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

Monday, February 27, 2012

'This Is My War'

Images courtesy: Pyeatt family

Scott and Cindy Pyeatt were sitting in a southwest Ohio restaurant on the night of Feb. 4, 2011, when they realized something was wrong.

"We were trying to make small talk, and we just couldn't keep it up," Cindy told The Unknown Soldiers.

Their son, Cpl. Lucas Pyeatt, was on his very first combat patrol in Afghanistan. The Marine's mother could sense that her youngest son was in grave danger.

"I knew he'd been killed," she said.

The Pyeatts went home and made a futile attempt at getting a good night's sleep. Their plan was to wake up early in the morning and get out of the house as soon as possible.

"If I leave, nobody can knock on the door," the terrified military mom thought to herself.

Scott was up first on that Saturday morning, and after getting dressed, he went downstairs to nervously watch the sunrise while waiting for his wife.

"About the third or fourth time I went (to the door), it was getting light out, and I thought 'maybe we're good to go,'" he recounted. "I don't think I sat back on the couch for a minute before the doorbell rang."

As Scott walked to the door and Cindy came down the stairs, Luke's extraordinary life flashed before their eyes, appearing even brighter than the just-risen sun.

Cindy fondly remembers her husband, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant who was stationed in England at the time of Luke's birth, showing his little boy the big fighter jets and quoting lines from "Top Gun."

"He was Maverick and Scott was Goose," she said. "They'd pretend they were flying the planes."

Young Luke was intellectually curious and intensely patriotic.

"You owe something to your country, and it is up to individuals to make a difference," his mother explained. "Very early on, it was ingrained in him."

He studied German and Russian, and in the run-up to his Afghanistan deployment, he began learning how to speak Pashto. Yet even while excelling academically, Luke yearned for an even bigger challenge. He wanted to be a Marine.

"He wanted us to sign in high school early, and I said no," Cindy explained. "I thought that was an adult decision."

Even though he was initially frustrated by his parents' efforts to protect him, Luke never lost sight of his ultimate goal.

"He wasn't trying to prove anything to anyone but himself," his dad said. "He said 'I want to do this, and I want to do it right.'"

Luke was contemplating college when a high school friend, Army Spc. Shawn Murphy, 24, was killed in Baghdad, Iraq, on Dec. 10, 2006. Soon after Cindy gave her son the devastating news, he told her he'd made a decision.

"I can't go to school, mom," Luke said. "This is my war, and this is my obligation."

Pyeatt brought the same selfless attitude to war-torn southern Afghanistan. He had been there only a few weeks when word got around that Marines were needed for a dangerous mission outside the wire of their base.

"This is my time," fellow 2nd Radio Battalion Marines quoted Luke as saying. "I'm going first since I'm the team leader."

Tragically, Cpl. Pyeatt's first combat mission would be his last. According to the Pentagon, the 24-year-old Marine was killed on Feb. 5, 2011, while conducting combat operations in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.

Luke's mom still wonders if they could have escaped the bad news by leaving their house before the military messenger arrived that morning. Still, the outpouring of love from their West Chester, Ohio, community, as well as their faith, comforts the Pyeatts.

"I was mad for a long time, but I don't feel angry anymore," the Gold Star mother said. "I know Luke isn't gone."

The night before my interview with the Marine's parents, Scott sat down to read a letter Cpl. Lucas Pyeatt wrote to his family, including his sister, Emily, in case the worst happened in Afghanistan. After reading his words, it became clear that one day, the family would be reunited.

"I was impressed because he said 'I can't wait to be together again, but there's no hurry," the Gold Star father said. "And that's Luke."


Sunday, February 19, 2012

One Year Later

Image courtesy: Courtney Helton Photography & Video

On Feb. 19, 2011, Lance Cpl. Andrew Carpenter, 27, died at a hospital in Germany after being shot by an enemy sniper in Afghanistan on Valentine's Day. The Marine left behind his wife, Crissie, and their unborn son, Landon.

