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

Friday, December 20, 2013

Tex and the Princess

Images courtesy: Operation Home

When Christina Spragins was growing up with future U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Alex Viola, the siblings were usually building forts in the basement.

"Alex loved to play an Army guy named 'Tex,'" Christina wrote on her "Operation Home" blog. "And I was the princess whom he was protecting."

Other than two years and 364 days, not much separated Christina from her younger brother. Whether he was guarding her as she played princess or enjoying one of their joint birthday parties, Alex was always there to support his big sister.

"He was so funny," Christina told The Unknown Soldiers. "He liked to give people a hard time, but he wouldn't be mean ... ever."

After overcoming a youth muscular disorder, Alex turned his focus to joining the military's elite special operations community.

"He always had it in his head that he wanted to be Special Forces," Christina said.

Alex joined the Navy and began Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training in Coronado, Calif. He made it two days before the end of "Hell Week" — one of the most grueling chapters of BUD/S — before a back injury forced him out.

"He never made a big deal about it, but he never really wanted to talk about it very much," Christina said.

Alex came home to suburban Dallas just in time to enjoy his sister's wedding. Instead of complaining about the bad luck he encountered while trying to become a Navy SEAL, he set his sights on joining the Army's storied Special Forces component.

By the summer of 2011, Alex had graduated and become a Green Beret. Finally, his many years of hard work had paid off.

"He fought to be on the team," the soldier's sister said.

Whenever Alex had a break from training, he would enjoy time with his girlfriend or dote over his sister's first child, Lucas.

"Alex was an uncle," Christina said. "He would spend as much time as he could with (Lucas)."

On Christmas Eve 2012, Alex bought a special suit to surprise his beloved nephew.

"He dressed up after Christmas Eve dinner to visit Lucas as Santa," Christina said.

As Alex prepared to leave for the still-volatile southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar in October 2013, he was as happy as a deploying soldier could be.

"It seemed like he was content with everything," his sister said. "He was content with going (overseas), his girlfriend and where he was living. He was in a good place."

Christina kept in frequent touch with her deployed brother, who always wanted to see new pictures and videos of young Lucas. The soldier had big plans upon his scheduled return in 2014, including spending time with his nephew and settling down with his girlfriend.

Then, on Nov. 17, two soldiers and an Army chaplain knocked on the front door of Christina's home in Fort Worth, Texas.

"I was holding my son ... I had no idea what was going on, and I was crying, of course," she said. "I made them repeat it twice."

According to the Pentagon, Staff Sgt. Alex Viola, 29, was killed when his unit was attacked with an improvised explosive device while on a dismounted patrol.

The news was devastating. But the way the community has rallied around the fallen soldier's family is a source of inspiration.

"We have been absolutely blown away by all of the support," Christina, 32, said three weeks after the death of her only brother.

After neighbors of the fallen soldier's parents lined the streets with American flags, Christina asked her two-year-old son if he knew who the flags were for.

"Uncle Alex," Lucas said. "Uncle Alex is a hero."

Image courtesy: U.S. Army

As a pretend soldier named Tex, Alex guarded his sister while she played princess. As a real American soldier, he protected not only Christina, but helped shape the life of a boy who will always be affected by the war in Afghanistan.

If there's one lesson Christina Spragins wants Americans to learn from her brother's death, it's to always appreciate your family and friends.

"Go tell your loved ones how you feel about them ... now," she wrote. "They deserve to hear it. And you never know when your last chance to tell them will be."


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER will be released in May 2014. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sounds of War

File image courtesy: Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse

Everything sounded different to Julie Johnson on a gray Chicago morning in April 2012. A dripping sink sounded like a waterfall, while a passing subway sounded like a freight train.

"Even though it was quiet, things around me were very loud," Julie, 30, told The Unknown Soldiers.

The next sound was from Julie's phone. A text message from her father-in-law was waiting.

"Have you heard from Nick?" the message said.

"Yes, I talked to him yesterday," Julie responded.

Julie's husband, U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Nick Johnson, had been in Afghanistan since January. In the middle of his first combat deployment, the helicopter pilot was flying medical missions in some of the war zone's most dangerous areas.

Image courtesy: U.S. Army

While she initially wondered about her father-in-law's text, Julie was confident that nothing was wrong. After all, she could still hear the sound of Nick's voice during the previous day's phone call.

"He told me he was safe, he told me not to worry, and I told him I'd worry anyway," Julie recounted. "He said 'I love you and I'll talk to you when I can.'"

Julie had known Nick since their 6th grade class in Ontario, Calif., when she first admired her future husband's wonderful sense of humor.

"He would make you laugh until your stomach hurt," she said.

As their relationship blossomed through the years, Julie watched Nick become an exemplary husband, soldier and father. On that spring 2012 morning, the next sound Julie heard was the roar of the faucet as she put their 2-year-old son, Nathan, in the bathtub.

"We're OK," Julie would frequently tell herself while Nick was in Afghanistan. "Things will be OK."

Images courtesy: Julie Johnson

As she watched her son enjoy his bath, Julie heard her cell phone ring. This time, it was her dad. They talked for a few minutes while she continued tending to Nathan.

That's when Julie heard the loudest sound of all. Someone was knocking on the front door of the house, which belonged to her sister. Julie and Nathan, who lived on a Hawaii military base, were visiting Chicago for part of Nick's yearlong deployment.

"I didn't feel good about it," Julie said of the knock. "It was strange to me."

With Nathan still in the bathtub, Julie decided to ignore whoever was at the door. Then came more knocking, which along with the barks of her sister's dogs, prompted Julie to crack the front door open and peek outside.

"It was two men standing in their dress uniforms," Julie said. "At that point, I just immediately knew ... things weren't OK."

After the soldiers asked to speak to "Mrs. Julie Johnson," the military wife initially couldn't bear to hear anything else.

"I offered them something to drink, then got my son out of the bathtub," Julie said. "I think I was just trying to put off hearing those words, even though I knew what they were going to tell me."

