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

Friday, July 27, 2012

Erika and Erica

Image courtesy: Sgt. James Taylor

At just 24 years of age, U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. Erika Bagley has already been to Afghanistan twice.

"It's something I always wanted to do since I was little," Sgt. Bagley told The Unknown Soldiers about serving her country. "I did a semester of college and decided it wasn't for me, so I just decided to join the Army."

While the western New York native was deployed to different areas of Afghanistan in 2007-08 and 2010, she had frequent interactions with the civilian population, whom the U.S. military has been helping for almost 11 years.

"Of course, there are some locals who don't like us there," the soldier said. "But all the locals that I met and that we worked with ... they were very appreciative of everything we've done for them."

Being thousands of miles from home isn't easy for anyone, but Erika handled it about as well as a deployed soldier could.

I emailed my mom a lot, so I definitely kept up communications with (my family)," she said.

Erika's unit helps combat troops stationed on remote forward-operating bases stay connected to the outside world. She is currently preparing for her third overseas deployment.

"It hasn't been harder than I expected it to be," the married satellite communications system specialist said. "I enjoy every minute of it."

Having spent nearly two years of her young life in Afghanistan, Erika is well aware of the sacrifices being made there. Sadly, a tragic July 8 incident is a sobering reminder of the daily risks that thousands of brave men and women in uniform face.

On that violent Sunday in Afghanistan's Wardak province, the Pentagon said six soldiers with the 93rd Military Police Battalion, based at Texas' Fort Bliss, died when an improvised explosive device blew up in the mountainous city of Maidan Shahr.

One of the soldiers killed was U.S. Army Spc. Erica Alecksen, 21, a military police officer from Eatonton, Ga., a small city about 75 miles southeast of Atlanta. The fallen warrior leaves behind her husband, her parents, and a brother.

"What some people don't realize is that the sacrifice is real," Erica's aunt, Lydia Ivanditti, said just 16 days after her niece was killed. "This isn't a video game. It's a heart-wrenching, devastating experience to lose someone you love."

Despite a petite frame, Erica volunteered for difficult duty, which often involved carrying heavy gear that added up to more than half her body weight.

"When she came home from boot camp, I asked her about the experience," Ivanditti said. "She looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I never let them see me cry. Not once.'"

Many tears were shed on July 18 as Erica's flag-draped casket was driven from the Greene County Regional Airport to her family's church. But as the soldier's grieving relatives rode in the motorcade, there was reason for hope as citizens lined the streets.

"We would gasp as we came around the bends and saw throngs of people ... thousands of people," Erica's aunt said. "You'd see people on their front porches with hands on their hearts and little boys saluting."

Afghanistan is barely mentioned on the news these days, even though cities and towns across America continue to suffer the devastating effects of war.

"It wasn't like she just affected one group of people," Ivanditti said about her niece, who was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star. "She affected us all."

Like Sgt. Erika Bagley, Spc. Erica Alecksen went to war because she felt a deep sense of obligation.

"She was excited to go Afghanistan and serve," her aunt said. "It was a source of honor and pride that she was getting to go."

Only the most devoted Americans put on a uniform and say, "I'll go." They are the real celebrities of our culture, not actors, politicians, sports stars, or musicians.

This July at Wisconsin's Fort McCoy, Sgt. Erika Bagley was the only woman participating in the Army Reserve's Best Warrior Competition. By continuing to challenge herself as she prepares for a third deployment, she pays tribute to her fellow troops, including those who made the ultimate sacrifice, like Spc. Erica Alecksen.

"It's an honor to do this," she said.


Image courtesy: Alecksen family

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Click

Images courtesy: Kim DeTample

Every time her 19-year-old son would call from Iraq, Kim DeTample would hear a distinctive sound before his voice.

"I would know it was him because there was a click...a delayed response because of where he was," Kim told The Unknown Soldiers. "I remember the click of the phone to this day."

After Pfc. Nathaniel DeTample arrived in Bayji, Iraq, an industrial city about 130 miles north of Baghdad, in May 2005, he told his mother about the country's inexorable heat.

"He told me to put my face up against a blow dryer," she said. "That's how hot it was."

Despite the harsh conditions, Pfc. DeTample was fulfilling a lifelong dream by serving his country.

"When he was a little guy, about three years old, he got his first buzz cut," the soldier's mother said. "From that day on, he always had that buzz cut."

Nate, as his mother calls him, joined the Boy Scouts at age 10, where he excelled and eventually attained the top rank of Eagle Scout. He also starred on the wrestling mat.

"He was a real determined young man," Kim said.

During his junior year of high school, Nate, whose father and grandfathers served in the military, committed to joining the National Guard.

"He believed in our country," his mother said. "He was one of the little kids who'd always stand for the pledge of allegiance."

