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

Monday, December 31, 2012

Christmas at Arlington

There's no place like Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, especially on Christmas morning.

Visiting the hallowed ground, where many heroes of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are laid to rest, is an experience filled with heartbreak. But because of the enormous accomplishments of the brave men and women buried there, Section 60 is also one of the most authentic, inspiring places that any American could visit.

After a Christmas Eve mixture of light snow, sleet and rain, Dec. 25 was a glorious morning in the nation's capital. The winter sun, more forgiving than the brutal desert heat many of our heroes have endured in Afghanistan and Iraq, glistened off the magnificent white headstones that mark this young generation's devotion to freedom.

Amid the majestic setting, however, is the aforementioned sadness. Soon after arriving at Section 60, I saw a little boy standing with a woman, presumably his mother, at the grave of a fallen hero.

"Hi, papa," the child said.

While paying my respects to warriors who made the ultimate sacrifice, including several whose stories have appeared in this column, I looked over again at the young boy and his mom.

Before they left the cemetery, the boy threw his arms around the headstone in front of him. He then unleashed a bear hug that would have undoubtedly made his papa smile.

"Goodbye," the child said before he and his mom slowly walked away.

Whenever I visit Section 60, there are always more graves than my previous trip. It's a tragic, pointed reminder that the conflict launched after Sept. 11, 2001, continues to this very day.

Not far from the last row of the newest temporary grave markers was a young woman, probably in her 20s, sitting in silence on a blanket. She was staring at the name of someone she clearly cared about, probably thinking about what was and what could have been. In her hand was a letter, which she clutched and held close to heart.

When I walked by, I put my hand on her shoulder and told her I was sorry for her loss. She looked up at me and acknowledged my presence, albeit without a spoken word. This was Christmas morning, and she was spending a precious moment with someone she loved. It was time for me to go, but like the little boy and his mom, it was impossible to forget her face.

A few minutes later, I encountered the grave of U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Vincent Bell. Affixed to the fallen hero's headstone were three pictures: two of the Marine in uniform and one showing him dressed up in a nice suit. Atop his headstone were three rocks, along with a coin, bracelet and gold cross.

On Christmas night, I typed Staff Sgt. Bell's name into my search bar and learned that the 28-year-old Marine served four tours of duty in Iraq before being killed in southern Afghanistan on Nov. 30, 2011, while conducting combat operations. A tough, seasoned warrior from Detroit, Bell repeatedly risked his life for his country and did so with bravery and honor.

How could these young men and women be so extraordinary? How could they volunteer, over and over again, for such dangerous duty? How could their loved ones cope with such profound, overwhelming grief? These are questions that every American, not just those who visit Arlington National Cemetery, should still be pondering.

The American heroes buried in Section 60, and throughout Arlington, are not fictional characters from books and movies. They are husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. They sacrifice lifetimes alongside loved ones like the young woman on the blanket and the little boy who hugged his papa's headstone. And they do it to protect us.

Just as I was leaving Arlington to spend the rest of Christmas Day with my family, a privilege I no longer take for granted, I almost stepped on a gold star. Visitors had hung several decorations on a nearby tree, and the ornament probably blew off during the previous day's bad weather.

Written on the gold star was a simple, perfect message to the heroes of Section 60 and their families: "Thank you."


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Life As We Know It

Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/Greg Davis

It's easy to forget that thousands of Americans are still at war.

Whether we're immersed in our families, jobs, hobbies, televisions, computers or smart phones, there are plenty of ways to avoid thinking about a faraway place called Afghanistan. The one percent of our population that volunteers to protect us, however, doesn't have that luxury.

Two North Dakota families are experiencing incomprehensible devastation after a Dec. 3 terrorist attack in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. According to the Department of Defense, two North Dakota National Guardsmen died that day when "enemy forces attacked their unit with an improvised explosive device."

The fallen soldiers' names are Sgt. 1st Class Darren Linde, 41, of Devils Lake, N.D., and Spc. Tyler Orgaard, 20, of Bismarck, N.D.

As I read the casualty notice on my iPhone, I thought about the agony that has been described to me by moms, dads, wives, husbands and siblings who've lost loved ones in Afghanistan or Iraq. To this day, casualty assistance officers are still knocking on the doors of military families that will never be the same.

Instead of hugging and kissing their families at a homecoming ceremony, Sgt. 1st Class Linde and Spc. Orgaard returned to American soil inside flag-draped caskets. Fellow soldiers saluted and bowed their heads during the Dec. 5 dignified transfer ceremony at Delaware's Dover Air Force Base.

During the holiday season, the Linde and Orgaard families are forced to endure the first painful weeks of an unimaginably difficult journey. As we grieve alongside the loved ones of the brave adults and precious children murdered in the tragic Connecticut elementary school massacre, let's also keep these military families, as well as loved ones of all our nation's fallen heroes, in our thoughts and prayers.

According to the North Dakota National Guard, a third soldier, Spc. Ian Placek, 23, was wounded in the Dec. 3 attack. Like thousands of fellow wounded warriors, Spc. Placek, his family and his caregivers have earned our utmost respect, appreciation, and gratitude. As Americans, we have no greater obligation than caring for the valiant men and women who fought for us.

The war in Afghanistan is happening right now. It didn't end when Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden or after any of the last three presidential elections. Every day, brave troops like Linde, Orgaard and Placek are patrolling through rugged, dangerous terrain, constantly threatened by enemy snipers and roadside bombs.

I recently went to see the movie "Lincoln" at a local theater. During the film, I was struck most by a scene in which the 16th president, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, rides on horseback through a Civil War battlefield while looking in anguish at countless fallen warriors. Then, to pay tribute, Lincoln removes his iconic hat.

The 19th century was obviously a much different time. But I believe 21st century America would be a better place if we all followed President Abraham Lincoln's example. We must do more to honor the extraordinary men and women who volunteer to risk their lives on post-9/11 battlefields.

Perhaps some of Lincoln's most famous words, uttered on the bloody Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg, can help reawaken our nation to the sacrifices of its heroes.

"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion," Lincoln said on Nov. 19, 1863. "That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

As Lincoln's words inspire us, so should the words of Adrienne Linde, wife of fallen Sgt. 1st Class Darren Linde and mother of their four children.

