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

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Pay It Forward

Image courtesy: Spc. David Sharp

For Staff Sgt. Daniel Higgins, every day is a gift.

During a chaotic eastern Afghanistan firefight on May 26, 2008, Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry picked up an enemy grenade just as it was about to explode. The Army Ranger tossed it out of harm's way, losing his right hand in an act of heroism that spared Higgins and Pfc. Lucas Robinson. Petry was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama on July 12.

The day after he attended the emotional White House ceremony, I asked Higgins, who deployed three times each to Afghanistan and Iraq before leaving the Army, what it's like to walk around knowing someone saved your life.

"Robinson and I were actually talking about that (on the day of the ceremony)," the combat veteran replied. "We pretty much feel forever indebted to him, and that's not going to change. There's not going to be a hell of a lot of opportunity for us to pay him back," he added.

Sgt. 1st Class Jerod Staidle, a fellow Army Ranger who has deployed nine times to Afghanistan and thrice to Iraq, helped convey the enormity of what Petry, the second living Afghanistan war hero to receive the Medal of Honor, did for the men beside him.

"Staff Sgt. Higgins here, for instance, he went on to become a squad leader himself," Staidle said. "Just the impact that he made in the lives of his men below him is going to continue to echo throughout the platoon and the company.

"I'd like him to come back in the Army, but if he doesn't, whatever he does, he's going to continue to make an impact on people's lives," the battle-hardened warrior continued. "You just keep doing what you're doing, and that's how you pay it forward."

In his first news conference since the Medal of Honor ceremony, Petry, a 31-year-old wounded warrior with a wife and four children, displayed unflinching acceptance of the hand life has dealt him.

"At the end of the day, I didn't risk any more than any other service member over there," Petry said about his brothers and sisters in arms serving in Afghanistan. "There are people with bigger families and just as much in their lives, and they risk it every day."

One Army Ranger — 21-year-old Spc. Christopher Gathercole — made the ultimate sacrifice during the Paktia province battle. One of the most stirring moments of the White House ceremony honoring Petry, who has Gathercole's name engraved on a plaque bolted to his prosthetic hand, came when the commander in chief asked the fallen soldier's brother and grandma to stand.

"Gator — we called him Gator — meant everything to us," Higgins told The Unknown Soldiers. "When you spend as much time together as we all do, we were pretty much brothers, so losing him hurt like crazy."

In a bitterly divided nation's capital, Democrats and Republicans applauded Gathercole's relatives, providing a rare moment of genuine unity not seen since Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden.

"I really appreciated that the president did that," Staidle said. "I think I speak on behalf of everybody, from the people who knew (Gathercole) in that room ... who were probably holding back some tears, I'll be honest."

After an astonishing eight combat deployments and an act of bravery that will be remembered for generations, nobody would have blinked had Petry opted to retire from the Army. Yet in his most selfless act since tossing aside an exploding grenade, the wounded hero re-enlisted, pledging to use his higher profile to lend a hand to fellow troops and veterans.

"It represents those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and it gives me the opportunity to help those living today and still serving our great nation and those who have served before," Petry said.

As he attends college in South Carolina, Higgins often reflects on the gift he was given by his fellow Ranger.

"I think about Petry because I know that Robinson and I wouldn't be here if Sgt 1st Class Petry hadn't done what he did," he said. "But it doesn't surprise us that he did it. That's the kind of guy he is."


Saturday, July 23, 2011

Voices Carry

Image courtesy: Samantha Bell

When I started a difficult phone conversation with the widow of Sgt. Christopher Bell, the voice of the couple's 1-year-old daughter, Lana, filled the background. While the child is too young to understand that her daddy was killed last month in Afghanistan, she senses that a bond has been broken.

"She can tell something's going on," Samantha Bell told The Unknown Soldiers.

When Sgt. Bell deployed overseas, his wife was left behind in Alaska, where the soldier was based, to care for their little girl. With most of their relatives residing far away in Alabama and Mississippi, Samantha needed her husband. But from the beginning, she knew his country needed him, too.

"It was hard," she said. "We tried to stay hooked in as much as we could."

While being separated by thousands of miles is incredibly difficult for any couple, nothing was more important to Samantha — or Christopher — than making sure the father could still hear his little girl's voice.

