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

Friday, March 29, 2013

Woman in Combat

Images courtesy: Mike Moyer

Mike Moyer will never forget the night of Mar. 3, 2007.

"It's very much burned into my memory," he told The Unknown Soldiers.

After returning at dusk from his customary Saturday evening run, Mike, who turned on the television but left the lights off while heating up some chicken and rice, heard a surprise knock at the door. He nearly threw up when he saw two military officers standing in the darkness of his dimly lit back porch.

"As soon as I saw them standing there, I knew what happened," Mike said. "It still makes me sick to this day thinking about it."

The officers told Mike, who was in shock, that his 21-year-old daughter, U.S. Army Sgt. Ashly Moyer, was killed earlier that day by an enemy improvised explosive device in Baghdad. She died alongside Sgt. Michael Peek, 23, and Sgt. Brandon Parr, 25.

While Sgt. Moyer was a seasoned soldier from Emmaus, Pa., who also served at the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, she will always be "daddy's girl" to Mike. Almost every day, he thinks about the father-daughter fishing trip when Ashly, then 6, managed to upstage him.

"She said 'oh, Daddy, I got a fish,' and I said 'yeah right,'" Ashly's father said with a chuckle. "All of a sudden I see this fish jumping out of the water ... a 16-inch trout she caught with a Mickey Mouse rod."

The story is not only a fond memory, it's indicative of how Ashly approached life. The granddaughter of two Marines, including her grandfather, who survived the epic World War II battle at Iwo Jima before serving in Korea and Vietnam, Ashly joined the U.S. Army Reserve with the backing of her dad, who also served in the Marine Corps.

"She came home (from Guantanamo Bay) and decided she wanted to go into active military," Mike said. "She wound up going to Germany, and I figured because it was Europe, she'd have an adventure."

About ten months later, Mike sat across from Ashly at a pub in the ancient German city of Mainz. He was wishing his brown-haired, smiling daughter well before she deployed to Iraq.

"Because of the surge, they called a lot of people up from Germany at the time," Ashly's dad said.

The national media's recent trumpeting of a ban being lifted on women serving in combat positions perplexed Mike, as his daughter served on the front lines more than six years ago. Not only did Ashly's job involve driving armored vehicles to bombsites; Ashly was also present when a fellow female soldier was shot by an enemy sniper.

"Her friend had a metal plate protecting the chest portion ... she was lucky," Mike said. "(Ashly) said it scared the crap out of her, because she heard the shot and all of a sudden her friend went down behind her."

Ashly's final mission occurred in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City. Mike said Ashly's vehicle — the second in a four-vehicle convoy — was engulfed in a "fireball" after the front vehicle struck an improvised explosive device.

"On the Thursday prior to her getting killed on Saturday, she called me," Mike said. "She told me they were coming home in June, they had a month off, and she was thinking about (re-enlisting)."

Ashly also talked about her boyfriend, Jake, a fellow soldier who later told Mike he'd been planning to ask for his daughter's hand in marriage during a planned visit to Pennsylvania. Instead, Jake recounted the horrific image of seeing his girlfriend's vehicle engulfed in flames. The day's harrowing, tragic events still haunt the young combat veteran.

"You lose a part of you, it'll be there all your life, but you just have to learn how to deal with it, even though it will never go away," Mike said. "The love of his life was taken."

So was the little girl who always made her father proud, whether with her Mickey Mouse fishing rod or military-issued rifle. Like so many courageous American women since 9/11, Sgt. Ashly Moyer put her best foot forward during her country's time of need.

"Ashly wasn't a rough and tumble type of girl," her dad said. "She was just brave."


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

In Their Eyes

While looking into the eyes of two young Marines during a Feb. 23 ceremony honoring their fallen brother in arms, I could see the war in Afghanistan. While some say the conflict is "winding down," it will never be over for these patriots, who saw their friend die less than a year ago.

The two Marines, Preston and Mike, made the nearly 600-mile trip from North Carolina's Camp Lejeune to the small town of Leesburg, Ga., to comfort the family of Lance Cpl. Steve Sutton. The 24-year-old Marine was killed while conducting combat operations in Afghanistan's Helmand Province on May 26, 2012.

"Steve Sutton was my brother," Preston said.

