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

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Brother in Arms

Image courtesy: Michael G. Reagan Portrait Foundation

Kathleen Shannon thinks about her big brother every day.

She vividly remembers when, as a young child, she fell off her bike while riding down a steep hill near the family home in Guttenberg, Iowa. Kathleen landed face-first on the pavement, breaking her glasses and cutting her face.

As she lay on the ground sobbing, her oldest brother, future U.S. Army Cpl. Stephen Shannon, took her in his arms.

"Stephen ran down the hill, picked me up, and walked me home," Kathleen, now 23, told the Unknown Soldiers. "He put me on the couch, got an ice pack and tended to me until our mom got home."

While Stephen was a mischievous child who sometimes teased his siblings, he would lay his life down for them in a heartbeat.

"That's one of those memories I have of him really caring for me," Kathleen continued. "He never wanted me to get hurt."

As a 21-year-old American soldier deployed in Iraq, Cpl. Shannon still didn't want to see anyone — other than the enemy — get hurt. He joined the Army Reserve in a time of war to protect the lives of others and find more purpose in his own.

"It was a combination of patriotism and wanting to better himself," his sister explained. "Joining the military ... you learn discipline, responsibility, hard work, and leadership."

The soldier was raised by Daniel and Joan Shannon, who Kathleen calls "the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of the Midwest." In addition to Stephen and Kathleen, they raised Molly, 20, and Patrick, 18, while adopting three children: Jack, 12, from South Korea; Mara, 6, from China; and Liam, 4, from Ethiopia. Like his parents, Stephen instantly connected with kids around the world.

"Children were drawn to him," Kathleen said. "He could easily make anyone laugh, even in serious situations."

Something else stood out to Kathleen as the siblings kept in close contact during Stephen's five months serving in Iraq with the Army's 396th Engineer Battalion. Half a world away from Iowa's golden fields, her brother was growing up.

"He realized that it wasn't all about him anymore," she explained. "He was with his comrades."

On Jan. 30, 2007, Cpl. Shannon drove over an improvised explosive device planted by terrorists in Ramadi, Iraq. According to Kathleen, shrapnel tore into her brother's leg, causing blood loss so massive that the military had to contact her parents.

Minutes later, Kathleen, who was on her way to an evening study group at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., got a call from home.

"Kathleen, your brother has been in an explosion in Iraq," she vividly remembers her father saying.

Like the day she plunged from her bicycle as an innocent child, Kathleen was helpless.

"It felt like I had been punched in the gut," she said. "I fell to my knees and lost all strength in my legs."

As she desperately awaited more news, the devastated sister briefly fell asleep. It was in Kathleen's dreams that her big brother took her in his arms once again.

"He told me he was dead," she said. "In the dream I said, 'No, this can't be happening. This can't be real. I'll make a deal with the devil and bargain to keep you alive — I'll even trade places.'"

"No, it's not your time," Kathleen's brother replied in the dream. "You have to stay here — you have a long life to live."

When she woke up, Stephen was dead. Yet, even in the painful weeks, months, and years that followed, he still managed to pick up his little sister, again and again.

"You can be consumed by death and go to very dark places," she explained. "Your life can absolutely fall apart."

While her journey hasn't been easy, Kathleen, who is expecting her first child, believes that from above, Stephen is still guiding her out of life's steep valleys.

"It's made me a stronger human being, and I survived," she concluded. "I overcame death — his death."

Cpl. Stephen Shannon was willing to lay his life down for his siblings. As Americans who sleep under a blanket of freedom that this selfless soldier helped weave, we are his brothers and sisters too.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

We Will Remember Them

Image courtesy: Master Sgt. James Frank

To remember, you need to notice in the first place. With the exception of Sgt. Dakota Meyer, who was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama on September 15, the national media has almost completely ignored the sacrifices of our troops and their families since the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

With an e-mail inbox tragically filled with casualty notices from the Department of Defense, I decided to take a look at the websites of Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC early Tuesday morning in the hopes of finding more information about the war in Afghanistan. While scanning the top story sections of all three news websites, I found exactly one article about combat operations in Afghanistan -- a Fox News article about an attack warning alarm at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

As American troops perform a great service to our nation, journalists at national TV networks and newspapers continue to do this country a great disservice by ignoring our true heroes. As the ten year anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan draws closer, on the heels of August 2011, which was the conflict's deadliest month, there is no valid excuse for downplaying the sacrifices of these brave warriors and their brothers and sisters in arms.