"I would keep Lana up real late at night so he could talk to her," Samantha told The Unknown Soldiers. "He didn't get to really talk to her as much as I would like, but when he did, it was something."

With a penchant for service, Christopher talked about joining the military or the police since the day he and Samantha met while working on a school project. When considering his options a few years later, joining the Army as a military police officer seemed like the perfect fit.

"He wanted to make a difference and make a change," Samantha, 25, said. "He was all about making a good life for himself and his family."

Bell threw himself into his job, exhaustively studying protocol and reciting Army manuals. Despite being a relatively young soldier at age 21, he quickly became the 793rd Military Police Battalion's "go-to guy" when it came to doing things by the book.

"He knew his job, and he did it well, and tried to be the best," the soldier's wife said. "If someone was in the wrong when it came to any kind of military violation, he would set him or her straight."

Bell's combat deployment to the treacherous mountains of northeast Afghanistan was going relatively well until an improvised explosive device detonated in front of his vehicle on April 4. The attack injured several soldiers and shook up his entire unit. While he was "never the same" after the attack, according to his wife, Bell took it upon himself to make sure his fellow troops pressed forward.

"His platoon sergeant told me that Chris motivated him to motivate the other guys," Samantha explained. "I've heard a lot of people say he was their inspiration to keep going."

On June 4, Bell was killed alongside Sgt. Joshua Powell, 28, Spc. Robert Voakes, 21, and Sgt. Devin Snyder, 20. Amid the whirlwind of pain brought home by the tragic explosion, Samantha cites the opportunity to meet loved ones of her husband's fallen brothers and sisters in arms, including Sgt. Snyder's mother, as one of her most important steps forward.

Dineen Snyder, who flew to Alaska from New York to meet other relatives of the fallen at Fort Richardson, said she was overwhelmed by Samantha's strength. But even as the death of her own daughter sunk in, the grieving mother expressed genuine compassion and concern for little Lana.

"She's going to grow up and not know her dad except through stories," Snyder painfully lamented.

I asked Samantha what she plans on telling Lana about her father. She paused, put down the phone and began to sob. As I waited in agony for her response, feeling guilty for asking the question, the young widow gave a remarkable answer.

"I'll sit her down and tell her that her daddy was a hero," Samantha said. "He accomplished what he wanted to so that we could be taken care of.

"He loved her more than anything," she poignantly added. "He was the best father and husband I could ask for."

Shortly before our conversation concluded, Lana's voice again filled the background. With a mother this strong, Sgt. Christopher Bell can rest peacefully, knowing that his little girl will be OK.


Image courtesy: U.S. Army

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Never-Ending Day

Image courtesy: HN Samantha Paulson

Just before U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman Second Class Chris Paulson left for Afghanistan at the end of February, he had an unthinkable conversation with his new bride.

"If something happened, he wanted me to take care of everything," the sailor's wife told The Unknown Soldiers. "He wanted me to take care of his body."

As HM2 Paulson provides medical care for U.S. Marines, Afghan soldiers and civilian bystanders during the volatile Helmand province fighting season, his wife waits nervously on the home front for the chance, someday, to live with her husband for the first time. Yet while every military spouse faces challenges, Hospitalman Samantha Paulson is a warrior, too.

"There's a chance I could be turning around and going on a deployment when he gets back," said HN Paulson, who is stationed at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune. "But I can't sit here and say 'woe is me,' either, because this is what we signed up for."

The Dec. 27, 2010, marriage of Chris and Samantha Paulson can be attributed, in part, to a sprained ankle she suffered during training. After treating her injury, Samantha's future husband invited her to a barbeque. The rest is history.

"We were going to try to wait and have the big, fancy wedding," she said. "But shortly after we started dating, his deployment papers came up."

This is Chris Paulson's third deployment to a war zone, after previously serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to his wife, he's never seen anything like this year's fighting in Helmand province.

"I'm inspired by him every day, and I hope one day I can be as talented and skilled as he is," she said. "He's very dedicated to treating his Marines and tries to stay focused on the mission as much as possible."

Despite her military training, Samantha has to limit how much she thinks about day-to-day operations in Afghanistan.

"If I started letting it get to me, I don't think I would ever stop crying," the sailor admitted. "You can't prepare yourself for the idea that your spouse might die."

Samantha's husband and the Marines he treats spend almost every day out on foot patrols. The risks they face are very real.