"Darren gave his life so that others could pass through safely," a statement from the grieving widow said.

As the war in Afghanistan enters its 12th year, let's renew our commitment to honoring America's brave men and women in uniform. Without them, life as we know it would perish.


Images courtesy: North Dakota National Guard

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Seek On

Images courtesy: Sgt. Jason Cartwright

Five months into a second stint searching for deadly roadside bombs in Afghanistan, Sgt. Jason Cartwright knows every step he takes with his trusted military working dog, Isaac, could be their last.

"There's no time to be afraid now," Sgt. Cartwright wrote to The Unknown Soldiers from Afghanistan on Dec. 8. "I pat Isaac on the chest and say 'seek on.'"

Since initially making contact with the senior Army dog handler and trainer in 2011, I have marveled at the selfless courage displayed by this married father from Alabama. Based at Missouri's Fort Leonard Wood, Cartwright willingly spends months at a time hunting for improvised explosive devices that kill and maim U.S. troops and Afghan civilians.

"As Isaac and I come to almost half of our tour, we'll still have done our job with finding three caches consisting of six jugs of homemade explosives, three jars of explosive material and two directional charges with eight pressure plates," the soldier wrote.

Isaac is a brave black Lab that looks like he's smiling in every picture the dog's handler sends me from the war zone. The fearless 4-year-old dog, which helped find 28 roadside bombs during a previous deployment that ended in 2011, has found lethal devices buried by terrorists near roads, hospitals and schools.
"Isaac and I search for over 18 hours — 800 meters of routes and compounds to only get everybody back on that chopper to leave once the mission is complete," Cartwright wrote. "That is exactly what we have done together out front taking point with all the troops behind us."

Serving with the Engineer Canine Company of the Army's 5th Engineer Battalion, Jason and Isaac have endured countless missions, including many that have came close to resulting in serious injury or death. But as soon as the inseparable pair returns to base, the two soldiers sit together to enjoy temporary moments of solitude and peace.

"Once the mission was complete, Isaac and I waited out in the open land of Afghanistan under the stars and half-lit moon," Cartwright wrote about a recent assignment.

Given his two tours in Afghanistan and previous deployment to Iraq, fellow soldiers in the war zone rely on Sgt. Cartwright's experience and leadership.

"I understand that I must teach them the way," the soldier wrote. "I train these handlers day and night so that they will be ready to face anything that gets put in their way."
Cartwright has already missed his wife and young son's birthdays, not to mention Thanksgiving, during this deployment. With frigid air and relentless assaults by American troops forcing al-Qaida and the Taliban into hiding during the winter months, Cartwright hopes to have a relatively nice, quiet Christmas on base with his beloved dog.

"The missions have slowed down since winter has come and fighting season is over," he wrote. "Yet Isaac and I are still out and away from our family and friends during the holidays."

It is a privilege to live in a free country. But as we enjoy the company of friends and family during this special time of year, I hope we'll keep in mind that brave men, women and dogs are still scouring the post-9/11 battlefields of a primitive land. I think about Jason and Isaac often, wondering what they are doing and praying they are safe.

"It is a serious and dangerous job that we do, but I've got full confidence in Isaac and the troops who have my back," Cartwright wrote.

When the air grows warmer and the enemy returns to the battlefield, Jason and Isaac will be ready once again.

"As I hear the chopper from the distance, I know it's time to begin," he wrote.

Sgt. Jason Cartwright can't wait to see his wife and child again. But unlike the 99 percent of us who don't serve in uniform, this 28-year-old American soldier ranks his personal wishes second. Whenever danger lurks beneath the dirt road ahead, Jason and Isaac always seek on. To them, nothing is more important than uncovering the next bomb.

"If I one day I shall fall, I won't regret it," the soldier wrote. "(That's) because we try to find them all."


Monday, December 10, 2012

Defender of Justice

Images courtesy: Manoukian family

Capt. Matt Manoukian could have done anything he wanted in life. Not only was he the son of two California judges, he was tough, good-looking and brilliant.

"He took care of business," his father, Judge Socrates Peter Manoukian of the Santa Clara County Superior Court, told The Unknown Soldiers.

Ever since age 7, Matt dreamed of becoming a United States Marine. He believed the Marine Corps gave him a unique chance to help protect equality and justice, which he watched his parents preserve throughout his childhood.

Matt's plans took on a sense of urgency on Sept. 11, 2001. While the high school football standout was ready to enlist the next day, an injury and a major health scare forced Matt to put his dreams on hold.

"He had two surgeries ... the first was for a knee injury," his dad said. "Then, that summer he found out he had a tumor in his spinal cord."

Matt pursued his bachelor's degree at the University of Arizona while recovering from both operations. He studied political science and rebuilt his strength, but never wavered from his ultimate goal.

"He was a good example of 'if you work hard enough, you'll get what you want,'" Matt's father said.

Matt joined the Marine Corps in 2006, and after more than a year of training, deployed to Iraq's Al Anbar Province. But even as a young Lieutenant, Matt understood that physical preparation was only one aspect of a combat deployment.

"I told him a big part of being a Marine was understanding the culture," Matt's dad said. "But he already knew that."

Matt treated Iraqi civilians with respect and began studying their language while leading his platoon on dangerous missions. He was compassionate, but also fierce and genuinely heroic.

"He had an IED (improvised explosive device) go off near him and knock him out ... it knocked everybody out," his father said.

As a fellow Marine lay bleeding, Matt refused to leave him behind.

"He put a tourniquet on this guy's leg and saved his life," Matt's dad said.

While Matt earned medals throughout his military career, he was reluctant to discuss any personal achievements. What did fill him with pride, however, was seeing clear signs of progress when he returned to Iraq a second time. Just like during his first deployment, Matt immersed himself in the local culture.

"He did that in Iraq ... he learned how to speak Arabic," Matt's dad said. "And then when he went to Afghanistan, he started doing the same thing."

Matt didn't tell his parents much about his first combat tour in Afghanistan. But when he got the opportunity to return there in 2012, he was grateful. As it would be Matt's last deployment before he traded military life for law school, the Marine wanted to use his good relationship with Afghans to help them develop a strong legal system.