After graduating high school, the eastern Pennsylvania native enrolled at Shippensburg University, near Harrisburg. But as other freshmen adjusted to college life, including the party scene, Nate's country came calling.

"I remember when he called and said he might need to report within 24 hours," Kim said. "That drive out (to Shippensburg) to pick him up, I felt like my son was going off to war."

On the morning of Aug. 9, 2005, Kim picked up the phone and heard the usual clicking sound. It was Nate, with whom she hadn't spoken in nearly two weeks, calling from Iraq.

"We're very fortunate that we got to talk to him that morning," she said. "It was truly a blessing that I'll never forget."

Less than 24 hours later, Kim got an early morning knock on the door. Standing outside was a U.S. Army officer.

"It's not good, is it?" the stunned mother said.

"No ma'am, it's not," the soldier replied.

According to the Pentagon, Pfc. DeTample, 19, Spc. John Kulick, 35, Spc. Gennaro Pellegrini Jr., 31, and Sgt. Francis Straub Jr., 24, were killed when a mine exploded and enemy forces attacked their patrol with small arms fire. All four soldiers were serving with a Philadelphia-based Army National Guard unit.

Nate's youth made it particularly difficult to accept his death.

"He was 19 when he died," Kim said. "He was a teenager when he died."

One of the grieving mother's only comforts is knowing that in her son's final moments, he was surrounded by fellow heroes.

"He served with the best," she said. "Three others died, and we will always remember them."

An outpouring of community support has helped the DeTample family cope in the years since. But almost nothing could have prepared Kim for having a son deployed in combat all over again.

Sgt. Staten DeTample, 25, left for Afghanistan almost exactly seven years after his brother arrived in Iraq. Driven by Nate's memory, Sgt. DeTample is making his entire family proud, even if his mother spends every day worrying.

"I know he's going to be fine," Kim said. "But on the other hand, you always think about Nate and the reality that a war is going on in Afghanistan. Hopefully people will remember that."

As her surviving son fights in Afghanistan, Kim is preparing to embark on her own journey to Iraq. Inspired by one of the last videos shot by Pfc. Nathaniel DeTample, in which soldiers are seen handing out shoes to Iraqi children, she wants to perform similar acts of compassion in a healing country where so many Americans and Iraqis made sacrifices.

"It's not just to remember Nate's spirit," she said. "It's to remember all the spirits."

In the meantime, Kim DeTample waits by her phone to hear Sgt. Staten DeTample's voice.

"It's back to the click," she said.


Note: The Travis Manion Foundation is helping Kim DeTample travel to Iraq and embark on her mission to help Iraqi children. To learn more about the Travis Manion Foundation's Challenge Grant program, please click here.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Our Generation

Images courtesy: Sgt. 1st Class Eric Pahon

If you spend a few minutes watching MTV, it's easy to brand this generation as selfish, materialistic and unpatriotic. But if you talk to fine young people like U.S. Army Spc. Alfred Kollie, who recently spoke to The Unknown Soldiers from Afghanistan, you'll realize there are still Americans willing to fight for freedom.

Spc. Kollie, 26, wasn't even born in the United States. He grew up in the West African nation of Liberia, one of the most violent, impoverished countries on the planet.

"We saw a lot of death," Kollie said. "We went through days where it was difficult to find food or eat, but by His grace, we were able to make it through some of those difficult times."

As Civil War engulfed their homeland, the Kollie family fled to Ghana, where they spent eight agonizing years in a refugee camp.

"Living in a camp without electricity, without proper sanitation...people got sick," he said. "My dad also got sick numerous times, and it was very difficult."

Surrounded by brutality, illness, and death, the young refugee still saw light at the end of the tunnel. Kollie's sister, who fled to the United States years earlier, was working to bring her family to America. But as the years went by, the wait became excruciating.

"The whole process just seemed like it was taking forever," Kollie said. "We all got tired...we wanted to go back to Liberia but we couldn't...we were just stuck in the middle."

Amid pain and hardship, a moment arrived that Kollie will never forget.

"Finally, we got the word that we were coming to the States after eight years of waiting," he said. "It was one of those days of my life that I was very happy."

As he arrived in New York from a Ghanaian refugee camp, Kollie realized the light at the end of the tunnel was the Statue of Liberty's torch.

"Arriving in the States was one of the most exciting days of my life," he said. "Everything about the States was seen on TV, and we were actually here."

After moving to Louisiana and then Maryland, Kollie worked his way from salesman to sales manager. But despite his success, the young immigrant wanted to challenge himself even further.

"Since I'm here in America, a land of opportunity, I have to better myself," he said. "Not just for today, but I need to better myself for the future."

Kollie also felt an obligation to better the world. While he wanted to get an education, the frightening experiences of his youth helped mold a yearning to free the oppressed.

"All my life, I really admired the United States military as a fighting force that has set a mark on this planet," he said. "When I got my green card, I was like...I should go ahead and join the Army."