Chief Warrant Officer Nick Johnson, 27, was killed in an Apr. 19, 2012, helicopter crash along with three fellow soldiers. Both Nick's dad and Julie's had seen news reports about a chopper accident in southern Afghanistan, which was they checked in that morning.

While the next few weeks were filled with unforgettable sounds, including a 21-gun salute at her husband's funeral, Nick's voice continued to resonate. During one conversation before Nick deployed, the soldier and his wife discussed what to do if he didn't make it home.

"He said that he would want me to move forward in a way that would love and support Nathan," Julie recalled.

Today, when Julie sees and hears her now 4-year-old son, she is reminded of his dad.

"It's almost as if Nick's still here with us, and Nathan's still learning lessons from him," she said. "Daily, we talk about Nick and who he was."

Chief Warrant Officer Nick Johnson loved his family, his country and flying helicopters. He was also one of almost 7,000 Americans to be killed in Afghanistan or Iraq since 9/11.

Julie Johnson and other grieving military relatives are now the voices of our nation's fallen heroes. As they courageously share the stories of their loved ones, it is our duty to listen.


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER will be released in May 2014. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Soldier's Dog

Images courtesy: Team Blu Van Loo

During four deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, there was one constant for U.S. Army Sgt. Jason Van Loo. His loyal dog, Blu, was always at home with his wife and kids.

"He's been a big part of our family," said Sgt. Van Loo about his yellow Labrador retriever.

In December 2012, Jason was enduring his roughest combat tour since joining the military 13 years ago. After three deployments to Iraq, the soldier was dodging improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan with his Colorado-based unit.

"Everybody hears about Afghanistan and all the IEDs and stuff, and it pretty much lives up to that," Jason said. "It's the real deal over there."

On the deployment's first mission, Jason sensed something strange during a joint combat patrol.

"I thought I heard something and felt vibrations in the truck," he said. "Eventually, we figured out that no one could get a hold of the rear truck ... that's when we found out my buddy's truck had been hit."

Jason's buddy was Staff Sgt. Mark Schoonhoven, 38, of Plainwell, Mich. He suffered devastating injuries in the Dec. 15, 2012, enemy IED attack, and succumbed to his wounds on Jan. 20. Before Jason's deployment was over, four more teammates were killed in action, with another four wounded.

"We tried to get over our losses and keep our mission going," Jason, who was deeply affected by the tragedies, said.

In the early morning hours of July 3, Jason was the assistant gunner in his Army vehicle when his convoy encountered a road blocked by burning fuel tankers. As fellow soldiers tried to clear a path, there was a huge explosion.

"I don't recall a lot of it, but I do recall seeing black smoke and red and orange," Jason said.

His vehicle had been struck by an enemy rocket-propelled grenade, but miraculously, Jason and his entire patrol survived.

"I would say I had angels looking out for me and everyone else in the truck that day," he said.

As he dealt with the daily dangers of wartime service, Jason was shocked when his wife, Kari, informed him that their beloved dog, Blu, had been diagnosed with bone cancer. While some may have put the dog down, Kari was determined to ease Blu's pain and make sure the pet was reunited with her husband.

"It meant the world to me that my wife wouldn't take no for an answer," Jason said. "(Blu) was the one taking my spot while I was gone."

Blu's leg was amputated. The dog then started chemotherapy at Colorado State University, which Kari said "went above and beyond" to treat her sick pet. The community also rallied around the deployed soldier's wife and three kids to form "Team Blu Van Loo" and raise funds for the dog's expensive surgery and treatments.

"She just never gave up," Jason said about his wife. "She wanted to make sure Blu was there when I came home."

Sure enough, when Jason returned from his harrowing fourth deployment, Blu was waiting.

"I was so happy to see him," the soldier said. "I was so tired and exhausted, and he just knocked me over with his three legs and started licking me. It was awesome."

On Oct. 29 — Jason's 41st birthday — the medical staff at Colorado State University gave a hero's welcome to the soldier and his dog.

"That's what I wanted for my birthday," Jason said. "He had to get some blood tests and they had a big party for him."

Blu died just before Thanksgiving. While the soldier, his wife and their children are saddened by their pet's passing, Jason is forever grateful for the weeks he got to spend with the dog after coming home from Afghanistan.

"We donated all his organs to CSU so they can study and research (cancer)," Jason said. "Somebody paid it forward for me, so I want to pay it forward as well."

Sergeant Jason Van Loo has suffered great loss over the past year, but as he continues his Army career, he is determined to carry on with the memory of the fallen, including Blu, in his heart.

"He's still with us in spirit," Jason said.


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER will be released in May 2014. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Hico's Hero

Images courtesy: Hico's Hero

You probably haven't heard of Hico, Texas. With a population of well under 2,000, the city's motto, "Where everybody is somebody," captures its all-American charm.

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Shawn Hefner may have lived in a small town, but his dreams were larger than life.

"He was always talking about being a Marine because his dad was a Marine," Shawn's mother, Robin Hefner, told The Unknown Soldiers. She added that her husband, Patrick, retired from the Marine Corps before Shawn was born.

For days at a time, young Shawn would camp alone on a mountain to develop survival skills. He also displayed the toughness needed to become a warrior.

At age 12, Shawn jumped on a wild mustang and rode bareback before falling and breaking his arm. That night, determined not to complain about his injury, he waited several agonizing hours before finally asking his parents for a ride to the hospital.

"He didn't want to ruin our evening," Robin said.

Shawn was 14 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. Like so many of this generation's volunteer warriors, he was deeply impacted by 9/11 and refused to let the terrorist attacks go unanswered.

"He kept saying that he had to go over there and take care of it ... that they had come onto our territory," Robin said. "He always wanted to be a Marine, but he had to be after that."

After graduating high school, one bad decision nearly put Shawn's dream out of reach. During a drunken night with friends, Shawn, who planned to spend a year at home in central Texas before enlisting, broke into a country club and stole several cases of beer. As Shawn initially hid from authorities seeking to arrest him, his mom told him it was time to "own" the mistake.

"He turned himself in, went straight to the judge, and told him he wanted to be a Marine," Robin said.