"He said he wanted to finish the business, just like he did in Iraq," Matt's father said.

On Aug. 4, Matt spoke enthusiastically to the San Diego Union-Tribune about his Special Operations unit's progress in building the Afghan police force.

"You see kids running around now trying to play ALP (Afghan Local Police)," Matt told the newspaper. "So it's catching on."

Six days later, Capt. Manoukian, 29, and two fellow Marines were shot and killed by an Afghan police officer who attacked their compound.

"You always worry, and one night the Marines came to the door and told us," Matt's father said. "We miss him, and the Marines who got killed with him were also tough guys."

Matt's murder is an outrage, but his legacy endures. For the first time in the Judicial Branch of California's history, someone outside the legal profession is being honored with the Stanley Mosk Defender of Justice Award. Matt is being recognized "for his sacrifice to the cause of justice."

Almost every father is proud of his son, but it's difficult to find a prouder dad than Judge Socrates Peter Manoukian.

"He was kind to people and took care of strangers he didn't know," Matt's father said. "It was a grace and honor to have him in the family, and we miss him terribly."


Friday, November 30, 2012


Images courtesy: Karlyn Deveau

For Karlyn Deveau, Dec. 8, 2012, wasn't just another date on the calendar. It was the day she would marry her fiance, who would finally be home from Afghanistan.

"He was helping plan everything from over there," Karlyn told The Unknown Soldiers. "He was so excited about it."

As a Navy SEAL, Special Warfare Operator Petty Officer 2nd Class David Warsen was often in harm's way. But when night fell in Afghanistan, the SEAL would always make time for a Skype call with Karlyn, who had usually wrapped up her night shift as a labor and delivery nurse in San Diego.

"There were maybe only three days I didn't talk to him during the entire deployment," Karlyn said. "We always found a way."

Karlyn and David found each other through an unlikely series of meetings in San Diego. After two chance encounters, David left for several months of training in Virginia. But in July 2011, once again in downtown San Diego, the future couple met a third time.

"We both knew at this point that we needed to hang out since we kept randomly running into each other," Karlyn, 26, wrote. "We went on our first date the following week and the rest is history."

Karlyn knew SEALs are some of the world's toughest men, yet was immediately struck by the genuine warmth of David's heart.

"He just loved everyone and made you feel so important," she said. "He had so much love and passion about life."

When David and Karlyn decided to get married, they understood the challenges they would later face. Like thousands of military couples, they would spend many months apart during an overseas deployment. But David always managed to stay positive, even when Karlyn could tell he wanted to come home.

"Every time we talked, he tried to be in a cheerful mood," the SEAL's fiancee said.

Almost every night, Karlyn would keep her computer screen close as she fell asleep while looking into her future husband's eyes.

"It was just so peaceful knowing that if I woke up, I could see him," she wrote about their Skype calls. "I always dreaded when I would hear his alarm going off, which sounded like a dog barking, because I knew it was time for him to head out."

Karlyn and David spoke for about an hour in the early morning hours of Aug. 16 before the SEAL left for a mission. They were supposed to talk again later that day, but the Skype call never came.

"I was freaking out a little bit," Karlyn said. "Then I found an article that said there was a helicopter crash in Afghanistan."

It can't be him, Karlyn thought. But when she learned two Navy SEALs were killed in the crash, the worried fiancee grew terrified.

"I got that sick feeling that it could be him," she said. "But I didn't want to believe it."

Special Warfare Operator Petty Officer 2nd Class Warsen, 27, died in the Aug. 16 helicopter crash near Kandahar, Afghanistan, along with six fellow Americans.

"It's hard to talk about things because in my mind I don't feel like this situation is real," Karlyn said on Nov. 20. "I feel like he's going to come back."

The fallen SEAL's fiancee, who spoke in a quiet, dignified tone throughout our phone conversation, then paused.

"It's so hard to know he's not coming back," she said.

David also leaves behind his parents, brothers and grandparents.

"I'm glad that we're all together to be there for each other," Karlyn said. "It's nice, but it's hard."

David's obituary, printed in the Grand Rapids Press, contains a quote that sums up the courage of a Michigan native who refused to quit.

"Failure to David was never an option," the obituary reads.

While Dec. 8 will be filled with tears of sadness instead of joy, Karlyn and David's romance is the opposite of failure. Karlyn's road ahead is difficult, but David's love will always be inside the heart of the woman he longed to call his wife.

"I just want him to be honored like the kind person he was," Karlyn said. "I wish the whole world could have met him."

Someday, David and Karlyn will meet again.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Love Is Alive

Images courtesy: Facebook

Cpl. Todd Love's life changed in a matter of seconds.

"I don't remember an explosion," Cpl. Love, 22, told The Unknown Soldiers. "One second I'm in Afghanistan and another second I'm in Germany."

The Marine was walking in a field between two suspected enemy compounds on Oct. 25, 2010, when everything went blank.

"When I woke up in Germany, the first thing I recognized was that I wasn't in Afghanistan anymore," he said. "Then realized I stepped on an IED."

Had a British helicopter not arrived about 90 minutes after the improvised explosive device detonated, Love may have died face down in that wretched, blood-soaked field.

"It took them five minutes to find me, and when they did, my legs were already gone and my left hand was really damaged," the Marine said.

Love slipped in and out of consciousness as he was rushed to Bethesda, Md., for a series of crucial surgeries. His hand was later amputated. But even as he came to grips with his severe injuries, the brave Marine, who grew up near Marietta, Ga., never questioned his decision to follow in his father's and grandfather's footsteps by volunteering to serve.

"I was working at an Italian restaurant and wanted to do something more meaningful," Love, who joined the Marine Corps at age 18, said.

By the time he was injured, Love had already witnessed more violence than most of us will in our lifetimes.

"I've been in so many firefights ... probably close to 40," he said. "I couldn't even possibly tell you how many times I've been shot at."

Going to bed was almost always a challenge for Love during his deployment, as the young Marine's mind was filled with searing images of innocent Afghans being murdered and maimed by al-Qaida and the Taliban.