Sgt. 1st Class Danial Adams, 35, Portland, Oregon
Sgt. Rodolfo Rodriguez Jr., 26, Pharr, Texas
Cpl. Michael Dutcher, 22, Asheville, North Carolina
Sgt. Mycal Prince, 28, Minco, Oklahoma
Staff Sgt. Michael Hosey, 27, Birmingham, Alabama
Sgt. Garrick Eppinger Jr., 25, Appleton, Wisconsin
Spc. Chazray Clark, 24, Ecorse, Michigan

From the crisp air of the pacific northwest to the majestic mountains of western North Carolina, the Adams, Rodriguez, Dutcher, Prince, Hosey, Eppinger, and Clark families are in deep mourning. As national media outlets look the other way, our eyes are fixed squarely on the loved ones of these fallen heroes. We have noticed your sacrifices.

In the days, weeks, and months ahead The Unknown Soldiers blog will redouble its efforts to spotlight those who make the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. With the press delinquent in its solemn duty to report on wars that directly impact our daily lives, the mission to tell the stories of remarkable families like the Matteonis continues with renewed vigor.

I spoke with Sgt. Dakota Meyer by phone on August 15, one month before he received the Medal of Honor at the White House. While our conversation was brief, I can say without a shred of doubt that this brave American patriot, who spent some of his life's best years serving in the Marines, would agree that there are thousands upon thousands of genuine heroes in the military who are never awarded medals.

Every single day, Sgt. Meyer wears two bracelets honoring the memory of the four fallen troops he dragged out of a chaotic eastern Afghanistan battle: 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson Jr., and Petty Officer 3rd Class James Layton. As he retreats to a farm in Kentucky, Meyer will always remember these men.

While our arms are not long enough to wear bracelets honoring each fallen hero of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, our hearts are certainly equipped to carry their legacies.

Freedom is not an accident. It is earned and preserved by men and women willing to fight. Today and every day, we will remember them.

Image courtesy: Sgt. James Shea

Note: After this post was written, news of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani's assassination was reported by national media outlets. As of 11:27 a.m. EDT, stories about the killing appeared in top story sections of the Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC websites.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Best Friends

Image courtesy: Janet McBarnes

Lindsy met her best friend on the beach when she was a teenager who didn't know the true meaning of love. His name was Tony.

The fun-loving pair was inseparable during their high school years in Michigan, until a major change in one of their lives forced a candid re-evaluation of their relationship.

"Looking back, it was more than a best friendship, but we didn't realize it until we graduated and he was going to go away," Lindsy told The Unknown Soldiers. "He was headed to boot camp."

Lindsy married her best friend, Sgt. Tony Matteoni, on July 19, 2008, with almost no money and absolutely no furniture. Their first apartment was filled with lawn chairs, boxes of Ramen noodles, and the air mattress they spent their entire marriage sleeping on.

"I couldn't do things like that with anyone but Tony," Lindsy said. "(It's) one of the fondest memories of my life: spending time with him and not being distracted."

When Sgt. Matteoni was ordered to report to North Carolina's Camp Lejeune, it was understood that his first combat deployment was almost certainly on the horizon.

"I was scared — naturally, I think," Lindsy recalled. "But the good thing about having been best friends for such a long time is that we knew it was going to work."

The day before Tony deployed to Afghanistan with 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, Lindsy, incredibly, found out she was expecting the couple's first child.

While at war, the Marine received ultrasound pictures and a DVD containing an audio track of their child's heartbeat. When he called home, Tony wanted only to discuss Lindsy and the bundle of joy they were expecting.

"He implied that he wasn't having a very good time (in Afghanistan), but he didn't want to dwell on it," Lindsy said, while also emphasizing that even while experiencing war, her husband never lost his sense of humor. "He'd call and want to joke around."

During a sleepless night in Afghanistan, Tony knew that half a world away, Lindsy was finding out if their baby was a boy or girl. After some coaxing from his fellow Marines, Tony woke up his first sergeant and asked to phone home.

"He was able to call for 90 seconds," she said. "He said 'Linds, what's the verdict?'"

It was a girl. Tony was floored.

"He said he'd be a good dad and she'd be daddy's girl," Lindsy said. "We said our 'I love yous' and I told him to be safe. He said 'Linds, you be safe.'"

