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

Friday, June 29, 2012

Fly Like An Eagle

Image courtesy: U.S. Army

Despite an intrinsic fear of flying, Pfc. Brandon Goodine volunteered at age 18 to become a U.S. Army paratrooper.

"The first time he was on a plane was to jump off it," the soldier's mother, Mandy Watson, often says.

As I drove down a rural Georgia highway on June 18, the classic Steve Miller Band song "Fly Like An Eagle" started playing on my car radio. But despite the soothing music and bright sunshine, this wasn't just another hot summer morning in McDonough, Ga.

Less than a mile from my destination, I encountered a stark reminder of the day's importance that commanded every motorist's attention.

Surrounded by blue flashing lights, American flags, and Patriot Guard Riders on motorcycles, a hearse carrying the flag-draped casket of Pfc. Goodine made a slow right turn. As the procession reached the church, soldiers greeted the fallen warrior's coffin with salutes, while onlookers stood with their hands on their hearts.

As I walked into the small Baptist church, one of two banners hanging above Goodine's flag-draped casket stood out. On it was a majestic bald eagle, along with "God Bless America."

The first speaker, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Pat Donohue, told the grieving audience about four qualities that made Goodine, 20, a great 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper.

"He was selfless. He was fearless. And he was a friend," Donohue said, later adding that the fourth quality was the soldier's authentic love for his family.

Goodine and fellow paratroopers in the 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment showed extraordinary bravery, the General said, by confronting terrorists in the Maiwand District of Afghanistan's Kandahar province on June 7.

"Everyone in Brandon's unit knew it was a dangerous place when they learned of their mission," he said.

After Goodine was severely wounded by an improvised explosive device, his fellow soldiers made a heroic attempt to carry him off the battlefield. Tragically, a second improvised explosive device then detonated, robbing one paratrooper of his legs and leaving another, Staff Sgt. Andrew Mills, the subject of a recent column, badly injured.

According to the General, Goodine died a few moments later on a helicopter.

"Despite the dead and wounded, they pressed forward," Donohue said of Goodine's valiant brothers in arms.

The General said he recently corresponded with the brigade commander, who stressed that the tremendous sacrifices made that day helped secure a crucial area near the Arghandab River.

"I can't believe the progress since that operation," Donohue quoted the brigade commander as writing in an email. "They made a difference."

As the General's address concluded and Toby Keith's "American Soldier" began to play, I looked to my right and saw a burly, tough-looking young man overcome by pain. With his head pressed against his knees, he was crying uncontrollably. Even though Afghanistan is thousands of miles from our shores, the ongoing war affects ordinary Americans every single day.

A subsequent speaker, Rev. T.J. Boyd, explained that before becoming a soldier, young Brandon, who was living in Luthersville, Ga., was headed down the potentially destructive path of a troubled teenager. Recognizing imminent danger, he decided to change his life.

"A lot of people say folks from Luthersville can't amount to anything," the pastor said, looking directly at the soldier's grieving parents. "I beg to differ. Your son became a hero."

One of the service's most touching moments came when Rev. Boyd spoke to the soldier's three-year-old daughter, Katy.

"He stepped up and showed everyone he was a good daddy," the pastor said.

Even though Goodine wasn't old enough to buy a beer, his resolve to fight was so persistent that it took not one, but two powerful enemy bombs to end his life.

The terrorists ultimately lost the battle of June 7. They also failed to kill Goodine's spirit, which lives on through his family, fellow troops, and an entire community of heroes.

While soldiers carried Goodine's casket out of the church, I looked at the cover of the funeral program, which shows a bald eagle gliding above snow-covered mountains.

As a boy, Pfc. Brandon Goodine was afraid to fly. As a young man, he sacrificed his life so others could be free. Today, he soars like an eagle through the skies of heaven.


Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Jesse Room

Images courtesy: Sonya Williams

Inside Sonya Williams' Columbus, Ga., home is a special room full of cherished memories. It's called "The Jesse Room."

Named after her fallen husband, Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams, it's a place for Amaya, the couple's six-year-old daughter, to spend time with daddy.

"We talk about him all the time," Sonya said.

Ever since the summer of 2004, when Staff Sgt. Williams walked into the restaurant Sonya was working in and asked the waitress out on a date, she was attracted to his charisma. When she initially hesitated to accept Jesse's invitation, he was relentless in trying to convince her.

"Well, I'm going back to Iraq in nine days, and you may never see me again," the soldier, on leave from a combat deployment, said with a smile.