After working three jobs to pay restitution, Shawn, who was placed on one year's probation, was allowed to sign up for the Marine Corps. Less than a year later, Robin was shocked by the transformation of a boy whose immaturity had nearly taken his life off track.

"I was utterly amazed when we went to California for his graduation," she said. "I just thought, 'Oh, my God. He's a man.'"

In May 2009, Robin got another surprise when Shawn called to tell her he was deploying to Afghanistan.

"That's when I jumped on a plane because I had this overpowering urge to see him before he left," the Marine's mother said. "I had to go."

Five weeks later, the worried mom was gripped by panic and hysteria when she received a phone call saying her son had been injured on the battlefield. After six excruciating hours, Shawn was able to call home. While he suffered a concussion in an improvised explosive device attack, Shawn said, he felt fine.

"I broke down for three days," Robin said. "I just kept thinking, 'Oh, my God ... it could have been over.'"

On Nov. 13, 2009, the military mom was opening her front door to receive what she thought was a package with materials for a scrapbook she was making for Shawn.

"Then I saw three uniforms," Robin said. "I went running to the other side of the house."

Moments later, she was informed that Lance Cpl. Shawn Hefner, 22, died after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. The next day, the Marine and his unit had been scheduled to leave the war zone.

While the pain was unbearable for Robin, Patrick, and their two surviving children, Hico and other patriotic communities across Texas rallied around their hometown hero.

"It was extremely overwhelming and honoring, and just amazing, to see the impact he had," Robin said four years to the day after her son was buried.

Today, Shawn's mom runs a non-profit organization called "Hico's Hero," which creates special pins so mothers who've lost a child to war can proudly display photos of their son or daughter.

"I've never left my house without my pin," Robin Hefner said.

In this small Texas community, everybody is indeed somebody. But Lance Cpl. Shawn Hefner will always be Hico's hero.


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER will be released in May 2014. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Their Destiny

Images courtesy: Sgt. April Trent

A heavy snowstorm blanketed much of eastern Afghanistan on Dec. 13, 2012. While conditions were miserable, Sgt. April Trent and her South Carolina Army National Guard unit tried to make the best of it.

"We had a huge snowball fight," Sgt. Trent told The Unknown Soldiers. "We were having so much fun ... more fun than you'd think you could ever have in a combat zone."

For April, it was a welcome break from missing her two children and worrying about her husband, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Nelson Trent, who was serving to her south in Kandahar. Since November, the husband and wife were both deployed to Afghanistan.

That night on the frigid Forward Operating Base, April awoke to someone banging on her door. It was her commanding officer.

As Sgt. Trent put down her weapon and followed her superior to his office, she wondered if life was about to change. Since the first of her husband's two Iraq deployments began in 2003, Nelson believed that his military career could only end one way.

"He would tell me 'it is my destiny to die in war,'" April said.

Since 1999, when Nelson and April met while stationed at Georgia's Fort Gordon, she admired the Texas soldier's sense of humor.

"(Nelson) was just funny ... all the time," she said. "There was never a dull moment when he was around."

Nelson and April got married on Nov. 21, 2000. On Mar. 19, 2003 — the day U.S. forces invaded Iraq — April found out she was pregnant with the couple's first child. Her husband deployed the next day.

"He was on the phone with me when my son was born and got to hear his first cry," April said. "During his second deployment in '05-'06, he got to come home for his son's 2nd birthday."

April took a break in service to care for their son and later gave birth to a daughter. But even while sacrificing as a military spouse, April decided it was time to resume her career in uniform.

Before the Texas couple knew it, both April and Trent faced deployments to Afghanistan. With two Iraq tours under his belt, young children at home, and a wife headed overseas, Nelson was in agony.

"He said 'you know it's my destiny,'" April recalled. "And I said 'I'll see you when we get back.'"

When April stepped inside her commander's office in the early morning hours of Dec. 14, 2012, her heart sank when she saw an Army Chaplain.

"We regret to inform you that your husband, Nelson Trent, has been killed in action ... " April's commander began. Those words are the last she remembers from that terrible night.

After several agonizing days on her snowed-in base, April was flown out of Afghanistan. She arrived in Germany just in time to meet her husband's flag-draped casket.

"I was able to fly home with Nelson," she said.

April would soon learn that her 37-year-old husband was killed in a bombing carried out by terrorists near a military base that was just visited by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

"You can't be scared," April said Nelson told his fellow soldiers just hours before his death. "You have to put your faith in God."

Sergeant 1st Class Nelson Trent was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Jan. 8. Just ten days later, his wife was back in Afghanistan. But as her children struggled to understand their father's death, especially with their mom still in harm's way, the Army let April return to South Carolina, where she and her kids would eventually move.

On Valentine's Day 2013 — April's 32nd birthday — the tearful soldier surprised her children at school.

"It was like winning the lottery," she said. "It felt so good to feel my kids' arms around my neck."

As they grow up, the Trent children will always know that their father was an American hero.

"Everyone has their calling — whatever it is they're supposed to do — and Nelson was supposed to be a soldier," April said. "He died doing what he loved."

Shortly before our phone call concluded, Sgt. April Trent, who was shopping for groceries, paused to thank a passing soldier for his service. Hopefully, both of April's kids already know that their remarkable mother is an American hero, too.


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER will be released in May 2014. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Story Goes On

Images courtesy: 1LT Tom Martin Memorial Foundation

When U.S. Army 1st Lt. Tom Martin called or emailed his mother from Iraq, he would almost always end with the same words.

"I gotta go rid the world of evil," 1st Lt. Martin said.

Few mothers could understand the risks her son faced like Candy Martin. When Tom deployed to Iraq in October 2006, she had just returned from the war-torn country.

"I got home in July 2006," U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Candy Martin (Ret.) told The Unknown Soldiers. "Even though I knew where he was going to be — I had been there — I truly believed he was going to be OK."

Tom's father, Ed, served in the Army until 1995. But even though Tom grew up in a military family, his mother said that the future warrior's motivation to serve came from within.

