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

Monday, February 25, 2013

Worth a Listen

Images courtesy: Shain Gillette

There is much talk about caring for our nation's veterans. From politicians to non-profit organizations, well-intentioned Americans are saying all the right things about ensuring that returning warriors receive the benefits they so richly deserve.

Still, amid a 24-hour news cycle and the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, a key component of helping combat veterans adjust to being home is sometimes overlooked. Too often, we forget to listen to the brave men and women who understand war like no civilian ever could.

Listening has become a big part of U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Josh Gillette's life since a Nov. 1, 2012, improvised explosive device (IED) blast. With shrapnel embedded in his eyes, it's still difficult for the soldier to see the faces of his wife and eight-year-old daughter. But if you ask the wounded warrior to describe his harrowing sixth deployment, he will gladly oblige.

"I like telling my story," Sgt. 1st Class Gillette told The Unknown Soldiers. "A lot of people don't realize (the war) is still going on."

After serving three tours in Iraq and one in Bosnia, Josh was on his second deployment to Afghanistan in September 2012 when a powerful explosion threw him into the air before he landed several feet away. A fellow soldier had stepped on an IED and suffered devastating injuries.

"I was concussed and had to get to a fallen comrade who had lost both legs," Josh said. "We applied first aid and cleared a helicopter to land."

Two days later, the wounded soldier succumbed to his wounds, which left Josh and his Special Forces unit in a state of shock. Despite their grief, however, the soldiers knew they had to keep patrolling Afghanistan's volatile Helmand Province.

"We were pushing outside again to take over a stronghold that the Taliban had," Josh said. "We wanted to show the (Afghan Local Police) that we could take this area."

On Nov. 1, while approaching a mud hut with his trusted military working dog, Banan, the 32-year-old soldier sensed something was wrong.

"I knew he was looking for an IED because of his changed behavior," Josh said.

Moments later, Josh was overwhelmed by blunt force and searing heat. The dog had stepped on an IED, sending Banan and Josh flying through the air. Josh remembers nothing about the ensuing battle, in which his fellow soldiers defeated Taliban fighters who attacked the helicopter evacuating him to safety.

"At that point I blacked out," Josh said.

Banan was killed in the attack, while Josh spent the next two weeks in a confused, nearly comatose state.

"I kind of remember waking up in the hospital 15 days later, which is weird since people said I was talking to them and writing things down," he said. "I don't remember anything."

With shrapnel digging into his eyes, Josh could barely see his battered face in a mirror. Missing his teeth and impaled with rocks, the soldier also needed a titanium rod in his arm and plates in his cheekbones.

"I have limited vision," Josh said. "I can't watch TV, and I can't really read."

After hospital stays in Germany and Bethesda, Md., Josh is home in Tennessee, just across the border from Kentucky's Fort Campbell. The company of his wife and daughter softens the frustration of his restricted eyesight.

"It's been great," Josh said. "I've been getting stronger every day, and the doctors are saying I'm recovering a lot faster than expected."

While the Jacksonville, Fla., native applauds the military for taking great care of him since his injury, the soldier's family suffered severe financial hardship while Josh was hospitalized far from home. That prompted Josh's brother, Shain, to set up a website to ask for the public's help. Nearly $8,000 was raised to help Josh and his family.

"It was real emotional for me," the grateful soldier said. "I wish the best for so many wounded warriors, police, and firefighters ... I hope they get that kind of support."

Like so many U.S. troops and veterans, Sgt. 1st Class Josh Gillette repeatedly put himself in harm's way without asking for anything in return. As his courageous brothers and sisters in arms come home, the least we can do is listen.


Note: To see the weekly "Unknown Soldiers" column in your local newspaper, please click here.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Called to Serve

Images courtesy: Captain Nicholas Schade Whitlock Foundation

The past year has been unimaginably difficult for Ashley Whitlock. But even through grief, the 28-year-old widow of U.S. Air Force Capt. Nick Whitlock knows her husband died doing what he loved most.

"Nick was a man of faith and passion," Ashley told The Unknown Soldiers from Atlanta. "He very much felt that we were called to serve in any capacity we can."

Ashley and Nick became friends after meeting as students at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. They started dating shortly after graduation, just as Nick was beginning to pursue his dream of becoming a military pilot.

"We all encouraged him to go for it," Capt. Whitlock's father, Jimmy, said.

"He thought about it from afar for a very long time," Nick's mother, Clare, said from the couple's Newnan, Ga., home.

Despite competing against Air Force Academy graduates, Nick, who majored in finance, excelled in pilot training. But just like in high school, when the handsome, popular star athlete would hide awards and trophies in his closet, Nick remained humble and focused.

"He earned the highest pilot slot," Ashley said. "Doors were opening for him and he was doing what he was supposed to be doing."