Sonya said yes, and spent the next nine days getting to know the charming warrior. Before and after Jesse returned to battle, Sonya found herself marveling at his brilliant sense of humor.

"I was really drawn to that, as was everybody," she said. "His presence could fill up a whole room."

On Dec. 23, 2004, about one month after Jesse returned from Iraq, the soldier asked Sonya to marry him. This time, the answer was a quick and resounding "yes."

On Dec. 23, 2006, Jesse and Sonya hugged and kissed each other for the last time while holding their six-month-old daughter. Once again, the soldier was returning to Iraq from mid-deployment leave, except this time, they both knew he wasn't coming back.

"It was at that moment at the airport that we knew we'd never see each other again," Sonya said.

"That was certainly a turning point for me."

Violence in Baqubah, an insurgent hotbed about 30 miles northeast of Baghdad, had reached a boiling point during the soldier's second deployment with the Army's Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Just three weeks before his death, Jesse and a fellow soldier risked their lives on the battlefield to pull their comrades out of a burning vehicle.

Back in Santa Rosa, Calif., where the Williams family was living, Sonya and baby Amaya were driving to a relative's house for Easter Sunday. While she knew in her heart that her husband wouldn't come home alive, Sonya managed a smile when one of his favorite Bob Marley songs came on the radio.

At that exact moment on April 8, 2007, she later learned, Jesse was fighting on Baqubah's treacherous streets. According to the Pentagon, the soldier, 25, was struck by small arms fire while conducting combat operations.

Sonya was notified of her husband's death at her mother's house.

"I saw [the casualty officers] out of the corner of my eye," she recounted. "My mom scooped the baby from my arms and I hit the floor."

Next for Sonya was a painful visit to the house of her husband's father, Herb Williams, with whom Jesse was extremely close. Later, a heartfelt letter the loyal son wrote to his dad before his first deployment — in case of his death — was found in the fallen hero's wallet.

"Thank you for being my dad and thank you for never giving up on me," Jesse wrote.

The soldier also asked his father for a special favor.

"Don't let me be forgotten," he wrote.

After his death, an overwhelming response from the surrounding northern California community made clear that Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams would always be remembered.

"Truly, that is what helped us make it through it," Sonya said. "It was totally unexpected."

Even though the Army widow, 32, and her daughter have since moved to a new city, one constant is "The Jesse Room." In these precious confines, young Amaya can often be found sitting with her mom and Sonya's fiance, a soldier who once served alongside Jesse in Iraq. Every day, they share memories of Amaya's dad.

"Over the years, I've learned to embrace these moments — the emotional moments — because it reminds me of how much I loved him and still love him," Sonya Williams said.

As a little girl learns about her dad through photos, videos, and letters, perhaps we can create more space in our lives to appreciate America's courageous military families. Without their sacrifices, every room in our homes would be empty.


Friday, June 15, 2012

'They're Not Toy Soldiers'

Images courtesy: Linda Mills

"They're not toy soldiers," Linda Mills told The Unknown Soldiers on April 13. "They're real people, and they're not just numbers."

Less than two months after our interview, Linda, the wife of deployed U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Andrew Mills, was picking up dinner at a local Pizza Hut near North Carolina's Fort Bragg. She was planning a fun Thursday evening with some girlfriends, as was customary while their husbands were deployed to Afghanistan.

As the cheery, blonde-haired military spouse drove home in a car filled with the smell of fresh pizza, a call came in on her cell phone from a strange number. As she answered tepidly, a sinking feeling filled her stomach.

"Your husband has been seriously wounded in Afghanistan," a solemn voice on the other end of the line said. "That is all the information we have at this time."

On June 7, Staff Sgt. Mills, 27, alongside at least eight fellow soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division's 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, were wounded in twin explosions in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province. Pfc. Brandon Goodine, 20, of Luthersville, Ga., was tragically killed in the attack.

"The worst call of my life," Linda wrote in an email informing me of her husband's injuries. "I didn't have much information the first 12 hours except the fact that 1) he was alive and 2) he was classified as the highest level of injury according to the Army."

Having profiled this fine Army couple in a previous column, I felt sick to my stomach as I read Linda's heartfelt email. Yet when I called her a few minutes later, I was immediately inspired by the Army wife's calm, compassionate demeanor.

"You don't have to say you're sorry," she told me. "Drew is alive, and he'll be coming home soon."

While precise details of the horrific attack are fuzzy, the heroism of Drew and his fellow paratroopers is clear. After Pfc. Goodine suffered catastrophic wounds, Linda said her husband and another soldier were helping evacuate the fallen hero when a second terrorist-planted bomb exploded.