Throughout the emotional ceremony, the Marines stood beside Gene Sutton, the fallen Marine's father, who had his arms around both young men when a statue was unveiled to honor Steve. When I spoke with the grieving father before the event, he was overcome with emotion.

"I raised him myself," Gene said through tears.

Image courtesy: U.S. Marine Corps

The elder Sutton spoke about his son's success as a high school and junior college offensive lineman who later volunteered to transfer his athletic prowess from the football field to the battlefield. While immensely proud of all Steve accomplished, Gene misses his son dearly and knew getting through the day's events would be a struggle.

"I don't know how I'm going to make it through hearing them play 'Taps,'" he said.

Just as they were there for Steve during his final hours, Preston and Mike were there for their fellow Marine's dad.

"If there's anything anybody can do for Steve, it would be to continue this support and to support his family," Preston said. "That's what he would want."

"Big Steve," as the burly Marine was nicknamed, will always be in the hearts of his loved ones and those who served alongside him. But he also managed to inspire people who never got the chance to meet him.

"I feel as if I knew him well," Col. Donald Davis, commanding officer of the nearby Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, said. "He's present here with us not only in spirit, but in the eyes of those of you who raised him and influenced him through his life."

Colonel Davis spoke of what it takes for young men and women to leave home and spend many months in faraway places like Afghanistan, where thousands of U.S. troops still serve more than eleven years after the 9/11 attacks.

"Walking among you and speaking to each of you, as well as (Steve's) family and friends, I see character," Davis said. "I see the attributes needed for a good Marine: patriotism, hard work and a compassion that truly reflects a concept beyond oneself."

These noble qualities could also be seen in Steve's fellow Marines. As I met both warriors and thanked them for their service, I couldn't help but wonder what both had been through. I can't imagine what it's like to lose a close friend, especially during the chaos and confusion of combat.

Despite pain that had to be extraordinary, both Marines addressed the more than 300 people who stood outside on a damp, chilly afternoon outside the Lee County Courthouse. When both Marines spoke, the hand of Steve's father, who was again overcome with emotion, rested on their shoulders.

"He influenced my life," Preston said. "I'm glad to see that there are still people in America that will show up and honor people that fight and serve."

Sadly, too many Americans, starting with politicians on both sides of the aisle, are disengaged from the Afghanistan conflict. Still, there are thousands of combat veterans like Preston and Mike and thousands of families like the Suttons who have lost loved ones since 9/11. These folks don't just live in small towns like Leesburg, Ga.; they are in communities all across the nation.

The next time you meet a veteran or family of a fallen service member, look into their eyes. You won't just see the wars that changed their lives; you will see all that's good about the country they helped defend.

"During his funeral procession, a local young woman said 'we don't have to know one another to be for one another,'" Davis said. "'We are all family.'"


Monday, March 18, 2013

Roll Tide

Images courtesy: Sgt. Jason Cartwright

If you take a drive through the Deep South, you are virtually guaranteed to see numerous University of Alabama flags flying from houses and cars.

Yet few Crimson Tide flags hold the significance of the one Sgt. Jason Cartwright carries in the right cargo pocket of his U.S. Army uniform in Afghanistan. For the soldier, who arrived in the war zone over the summer with his trusted military working dog, the Alabama flag is a reminder of a close friend, U.S. Army Spc. Dusty "Doc" Parrish.

"If you knew Doc, no matter what kind of day, he would (put) a smile on your face," Sgt. Cartwright, 28, wrote to The Unknown Soldiers from Afghanistan. "Doc and I were roommates, both from Alabama, and both big Alabama fans."

While serving in Iraq with the Army's 5th Engineer Battalion, based out of Missouri's Fort Leonard Wood, Cartwright and his fellow soldiers held Parrish in the highest regard.

"We were in the same vehicle," Cartwright wrote. "I was his gunner and he was our medic."

On June 4, 2009, Spc. Parrish, 23, was killed in Balad, Iraq, when his vehicle was struck by an armor-piercing grenade. The loss of Parrish, who left behind a wife and son, devastated the soldier's hometown of Jasper, Ala., as well as Cartwright and his entire unit.

"We were real close friends to Doc," Cartwright wrote.

Nearing the end of his third combat deployment and the second hunting for roadside bombs with his dog, Cartwright carries not only the Alabama flag that once flew in the room he shared with Parrish, but also his fallen comrade's courageous spirit.