Link: It Is What It Is

Image courtesy: Crissie Carpenter

On Feb. 28, Lance Cpl. Carpenter received a hero's welcome home in Columbia, Tenn., where his pregnant wife and many more loved ones laid the fallen Marine to rest. Those of us who had the honor of being in Columbia on that sad, chilly day will never forget what we witnessed. While the circumstances were tragic, the stirring day of remembrance embodied the very best of America.

Link: Through and Through

On Mar. 18, less than a month after his father's death, Landon Paul Carpenter was born into a world his father made the ultimate sacrifice to protect.

Link: Because My Daddy Fought for Me

Less than a month later, a stirring photograph taken by Marcia Truitt began making its way across the world after being posted on this blog with Crissie Carpenter's permission. More than any image I've seen during the past year, it sums up the sacrifices our heroes and their families are willing to make for our freedom.

Link: More Than Words

Image courtesy: Marcia Truitt/Inara Studios

For the past eleven months, under the most trying of circumstances, Crissie has raised Landon with tender loving care, with reminders of his father -- the hero -- all around.

Link: It Still Is What It Is

Images courtesy: Crissie Carpenter

Landon, along with all of our children, will grow up in a safer country because of the enormous sacrifices of selfless patriots like Lance Cpl. Andrew Carpenter. Yet as we remember and reflect one year later, let us also recognize that Crissie Carpenter, as a Gold Star military spouse, is an American hero as well. As our troops serve and sacrifice on the battlefield, we should also salute their families.

May God bless Landon Carpenter, his mom, and his dad, who looks down with pride on the loving family and grateful nation he left behind.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Watching Over Us

Images courtesy: Sandri family

Bob Sandri is a kind man. But when it comes to the death of his son, he doesn't mince words.

"He was killed by a vicious enemy," Sandri told The Unknown Soldiers.

It takes a particularly ruthless foe to fire rockets at a medical facility, which is what happened in Fallujah, Iraq, on March 20, 2004, according to the military. On that terrible day, Sgt. Matthew Sandri, 24, a combat medic, was killed alongside Lt. Col. Mark Taylor, 41, an Army surgeon and fellow 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper.

As he grew up playing Army men with his cousins, Matt "loved everybody."

"Just like his mother and his grandparents, Matt didn't have an enemy in the world," his dad said. "Had you met him, you would probably have liked him instantly."

Whenever he saw kids being picked on, Matt would stick up for them. He brought this same spirit to the military as a soldier serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, where terrorists and tyrants spent decades intimidating innocent civilians.

"Matt detested bullies," Bob said.

Matt was waiting to start jump school training at Georgia's Fort Benning when the 9/11 attacks stunned the nation. After graduation, the paratrooper quickly deployed to southern Afghanistan, where he would help set up a trauma center in the insurgent hotbed of Kandahar.

"We didn't know for sure that Matt (would deploy) so quick," Bob said. "But as an American, you realize somebody's gotta do it."

On the combat medic's first battlefield support mission in the summer of 2002, Matt and his fellow troops experienced a life-threatening situation that eventually became a hallmark of terrorist activity in Afghanistan and Iraq. They drove over an improvised explosive device.

"There was just this huge explosion under the vehicle," the soldier's father recalls his son explaining. "It wounded a couple of soldiers and banged up the translator."

The bravery Matt displayed during the harrowing incident endeared him to his unit. Yet whenever he called his parents, the soldier refused to brag about his battlefield accomplishments.

"He wanted to hear about what was going on at home ... what was going on with his buddies," Bob said.

After returning from Afghanistan, the soldier was back at North Carolina's Fort Bragg for only about six months before deploying to Iraq.

"It was Fallujah in 2003, and they saw more casualties than they wanted to," Bob said.

Sgt. Sandri, whose deployment was extended into the spring of 2004, was working in the same type of trauma center he helped set up in Afghanistan when insurgent rockets smashed into the building. Despite frantic efforts to revive him and Dr. Taylor, the soldiers, who were in Iraq to care for the wounded, died of their injuries.