Another thing Nick realized he was supposed to do was ask Ashley to marry him. The couple exchanged vows on Nov. 10, 2010, in Jacksonville, Fla.

"You don't see too many people happily married anymore," Clare said. "It was just a joy to see them together."

Nick was stationed at Florida's Hurlburt Field with the Air Force's 34th Special Operations Squadron. While thrilled to be starting a new life with the man she loved, Ashley, like so many military spouses, had to make difficult adjustments when her husband began deploying overseas.

"I'd always heard in the military that your friends become your family, and it's true," she said. "You learn to weather it together."

On Valentine's Day 2012, Nick kissed Ashley goodbye and left for another deployment. As usual, the airman couldn't tell his wife much about the classified mission, but on Feb. 17, Nick called Ashley from his base's cafe.

"He told me he missed me like crazy, and we started counting down until he came back," she said.

File image courtesy: U.S. Air Force

The next night, with storms filling the northwest Florida sky, Ashley's father answered a knock on his daughter's front door. It was a pair of solemn, uniformed airmen, who informed Ashley that her husband was dead.

"There's nothing that can prepare you for that," she said. "I have to believe that God had a hand in the fact that my family was there with me."

According to the Pentagon, Nick, 29, and three fellow airmen were killed on Feb. 18, 2012, when their U-28 aircraft crashed in the African nation of Djibouti. The team flew surveillance and reconnaissance missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

"In the beginning, you'd wake up startled at night, and it was just horrible, because you were hoping it wasn't real," Nick's father said. "Now it's set in."

"You wake up thinking about it and you go to sleep thinking about it," his mom said.

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

In Florida, the base and surrounding area sprung into action.

"The community as a whole really stepped up to help all the families," Ashley said.

In Georgia, where Nick was buried, the outpouring of support astonished the fallen airman's wife and parents. One year after Nick's death, American flags and yellow ribbons still decorate Newnan.

"I've said it a hundred times," Clare said. "I've never felt alone."

"He wasn't just my young man," Jimmy added. "He belonged to the community."

To harness the enthusiasm for keeping Nick's spirit alive, the fallen hero's loved ones and friends joined to form the Captain Nicholas Schade Whitlock Foundation, which provides college scholarships to ambitious young students.

"I want the whole world to know about Nick and what he stood for," Jimmy said.

"I enjoyed the boy he was, but I loved to see the man he became,' Clare said.

Ashley will always treasure the time she spent with Capt. Nick Whitlock. But before she sees him again, she is determined to follow her husband's lead.

"Through our loss, there's a chance to do something for somebody else," she said.


Note: To see the weekly "Unknown Soldiers" column in your local newspaper, please click here.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

63 Seconds

Images courtesy: U.S. Air Force

U.S. Air Force Maj. Duane Dively was returning from a mission over Afghanistan when the U-2 spy plane he was piloting malfunctioned. For the next 63 seconds, Maj. Dively did what he'd been doing for two decades.

He put his country first.

"We think he tried to bring the plane in," the pilot's mother, Donata Dively, told The Unknown Soldiers.

"He could have ejected, but that wasn't the way he was built," his father, Bill Dively, added.

Prior to the June 22, 2005, mission, Duane risked his life in almost every U.S. conflict since Desert Storm. Citing what he felt was an obligation to serve, Duane joined the Marine Corps shortly after 241 U.S. service members were killed in the 1983 terrorist attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut.

But ever since the Canton, N.Y., native's first time in an airplane, Duane's head was always tilted toward the heavens.

"He always wanted to fly," his mom said. "Duane had a determination ... he was very tenacious."

Duane later joined the Air Force to fulfill his lifelong dream. After earning his wings in 1990, the pilot flew wherever his country needed him.

"From Desert Storm to the Balkans to Somalia ... it seemed like he was always overseas," Bill said.

After registering a perfect score on his pilot tests, Duane began flying the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, which had become a household name during the Cold War. For most of the next decade and particularly after 9/11, Duane's parents, who live in Hollidaysburg, Pa., rarely knew where their son was flying.

"He'd say 'you're not on the need to know list,'" Donata said with a gentle laugh.

Duane was usually collecting crucial intelligence over Afghanistan and Iraq during missions that he would often volunteer to fly.

"If other (pilots) had children, particularly around the holidays, Duane would volunteer for those three-month deployments so they could spend time together," Donata said.

In early 2005, with America suffering almost daily casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the happily married pilot could have retired. Duane, who was about to turn 43, decided to keep flying.

"They go into the service because they love what they're doing," Donata said of brave men and women like her son. "They have the dedication to the people of the United States, their country and God."

As the U-2 lost power over Southwest Asia, Duane did everything he could to save a plane he'd spent countless hours navigating through the clouds of war.

"It costs about $7 million to train a good pilot," Duane's father said, his voice cracking with emotion. "He made the most out of everything he did."