"I used to go to sleep every night with a knot in my stomach ... thinking I could die tomorrow or I may not see my family again," Love said. "Going to sleep like that every night for months is not a good way to live."

The day Love lost his legs started like any other. The young Marine was leading his platoon from point A to point B while "not taking any unnecessary risks," knowing that a firefight could erupt at any moment.

For those 90 harrowing minutes, Love lay defenseless amid gunfire from the subsequent ambush and explosive residue from the IED blast that shattered his hand and legs. While thankful that he can't remember his time in the shadow of the death, Love thinks he knows why he made it out alive.

"I probably had thousands of people praying for me, even if it's someone saying 'God, please protect our troops in Afghanistan,'" he said. "That's probably how I survived."

Most 22-year-olds are just starting to figure out their path in life. While the triple amputee knows the road ahead is filled with enormous challenges, he is determined to make the most of what he sees as borrowed time.

"I know God does things for a reason ... He's been kind of showing me that," the Marine said. "I figure if I keep toughing it out -- if I believe I'll keep getting stronger -- I (will)."

Love's courage has inspired an actor who famously portrayed a wounded warrior on screen. Gary Sinise, who has made supporting our troops a personal crusade, played a Nov. 3 benefit concert with his "Lt. Dan Band" to raise funds for state-of-the-art "smart homes" being built for Love and another wounded hero, Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Schlitz.

The Alpharetta, Ga., charity concert, held by the Gary Sinise Foundation and Tunnel to Towers Foundation, meant the world to Love and his family.

"All the love I'm being shown from my hometown, it gives me hope not just in life but for our country," the Marine said.

Just moments after he realized his legs were gone, Cpl. Todd Love understood that life is truly a gift. Hopefully, his story will remind us to approach our lives with the same sense of gratitude.

"I was kind of overwhelmed with happiness because I realized I was going to see my family," Love continued. "I knew I was alive."


Friday, November 16, 2012


Images courtesy: Emily Feeks

Emily Booth had just come home from Afghanistan when she met her future husband, a Navy SEAL named Patrick Feeks. He had just returned from a deployment to Iraq.

"We really just hit it off," Emily, a Navy cryptologist, told The Unknown Soldiers.

It didn't take long before the sailor and SEAL realized they were meant for each other.

"By Thanksgiving 2010, we were pretty much inseparable every day," Emily said. "We just kind of knew."

Whether it was their shared sense of humor or common military experiences, nobody understood Emily like this young Navy SEAL.

"Patrick always took care of me," she said.

Special Warfare Operator Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick Feeks and Petty Officer 1st Class Emily Feeks were married on March 12, 2011. Just two months later, Emily deployed to the Philippines, leaving her engagement ring with Patrick to symbolize their resilient bond.

"The two of us always made time to talk," she said. "We talked every morning and every night, and we talked constantly during the day."

Shortly after Emily returned from the Philippines, it was Patrick's turn to leave for Afghanistan. Having served there, Emily understood the risks her husband faced, even as Patrick placed his wedding ring in her hand.

"I'm coming home," Patrick told his wife. "I promise you I'm coming home."

But Patrick was a SEAL, and Emily knew the meaning of the gold Trident her husband wore with such pride. In Afghanistan, he would be involved in some of the U.S. military's most dangerous combat missions, confronting the enemy while shielding the innocent.

"I don't want people to think these guys are killing machines," Emily, 32, said. "They're well-trained men, but they're also incredible sons, fathers and husbands."

Even in the heat of battle, Patrick's heart went out to a stray dog he encountered one day in Afghanistan. The SEAL made it a priority to find the dog a safe home.

"Sadie now lives in Canada on a farm," Emily said. "He had to get her out of there."

Every night in San Diego, Emily went to bed hoping to wake up to the beeps of an incoming Skype call. Her conversations with Patrick were frequent, but the SEAL never discussed the things he was doing or the lives he was saving. Patrick was too humble for that and Emily knew it.

"If there was something that needed to get done, he would do it and do it right," the SEAL's wife said. "Everything had a purpose and everything should be done correctly."

After an Aug. 15 combat mission was delayed, Emily seized the opportunity for a late-night Skype conversation with Patrick. She knew her husband was headed into harm's way, so Emily kept Patrick's face on the computer screen as long as possible.

"I love you," she said.

"I love you more," Patrick replied.

"Now go save the world," Emily said as the screen turned to black.

Emily awoke at 2 a.m. to the echoes of Patrick's voice. She thought her husband was calling on Skype, but the screen was still blank.

"I just knew something was wrong," she said.

On Aug. 16, Special Warfare Operator Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick Feeks, 28, was killed alongside six fellow Americans in a helicopter crash near Kandahar. The fallen hero left behind his wife, parents, and a sister who also serves in the Navy.

"You're just so numb ... you can't believe it's happening," Emily said through tears. "Then you realize he's not coming home and you'll never hear his voice again."

When Patrick's flag-draped casket returned to American soil, Emily was waiting with his wedding ring. They were never apart while he was gone, and even after Patrick's death, the couple is still together. Still, Emily agonizes over what could have been.

"You look around and everyone is happy and go-lucky, and you wonder why you can't have that," the young widow said. "Why does it have to happen to you?"

Petty Officer 1st Class Emily Feeks plans to dedicate the rest of her life to helping others. By emulating Patrick's care and compassion, Emily knows they'll always be together.

"I've never been treated like that in my entire life," she said. "He made me feel like the world."


Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Campaign Continues

Image courtesy: Tech Sgt. Quinton Russ

The 2012 presidential campaign is over. America's military campaign in Afghanistan is not.

There have been three presidential elections since the war in Afghanistan erupted after the 9/11 attacks. By any measure, the war was all but invisible during this past campaign, with the candidates' rhetoric and the media's curiosity about the conflict hitting all-time lows.

Virtually ignoring a war being fought by thousands of fellow Americans during a presidential campaign is both unconscionable and unprecedented. I voted in this election, but after writing every week about extraordinary men and women who make tremendous sacrifices at home and abroad to protect our country, I did so with some initial apprehension.