"In addition to the improvised explosive devices buried underneath them, (terrorists) are now putting IEDs in trees so they can blow up over a vehicle," Samantha said. "The enemy had been sitting there angry all winter, and now they're ready to fight."

Samantha said Chris recently pulled a bullet out of a civilian's leg and has probably treated more Afghans than Americans during his current deployment. But the tragic June 27 combat death of a Marine in his care, Cpl. Michael Nolen, 22, will likely haunt her husband for the rest of his days.

"This isn't the first Marine they've lost, and it won't be the last, unfortunately," the sailor said, her voice trembling. "Out there, all you have is your job. It's just one never-ending day."

Taking advantage of the resources available to her as an active duty sailor and military spouse, Samantha frequently visits chaplains and family readiness groups.

"I've definitely used these things because there have been days when, of course, I'm worried about him," she said. "I'm just as worried about his fellow Marines. I jump every time my phone rings," Samantha added.

When her husband returns in the fall, the couple will have a few days together before Chris heads to Naval Station Great Lakes in Lake County, Ill.

"We're going to try to spend as much time together as possible and meet up with some of the Marines he served with and their wives," Samantha said. "They're all hungry for real food, so I imagine a good steak is in order."

As HM2 Chris Paulson risks his life thousands of miles away, with even more time apart from his wife on the horizon, one would think HN Samantha Paulson would be full of despair. But like her husband, she took the Hospital Corpsman Pledge and won't let her country down.

"I'd do it all over again," she said. "This relationship and my job are that important to me."


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Somebody to Love

Images courtesy: Facebook

Sgt. Devin Snyder could always make her friends laugh, even during long patrols in northeastern Afghanistan. A week into her first overseas deployment, the 20-year-old military police officer was still doing what she loved most.

"She was always the first to smile," Sgt. Jonathan Enlow said June 11 at Forward Operating Base Mehtar Lam. "She was someone who was always able to bring a smile out from everybody else, too."

A few days later, the laughter faded when several of Sgt. Snyder's fellow soldiers were wounded in a roadside bomb attack.

"She wasn't hurt, but I think it started making her see that it was truly dangerous," the soldier's mother, Dineen Snyder, told The Unknown Soldiers. "Knowing those people wouldn't come back to her platoon ... it brought her down."

While still agonizing for the friends injured in the April 4 attack, Snyder picked herself up. "A few days later, she was upbeat again and ready to do another mission," her mom recalled.

But things weren't the same. During the rest of her deployment, Snyder worried that the sacrifices being made by her unit were being overlooked. "She was worried that people weren't seeing how hard she worked," the soldier's mother said.

Snyder, who joined the military after graduating high school, spent a lifetime surrounded by service. Her father, Ed, is a retired Navy officer. Her sister, Natasha, currently serves in the Navy, while the youngest of her two brothers, Damien, recently joined the Army. Devin wanted to serve, and as she showed during her stellar high school track career in Cohocton, N.Y., nothing would prevent her from reaching the finish line.

"She was very strong-willed," Ed Snyder said. "She knew what she wanted."

The clash of what this radiant, fun-loving soldier ultimately wanted out of life is fascinating and reveals surprising similarities between Army fatigues and Snyder's favorite color: pink.

"She liked being a soldier," her mom said. "But she also loved being a girly-girl, wearing her heels and carrying her purses."

While admiring one of Snyder's pink handbags, you would undoubtedly notice the flowered tattoos covering the upper-half of her left arm.

Upon returning from Afghanistan, the soldier wanted to fill the rest of that arm and some of her right, before showing off her tattoos in magazines. At the same time, she would either stay in the Army and become a deception analyst, or head home to become a police officer.

"She was a go-getter all the time, even as a little kid," Snyder's mom said. "When she wanted something, she went after it."

On June 4, the dreams of Snyder and three brothers in arms, Sgt. Christopher Bell, 21, Sgt. Joshua Powell, 28, and Spc. Robert Voakes, 21, tragically ended. The Pentagon said the four soldiers, all of whom served with the 793rd Military Police Battalion, were killed by an improvised explosive device planted by terrorists in Laghman province. The military said a civilian contractor, Brett Benton, 37, also died in the attack.

"It was the worst day of our lives," Ed Snyder said.

"It was our worst nightmare. ... It really was," Dineen Snyder added.