"(Through) all my deployments and being here in Afghanistan now, I still want to serve this great country," Cartwright wrote.

Ever since I connected with this soldier in June 2011, I have been astonished by how much he loves his country, his family and Isaac, the fearless dog that has helped save countless lives. Even after many months away from his wife and son and several near-death experiences with Isaac, Cartwright recently made the brave, selfless decision to re-enlist.

"So now I am dedicating six more years," he wrote.

When it was time for his re-enlistment ceremony in Afghanistan, Cartwright asked a friend and brother in arms, Army Lt. Jeremy Carroll, to administer the oath.

"We would have never thought in Iraq in 2008 doing route clearance patrols together that one day in Afghanistan, (Carroll) would be re-enlisting me," Cartwright wrote.

While spending time together before and after the ceremony, the deployed soldiers shared laughs about the "good ole days" serving together in Iraq. They also discussed the pain of losing their good friend in combat.

"Lieutenant Carroll, Isaac and I know today that Doc is watching over us here in this land as we continue (our) mission," Cartwright wrote.

In December, the senior Army dog handler, who is still serving with the 5th Engineer Battalion, explained what a given day is like for himself and Isaac, the friendly black Lab who helped locate 28 roadside bombs during their last combat tour.

"Isaac and I search for over 18 hours — 800 meters of routes and compounds to only get everybody back on that chopper to leave once the mission is complete," Cartwright wrote five months into his current deployment. "That is exactly what we have done together, out front taking point with all the troops behind us."

Cartwright and Isaac have helped locate roadside bombs buried near schools, hospitals and routes traveled by U.S. and Afghan troops. Many people are alive because this soldier and his dog are willing to repeatedly risk everything. Yet Cartwright always praises his fellow soldiers without assigning himself credit for his own gallant, unselfish actions.

Standing on top of a makeshift stone platform during his re-enlistment ceremony in Afghanistan, Sgt. Jason Cartwright raised his right hand with two of his best war buddies, Lt. Carroll and Isaac, by his side. Flying proudly from the platform was the University of Alabama Crimson Tide flag that honors his fallen friend.

"Thanks for serving, Dusty 'Doc' Parrish," the brave soldier wrote.


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

Friday, March 8, 2013

Be Proud

Image courtesy: Lance Cpl. Daniel Wetzel

I was filled with pride during my entire phone conversation with Cpl. Kyle Carpenter. As an American citizen, it makes me enormously thankful that this 23-year-old Marine, who is being considered for the Medal of Honor, is willing to sacrifice so much for others.

Few have the courage to do what fellow Marines said Cpl. Carpenter did on Nov. 21, 2010, in Marjah, Afghanistan. When a grenade landed on the roof of a compound he was helping fortify, squad members said he dove on top of the explosive device to shield a fellow Marine.

"The grenade went off, and I woke up a month later," Carpenter told The Unknown Soldiers. "The next thing I really remember is seeing Christmas stockings on the wall."

Carpenter said he has no recollection of jumping on top of the grenade. But the Gilbert, S.C., Marine does recall the harrowing events leading up to the day he lost his right eye.

"Just imagine what it's like walking through mud and it being hard to lift your feet out, even if you don't have anything on your back," Carpenter said. "On most of my patrols, I would carry 800 rounds on my back — a lot of weight — and the weather is well over 100 degrees."

Images courtesy: Cpl. Kyle Carpenter

Carpenter is not seeking accolades or sympathy. He wants Americans to understand what thousands of U.S. troops still stationed in Afghanistan often go through.

"I didn't have a shower for three months," he said.

On Nov. 20, Carpenter and his 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment brothers in arms knew a confrontation with the Taliban was at hand. Carpenter's squad was ordered to transform a local home into an American compound, deep in the heart of a terrorist stronghold.

"It wasn't a matter of 'I wonder if we're going to get at shot at today?'" Carpenter said. "It was a matter of 'when was it going to start?'"

After trudging through a canal full of mud and sewage, carrying their weapons above their heads while sinking into the sludge beneath their feet, the Marines started building the makeshift U.S. base.

"As we were digging, we heard an extremely loud explosion," the Medal of Honor nominee said. "I turned around and another loud explosion went off in the same area."