The Sandris were coming home from church when they saw a military messenger waiting on their front porch in Shamokin, Pa. Nearly eight years after Bob stopped his car in the middle of the street, where the soldier delivered the dreadful news, that tragic day often still feels like "seconds ago" to Bob, Annette, and Matt's three siblings.

"You wake up in the morning, and it's the first thing you think about," the Gold Star father said. "At night, it's the last thing you think about before you go to bed."

Since thousands of supporters filled a huge auditorium and lined Pennsylvania streets, there have been many more honors for the Sandri family. Responding to a letter from Matt's youngest sister, Lydia, President George W. Bush quietly invited the family to an event in New York and then the White House just before leaving office in January 2009.

While Bob deeply appreciated the president's kindness, one honor stands above the rest. In 2008, the Taylor/Sandri Medical Training Center, which the 82nd Airborne Division named in honor of the fallen heroes, opened at Fort Bragg.

"That's very special to me," Bob said.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 6,000 American troops have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sgt. Matthew Sandri served with honor in both countries. As his father goes to sleep every night seeing his oldest son's face, he believes the fallen watch over the nation they died to protect.

"I didn't lose Matt," he said. "I know where Matt is."


Friday, February 10, 2012

A Box of Flowers

Images courtesy: Sheyanne Baker

Sheyanne Baker was sitting down to dinner with her husband when she heard someone at the door. With a daughter deployed to Afghanistan and a son in Iraq at the time, knocks on the door made both their hearts jump. Her husband ran to the door to see who was there.

To their relief, it was not a military messenger carrying bad news. It was a delivery man carrying a box.

"They were flowers," Sheyanne told The Unknown Soldiers. "I said, 'Honey, you shouldn't have' (to my husband). He said, 'Read the card.'"

A few months later, just before this past Christmas, there was another knock on the door of their Shelton, Wash., home. This time, Sheyanne was at work. The Walmart employee was about to take her lunch break when a co-worker asked her to come to the store manager's office.

When Sheyanne arrived, the door was closed, prompting her to knock.

"As one of the managers opened the door, I saw the two servicemen," the mother painfully recounted. "'Oh my God, which one?' I said. Then they had me take a seat and told me who it was."

It was Sheyanne's oldest daughter, Spc. Mikayla Bragg, who was just a few days away from leaving Afghanistan. According to the Pentagon, the 21-year-old soldier died in Khowst Province on Dec. 21, 2011. Her mother said that as of Feb. 2, an Army investigation into Mikayla's death was still in progress, although she has been told that her daughter — a qualified sharpshooter — died in a guard tower.

Sheyanne last spoke to her daughter on Dec. 19, two days before her death. Mikayla said that while the previous day had actually been fun, she was looking forward to coming home soon.

"I'd always tell her I love her and to be safe," the grieving mom said. "Her last words to me were 'I love you too and I always am.'"

In the middle of a grief-induced blur, Sheyanne found herself on a six-hour flight from the Pacific Northwest to Dover, Del., where the soldier's loved ones, including her father, Steve Bragg, welcomed Mikayla home. The flag-draped casket carrying the remains of Spc. Bragg would be escorted back to Washington state by her half-brother, Sgt. Allen Davids, 26, who returned from Iraq shortly before Mikayla's death in Afghanistan. He was driving home from his base to surprise his family for Christmas when he got the tragic news.

"I don't know how he held it together, but he said, 'Nobody else is going to bring home my sister,'" Sheyanne recalled.

Instead of a celebration under the gold star on top of the Christmas tree, Sheyanne was forced to adjust to life as a Gold Star mother. While she called the holidays "somber," it was during the painful season when she resolved that her daughter would always be remembered.

"I set up a table with her pictures on it and a candle," Sheyanne said.

As the candle's light flickered, the grieving mother thought of how Mikayla appreciated the "little things in life," such as trips to the store with her mom when she was a child. Sheyanne later heard stories that summed up, in her mind, how her daughter lived.

"At one of the services we had, a guy stood up and said he didn't know her, but he remembered seeing her walk through the halls of their high school," she said. "There was a girl sitting there crying, and Mikayla ... sat there with her and asked what she could do to make it better."