But then I thought about my recent conversation with Senior Airman Angela Jackson, who is stationed at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. She was about halfway through her first deployment when the Nov. 6 election took place, yet was too focused on her mission to worry about how much attention was being paid to Afghanistan back home. She joined the Air Force for bigger reasons.

"You would lay down your life for your co-worker," Senior Airman Jackson told The Unknown Soldiers. "It's hard to be selfish out here, even if you want to be."

Jackson, 25, volunteered to serve in February 2009. Like all U.S. service members who have enlisted since 9/11, she knew deploying to a war zone was a strong possibility. Still, the brave young woman decided to leave her friends and family in Boise, Idaho, for Afghanistan, where snow-capped mountains serve as just about the only reminders of home.

"I've always liked to be part of (something) bigger than myself and being able to have the idea that you're working with other people toward something," she said.

Since leaving for war, Jackson has communicated with her family through email, Facebook and Skype, but prefers to sit down and compose letters, much like the generations of U.S. troops who served before her.

"I do call them once in a while, but like I said, I mostly do the letter writing," Jackson said.

Most of us take hugging our family members for granted. For thousands of American troops still serving in Afghanistan, however, writing a letter is as close as they can get to their loved ones.

"It's something physical ... it's the only thing physical that I can give to my family," Jackson said. "When they get my letter, they can hold it, touch it and read the words that I have to say."

Jackson, who is serving at Bagram with the Air Force's 455th Expeditionary Wing, helps lead an emergency management team that's in place to respond to the worst disasters that could befall an American base during wartime, including terrorist attacks.

"Our responses are in chemical, biological, radiation material and explosives," the airman said.

American troops in Afghanistan also need to be prepared for accidents. Jackson recently coordinated logistics for a large drill simulating a helicopter crashing into a dining facility at Bagram.

"It's very important for us to be ready," she said. "And it's very important out here because we need to be training in the environment we're going to be in if something were to happen."

As evidenced during nearly two years of constant campaigning, many politicians and pundits have turned the page on this war. But every single day, U.S. troops wake up on bases around Afghanistan and prepare for the worst, all while their families at home wait, wonder and worry.

Regardless of popularity or political winds, however, our country continues to be blessed with selfless patriots like Senior Airman Angela Jackson, who deploy to Afghanistan so the rest of us don't have to. But even though she's fully committed to her mission, the brave airman still looks forward to coming home.

"I'm planning on seeing all my family and my friends, and getting back into the work environment," she said.

Now that the presidential election is finally over, it is time for all of us to get back to the important work of supporting our troops. America is still at war.


Image courtesy: Spc. Jenny Lui

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Hardest Choice

Image courtesy: Sgt. Aubrey Rundle

While working inside newsrooms for eight years following the 9/11 attacks, I was exposed to an ugly stereotype. Most members of the military aren't serving because they want to fight for their country, I often heard, but because they are underprivileged and have no choice.

After spending the last three years talking to American troops, veterans and their families, I can write with certainty that this generalization is false. Our brave men and women in uniform do indeed have a choice, yet pick the hardest possible path: serving during wartime.

A recent meeting with U.S. Army 1st Lt. Nick Vogt at the Walter Reed National Medical Center, shows the fallacy of a stereotype perpetuated by some inside the national media. Despite losing both legs in a Nov. 12, 2011, terrorist attack in Afghanistan, 1st Lt. Vogt has no regrets about his choice.

Upon graduating from West Point, the young Army officer was accepted to medical school. He chose to lead an infantry platoon in Afghanistan instead.

Of course, stepping on an enemy improvised explosive device wasn't part of the Ohio native's plan. But instead of lamenting over his injuries, the 24-year-old soldier is constantly pushing himself. When I sat beside Nick for an hour on Oct. 12, there was a thick medical book on his table. The double amputee is studying for his MCAT exam.

U.S. Marine Maj. Megan McClung also chose a courageous path. After the ambitious daughter of a Marine graduated the U.S. Naval Academy and served in Iraq, she left the military and worked in Kuwait as a contractor. But instead of coming home to Washington State and using a master's degree from Boston University to launch a lucrative career, she chose a different future.

"After she got home, her next breath was 'I need to go back as a Marine,'" Megan's mother, Re McClung, told me.

Major McClung deployed to Iraq as a public affairs specialist and worked with reporters using a simple, yet profound motto: "Be bold. Be brief. Be gone."

Today, those words are engraved on Megan's headstone at Arlington National Cemetery. She was killed alongside two U.S. Army soldiers on Dec. 6, 2006, while escorting a team of Newsweek journalists through Ramadi's dangerous streets.

Megan's parents are not bitter about losing their intelligent, driven 34-year-old daughter. That's because the fallen Marine's mom and dad know Megan wouldn't be bitter about the conclusion of her extraordinary life.

"It was a sacrifice she was willing to make," her mom said. "Nothing about Megan's life was tragic."

In the past year, I have gotten to know the wife and sister, respectively, of U.S. Navy LT (SEAL) Brendan Looney and U.S. Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion. Like Nick and Megan, Brendan and Travis could have done anything they wanted with their lives, yet chose to serve.

Every day, Amy Looney and Ryan Manion wish their loved ones had come home. Yet they repeatedly convey their pride that Brendan and Travis, who were Naval Academy roommates on 9/11, opted to risk their lives. Today, both Amy and Ryan dedicate theirs to helping members of the military community.

Engraved on 1st Lt. Manion's headstone, which is next to Brendan's and just steps from Megan's, is a powerful quote: "If not me, then who ... " Travis, 26, uttered these words before trading — for a second time — a comfortable life in Pennsylvania for the brutal urban warfare of Fallujah.

Image courtesy: Travis Manion Foundation

Lieutenant Looney nearly quit Navy SEAL training after his friend was killed in Iraq. Instead, driven by the "if not me, then who ... " calling, he graduated as "Honor Man" of his BUD/S class. Brendan, 29, served in both Iraq and Afghanistan before being killed in a Sept. 21, 2010, helicopter crash with eight fellow Americans.

Had Megan, Brendan or Travis survived their final deployments, I believe they would have become generals, CEOs or even presidents. But they were willing to risk their tomorrow for our today.