"We have pictures of him at Halloween dressed as a soldier, but I'm not sure his interest in the military came from us," Candy said. "He definitely had a mind of his own."

After his application to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was rejected in high school, Tom enlisted in the Army and refused to give up his dream of becoming an officer.

"He made very solid decisions," the soldier's mom said. "We saw a huge maturity."

Tom was eventually accepted to West Point and enrolled in the fall of 2001, just before America went to war. But even after 9/11 changed everything, Tom's outlook stayed the same.

"He had true conviction for what was right," Candy said.

When Tom arrived in Iraq five years later, the platoon leader sent his mom pictures of several familiar places.

"I was in the Green Zone and climbed the towers ... the statues where Saddam Hussein was holding the swords," Candy said. "He said, 'My mom did this ... I'm going to climb this.' He wasn't going to let his mother outdo him."

Adding to the unusual nature of Tom's first combat deployment was that his fiancee, U.S. Army Capt. Erika Noyes, was serving in the same area.

"I haven't gotten to see Erika very much since she's been here, but once in a while I miracle myself to her FOB (Forward Operating Base) for a short visit," Tom wrote in September 2007.

Instead of planning their wedding, the young couple was in the middle of a war.

"She hasn't been getting the flight hours she would like," Tom wrote about Erika. "But in the grand scheme of things, that's a good thing because it means people aren't in need of a Medevac flight."

About a month later, with Tom still in Iraq due to the troop surge that extended his deployment, Erika was working the operations desk when a Medevac flight was requested. As she would soon learn, her fiance had been hit with small arms fire.

"Tom had been pronounced KIA (killed in action)," Candy said. "She was in disbelief."

First Lt. Tom Martin died on Oct. 14, 2007, four days after his 27th birthday. Erika, whose own birthday was the next day, left Iraq amid the incomprehensible realization that their Oct. 12, 2008, wedding would never take place.

Candy, who has three surviving daughters and calls Erika her "fourth child," was also in disbelief when casualty assistance officers arrived on the doorstep of her family's San Antonio, Texas, home.

"It was the worst news possible, because he was just so close to coming home," she said.

Six years later, Tom's parents, sisters, fiancee, friends and fellow soldiers are keeping the fallen hero's memory alive.

"On the anniversary of his death this year, we got a letter from his battalion-level commander at Fort Richardson," Candy said. "While he didn't know Tom personally, the stories go on."

Tom's loved ones also established the 1LT Tom Martin Memorial Foundation, which supports scholarships, church missions and Tom's former Boy Scout troop.

"He's still leading today," Candy Martin said about her son. "These stories can make a difference in people's lives."

Because of 1st Lt. Tom Martin's ultimate sacrifice and the courage of his loved ones, other young men and women are being inspired by the soldier's selfless deeds and powerful words: "I gotta go rid the world of evil."


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER will be released in May 2014. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website.

Friday, November 8, 2013

War Fatigue

Images courtesy: Lance Cpl. Zachery Martin

One of the biggest myths about the conflict in Afghanistan is that we're "tired" of it. Given that 99 percent of Americans have never fought in the war-torn land, the pundits have once again succeeded in getting the story wrong.

I haven't served in uniform. The closest I've been to war are in places like the hospital room of a courageous soldier who lost both legs in Afghanistan or in front of a brave young Marine's open casket.

Conducting an interview with a family member of a fallen hero is often heartbreaking. But whenever I start to feel emotionally drained, I think of America's real "one percent" — the valiant men and women who serve and sacrifice.

If anyone is suffering from "war fatigue," it is our nation's military community. None of us — particularly politicians and journalists — have any business claiming otherwise.

When it comes to those propagating the myth of a country that's "exhausted" from the military's post-9/11 battles, many of the same talking heads assure us that the war in Afghanistan is also winding down. If that's the case, someone forgot to tell Beth Strickland Funk, who lost her son there on Sept. 21.

"I fell to the ground and started crying before they started saying anything," Beth said of the moment she realized that her 23-year-old son, U.S. Army Sgt. Joshua "Jay" Strickland, was dead.

Like so many other members of America's community of protectors, Beth refuses to complain.

"This has just brought home to so many people that we still need to be praying and paying attention ... and praying for our soldiers and their families," she said.

Eight years ago, the war in Iraq saturated most television and computer screens. Those responsible for setting war policy were under siege, and to this day, there are still heated debates about the conflict's merits.

There is little debate about Afghanistan because so few are paying attention. Whenever I attend a sporting event or concert, I often wonder how many in the stadium — including those on the playing field or stage — even know a war is still being fought. My guess is that if I polled the audience, less than half would answer correctly.

Only a tiny fraction of our population has to deal with the possibility of being killed or maimed in battle. Unlike World War II or Vietnam, millions have no personal connection to the war being fought by their fellow citizens.

One young American making sacrifices on our behalf is Cpl. Geoffrey Scarborough. When I spoke to the Marine in August, he was documenting perilous U.S. combat patrols in southern Afghanistan, where so many coalition forces have fought and bled since 9/11.

"It's awesome," Cpl. Scarborough said about his dangerous job.

I wish every American could speak with 23-year-olds like Cpl. Scarborough. If more of us got to know the troops, veterans and military families in our own neighborhoods, it would be impossible for so many to turn away as a war unfolds.

If there's anything I'm tired of, it's asking people to care about a conflict that started after terrorists based in Afghanistan planned an attack on our country. While there is nothing wrong with a healthy debate about whether tens of thousands should still be in harm's way, there is no excuse for looking the other way.

When I spoke to Sonja Stoeckli six weeks after her son, U.S. Army Spc. Kyle Stoeckli, was killed by an enemy improvised explosive device, she said there was nothing more difficult than feeling isolated.

"Once all the crowds and events are over, that's when the real awareness and the real pain sets in," said Sonja, who lost her 21-year-old son on June 1.

No family member of a fallen hero should ever feel alone. Being an American is not about waving a flag or paying taxes; it is about standing shoulder-to-shoulder with those who keep our nation free.

Instead of nodding our heads when others assure us that we're tired, let's devote ourselves to honoring and remembering our country's true heroes and patriots. If there's one thing I'll never be tired of, it's learning more about their remarkable lives.