As an unwanted chapter of unimaginable grief begins for five American families, something "huge" is comforting the Snyders. When thousands filled the streets of Cohocton to salute Devin, two grieving parents realized their daughter was loved by more people than they could have imagined. Indeed, she and her fellow soldiers were noticed.

"It's such a tribute to her," her mom said. "It makes me feel like she touched so many people, whether it was with her smile or a kind word."

A recent trip to Alaska's Fort Richardson, where Snyder's relatives spent time with loved ones of the soldiers she died alongside, also helped the family carry on.

"Everybody is just trying to get through and find the new normal," Dineen Snyder explained. "The four that were killed were a good team; they worked together and never had a bad word to say about each other."

Somewhere, Sgt. Devin Snyder is once again laughing with her friends. Hopefully, she knows how much she is loved by the country she died for.


Saturday, July 2, 2011

Faces of War

Three days after the tragic combat death of Pfc. Brian Backus in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, a Facebook tribute page was launched in the 21-year-old warrior's honor.

"I have never met this soldier," the page's unidentified creator wrote on June 21. "But I felt this page was needed for this fallen hero."

More than a thousand people have since "liked" the page, including many of the Harbor Beach, Mich., soldier's relatives, friends and fellow troops. People who hadn't seen Pfc. Backus in years have also been sharing fond memories.

"I used to babysit Brian and his brother," Lisa Bain posted on June 23. "We will always remember him as a smart, energetic boy who insisted on having his back scratched during bedtime."

The heartfelt messages of support are comforting the Backus family during a time of unrelenting grief.

"It means more to us than you can imagine," the fallen hero's grieving mother, Anne Backus, posted on June 22. "To see that our son, Brian, touched so many lives helps ease the pain of loss."

Facebook communities like this one harness the staggering toll of the ongoing Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. As the national media obsess over next year's presidential election and the Casey Anthony trial, these posts, filled with genuine compassion and raw emotion, remind us that we are still a nation at war.

Another 21-year-old fallen hero, Pfc. Josue Ibarra, made the ultimate sacrifice while conducting combat operations in Afghanistan's Helmand province on June 19. In the dark hours following the tragedy, a Facebook page was quickly, caringly created to celebrate the Marine's life.

"You wanted to protect us; you did protect us," Dennis Ly wrote on June 23. "There's no way we can thank you in person now, but what we can do is live out the rest of our lives to the fullest and to the most positive way we can for Josue.

"He will live on through us, the people he wants to protect," he continued. "We won't let you down."

After coordinating on Facebook, Pfc. Ibarra's community didn't let him down. When the Marine returned to Midland, Texas, in a flag-draped casket, city streets were lined with patriotic supporters.

When an American service member is killed in action, fellow troops are deeply affected. Facebook pages like the one memorializing Pfc. Eric Soufrine, 20, of Woodbridge, Conn., give grieving warriors a place to pour out their hearts.

"As a soldier also raised in Connecticut just returning from Afghanistan, I'd like to thank you for your service, and for making the ultimate sacrifice," Tara LaDore posted on June 17. "Though I've never met you, you are my brother in arms and you will never be forgotten."

Pfc. Soufrine, who died on June 14 in Afghanistan's Farah province when terrorists attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device, had a girlfriend who couldn't wait for him to come home. As war's harshest reality sinks in, the Facebook page is painful but also therapeutic for Paige Woodward.

"We were supposed to have such an amazing life together," she posted on June 16. "But I promise you, I will see you in heaven eventually, and we will pick up where we left off."

Pvt. Ryan Larson, 19, hailed from a tiny Wisconsin village called Friendship. Since his June 15 combat death in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, more than 2,000 people — nearly three times his town's population — have "liked" a Facebook page in tribute to their friend.

"To see men and women, old and young, rich and poor, all races, types, personalities, and positions in our community all as one yesterday for Ryan was so amazing," Izzy Jackson wrote on June 26. "God was shining his light down yesterday to welcome Ryan home."

During past conflicts, Americans could not instantly connect to wars being fought by our friends and neighbors, nor could families of the fallen visit virtual communities filled with memories of their loved ones. In the 21st century, through these interactive, invaluable tribute groups, parents can teach their children about the indelible sacrifices being made in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I never met these four fallen heroes. But today, thanks in part to four remarkable Facebook pages, they are dearly missed.


Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/Roland Balik