First Lt. Nick Vogt will undoubtedly succeed in whatever trail he someday blazes with prosthetic legs. In doing so, the wounded warrior, and thousands more like him, will cast an ugly stereotype to the ash heap of history.

Our courageous troops and veterans are not victims. They are leaders.


Image courtesy: Cpl. Marco Mancha

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Last Stop

Images courtesy: Bob Bagosy

Bob Bagosy will always remember the day his 19-year-old son, Tommy, told him he was joining the United States Marine Corps.

"I said okay, let's talk about this," Bob, who was living in Delaware, recalled.

When Bob said he wanted to talk, he meant it. Not only would he drive down to Florida, where Tommy was living, but the father and son would also make two key stops during a subsequent drive up the east coast.

The first was South Carolina's Parris Island, where thousands of Marine recruits endure boot camp each year.

"I dropped him off and left for an hour," Bob said. "He got back in the car and said 'I can do this.'"

Before endorsing Tommy's decision, Bob had something else to show him.

"The second stop was Arlington National Cemetery, because I wanted him to see the other half of the military," Bob said.

After seeing the majestic white headstones that mark the hallowed resting spots of so many American heroes, Tommy turned to his father.

"If I die, I want to have the biggest tombstone available," the teenager said.

"Tommy, you won't get any bigger than Arlington," his dad replied.

In 2006, Sgt. Tommy Bagosy deployed to Iraq, where he helped find enemy improvised explosive devices (IEDs) outside the besieged city of Fallujah. It was a tough deployment.

"A best friend took his patrol one night," Bob said. "The guy hit an IED and died.

"Tommy blamed himself and said it should have been him."

During their first visit after Sgt. Bagosy's return, the Marine's parents realized why their son's wife, Katie, was insisting that Iraq's horrors had changed her husband.

"He turned to me in a restaurant and said 'you know dad, I killed people over there,'" Bob said.

Tommy was suffering from headaches, flashbacks, and insomnia. According to his father, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress (PTS) from his Iraq deployment caused the symptoms. The Marine was prescribed medication and tried to live a normal life with his wife and two children.

In 2009, Tommy deployed to Afghanistan after renewing his military contract. While admiring his son's bravery, Bob was also concerned about the lingering effects of TBI and PTS. But Tommy served honorably in Afghanistan, particularly while taking enemy fire during an ambush.

"He got his second combat action ribbon for that," Bob said. "He never mentioned a word about it."

Not long after Tommy's November 2009 return, Bob learned his son was again overwhelmed by violent headaches and nightmares, prompting more psychological treatment. When Tommy called home on May 9, 2010, the Marine was at a tragic crossroads.

"He was in absolute tears and told his mother he didn't know what was going on," Bob said. "He was all jumbled up in his head."

The next day, Sgt. Bagosy, 25, fled a hospital at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune, where he was being held for treatment. After a brief pursuit by military police, Tommy shot himself in the head.

"We don't know if he felt like he was being chased by the Taliban," Bob said. "But in that one moment of insanity, he just pulled the trigger."

For Tommy's loved ones, the last two-plus years have been filled with painful questions.

"I know the who, what, where, when, and how," Bob said. "But the why has been eluding me."

Bob, who served in the Marine Corps Reserve, doesn't blame the military for his son's suicide. While searching for answers about Tommy's death, the grieving father is proud of his son's life, and particularly his service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On Memorial Day, Bob visited Tommy's grave in Section 59 of Arlington National Cemetery, one section over from many of America's most celebrated post-9/11 heroes.

"I looked over (at Section 60) and there were people on lawn chairs ... it was like a community there," Bob said. "Tommy's buried with a lot of honored people, but there's nobody there from Iraq and Afghanistan."

While Bob supports his daughter-in-law's efforts to move Tommy's grave to Section 60, he also remembers the wisdom he once imparted to his son. When it comes to a final place of rest, it doesn't get any bigger than Arlington.

"He wanted a big tombstone," Bob said. "And he got one."


Monday, October 22, 2012

No Regrets

Images courtesy: Nick Vogt Family

If you lost both your legs, would you be smiling less than a year later?

For me, the answer to that question is no. That's why meeting a seriously wounded U.S. Army soldier named 1st Lt. Nick Vogt is an experience I will always cherish.

What struck me most during my Oct. 12 visit with the 24-year-old Afghanistan war veteran at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center wasn't seeing a handsome young man with no legs. It was 1st Lt. Vogt's bright, optimistic smile.

When the soldier's mother, Sheila Vogt, introduced me to her son, Nick was lying on his couch beneath an American flag decoration and photos of his little niece and nephew. While a beautiful fall day shined outside his window, stark reminders of our military's continuing sacrifices filled his apartment.

"Thank you for your service, Lieutenant," I said while shaking Nick's hand.

"No problem," the wounded warrior replied with a warm grin.

While the Army Ranger's mom and I sat comfortably, Nick spent most of the hour-long visit on his back. Even though it's been eleven months since an enemy improvised explosive device took his legs, one stubbornly healing wound forces Nick to avoid the sitting position. The quicker the wound heals, the faster the Crestline, Ohio, soldier can finally be fitted with prosthetics.

Nick's left hand is missing its pinky finger, and a large scar engulfs his arm. Both legs are missing entirely. The soldier has no memory of the Nov. 12, 2011, terrorist attack that nearly killed him, and said that in the weeks after the explosion, his mind underwent a full "reboot."

Still, as his mom described before we went upstairs to see Nick, there is no bitterness inside her son's heart. There is only the desire to live, heal and serve.

"I'm staying in," Nick said about his military future. "And mom, someday, I'm going back."

As Nick looked up at his mother, all she could do is smile back, look in my direction and crack a joke.

"Do you see what I have to deal with?" Sheila said with an affectionate smirk.

Before spending time with the Vogts, it was impossible to comprehend the sacrifices made by a wounded warrior's loved ones.

In the eleven months since their son was wounded, Sheila said she and Nick's father have been simultaneously inside in their Ohio home just three times. They alternate weeks at Walter Reed to help Nick, who nearly died in January after a crisis with his lung.

The morning after our visit, Sheila was scheduled to fly home and spend an evening with her husband, Steve. The couple was so excited that they both accidentally made reservations at the same restaurant. Still, before arranging the special trip, Nick's mom and dad had to make sure their son was ready to be alone until Steve arrived in Bethesda, Md., the next day.

