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

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