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

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

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Courage to Lead

Image courtesy: Lance Cpl. Jason Morrison

Paul Sears of Apache Junction, Ariz., lost his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Niall Coti-Sears, in Afghanistan on June 23. A late-night phone conversation I had with the grieving father is haunting in its resonance, as it offered a glimpse into how the war in Afghanistan continues to affect so many.

"It's been a complete blur," Sears said about the painful weeks since his son was killed. "To me, it just happened yesterday."

To many military families, Afghanistan is a war that dictates nearly every moment of their lives. But to many politicians, Afghanistan is a war of a bygone era, launched by a previous president after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. With thousands of brave Americans still serving, sacrificing, and suffering in Afghanistan, many of our nation's leaders and would-be leaders are often silent.

While some political strategists justify President Barack Obama, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and other candidates declining to frequently address Afghanistan because the war is unpopular in current polls, I ask whether past leaders like Presidents John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan would have shied away from frank discussions about such a crucial issue.

I am not a historian or political scientist. But the thought of Kennedy or Reagan putting popularity ahead of patriotism is almost ridiculous.

Yes, anyone can scour the Internet and find quotes from Obama and Romney about Afghanistan. The president made honoring our troops a part of his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., while his Republican challenger spoke about the military's heroism during a Sept. 11 speech in Reno, Nev.

But anyone paying even casual attention to the 2012 election cycle knows Afghanistan is mostly invisible on the campaign trail. Thousands of U.S. troops are fighting in mountains, deserts and remote forward-operating bases, yet their sacrifices are rarely highlighted by their next commander-in-chief.

Christy Meador of Columbia, S.C., lost her husband, Army National Guard Sgt. John David Meador II, on June 20 in Afghanistan when he was killed alongside two fellow soldiers. He died one week before their daughter's first birthday.

"There are so many people out there, even good friends of mine, saying, 'I can't believe he left you and that baby,' " Christy told "The Unknown Soldiers." "I say, 'You don't understand. It's something he wanted to do.' "

Some volunteer warriors return home with physical and emotional scars. Yet when I met wounded Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills in May at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the soldier expressed more concern for troops still in harm's way than sorrow over his devastating injuries. His unselfish attitude was remarkable, especially considering that Staff Sgt. Mills lost both his arms and legs in Afghanistan.

"He worries about (his fellow soldiers) constantly," the wounded warrior's wife, Kelsey Mills, said in May. "He makes me message them daily to make sure they're safe."

The stories of heroes like Lance Cpl. Niall Coti-Sears, Sgt. John David Meador II, and Staff Sgt. Travis Mills are being all but ignored during the 2012 presidential campaign, as is the war their brothers and sisters in arms still fight. Yes, there are other issues at home and abroad that also command our attention. But the most solemn duty of any president is the decision to send our military to war.

Last summer, I looked into the eyes of the 44th president during a solemn event and saw a man who cares deeply about the sacrifices of our troops. While I have never seen his election opponent up close, I have no doubt that he is also a man of compassion.

Despite being honorable men, both politicians, along with many Beltway insiders and pundits, lack the courage to make the war in Afghanistan part of our daily national consciousness. Therefore, it is up to us to challenge our national leaders to frequently remind Americans that our nation is still at war.

"Poor is the country that has no heroes, but beggared is the country that having them, forgets," goes an old, anonymous quote. Never have those words been more relevant.


Image courtesy: Sgt. 1st Class Eric Pahon

Monday, September 17, 2012

Blood and Sand

In June 2011, this column introduced you to Sgt. Jason Cartwright and his military working dog, Isaac. Both warriors had just returned from a year of hunting for improvised explosive devices buried beneath Afghanistan's treacherous sand.

"These are real IEDs — real explosives — and everything else is out of the picture," the soldier said.

Today, Sgt. Cartwright and Isaac are once again searching for enemy bombs.

"Isaac and I left Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., on our way back to the sandbox of Afghanistan," Cartwright wrote in a September email to "The Unknown Soldiers."

The Army dog handler, who also served in Iraq, misses his wife and four-year-old son. But Isaac, a black Labrador that saved countless American and Afghans last year, has also become family. Now, the soldier and his best friend are once again risking their lives.

"Thirteen months we were on that battlefield with all the explosions, firefights, and sights of seeing the bloody, wounded, or the open-eyed stares of the dead," Cartwright wrote. "We soon hit reality, to not only put our war faces on but also knowing our country has called on us yet again to serve."

While conventional wisdom inside the United States is that the war in Afghanistan is "winding down," the image of Cartwright and his black Lab scouring the country's unforgiving terrain for bombs that kill and maim troops and civilians, including children, challenges our perception of a conflict entering its 12th year.

"The first thing I have to do is get educated on the Taliban's tactics, as I just know they have changed," Cartwright wrote. "(I'm) hoping at the age of five, (Isaac) will be as proficient and experienced to bring us home one more time."

While confronting a ruthless enemy, Cartwright admits to also battling the scars of his first deployment, which included finding bombs that terrorists intentionally buried near schools and hospitals.

"The flashbacks and memories are strongly on my mind," he wrote. "(I know) the dangers that Isaac and I will soon be facing again."

Cartwright and Isaac serve with the Engineer Canine Company of the Army's 5th Engineer Battalion, which has consistently proved itself as one of America's elite defenses against enemy IEDs.

"My wife said, 'I am more at ease knowing that they are sending one of the best teams again,' " Cartwright wrote.