Drew sustained devastating injuries to his legs and abdomen. His fellow warrior lost both his legs.

"I continue to ask you to lift these soldiers and their families up with your prayers," Linda wrote in a Facebook post to family and friends.

After receiving the devastating news while driving home from Pizza Hut, she waited four agonizing hours for information on her husband's condition and whereabouts. At about 2 a.m. Eastern, Linda received a call from a surgeon at Bagram Airfield.

"The doctor stated (Drew) would be intubated for 12 hours before they stabilized him to be flown to Germany for more operations," she wrote.

After an exhausting, sleepless night, Linda's phone rang again. It was a nurse, who uttered the only seven words this Chicago-born, Georgia-raised military wife wanted to hear.

"Your husband wants to talk to you," the nurse said.

Calling his wife "honey bunny," the heavily sedated soldier told her there was a "big chunk missing" from his leg, while the rest of him was thankfully intact.

After cursing the Taliban for murdering Pfc. Goodine, the wounded soldier expressed sorrow for Staff Sgt. Travis Mills (no relation), another hero from his unit. Travis lost both his arms and legs in an April attack, and is currently hospitalized in Bethesda, Md.

"He couldn't imagine the pain Travis Mills went through while losing all his limbs," Linda wrote.

When I met Travis on May 24 at Walter Reed, he told me he'd just talked to Drew by phone. Today, these courageous friends share more than a last name. They are both wounded warriors.

Staff Sgt. Andrew Mills is coming home alive. Pfc. Brandon Goodine is not. The war in Afghanistan is far from over, and as Linda said in April, toy soldiers are not fighting it. These are real Americans making extraordinary sacrifices, which command our undivided attention.

Linda Mills' heart is filled with love for her husband and sorrow for his fallen and wounded comrades. She is also thankful to her family, the Army, and God.

"He's in a lot of pain," Linda Mills said. "But he's coming home."


Note: Staff Sgt. Andrew Mills and his wife, Linda, were reunited on the evening of June 15 in Bethesda, Md.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

American Idol

Image courtesy: Mills Family Fund

More than 20 million people tuned in for the season finale of "American Idol" on May 23. While the program's ratings are down, many continue to obsess over every detail of a glorified talent show, even while tens of thousands of U.S. troops fight in Afghanistan.

With all due respect to Phillip Phillips, the winner of this year's contest, I got to meet a real celebrity on May 24 in Bethesda, Md. His name is Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, and the wounded warrior represents all that is good about our country.

The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is a place where startling examples of our military's post-9/11 sacrifices are tragically commonplace. While walking through the enormous facility's long hallways, I saw several wounded warriors — many with severe injuries — roll by on their wheelchairs.

Many of these heroes are barely old enough to buy a beer.

Staff Sgt. Mills is 25, and his wife, Kelsey, gave birth to their first child about seven months before an Apr. 10 explosion robbed the soldier of both his arms and legs. I was holding their baby girl, Chloe, when the wounded Army paratrooper came out of the hospital elevator with his wife.

Seeing a young, handsome man without four limbs for the first time is a visceral experience. But not for one second did I look away, as I was proud to be in the company of someone who sacrificed so much to protect the families of civilians like me.

As I put my hand on his shoulder to say thanks, the Vassar, Mich. native looked up, smiled, and said five simple words.

"How's it going?" Staff Sgt. Mills said. "I'm Travis."

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the visit was getting to see Travis interact with Ryan Manion. Ryan lost her brother, Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion, 26, in Iraq on Apr. 29, 2007. We visited the Mills family to show our support and provide emergency financial assistance from the Travis Manion Foundation.

Ryan immediately bonded with the wounded warrior, who shares her brother's first name and his powerful, intrinsic urge to serve our country. As they talked about the challenges of the six weeks since an enemy improvised explosive device changed the soldier's life, Ryan gave him a pep talk.

"You're allowed to spend some time feeling sorry for yourself," she said with a smile. "But just remember that you get see your beautiful little girl grow up."

Travis nodded his head, looked at Chloe, and incredibly, said he was a lucky man.

If an enemy sniper's bullet had struck Ryan's brother a few inches in either direction, 1st Lt. Manion may have come home in a wheelchair instead of a flag-draped casket.

"I would give anything to have Travis here, no matter what kind of shape he was in," Ryan told the Mills family.

Image courtesy: Travis Manion Foundation

As Ryan showed compassion for another hero named Travis, the quadruple amputee showed the same genuine empathy towards her. Witnessing the interaction between two people who have been so deeply affected by America's post-9/11 conflicts was both sobering and enlightening.