The memorial service honoring Duane, who was one of a select few to ever pilot the U-2, was held in a massive California hangar next to another spy plane he once flew.

"Whenever there was a trouble spot, Duane was there," an Air Force officer told the packed Beale Air Force Base audience.

While it's been more than seven years since Duane's final act of courage, the lives of his wife, parents and brother are forever changed.

"No birthday, holiday or any day having anything to do with that child is ever the same," Donata said.

When Bill plays golf, he always tilts his head upward toward the blue sky, where his oldest son helped define several chapters of American history.

"I think of him all the time," he said.

Duane is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, where he rests among brothers and sisters in arms who also fought to preserve freedom. But as America's post-9/11 conflicts fade from our national consciousness, the fallen hero's mother is worried.

"So many times it's only the immediate families that realize the sacrifice," Donata said. "And I just think we need other people to keep in mind the price that so many people are paying."

Maj. Duane Dively devoted nearly every second to keeping others safe. For that, along with the final 63 seconds of his extraordinary life, the hero pilot's parents have no doubt where their son's soul now flies.

"I think the Lord felt that Duane had used every talent the Lord had given him," Donata said. "It was time for his reward."


Note: To see the weekly "Unknown Soldiers" column in your local newspaper, please click here.

Friday, February 1, 2013

American Man

Images courtesy: Carol Dycus

Friends of U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Edward Dycus called him "Eddie." His family chose an even shorter, simpler nickname: "man."

As a young man working in a grocery store, Edward turned to his mother one day and said he wanted to serve his country.

"He thought about it and said he wanted to join the Marines," Carol Dycus told The Unknown Soldiers. "He wanted to make his life and my life better."

Edward knew trading the frozen food aisle in Greenville, Miss., for the heat of battle in Afghanistan was a risky proposition. But he never hesitated, even when his mom, who worked with him at the grocery store, responded with some initial skepticism.

"Yeah, I tried to talk him out of it," Edward's mother said. "That's what every parent does."

Despite fearing for his safety, Carol was enormously proud of her son.

"He came home from boot camp and said 'I did it mom, I'm a Marine now,'" she said. "He was just a good guy ... I loved him very much."

With blonde hair and an infectious smile, Edward was enthusiastic and bright, having excelled academically from a young age. When he wasn't inside watching pro and college football, Edward enjoyed going outside to toss around the Frisbee with his friends and four siblings.

"He loved school, he loved his family and he loved his friends," Carol said.

Whenever someone needed help, Edward would bend over backwards to lend a hand.

"He was just a caring guy," his mother said. "He'd do anything for anybody and wouldn't think twice about it."

Edward's mom paused when our conversation shifted to her son's deployment to Afghanistan, which began on his 22nd birthday.

"It's hard to talk about it," she said. "It's hard."

Carol said her son was excited to serve overseas with the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment. During his first six weeks in Afghanistan, Edward embraced the opportunity to explore a new country and help protect its citizens.

"It was the first time he'd ever been gone," she said. "But he said he loved it over there."

Then, at the stroke of midnight on Feb. 1, 2012, everything changed.

"An Afghan soldier came up behind him and shot him in the back of the head," Carol said.

While losing a son or daughter is crushing for any parent, the cruel, senseless nature of Edward's sudden death is particularly painful for Carol, who emphasized that her son and his fellow Marines "were over there trying to help" the Afghan people.

Just days before the first anniversary of Edward's murder, the Marine's grieving mother spoke of her family's resilience.

"We're holding up alright," Carol said. "We have no choice."

Even before Edward's flag-draped casket arrived in Mississippi, friends and total strangers came together to show support to the Dycus family.

"It was just amazing," Edward's mom said. "I mean ... it's like the whole town just stopped."

For miles and miles, people lined the streets to honor the fallen Marine during his funeral procession. Carol saw each and every one of them.

"There were people standing out on the side of the road everywhere," she said. "Every business, every house ... it was amazing with all the flags and signs."

Instead of projecting anger and bitterness about her son's death, Carol is joining her kind-hearted neighbors in celebrating Edward's extraordinary life.

"He was an awesome son and just a great guy," she said. "He's a true American hero, and he's my hero."

On Jan. 1, 2013, a U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman left a simple, yet poignant message on Edward's Facebook page.

"Happy New Year, bud!" he wrote. "Miss you, man."

On the Corpsman's page is a quote that is most commonly attributed to Thomas Carlyle, a 19th century Scottish writer and philosopher.

"Men do less than they ought, unless they do all they can," the quote reads.

As a man, Lance Cpl. Edward Dycus did everything he could to make the world a better place. His family couldn't have chosen a better nickname.

America misses you, man.


Note: To see the weekly "Unknown Soldiers" column in your local newspaper, please click here.