Even though they completed a previous Afghanistan deployment, the Army, which is focused on countering the evolving Taliban threat, made sure the soldier and his dog underwent months of pre-deployment training. Once they arrived in the war zone, the preparations continued.

"Two weeks have gone by of intense training," Cartwright wrote. "We now stand ready to go out and support NATO and coalition forces."

Being separated from your family by thousands of miles for months at a time is almost unimaginable to those of us who haven't served in the military. Afghanistan, in particular, is a desolate place where loneliness can creep up on even the most seasoned warrior.

"Across the airfield through the open desert and dusty air, those unforgettable mountains that I said goodbye to are standing still and bold," the soldier wrote.

Images courtesy: Sgt. Jason Cartwright

Having Isaac by his side is a source of daily comfort.

"I couldn't imagine going back without my dog," Cartwright said before his second deployment. "We have a special rapport and special bond; I know I trust that dog, and that dog trusts me."

Both the soldier and his black Lab survived close encounters with the enemy during their first go-around. This deployment will almost certainly carry the same perils.

"We are going to support the troops on the front lines of the battlefield; to seek and search for the deadliest weapon used against U.S. and NATO force — the IEDs," he wrote.

The willingness of heroes like Sgt. Jason Cartwright to serve in Afghanistan gives his fellow Americans the luxury of worrying about other things. Yet for the foreseeable future, I'll be checking my email every morning, hoping to learn that this soldier, his courageous dog and their fellow troops are safe.

"To a destination unknown, we take off into the dusty air over the mountains of Afghanistan," the soldier wrote. "To be continued."


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Stepping Forward

Sometimes, a photo says more than the written word. Thank you to Lt. Benjamin Addison for taking this picture on Sept. 11, 2012, at a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan. While mourning the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we salute our troops, veterans, and their families for spending every day of the past eleven years defending our freedom.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Finding Beauty

Image courtesy: Laura Carothers

Before Cpl. Reece Lodder deployed to Afghanistan last fall, he agonized over leaving his beautiful wife behind.

"Preparing to say goodbye to the most important person in your life for seven months ... it hurts," the 22-year-old Marine told "The Unknown Soldiers" in 2011. "It's a struggle."

Today, after risking his life in one of the world's most dangerous places, Cpl. Lodder is home.

"It was a really good deployment," Lodder said Aug. 30 from Marine Corps Base Hawaii. "I'm thankful it's over, but sometimes I miss it."

The fact that anyone would "miss" Afghanistan's Helmand province, especially while stationed in Hawaii, speaks to the selflessness of a young generation that has consistently stepped forward since Sept. 11, 2001. But if you ask Lodder, he was simply doing his job and owes everything to his fellow Marines and his loved ones in the state of Washington.

"I had so much support from my family and church back home," he said. "God got us through this."

While some politicians and media pundits are self-proclaimed experts on the decade-plus Afghanistan conflict, the opinions of Americans like Lodder, as one of a relative handful to serve there, truly matter. From his perspective, America is making progress in Afghanistan because our nation's bravest men and women are still willing to serve and sacrifice.

"It's not a sexy story," the military journalist said. "But the (Afghan) people were very receptive to the work we've done."

Lodder, who jumped between several units while capturing images and filing reports, said a storyline pushed by some in the mainstream media — Afghan civilians universally despising American troops — is simply not accurate.

"They were thankful and kind of in awe of the fact that we were over there to help them and to serve," Lodder said. "In some respects, realistically, they're kind of used to us being there."

Still, tragic violence continues in Afghanistan, including an increase in so-called "insider attacks" against U.S. forces by terrorists wearing Afghan military or police uniforms. While Lodder's heart aches for the families of his fallen brothers and sisters in arms, the Marine believes the cowardly attacks reveal a drastically weakened enemy.

"The insurgents are so desperate ... that's what they're resorting to," Lodder said. "They're so weak because of all the work that we've done to push them out and cripple their insurgency."

Everyone in his unit came home from Afghanistan alive, Lodder said, although three Marines were wounded and awarded Purple Hearts.

"There was still the inherent threat of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) every time we went out," Lodder said. "We were fortunate to come back with all our guys."

While he was eager to confront the remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Lodder believes his unit saw less action because of brave American troops who served before them in the country where 9/11 was planned. Still, some terrorists remain.

"They're not completely gone," Lodder said. "They're still there ... still hiding ... they're just too nervous to attack us."

While reflecting on seven months that will remain with him for a lifetime, the Marine recalled a bitterly cold, damp evening that marked the fourth straight day out on patrol in southern Afghanistan's rugged terrain. But even amid harsh conditions that would wear down the toughest warrior, Lodder found solace.

Images courtesy: Cpl. Reece Lodder

"I remember seeing the sun go down, and it was the most round, perfect, clear sunset I'd ever seen," he said. "I remember thinking that this was the first time I'd ever seen beauty in Afghanistan."

A few months later, Lodder saw an even more beautiful sight when he stepped back onto American soil. It was his wife, Krissy, running toward him with tears in her eyes and a huge smile on her face.

"We just hugged, and I was home," he said. "It was perfect."

With Afghanistan behind them, Reece and Krissy Lodder are eagerly awaiting the birth of their first child.

"I'm so thankful that I'm here to support her," the Marine said. "My service means a lot to me, but my family and my faith is paramount."

Afghanistan is full of bloodshed, pain and heartbreak. But sometimes, even during the hell of war, there is also beauty.