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER will be released in May 2014. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website.

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Soldier's Heart

Images courtesy: Volker family

Ever since he was a boy growing up in West Texas, U.S. Army Spc. Robert "RJ" Volker wore his heart on his sleeve.

"He had a smile that was true from his heart," the soldier's mother, Melissa Volker, told The Unknown Soldiers via email. "You could tell how he felt by the size of his smile."

From a young age, it was obvious that RJ would one day put his heart and soul into serving his country.

"As far back as I can remember, he wanted to be an 'Army man,'" Melissa wrote. "He was doing that Army crawl thing (at) about 2 years old."

Throughout his freshman year in high school, RJ hounded his mom to sign a permission form that would grant him access to Army recruiters.

"I was afraid to sign because I thought if I did, the Army would take him as soon as he graduated," Melissa wrote about RJ, who would turn 18 in August 2003.

One Tuesday morning before school, Melissa gave in and signed the form. The date was Sept. 11, 2001. Hours later, RJ watched in silence as the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon burned.

"He never said any more about joining up after that day," she wrote. "He got scared ... or so I thought."

In September 2005, RJ's younger brother, Johnathan, joined the U.S. Navy. As the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approached, RJ told his parents that he, too, would be volunteering to serve.

"Why now?" Melissa asked.

RJ explained that after 9/11, he felt an obligation to stay home and protect his family during uncertain times.

"I needed to stay," he said. "But if you're strong enough for (Johnathan) to go, I know I can go, and you and Dad will be fine."

Two weeks later, RJ left for boot camp. During the next year, he would get married and accomplish his lifelong dream of becoming a soldier. Then, in October 2006, Spc. Volker deployed to Iraq.

Almost every day, the young soldier would call his wife, Martha — who'd moved in with RJ's parents while he was away — and tell his family how much he loved them.

"As the days went by, I talked to him less and less (because) it was just so hard to think about the 'what ifs'," the soldier's mom wrote.

During one video call, RJ's camera began to shake as lights flickered in the background. When Melissa heard yelling, she realized her son's base was under attack.

"I sat there, glued to the computer, not sure what was happening and fearing the worst," she wrote. "He popped back up from under his table and said 'that was close ... you still with me, (Mom)?"

A few days before Christmas 2006, RJ's wife and mother were going through boxes of decorations when someone knocked on the door. Screams filled the house when they realized that two uniformed soldiers were waiting outside. The family's worst fears had come true.

"An IED exploded under the truck (RJ) was driving," Melissa wrote. "He took the (brunt of) the explosion by turning the truck away from it and saved the other men in his truck."

Specialist RJ Volker, who made the ultimate sacrifice in Baghdad on Dec. 20, 2006, at age 21, was escorted home to Texas and saluted by his 19-year-old brother. Melissa and her husband were in a fog as the heartbreaking scene unfolded.

"You just nod your heard and keep going," she wrote about the days after RJ's death.

After receiving letters from the president and governor, support from organizations like the Patriot Guard Riders and compassion from countless mourners, the fog began to lift.

"To know that our son's death was not in vain — that most of our nation appreciated the life he gave for them — is awesome," Melissa wrote.

Like all of our nation's Gold Star families, Spc. Robert "RJ" Volker's loved ones will never stop grieving. But whenever the past begins to haunt Melissa Volker, she thinks of her son's defining characteristic.

"RJ was just a good-hearted, hard-headed boy who heard a sound not too many people hear ... a call of duty," the soldier's mom wrote. "He had a soldier's heart."


Note: Thank you to Notes With Wings for putting the Volkers and The Unknown Soldiers in touch.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Gift

Images courtesy: Small Steps in Speech

Before U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Marc Small left for a month of Special Operations training, he sent a gift to his fiancee, Amanda Charney.

"In the box ... there were 30 envelopes for every day he wouldn't be able to talk to me," Amanda told The Unknown Soldiers. "Every day he was gone, I would open up an envelope."

Marc and Amanda were immediately drawn to one another when they met on New Year's Eve in 2005.

"He would smile and others would start to smile," Amanda said. "(Marc) laughing was the number one thing that got me going."

Amanda had no previous connection to the military, which resulted in a challenging adjustment to life as a soldier's girlfriend. She lived outside of Philadelphia in Collingswood, N.J., while Marc, who was from nearby Collegeville, Pa., was stationed at North Carolina's Fort Bragg.

"I never made the formal move down there," she said. "We were just trying to make it through a lot of traveling, and it was difficult."

Despite the unavoidable tribulations of a long-distance relationship, Marc and Amanda emerged stronger than ever. The soldier asked the girl of his dreams to marry him, and when she said yes, Marc knew the only thing standing in the way was a six-month deployment to Afghanistan.

Once Marc came home, the couple decided, they would marry and open up their house to children with disabilities. Marc wanted to assist Amanda — a language pathologist — in giving a voice to the voiceless.

"He said I could work with children out of our home," Amanda said.

Instead of complaining about their dreams being put on hold, Marc — a Green Beret — trained hard and focused on his unit's difficult mission overseas.

"He was so committed and determined," Amanda said.

After spending Christmas 2008 in each other's arms, the soldier and his fiancee said goodbye. In six short months, they would be together forever.

"We had our whole future planned," Amanda said.

Throughout January 2009, Amanda communicated with Marc using technological innovations that were difficult to imagine when the war in Afghanistan erupted back in 2001.

"Even when he was there, we would FaceTime and Skype," Amanda said.

When she asked Marc if he was OK, his response was almost always similar to what he told his fiancee before deploying: "Don't cry, I'll be back in no time."

"I'm sure he masked everything he saw so he wouldn't worry me," Amanda said.

On Feb. 12, 2009, Staff Sgt. Marc Small, 29, was killed when insurgents attacked his unit with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire, according to the Pentagon. For the valiant soldier's family and bride-to-be, life as they knew it was shattered in a matter of seconds.

"I didn't believe it at all," an emotional Amanda said. "It was a sadness and a shock that was just not real."