"Cleaning a wound is not easy, especially when you can't see it," Sheila said. "He had to prove to me that he could do it."

Looking into Sheila's eyes, I could see the same optimism her son projects. But I could also see exhaustion. Few parents could imagine what Sheila and Steve have endured, yet through faith and unconditional love, they are still smiling.

As we sat with Nick, I asked the wounded warrior what it meant to recently travel to Fort Wainwright to see his fellow soldiers return from Afghanistan.

"It meant everything," he said.

Nick's mom said it took a grueling 12-hour flight from the nation's capital to Alaska in order for the platoon leader to see his fellow troops. He was in pain during the flight, and his parents worried one of his wounds would become infected. But nothing could stop Nick from greeting his brothers in arms.

First lieutenant Vogt is a young man with no regrets. He chose to attend West Point despite knowing he was joining the Army during a time of war. He was accepted to medical school upon graduation, yet chose to deploy to Afghanistan with an infantry platoon. Even though it cost him his legs, Nick would undoubtedly choose the same path all over again.

When I asked the wounded soldier how he was doing, he responded with his trademark smile.

"I'm doing great," he said.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Women of Courage

Image courtesy: Nick Rozanski Memorial Foundation

As I drove Jenny Rozanski to the airport in September, she said something that underscores the courage of a young generation of war widows.

"I want something good to come out of this," said the wife of fallen Ohio National Guard Capt. Nick Rozanski, who was killed on Apr. 4.

Like every grieving spouse I have spoken with, Jenny's pain is very real. Once a happily married "part-time military wife," as she jokingly called herself, she suddenly and tragically became a widowed mother of two young girls.

After losing her loved one to war, every day in Dublin, Ohio, is now a struggle for Jenny. Still, despite all the challenges she's faced since April, Jenny has spearheaded the creation of the Nick Rozanski Memorial Foundation, which will provide scholarships for children in the Buckeye State.

"I feel like it's my duty to continue on with his legacy," Capt. Rozanski's wife said.

Since the war in Afghanistan commenced after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, women all around America have made enormous sacrifices, both on and off the battlefield. Some are U.S. troops; some are military moms, sisters or wives.

The story of Christy Meador, with whom I recently spoke, tragically reminds us that America is still at war. Christy's husband, South Carolina National Guard Sgt. John David Meador II, was killed in Afghanistan on June 20. Christy, who lives in Columbia, S.C., has since gone back to work while raising the couple's little girl, Elana.

"Now I look back, and it was just so meant to be," Sgt. Meador's tearful widow said. "I don't know where I would be today had we not had (Elana)."

Image courtesy: Christy Meador

Linda Mills' story is different. I spoke to this energetic, enthusiastic U.S. Army wife shortly after her husband, Staff Sgt. Andrew Mills, deployed to Afghanistan in February. But in June, she received the worst phone call of her life.

"Your husband has been seriously wounded in Afghanistan," Linda was told.

Thankfully, Staff Sgt. Mills is recovering in Bethesda, Md., from the wounds he sustained to his legs and abdomen. But several others were injured on June 7, and one soldier, Pfc. Brandon Goodine, 20, was killed. Linda and Andrew, who regard themselves as lucky, still pray for the Goodine family.

Image courtesy: Linda Mills

Kelsey Mills (no relation to Linda or Andrew Mills) also considers herself fortunate. Her husband made it home from Afghanistan, even though he lost both arms and legs in an Apr. 10 terrorist attack.

"I can either curl up in a ball and cry or keep going," Kelsey said. "I choose the latter."

Kelsey's husband, Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, served in Afghanistan with Linda's husband, Staff Sgt. Andrew Mills, in the same unit. Today, Travis and Andrew are wounded Afghanistan war veterans who inspire us with their valor, as do their wives.

"I'm happy that my husband is still alive," Kelsey, who is raising a precious little girl with Travis, said. "He's still here."
Image courtesy: Travis Mills Fund

When Melissa Jarboe's husband, Sgt. Jamie Jarboe, was paralyzed by enemy sniper fire on Apr. 10, 2011, the Army wife was devastated. But like Linda and Kelsey, she was grateful her husband survived his Afghanistan deployment.

"I have an acceptance of a path that we're all chosen for," Melissa told me on Jan. 12.

Even as her husband lay in a hospital bed, Melissa did not think she was headed down the path of becoming an Afghanistan war widow. But tragically, on Mar. 21, Sgt. Jarboe died, leaving behind Melissa and her two daughters.

While Melissa surely grieves, her commitment to honoring her husband, as well as helping veterans through the Jamie Jarboe Foundation, is unflappable.

"By the grace of God we were given 11 more months to live life, and for that I can't be selfish or greedy," Melissa wrote shortly after Jamie's passing.
Image courtesy: Jamie Jarboe Foundation

As the war in Afghanistan enters its 12th year, every American has a choice. Citizens can either keep going about their daily lives while forgetting — or ignoring — military families that sacrifice so we can live in relative comfort. Or, we can heed the call of courageous women like Jenny Rozanski, who lost the love of her life and father of her children.

"I want something good to come out of this," she said.


Monday, October 8, 2012

The Game of Their Lives

File image courtesy: Sgt. Ruth Pagan

Dust filled the air as a group of U.S. soldiers kicked off a Jan. 8 pickup football game in southern Afghanistan. But unbeknownst to the deployed American troops, terror was on the horizon. 

Soldiers from the Army's 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, including Sgt. Stephen Stoops, 23, were tossing around the football during some downtime on their isolated base when loud noises brought the game to an abrupt halt.

"We didn't know what it was at first," Sgt. Stoops told "The Unknown Soldiers." "It sounded just like a bunch of fireworks going off."

As the Americans quickly realized, a man wearing an Afghan National Army uniform was shooting in their direction. With their weapons out of reach, all the stunned group could do was frantically take cover.

"Run away, get away ... they're shooting at us," Stoops remembers a fellow soldier yelling.

