after 9:30 a.m. On the other end of the line was a U.S. Army official, who said that her son had been wounded in Afghanistan.

"Which one?" the startled mother replied.

Deb's oldest son, Capt. Riley McEvoy, was serving in Kandahar with the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team. Her youngest son, 1st Lt. Connor McEvoy, was somewhere in Kunar province. They left for Afghanistan from Kentucky's Fort Campbell just two days apart in June 2010.

"That was an overwhelming weekend," Deb told The Unknown Soldiers about seeing both her sons leave for war.

Deb's mind wandered in a thousand different directions as she learned it was Connor who had been hit. Her son's Army vehicle had been struck by a rocket-propelled grenade on a mountain road, leaving him with "non-life-threatening" injuries but still serious enough to airlift the soldier out of a dangerous war zone.

After more than 24 hours, which seemed like "an eternity," Deb finally spoke to her son when he arrived in Germany. The platoon leader had sustained leg injuries that would require months of recovery and rehabilitation, but he would survive.

"Our family is so fortunate," she said. "Even though Connor was injured, we came out of it OK."

While having two sons deployed at the same time was "much different" than her initial experiences as a military family member, Deb, 50, had grown to understand the sacrifices of service. Her husband, 1st Sgt. Joe McEvoy, spent 21 years on active duty. While living on Kentucky's Fort Knox, Joe was given the chance to move to Texas' Fort Hood to train for his first combat deployment. Instead of going to Iraq, Joe, now 51, retired for the sake of his children.

"We wanted to give Riley the opportunity to stay stabilized and graduate without moving again," Deb explained.

As a good big brother, Riley, 26, was trying to figure out how to lift the spirits of Connor, 23, as he continued his recovery at Georgia's Fort Gordon. The Army captain helped arrange a special ceremony in the hospital, where Connor was promoted to his current rank of first lieutenant.

"I think they're doing fine," Deb said of her two sons. "They've changed — nobody can go over there and not come back a different person — but I think they're better men and better soldiers."

The youngest McEvoy is changing right before Deb and Joe's eyes as well. On May 13, the family descended on Blacksburg, Va., for the graduation of 2nd Lt. Erin McEvoy, 22, from Virginia Tech. The day before, she graduated from the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets and was sworn into the Army by Connor, who had been read the oath by Riley two years earlier.

Now the proud father of three American soldiers, Joe gave his little girl her first salute. Erin, a military intelligence officer with the 1st Cavalry Division, will soon head to Fort Hood, where her father would have been stationed before a deployment to Iraq.

Through trial and tribulation, the scariest moment of Deb's life gave way to the proudest.

"It was probably the happiest day of my life," she said. "I say that because both my boys were home safe and my daughter finished her college career. We're all happy, we're all healthy."

Not a day goes by that Deb isn't thankful for her family's blessings.

"It breaks my heart to hear about families that aren't able to welcome their soldier home the way they had hoped to," the military spouse and mother said poignantly. "Our family is lucky, and I am very grateful."

America is lucky, as we should all feel grateful to live in the same country as even one family like the McEvoys, let alone 1 percent of our population, which volunteers to defend us. Their commitment to service is strong, substantial and quintessentially American. As members of this family of heroes salute one another, they salute the flag with astounding vigor.