Before he signed his name, however, Kollie reflected on the cruelty he witnessed in Liberia. Like his native land, Afghanistan has been filled with violence for decades, and he knew that by joining the U.S. Army, he would likely be thrust into the middle of another armed conflict.

"At one point, I was like, 'I just came from a country and a situation that was all about war,'" he said. "But sometimes you have to make a move and hope for the better."

Kollie, who enlisted in September 2010, deployed to Afghanistan last fall. As he spoke from a remote forward operating base near the Pakistani border, the soldier had almost no complaints. Other than the searing, unrelenting heat, Kollie enjoys being part of the war effort.

"Everything's going well, and we can't wait to go home," the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade petroleum specialist said July 5. "It's been a long ten months, and we're doing our best."

From Liberian refugee to American soldier, Spc. Alfred Kollie's journey is extraordinary. His courage also represents scores of young people who have stepped forward since Sept. 11, 2001. While Hollywood often shines the spotlight elsewhere, this generation of volunteer warriors embodies the very best of America.

"I just feel blessed to be part of this country," Kollie said. "It's so amazing to know you have people — a country — that will accept you."


Friday, July 6, 2012

Fields of Gold

Image courtesy: Sgt. Cali Cavanary

Even while Spc. Arronn Fields was in Afghanistan, he was working on his favorite project: restoring a 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1.

"He was ordering car parts to the U.S.," the soldier's older sister, Sgt. Cali Cavanary, told The Unknown Soldiers. "There were boxes from FedEx everywhere."

The Indiana native had an affinity for muscle cars, and almost nothing mattered more to him than making his prized Mustang whole again. But when Spc. Fields got the opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan, the soldier felt an obligation to serve, even though he'd already fought in Iraq.

"If I don't go, then someone married with kids will have to and that wouldn't be right," Sgt. Cavanary quoted her brother as saying before his January deployment.

Not surprisingly, Fields' job in Afghanistan was to drive military vehicles. And he treated U.S. Army property exactly like his precious Mustang: with reverence.

"He named his vehicle over in Afghanistan Mona," Cavanary said. "He detailed it and took pride in it."

Despite a substantial age gap, Fields and his big sister shared a special bond since childhood.

"He was kind of like my little kid in a sense," Cavanary explained. "I was always constantly watching him ... being put into that kind of parental role of taking care of him."

When his older sister joined the Indiana National Guard, Fields was watching closely.

"I remember when I graduated from basic training in 2002, he came down to Fort Hood, Texas," she recalled. "He was really proud of me and had a big smile on his face."

Fields followed in his sister's footsteps a few years later. While Cavanary was worried to see her little brother deploy to Iraq, he made it home safely in December 2008.

"We didn't talk about Iraq very much," she said. "Soldiers sometimes don't want to talk about it."

Back in Indiana, Fields would do his duty by day and work on his car by night. But as Fields continued to mature, particularly after his first deployment, Cavanary's admiration for her brother continued to grow.

"He was a better soldier than me, to be honest with you," Cavanary said.

When it came time to leave for Afghanistan, the soldier's sister had an uneasy feeling.

"I would tell him it was dangerous, and he would just laugh me off," she said.

Fields had a busy deployment with the 81st Troop Command of the Indiana National Guard, leaving him with barely enough time to correspond with family and friends.

"He called me one time when he was over there, and I missed the call," Cavanary said, adding that he left a voicemail.

Just after midnight on May 22, Fields' sister, who lives in Indianapolis, got a phone call from her mother, who was hysterical.

"She was crying and I couldn't understand her," Cavanary said. "I handed the phone to my husband."

There was a moment of silence before Cavanary tearfully recounted the painful moment when she found out that Spc. Arronn Fields, 27, was killed by enemy grenade fire on May 21 in Qal-ah-ye Mirza Jal, Afghanistan.

Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/Adrian Rowan

"I didn't think it could be true," the grieving sister said. "But then there was anger. ... Then I wanted to go to Afghanistan and kick some (butt)."

Western Indiana turned out in full force to honor its fallen hero, as residents put up signs on their homes and businesses to salute the hometown soldier's ultimate sacrifice.

"Since I'm in the military, sometimes I think we're taken for granted," she said. "But people do care."

Cavanary, whose deep faith in God has helped calm her initial anger, still wants to serve in Afghanistan.

"Even if I'm not on the front lines, I just want to go and do my part," Cavanary said.

Almost every night, Sgt. Cali Cavanary plays the last voicemail her younger brother left her. While she hopes to one day finish what he started on the battlefield, she's also determined to finish rebuilding his treasured 1969 Ford Mustang.

"He just really loved cars," she said. "That was his favorite thing."

Spc. Arronn Fields also loved America. As his bright, shiny Mustang someday travels down roads surrounded by Indiana's golden fields, the soldier's legacy will roar even louder than the car's powerful engine.