Baby Chloe is too young to understand what's happened to her dad, yet she loves him more than ever. She often sits at the base of his wheelchair — where a patient's legs would normally rest — and gives him huge bear hugs. Given the love that's surrounding Travis, as well as his positive attitude, there is reason for optimism amid incomprehensible pain.

As Americans, we can no longer ignore the sacrifices of our troops and their families. While there is nothing wrong with distracting ourselves by going to the movies or watching a "reality" TV show, too many of us — particularly some in the national media — are creating an alternate reality while our country is still at war.

My reminder of America's continuing conflict is a red, white, and blue bracelet given to me by the Mills family. On one side is the address of a wonderful website set up to rally around the wounded soldier: "American hero" is written on the other.

Staff Sgt. Travis Mills objects to being called an American hero. In his mind, he was just doing his job. In mine, he is a real-life "American Idol."


From left: Tom Sileo, Ryan Manion, Staff Sgt. Travis Mills and Chloe Mills, Kelsey Mills

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Daddy Fly

Images courtesy: Budrejko family

While recently visiting with his aunt, a little boy pointed to the sky as two helicopters flew over his family's Temecula, Calif., home.

"Daddy fly," the two-year-old child said.

The little boy is Andrew Budrejko. His father, Lt. Col. Thomas Budrejko, was one of seven Marines killed on Feb. 22 when two helicopters crashed during a training exercise near Yuma, Ariz.

"He is so young and we all want to make sure he doesn't forget Tom," the fallen Marine's sister, Navy Reserve LT Catherine Alexander, wrote in an email to The Unknown Soldiers. "Andrew was the most important thing in Tom's life and I want to make sure he always knows that."

During 15 years of distinguished service, Lt. Col. Budrejko served in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and three times in Iraq. The 37-year-old AH-1W Cobra attack helicopter pilot was preparing for another deployment to Afghanistan when he was tragically killed on the home front.

"(The) first thing I thought was that it had to be a mistake," his sister wrote. "Tom was one of the best Cobra pilots in the Marine Corps, as his fellow Marines have told us so many times, so how could this happen to him?"

At age 13, after winning a history competition in his hometown of Montville, Conn., and later participating in a national contest, the future pilot decided he wanted to make some history of his own.

"Mom, I'm going to be a Marine," young Tom said.

Budrejko attended the United States Naval Academy, which inspired his little sister to later come to Annapolis and follow in his footsteps.

"I looked up to Tom as long as I can remember and always (tried) to emulate him in everything I did," LT Alexander wrote.

Despite earning several medals for his accomplishments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo, the decorated Marine rarely spoke about his heroism in combat.

"He spoke of the huge camel spiders and the dust storms that got caught up in their computers, but never spoke much about his missions," his sister explained.

Alexander breathed a sigh of relief whenever her brother came home from a dangerous combat mission.

"When he was gone on deployment, it was always in my mind that he might not make it home," she explained. "But I never worried about him while he was stateside."

Even as her brother's Memorial Service got underway at California's Camp Pendleton, the crushing loss still didn't feel quite real to the youngest of Tom's three siblings.

"He was so accomplished and in my eyes, invincible," Alexander said.

But as Marines spoke one-by-one about the selflessness of her brother during the decade and a half he devoted to our country, confusion and despair turned to acceptance and appreciation.

"I always knew how great he was, but to hear it from so many people meant so much to our family," she said. "This is where we learned about so many accomplishments that Tom had never bragged about to us."

While adjusting to life without her brother is painful, Alexander, as a member of the military herself, is also grieving for the other six families to lose a loved one in the accident.

"We continue to pray for these families and for the squadron that lost so many good men," Alexander wrote.

Many of Budrejko's fellow Marines are now deployed overseas.

"My father stays in contact with the squadron and sends packages from time to time to support them on their deployment," she added.

The training accident, which is still under investigation, has devastated the Marine's wife, Dianna. Yet to honor her husband's memory, she is committed to carrying on his legacy through their only son.

"She is trying to make sure she stays strong for Andrew and that Andrew remembers his daddy and knows he was a hero," the fallen Marine's sister explained.

Lt. Col. Thomas Budrejko was a man of strong faith. Today, as his little boy points to heaven, it is clear that his daddy is still in flight, albeit a little higher above the clouds.

"He really did live his entire 37 years and didn't waste one minute," LT Catherine Alexander wrote. "He truly was and is the best person I know."