It was Lindsy and Tony's last conversation. After wondering why she hadn't heard from her husband the next day for a more lengthy chat about their big news, military messengers arrived on Lindsy's doorstep.

"I saw the shadows of the Marines and their shapes," she painfully recounted. "I knew by the time I answered the door."

Sgt. Tony Matteoni, 22, was killed Oct. 1, 2010, in an accident that occurred while the Marine was supporting combat operations in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand Province.

"I remember thinking to myself, 'What do I do?'" she said. "I had been so happy."

As Michigan came together to honor the fallen Marine during solemn ceremonies in Union City, Kalamazoo, and Augusta, Lindsy thought about an emotional conversation she had with Tony before he left for Afghanistan.

"He picked me up and put me on his lap," she recalled. "He said 'Linds, don't worry if I die. Because if I die, I'll take your hand and we'll go to heaven together."

Inside a Michigan hospital at 2:04 a.m. on Feb. 24, Lindsy Matteoni, now a 22-year-old widow, met her new best friend. Her name is Avery Danielle.

Now six months old, daddy's little girl is the light of her mother's life.

"She is amazing, just like Tony," she said. "I wish he was here to see her. He would be so tickled that she looks just like him."

Sent down to Earth by her loving father, Avery is a permanent reminder of a Marine's ultimate sacrifice. When Lindsy and Tony meet again on the beaches of heaven, they will continue watching over a life they created during the pain of America's longest war.


Image courtesy: Evelyn Vaughn Photography

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mettle of Honor

Images courtesy: U.S. Marine Corps

The definition of the word "mettle," according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is "vigor and strength of spirit or temperament." Sgt. Dakota Meyer, the first living Marine to receive the Medal of Honor for heroism displayed in Afghanistan, certainly measures up to that definition.

I was nervous while waiting on the phone to speak with Sgt. Meyer, 23, one month before President Obama would place the nation's highest military honor around his neck. I had never spoken to a Medal of Honor recipient before, and wasn't quite sure what to say.

It was then that I heard the sound of cows. That's because this bona fide hero and national treasure recently completed his service in the Marines and went back to Kentucky to work in the family concrete business and help out on a farm.

Meyer doesn't like being called a hero, but I believe he is one. On September 8, 2009, the Marine dragged three fallen Marines and a Navy hospital corpsman out of a horrific firefight on Afghanistan's volatile eastern front. These are the names of those four men, who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.

1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 25, Virginia Beach, Virginia
Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, 30, Roswell, Georgia
Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson Jr., 31, Columbus, Georgia
Petty Officer 3rd Class James Layton, 22, Riverbank, California

When I asked Meyer, who also saved 36 lives during the battle, what it meant to receive the Medal of Honor, his answer was simple and direct. He believes the award is for his fallen comrades, not him.

"It's all about them," the Marine said.

As I wrote in a piece for the USO, Meyer wears two bracelets with the engraved names of 1st Lt. Johnson, Staff Sgt. Kenefick, Gunnery Sgt. Johnson, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Layton. Every day, his wrists remind Meyer not only of his brothers in arms, but the loved ones they left behind.

"I talked to some of them the other day," said Meyer, who checks in as often as he can. "They’re doing alright."

To be candid, Meyer didn't have much more to say. The quiet Marine is the antithesis of self-absorbed; his humility is genuine and palpable. But when asked what his Medal of Honor from President Obama could mean to the country, the man who risked his life to save others and bring home the fallen spoke up.

"I hope to try to help people see how much the Marines help people," he said.

You have certainly done that, Sgt. Meyer. At this hour, the eyes of a grateful nation are on a man who showed the world his mettle under the most trying of circumstances. Thank you for your service and sacrifice, brave Marine.

Note: Please click here to a visit a special U.S. Marine Corps website honoring the heroism of Sgt. Dakota Meyer.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ten Years Gone

At Dover Air Force Base on Aug. 9, where President Barack Obama would soon arrive to meet privately with grieving relatives of 30 U.S. troops killed in an Afghanistan helicopter crash three days earlier, I thought of the private meeting President George W. Bush had with families of 9/11 victims on Sept. 14, 2001.

"I had just seen the debris of the towers. I knew it would be a miracle if anyone emerged," the former president wrote in Decision Points, his first book since leaving office. "Yet the families refused to give up hope. We prayed together and wept together."