As chaos ensued, Stoops, a married father of one from Port Orchard, Wash., realized two fellow soldiers had been wounded. It then became horribly apparent that their attacker, who hadn't stopped firing, was still out for blood.

"The guy started walking over (the wounded U.S. troops) and shooting them while they were lying on the ground," Stoops said. "Then he saw me yelling at him, and he started (shooting) at me."

Stoops ran to the base's fortified entry control point, where he encountered Sgt. Jacob Lewis, who was handed a weapon by one of the guards. After Stoops managed to find a weapon of his own, he darted back toward the site of their football game, which was now a blood-soaked battlefield.

"Sgt. Lewis and I decided we were going to flank him," Stoops said.

The brave soldiers shot the gunman, who was still trying to get back up when Stoops, who said he was out of ammunition, repeatedly hit the killer with a machine gun and kicked his weapon away. Finally, the attacker lay motionless, not far from the football the soldiers dropped in the dust when they were startled by the first shots.

With the threat eliminated, Lewis and Stoops frantically turned to their wounded comrades. Lewis tended to Spc. John Bolan, while Stoops tried to stop the bleeding of Pfc. Dustin Napier, who was shot in his leg, neck, and chin.

"I couldn't find a pulse," Stoops said. "So I kind of ... just put my hands on his neck to try and keep some sort of pressure on it."

"I was screaming 'I need a medic' the whole time," he added.

Pfc. Napier, 20, of London, Ky., died from his wounds. The tragic loss of the popular, caring soldier, who was enjoying a game of football with his brothers in arms moments before he was shot, devastated the unit.

"It was really hard on the platoon when we were down there," Stoops said, while adding that a memorial service held after the soldiers returned from Afghanistan honored Napier and his family.

The other soldier initially struck by the gunman, Spc. Bolan, survived the attack.

"After the incident, when he was awake ... we got to talk to him a little bit," Stoops said. "He just wanted to come back to us."

A third soldier, who was shot in the leg, also survived. But if not for the gallantry displayed by Lewis and Stoops, more brave Americans would almost certainly have been killed.

When I asked Stoops how he mustered the courage to fight back, his answer was short and simple.

"You just treat everyone like they're your enemy," he said.

According to the Army, Sgt. Jacob Lewis will receive the Silver Star for his selfless actions on Jan. 8. Sgt. Stoops was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor.

"His heroic actions and complete disregard for his own safety during an enemy attack on Forward Operating Base Apache in Afghanistan saved the lives of his fellow soldiers," Stoops' award citation reads.

Millions of Americans play football in backyards, streets and parks. Millions more watch the sport on television.

The harrowing story told by Sgt. Stephen Stoops should remind us that our nation's real heroes aren't the men playing games in football stadiums. They are the men and women still fighting a war in Afghanistan.

Image courtesy: Sgt. Michael Blalack

Friday, September 28, 2012

Acts of Kindness

Image courtesy: Amy Looney

It's been two years since Amy Looney's husband, LT (SEAL) Brendan Looney, 29, was killed in Afghanistan.

"Before I could blink, life as I knew it had vanished," Amy recently wrote in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

It would have been understandable if this grieving Afghanistan war widow, 31, chose to spend the second anniversary of her husband's death in seclusion. Instead, the fallen Navy SEAL's wife woke up at sunrise in San Diego and spent Sept. 21 making others smile.

Amy and a group of friends brought food to a homeless shelter, paid parking meters, bought coffee for strangers at Starbucks and even gave a hungry family a grocery store gift card. They also brought treats to firefighters and police officers to thank them for their service.
After each act was performed, the recipient was given a red, white and blue card decorated with gold stars.
"This random act of kindness has been performed in loving memory of LT (SEAL) Brendan J. Looney, KIA Afghanistan Sept. 21, 2010," it read.

In her moving Sept. 20 column, Amy challenged Americans to perform ten acts of kindness before the end of 2012 in honor of our nation's fallen heroes and their families.

"By uniting during such divided times, we can show the world that America is still the world's brightest light," she wrote.

I decided to join Amy in performing acts of kindness on Friday, Sept. 21, albeit from thousands of miles away in Atlanta.

My first visit was to a nearby barber shop. As a young female stylist started cutting my hair, she asked if I had the day off, prompting me to explain that the offices of the Travis Manion Foundation, where Amy and I both work, were closed to honor a fallen Navy SEAL.

Upon checking out, I gave the stylist a large tip before handing her a memorial card similar to the one Amy was distributing in San Diego. She paused and looked at Brendan's picture.

"This gives me chills," she said.

Next, I drove to a military recruiting station. Since Brendan was a SEAL, I visited the Navy first, and told a female sailor that I wanted to bring lunch to her office. Unfortunately, she had already eaten, but after thanking me for the offer, emphasized how much acts of kindness mean to those serving in uniform.

"A woman came up to me in a parking lot the other day and hugged me," the sailor said. "Those little things make a big difference."

Luckily, the Marines hadn't eaten, and allowed me to bring them a large order of buffalo wings. After handing lunch and Brendan's memorial card to the sergeant in charge, the Marine asked me to deliver a message to the Looney family.

"We may not have known this young man," he said. "But he was our brother."

While ordering lunch for the Marines, I asked the manager of the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant if I could leave a pint of Guinness for Brendan. He promptly placed the full glass at the center of the bar, along with the memorial card, which included Amy's request for acts of kindness.

When I returned eight hours later, Brendan's beer was sitting beneath two American flags bought by the manager. The bartender said countless patrons had taken pictures of the noteworthy Guinness, resulting in many acts of kindness being performed right there in the restaurant. One patron, for example, bought ice cream for every child in the establishment at dinnertime.

"I had a tough week," the bartender said. "But things like this remind you there are still good people in the world."

I didn't know LT (SEAL) Brendan Looney but can write with certainty that he was a devoted husband, son, brother, friend and warrior. The small acts I performed show just how easily each of us can join together in answering Amy's call for kindness.

Amy Looney's heart will always ache for her husband, his parents, his siblings, and the families of every fallen warrior. But one thing she won't do is quit.

"Hopefully, I will honor him by carrying on his thoughtful mission," Amy wrote. "I love you, Brendan."

America loves you, Amy.

Image courtesy: Amy Looney