Instead of exchanging vows with the man she loved, Amanda watched in stunned silence as Marc's flag-draped casket returned to U.S. soil.

"All you saw were hundreds of children waving American flags," Amanda said. "It was a beautiful sight that I'll never forget."

As grief's dense fog began to clear, Amanda focused on making Marc's dream of helping children a reality. Putting her linguistic expertise in action, she launched a non-profit organization that helps children with language disorders communicate with one another. The charity's name — "Small Steps in Speech" — was Marc's idea.

"It's amazing that after four and a half years, we have distributed almost $300,000 to children around the country," Amanda said.

Amanda added that she never could have made it this far without the support of her fiance's grieving, equally determined relatives.

"I'm just so blessed to have continuing support from Marc's family," she said.

On Feb. 14, 2009, two days after her fiance's death, Amanda received another package in the mail. To her astonishment, it was a Valentine's Day gift from Marc.

"He planned this ahead of time before he left for Afghanistan," Amanda, now 34, said. "He had flowers delivered."

Nearly five years after tears of grief first filled Amanda Charney's eyes, the legacy of Staff Sgt. Marc Small endures. He placed the well-being of others above his own and gave his country a gift it can never repay.


Friday, October 18, 2013

The Brave Ones

Image courtesy: Sgt. Margaret Taylor

This weekly column is about the thousands of brave men and women in uniform who selflessly serve and sacrifice. It's also about their families, who shoulder an immense burden that few outside the military community can comprehend.

I've learned many things while talking to these fine Americans. One is that every single man and woman who volunteers to defend freedom is brave. Another is that when a U.S. service member is killed, whether by hostile fire, an accident or suicide, every family member responds differently.

Kelsey Mills has been through more than most young wives could imagine. On April 10, 2012, her husband, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, then 25, lost both arms and legs during an enemy improvised explosive attack in Afghanistan.

"I'm happy that my husband is still alive," Kelsey told The Unknown Soldiers less than a month after the explosion. "He's still here."

Every day since, Travis and Kelsey, who are raising a little girl, have inspired us with their dignity and courage. In my mind, it is people like these — not Miley Cyrus — who define what it means to be a true celebrity. I wish more people agreed.

Bob Bagosy, who I met through the Travis Manion Foundation, watched in agony as his son, U.S. Marine Sgt. Tommy Bagosy, drifted toward depression and despair because of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. At age 25, Tommy, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, killed himself.

Bob was haunted by the mystery of Tommy's suicide.

Image courtesy: Bagosy family

"I know the who, what, where, when and how," Bob said. "But the 'why' has been eluding me."

Having spent time with Bob, I have seen the fortitude he has displayed while honoring his son's memory by helping other military families that have been forced to cope with tragedy. He and his wife are great parents and truly inspirational people.

Emily Feeks has served in the U.S. Navy and deployed to Afghanistan. She also watched her husband, Special Warfare Operator Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick Feeks, deploy to Afghanistan as a Navy SEAL while she was serving in the Philippines.

Image courtesy: Emily Feeks

On Aug. 16, 2012, Patrick, 28, died in a helicopter crash that killed seven Americans.

"You look around and everyone is happy go-lucky, and you wonder why you can't have that," Emily said less than three months after the crash. "Why does it have to happen to you?"

During a June trip to San Diego, I finally met Emily, along with Karlyn Deveau, who lost her fiance, Special Warfare Operator Petty Officer 2nd Class David Warsen, 27, in the same crash. While tears were shed, both of these young women showed the same brand of tenacity that their loved ones displayed as Navy SEALs. If my daughter grows up to be like Emily and Karlyn, I will be proud.

Thad Forester lost his younger brother, U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Mark Forester, 29, in Afghanistan on Sept. 29, 2010. When we spoke less than three years after Mark died while trying to save his unit's medic, Thad was in a state of proud reflection.

"We all have missions on this earth and some of them are different for each person," Thad said. "One of Mark's was to help defeat terrorism, and he did it."

Image courtesy: Forester family

On Sept. 23, Thad released a book about Mark called "My Brother In Arms," which was written with Matthew Glencoe. I hope everyone who reads this column will also take the time to read the story of this remarkable American hero.

Beth Strickland Funk, who courageously spoke with The Unknown Soldiers for last week's column, is not thinking about anything other than caring for her family and making it through the next day. Her son, U.S. Army Sgt. Joshua "Jay" Strickland, was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 21.

"We're all going back and forth between the anger and the grieving," Beth said ten days after her son was killed by small arms fire.

When I go to sleep at night, I think of people like Beth Strickland Funk and everyone else mentioned above. They've been through more pain than most of us will in a lifetime.

Our men and women in uniform are incredibly brave. Hopefully, everyone will join me in realizing that their families are, too.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Pay Attention

Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/David Tucker

Ten days after losing her son in Afghanistan, Beth Strickland Funk was trying to make sense of an unthinkable tragedy.

"We're all in shock," the grieving mother told The Unknown Soldiers on Oct. 1. "We're all just kind of walking around dazed and confused."

The last time Beth spoke to her son, "he was fine." Sgt. Joshua Strickland, who was called "Jay" by family and friends, seemed to be coping well with the strains of a tough combat deployment.

"He would talk about his family and getting the job done," Beth said. "He didn't sound stressed."

Then, without even the slightest hint of foreshadowing, everything changed.

Sergeant Strickland was born with a twin brother. From that day forward, he seemed to form a close bond with almost everyone who crossed his path.

"Everyone loved Jay," his mom said.

Image courtesy: U.S. Army

Jay went to high school in Georgia before his parents moved to Texas in 2008. He joined the U.S. Army that June, and after extensive training, became a Special Forces warrior stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State.

"He was just an amazing young man," Beth said.

Before leaving for Afghanistan in April, Jay got married and was helping raise three children.

"This was his first full deployment being in Special Forces," the soldier's mother said.

With another son serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, Beth embraced life as a military mom.

"I knew from the moment our boys were born that they would do something big," she said of her four sons.