When President Obama leaves office and presumably writes one or more books, I wonder if he will reveal what was going through his mind as he met with helicopter crash victims and saluted flag-draped caskets carrying the indistinguishable remains of 22 U.S. sailors, five soldiers, three airmen, and seven Afghan troops, which arrived together in an unprecedented series of dignified transfer ceremonies.

The day's solemn, emotionally devastating events were closed to the media. I was not in Dover, Del., as a columnist; I was there helping USO staff and volunteers comfort relatives as they witnessed the heartbreaking return of their loved ones to American soil. Out of respect for the privacy of these grieving families, I will not write about what I saw.

However, as someone who witnessed 8/9/11 up close, I believe it was one of the most important days for our country since 9/11/01. As we remember the tenth anniversary of the deadliest terrorist assault in U.S. history and guard against another attack, we must also guard against forgetting the men and women who protect our homeland from further bloodshed.

A photo taken during the Aug. 19 Rockford, Iowa, funeral of Special Operator Petty Officer 1st Class J.T. Tumilson, one of the 17 Navy SEALs killed in the helicopter crash, is one of the most iconic images of a nation at war since the famous photograph of New York firefighters raising the American flag at Ground Zero.

Lisa Pembleton's picture shows Tumilson's dog, Hawkeye, lying in front of the SEAL's flag-draped casket, refusing to leave its owner in the hours before his burial. The crushing image not only visualizes the far-reaching impact of a service member's death, even on an adored pet, but also reminds us that a U.S. military dog died in the tragic helicopter crash, which is the deadliest single incident for our troops during the entire war in Afghanistan.

A sentence uttered by a friend at the SEAL's memorial service, as reported by The Des Moines Register, also resonates as we reflect on the sacrifices made by our military since terrorists murdered thousands of Americans in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

"If J.T. had known he was going to be shot down when going to the aid of others, he would have went anyway," Boe Nankivel said.

While I spent several hours near President Obama and other dignitaries on Aug. 9, I felt most nervous while in the presence of uniformed troops who came from great distances to salute their fallen brothers. While these men and women don't win elections or take home paychecks comparable to actors, musicians, or sports figures, they are our nation's true celebrities.

During an encounter with the mother of Port Authority police officer George Howard three days after he died while trying to save innocent people inside the World Trade Center, she gave the fallen hero's badge to President Bush.

"I served 2,865 days as president after Arlene gave me that badge," the 43rd president wrote. "I kept it with me every one of them."

Because of the sacrifices of the men and women who keep us safe, we have the freedom to criticize any president. Yet in my mind, one thing is certain about President Obama. I don't believe he will ever forget what he saw three days after 30 Americans paid the ultimate price in Afghanistan.

Still, Aug. 9 in Dover was not about politics. It was about honoring heroes who died in defense of their countries. As we look back on 9/11/01, the moving events of 8/9/11 serve as a reminder of the incalculable sacrifices made since.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Always and Forever

Images courtesy: Crissie Carpenter

As we salute 9/11 victims and their families as the tenth anniversary of the terrorist atrocity nears, it is important to also remember the enormous sacrifices of the troops and military families who answered that day's powerful call to service. Lance Cpl. Andrew Carpenter and his widow, Crissie, are two Americans who I firmly regard as post-9/11 heroes.

If you didn't get a chance to read the Carpenters' story, see this photo of their infant son, or watch a speech delivered at the National Press Club about their emotional saga, this week of remembrance might be a good time to become familiar.

After her husband was shot by an enemy sniper on Valentine's Day in Afghanistan and hospitalized in Germany, Crissie Carpenter had to say goodbye to the love of her life by phone from Tennessee while eight months pregnant. Less than a month after her husband's death and just over two weeks after a stirring memorial service in Tennessee, Crissie gave birth to Landon Paul Carpenter. A hospital nurse gave Landon a onesie that read "Born Free...'Cause My Daddy Fought For Me."

I'm bringing up this important story again for two reasons. The first is to point out that every American baby born since September 11, 2001, has entered a land of freedom, which didn't happen by accident. In the gripping days after 9/11, we all worried -- and still worry -- about a nuclear device being detonated by terrorists in an American city, causing chaos and an end to life as we know it. By bravely taking the fight to America's enemies over the past ten years, as the world witnessed when Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, freedom has been preserved.