Spc. Mikayla Bragg flew halfway around the world to help make things better in Afghanistan. She missed her family, including her sister, Kandyce, 17, with whom she shared a very close bond. And she always looked forward to getting care packages from her mom.

A few months earlier, when Sheyanne's eyes began scanning through the card that came with her flowers, they welled up with tears when she quickly realized that her daughter, even in the middle of a deployment to Afghanistan, had taken the time to send a care package home.

"Thanks for being my mom," the card read.


Friday, February 3, 2012

'Just Follow Me'

Images courtesy: Jarboe family

Soldiers from the Army's 4th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment had spent several hours securing a perilous southern Afghanistan village on Apr. 10, 2011, when Sgt. Jamie Jarboe relayed an order to leave. The day's mission was accomplished, and it was time to head back to base.

"Just follow me," Sgt. Jarboe said.

The soldier recounted what happened next.

"I turned to my right, and before I put my foot on the ground, I hit the ground like a sack of potatoes," Jarboe told The Unknown Soldiers. "The scariest part was when I realized what happened."

An enemy sniper had shot Jamie just as he was leading the Pale Riders, as his unit is known, out of the area.

"The blood was soaking my clothes, and at this point I was like, 'Holy crap, I'm really hurt,'" the 27-year-old warrior said. "I remember looking at my hand, and it wouldn't even move, and that's when I started freaking out."

As he lay in the blood-soaked mud of Afghanistan, unable to take cover as a firefight erupted all around him, Jarboe thought of the woman he had just married on Valentine's Day and the two children at home who needed him. "If I'm going to succumb to these wounds," Jamie thought, "then it'll be on my own terms."

"I'm not dying out here," the Frankfort, Ind., soldier resolved. "I'm going to die someplace like America."

After passing out, Jarboe later woke up at the first of many hospitals he would visit in the United States.

"I made it," he thought. "I'm here."

Despite his iron will, it is often difficult for Jarboe to speak, and it's even harder for him to come to grips with the fact that he's paralyzed from the chest down. But whenever he needed to pause for a quick breather during our phone conversation, Melissa Jarboe, 32, spoke up to convey unconditional, unwavering support for her husband.

"I have an acceptance of a path that we're all chosen for," Melissa said. "We talked about it before he left."

Melissa demonstrates her faith even during the toughest moments, such as the time when one of her daughters asked who shot Jamie.

"I said, 'I don't know, but I want you to pray for him, even if he's the enemy,'" she recalled.

While God is a source of comfort, nothing could have prepared Melissa for seeing her husband in the hospital.

"The first time I got to see Jamie, I literally went into shock," she said. "He was trying to scream, but being hooked up to so many machines, he couldn't talk."

Having already deployed to Iraq, Jamie knew the risks of war. What frustrated him about Afghanistan, however, was rarely being able to see the enemy.

"You're always getting shot at from really close range," he said. "But because of the buildings, trees and farmland, it's hard to tell where it's coming from."

As Jamie lay in a Colorado hospital bed awaiting a transfer back to Maryland, where he would have surgery the next day at Johns Hopkins University, the wounded soldier and his wife repeatedly cited the courage of the children as a constant source of renewable strength.

"Both girls forfeited their Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas and spent (the holidays) in the hospital with us," Melissa said. "Never once have they complained."

Jamie and Melissa never thought their first year of marriage would take place mostly inside hospital rooms. But ever since Sgt. Jarboe bravely told his fellow soldiers to "just follow me," support has poured into their lives via thousands of cards, emails and Facebook messages.

"It's all been very surprising to me," the grateful wounded warrior said in a soft, quiet voice.

Jamie and Melissa both asked several questions about what was going on in my life, as hearing about the day-to-day experiences of others helps them feel connected to the outside world. Someday soon, they hope their lives will regain some sense of normalcy.

"My goal is to be done with the hospitals," Jamie said. "I want to do what a father does and be what a husband's supposed to be."