In late September, Beth's husband, Jim, was mowing the lawn when he suddenly came inside with tears in his eyes. After opening the door, Beth saw two fully uniformed soldiers.

"I fell to the ground and started crying before they even said anything," she said.

According to the Pentagon, Sgt. Strickland, 23, was conducting range training on Sept. 21 in eastern Afghanistan's Paktia Province when his unit was attacked with small arms fire. He was killed alongside Staff Sgt. Liam Nevins, 32, and Staff Sgt. Timothy McGill, 30.

While numerous media outlets have reported that the attack was carried out by a man wearing an Afghan National Army uniform, a NATO news release said the incident is under investigation.

"We're all going back and forth between the anger and the grieving," Jay's mom said.

When we spoke, Beth was still preparing for the funeral of her son, whose flag-draped casket returned to American soil on Sept. 23. But she was already thanking supporters in Texas, Georgia, Washington state and around the country for showing so much love to her family.

"I'm just amazed by how many people have come out," she said. "Just last night, I came outside and saw two (American) flags in my yard."

In addition to the devastating impact on Jay's wife and children, one of the hardest aspects of the tragedy for Beth has been explaining the soldier's passing to his little sister. As Beth struggled to share the terrible news, her youngest child said that she'd just had a dream about Jay.

"I think that was God's way of letting me know that she understands," Beth said.

Still, it's hard to make sense of another wartime tragedy that robbed three American families of such selfless, heroic young men. But as Beth mourns the loss of her son and his brothers in arms, she is also thinking about the thousands of men and women still serving in harm's way.

"This has just brought home to so many people that we still need to be praying and paying attention ... and praying for our soldiers and their families," she said.

As the conflict in Afghanistan enters its 13th year, Beth Strickland Funk's words should inspire the nation for which her son sacrificed everything to defend. While thinking about war is difficult, we must honor Sgt. Joshua "Jay" Strickland and his courageous family by paying more attention.


Image courtesy: Beth Strickland Funk

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Man He Became

Images courtesy: Funcheon family

Before Alex Funcheon became a soldier, he was a high school dropout.

"He was a handful," Alex's father, Bob Funcheon, told The Unknown Soldiers. "He got involved with drugs ... it messed him up."

After quitting school, Alex, who grew up in Wichita, Kan., quickly found himself broke and in trouble with the law. That's when he turned to a lifelong source of inspiration.

"He was always interested in the Army ever since he was a little boy," Alex's mother, Karen Funcheon, said. "His grandfather served in World War II ... he landed at Normandy."

Alex "didn't enlist because of 9/11," according to his dad, but because he recognized that when it came to turning his life around, time was running out.

"He wanted to earn his spurs," Bob said. "He wanted to live up to the expectations of a professional soldier."

After initially struggling with the rigors of boot camp, Alex surprised his parents by earning the reputation of a serious young warrior, rather than the irresponsible partier of his youth.

"It just showed that he was really starting to figure things out," Alex's dad said. "(The military) allowed him to start becoming the man he was meant to be."

On the eve of the military's troop surge in Iraq, U.S. Army Sgt. Alex Funcheon spent a night with his parents before deploying in the fall of 2006.

"I'm not scared of dying," Alex told his dad. "I'm scared of letting my friends down."

Alex was always extremely popular.

"He was very loyal ... he would never 'rat' on anyone," his mom said. "Everybody just loved him."

"He always took care of his friends, and that carried over to the military," Alex's dad added.

As a soldier, Sgt. Funcheon made sure to keep in touch with his parents, who worried every day about his physical safety and emotional well-being. Their fears escalated around the 2006 holiday season, when Alex didn't contact them for almost three weeks.

"Then we found out that there was a Humvee that had blown up in his area, and he was part of the detail that was there to clean up after it," Bob said. "I can only imagine how that affected him."

When it became clear to Bob and Karen that their only son was experiencing some of war's most visceral horrors, they worried he would return to Kansas with wounds, including the kind nobody can see.

"The more I learned about (post-traumatic stress), the more I realized that he probably would have come home with that," Alex's dad said. "Even though I knew he could die, I never really expected that."

Bob was out playing golf on April 29, 2007, when his wife had an encounter that every military mother was dreading during that violent spring of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I heard this big old knock on the door," Karen said. "I turned the corner, saw the window and saw the two uniformed men standing there.

According to the Pentagon, Sgt. Alex Funcheon, 21, was killed when an explosion tore through his vehicle in Baghdad. Two fellow Americans died at Alex's side, along with an Iraqi interpreter. The Funcheons later learned that one U.S. soldier survived the attack.

"My initial response was disbelief," said Bob, who will always remember his wife's frantic phone call.

For Bob and Karen Funcheon, as well as their surviving daughter, the last six and a half years have been filled with surreal moments, including a funeral attended by over 1,000 people and an Air Force One meeting with President George W. Bush. They've also been haunted by painful dreams of what could have been.

"(Alex) wanted to get married; he wanted to have children," the fallen hero's mom said. "He wanted to have grandchildren."

"He started living up to his abilities," said Bob Funcheon as his voice cracked with emotion. "The toughest part for me is that I'll never meet that man he had become."

As politicians insist that America's post-9/11 conflict is "winding down," it's easy to set aside the sacrifices made in Iraq and Afghanistan. The words of a grieving family remind us to never forget.

"He wasn't a number," Karen Funcheon said. "He was our only son."


Friday, September 27, 2013

The Warrior Spirit

Images courtesy: Gentz family

Long before U.S. Air Force Capt. Joel Gentz helped save 39 lives as an elite combat rescue officer in Afghanistan, he was in love with exploring the universe.

"He was always a very active child," Capt. Gentz's father, Steve, told The Unknown Soldiers. "The outdoors was always a part of what he did."

Inspired by the crew of Space Shuttle Challenger, which perished when he was a little boy, Joel grew up wanting to become an astronaut. Years later, as he decided which path to take after graduating high school, another national tragedy — 9/11 — further strengthened his resolve to serve.

"He was already talking about enlisting in the Air Force," Steve said. "I was pulling my hair out.