The second reason I wanted to remind everyone of Lance Cpl. Carpenter's ultimate sacrifice is to demonstrate the similarities between the way Columbia, Tennessee, united behind the Carpenter family and how the country came together after the 9/11 attacks.

The funeral procession I was a part of after the Marine's memorial service was one of the most patriotic, unifying events I've ever experienced. In the days following her husband's death up to this very moment, relatives, friends, and total strangers have asked Crissie what they can do to help her and Landon. "Landon's Fund," which anyone can contribute to, was quickly set up by Regions Bank in Tennessee, and will help the child as he grows up.

The love and support Crissie has been showered with as she raises an infant son amid the pain of sudden loss shows that the American spirit we all witnessed in the days after 9/11 is still alive. Even though the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq no longer fill our TV and computer screens on a daily basis, we must continue to unite behind families of our fallen troops, as well as families who watched in horror as their loved ones were murdered by terrorists on September 11, 2001.

"Our love grows...Always and Forever" is engraved on Lance Cpl. Andrew Carpenter's headstone. A decade after the worst terrorist attack in American history, our love for the men and women who protect us grows too.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Loss to Bear

Images courtesy: Staff Sgt. Kim Pate

Upon learning that her husband had been killed in Afghanistan, Air Force Staff Sgt. Kim Pate needed to retrieve one treasured memento from her barracks in Kuwait before flying to Germany to meet her husband's flag-draped casket.

"The first thing I had to grab was a glow-in-the-dark Care Bear named Chisel," Staff Sgt. Pate told The Unknown Soldiers. "He's a wish bear — he glows in the dark, and he's supposed to protect me and keep me company whenever my husband's not there."

Kim, 26, is an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technician — just like her husband, Marine Gunnery Sgt. EJ Pate, who was 29 years old when he was killed. The pressure-packed job involves some of the most dangerous assignments in post-9/11 war zones, which are filled with deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted by terrorists.

Kim's heart was filled with anxiety after fellow troops informed her of EJ's tragic June 26 death in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand Province. Yet, arriving in Germany with Chisel, which got its name when Kim "chiseled away the ice and walls" from EJ's heart as they fell in love, brought an unexpected sense of relief to the grieving airman.

"Knowing I was with him on every step of the journey — the memorial in South Carolina, his last motorcycle ride, his burial at Arlington — it was a wonderful feeling," she explained. "I wish every (fallen hero's spouse) was lucky enough to be able to do that."

EJ and Kim married in the fall of 2006 after meeting about a year earlier. During their courtship and throughout their marriage, the airman was drawn to the Marine's ability to smile while doing a very tough job.

"He just had an infectious personality and was fun to be around, even if he was having a bad day," Kim said.

Kim, who was trained by EJ before her own overseas deployments, always kept in close contact with her husband as he faced danger during an incredible seven combat deployments.

"The other guys can tell their wives that everything's fine," she said. "But I know what he does."

Despite the risks, EJ loved his job, and even after losing her husband, Kim still loves hers. She attributes her positive outlook, even in the wake of incomprehensible tragedy, to EJ's undying optimism.

"He brought out the best in people and in any situation," Kim explained. "He made me a better person...a person that I will strive to continue to be for him."

The fellow Marines and EOD technicians who served with EJ feel the same way.

"Hearing the stories from other guys — he truly was one of the best," she said. "He was always ten steps ahead of whatever the problem was."

Despite their talent and expertise, the Pates knew that one or both of them could easily be killed on the battlefield. It's the nature of a job that only a handful of valiant Americans are capable of doing.

"It might be kind of an eerie feeling to know walking up on an IED that it was the last thing my husband did, and I could die doing the same thing," the brave airman said. "But I feel drawn over there. It's a hard thing to explain; we have a constant pull over there as it is, and it's kind of amplified now."

Before Kim goes to sleep at night in Kinston, N.C., she kisses her two stepchildren and looks at the wish bear that has accompanied her everywhere, including on her husband's final journey.

"No matter where I am, from Iraq to training sites, there's not a night I don't have him," she said.

While thinking back to their final conversation, Staff Sgt. Kim Pate said there will never be a night when the memory of Gunnery Sgt. EJ Pate isn't with her too.

"One of the last things I heard from him was that he was really tired and had a long day out," the Marine's widow said. "But he wanted me to know that he was thinking of me and carries me with him everywhere he goes."

"I never believed in soul mates until I met him," she concluded. "He was and will always be mine."