"You always want to support your child," he continued. "But I also said, 'Gee, can you think about this a little bit?'"

Joel, who grew up in Chelsea, Mich., decided to enroll at Purdue University as part of the Air Force ROTC program. With his eye on becoming a pilot, he studied aeronautical engineering and excelled as both a student-athlete and ROTC cadet.

"Every year he was there, the wing voted to give him the 'warrior spirit' award," Joel's father said. "To him, all of the other (awards) didn't matter; it was the opinion of his fellow cadets."

After graduating with honors from Purdue, Joel surprised his parents.

"He was awarded a pilot's spot and actually turned it down," Steve said. "(That) had his mother and I scratching our heads."

With thousands fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan in mid-2007, the young Air Force officer decided to focus on saving U.S. and coalition troops from firefights on dangerous post-9/11 battlefields. After several years of intense training, Joel would become a pararescueman.

"At one point I called his (ROTC) commander," Joel's dad said. "He basically said 'you know, this isn't a kid who is going to be happy unless he's directly involved.'"

In 2008, Joel married his college sweetheart, Kathryn. After becoming a combat rescue officer, he was eventually stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, where he would await orders for his first overseas deployment.

"He liked his job ... he loved it," Steve said. "You could also see that he loved Kathryn deeply and wanted to spend time with her."

Joel's parents happened to be in Las Vegas for an April 2010 conference when the airman learned he would soon deploy to Afghanistan. For the next week, Joel spent time with his parents while also celebrating an early wedding anniversary with his wife.

"We were just supporting him and letting him know that we love him," Joel's father said. "We were grateful and continue to be grateful that we got to be there to do that."

For almost three months in Afghanistan, Joel and his pararescue team saved dozens of American lives during perilous helicopter missions. On June 9, 2010, Joel and six others boarded an HH-60G Pave Hawk known as "Pedro 66" for another rescue operation in the volatile Helmand province.

Pedro 66 was shot down. While two survived the crash, five airmen, including Capt. Joel Gentz, were killed. Joel, 25, died just two days before his second wedding anniversary.

"That day I was at home walking through my garage, and I saw the two men in blue and knew immediately what was up," the grieving father said.

Steve, who has two surviving children, vividly remembers telling his son in person before calling his daughter, who was in Boston.

"That haunts me, calling a kid and telling her that her older brother died," he said.

Steve became emotional when I asked him to describe the three-plus years since the crash.

"We have all struggled with withdrawal and depression," he said. "But we're also very much a group of survivors, and we know the way Joel's spirit is, he wouldn't want us to sit down and not do anything."

Joel's parents are active supporters of the Team Red, White & Blue veterans organization. They keep in close touch with their son's widow, as well as the other families affected by the crash, including both survivors.

"It's not just about me," Steve Gentz said. "It's about the sacrifices of all the families."


Monday, September 23, 2013

The Next Journey

Images courtesy: Neiberger family

"A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike," John Steinbeck wrote in "Travels with Charley: In Search of America." Indeed, when it comes to the thousands of military families impacted by 9/11 and the wars that followed, every story is unique.

On one busy 2005 day, Ami Neiberger-Miller was catching a bus when one of her three younger brothers, Christopher, called and told her he was joining the U.S. Army.

"I said to him at the time: 'It's a very honorable thing to do,'" Ami told The Unknown Soldiers. "But I was concerned that he would go to Iraq, and his response to me was, 'Of course I want to go to Iraq.'"

Despite fearing for his safety, Ami admired Chris' desire to serve his country no matter where he was needed.

"He was in high school when 9/11 happened," she said. "(It) influenced him seeing that and realizing that our country was going to war."

After graduating high school in Gainesville, Fla., Chris enrolled at Florida State University instead of the University of Florida, which several family members attended. Even though the Seminoles and Gators are archrivals, the Neiberger family remained as tight as ever.

"The idea of brotherhood and camaraderie in the military really appealed to him ... being part of a team," Chris' sister said. "Growing up, he was always part of a team."

After training at Georgia's Fort Benning and first deploying to Germany, Spc. Christopher Neiberger left for Iraq in September 2006. Even as the young soldier battled insurgents and terrorists on Baghdad's war-torn streets, he would always make time to let his family know that he was safe.

"He would call us pretty regularly," Ami said. "I didn't realize until later the lengths he went to call us."

When Ami asked her brother what a typical day in Iraq entailed, his responses were often jarring.

"Well, we'd basically patrol and wait for someone to shoot at us," Chris said.

Even as the combat deployment stretched into its eleventh month, Chris was upbeat about his job and spoke of studying to become a teacher, like his father, after returning home.

"I would mail him history books to Iraq," Ami said. "He very much loved philosophy and ideas, and I think even in Iraq, he still tried to keep that part of his life."

On Aug. 7, 2007 — four days after Chris' 22nd birthday — Ami received a troubling voicemail from her mother. After being unable to get through, she made a frantic call to her aunt.

"(My aunt) told me that (Chris) had been killed in action and wouldn't be coming home," she said. "I dropped my phone, started screaming and ran out of the house."

According to the Pentagon, Chris was killed in Baghdad on Aug. 6, 2007, by an enemy improvised explosive device. His death was a pulverizing blow to Ami, her family and their northern Florida city.

"When a death happens in service to your country, it's not just your loved one," Ami said. "It's also the holding up by the community of your loved one as a hero."

After using her public relations background to handle a flood of media requests following her brother's death, Ami went on to become a public affairs officer at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), which comforts and cares for loved ones of fallen U.S. troops.

"I want to be identified as part of this community of people who have paid this price for their country," Ami, now 42, said. "The experience of loss for families now in the military is very different than previous wars."

Even though Spc. Christopher Neiberger died more than six years ago, his spirit endures through the work of his only sister.

"He could have been a writer, a playwright, a teacher or anything, but we'll never know because his journey stopped," she said. "It stopped in Section 60."

When Ami Neiberger-Miller visits her brother in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, she is heartbroken, proud, and deeply inspired.

"I want to share what my brother gave this country," she said. "Because he gave something amazing."