Carpenter was shocked when he realized Taliban fighters were lobbing grenades, which were not the enemy's weapons of choice.

"We had never seen or heard grenades throughout our entire deployment," Carpenter said. "Needless to say, we were in disbelief."

Carpenter said at least two Marines were injured in the attack, which included enemy sniper fire. Once night fell, however, they resumed digging and stacking sandbags before a Taliban rocket tore into the roof, which partially collapsed.

"That was pretty much the end of Nov. 20," Carpenter said.

After grabbing a few hours of sleep, the young Marine awoke to a familiar sound.

"Like many mornings in Afghanistan, our alarm clock was AK-47 small arms fire," he said.

Carpenter and a fellow Marine were repairing the damaged roof when the fateful grenade landed nearby. Both young men were badly injured in the blast, which squad members said would have been deadly if it weren't for Carpenter's heroism.

"Everything is a blur because of the medication," he said. "It really was about a year before I started to have fluid memories."

As a Walter Reed patient in Bethesda, Md., Carpenter is still adjusting to missing an eye, wearing artificial teeth, and enduring countless surgeries to repair his jaw. His ears ring constantly, and nerve damage in his arms makes it difficult to button his shirt. But instead of wallowing in pain, Carpenter uses his story to inspire others.

"The best thing that's come out of it is the impact I've had on other people," he said.

If Cpl. Kyle Carpenter is ultimately awarded the nation's highest military honor by President Barack Obama, the young Marine plans to use an increased platform to motivate veterans and fellow wounded warriors.

"I will never stop helping people that need to be helped or trying to make a positive impact on people's lives," Carpenter said.

If this volunteer warrior's words don't leave you consumed with pride, I don't know what will.


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

Friday, March 1, 2013

Across the Street

Images courtesy: Mary Grindey

Staff Sgt. Jesse Grindey and his wife were walking down a Hazel Green, Wis., street when they noticed a beautiful house for sale.

"We were walking to the cemetery to visit his grandfather, and I told him 'I like this house,' and he said 'I like it too,'" Mary Grindey told The Unknown Soldiers. "But I said 'who would buy that house ... who would want to live by the cemetery?'"

Hazel Green, located near the Illinois border, is known as Wisconsin's "point of beginning," which is particularly appropriate for Mary. A native of the Philippines, she met her future husband seven years ago in South Korea. They were married in 2008, just before Staff Sgt. Grindey was transferred to Japan. In 2011, Jesse and Mary moved to the United States.

"When we found out we were coming here to the States, he said he would be deployed (to Afghanistan) no matter what," Mary said. "I told him 'don't volunteer.'"

Jesse had been volunteering his entire life. Not only had the Wisconsin native served in Iraq, but he was also a volunteer firefighter and EMT with the Hazel Green Fire Department and Rescue Squad.

"If there was a fire, he'd jump into a fire truck and then jump into the fire," Mary said.

But things were different now, as the Army couple was trying to settle down while raising two young children that Jesse adored. Still, the soldier remained steadfast in his commitment to serve.

"The night before he left, I told him 'can't you get out of the Army?'" Mary said. "He said 'no, this is my job.'"

Jesse deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Dec. 30, 2011, with the 287th Military Police Company, based out of Fort Riley, Kan. With her husband thousands of miles away, Mary took on the responsibility of caring for two young children in an unfamiliar town and country.

"I talked to him two hours every day for the first month," the soldier's wife said. "He kept saying that he was doing good ... I really felt more comfortable, too."

Then, as Mary and the kids visited Jesse's grandmother on the morning of March 12, 2012, something didn't feel right.

"I had that really, really weird feeling in the morning," Mary said. "I was so sad ... I wanted to cry."

A few hours later, Jesse's tearful sister told Mary she needed to go home.

"I saw the Chaplain and (Army Sergeant First Class) waiting for me, and I could tell it wasn't good news," Mary said.

Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/Steve Kotecki

Jesse, 30, had succumbed to a medical problem of which no one, including Mary, was aware.

"I was shocked, because I had never seen him in pain," she said. "It just shocked everyone because he was such a healthy guy."

Support for Mary and the couple's children poured in from all over the world.

"I can't ask for a better community than Hazel Green," Mary said. "Jesse's family gave me a lot of support, as well as friends from Kansas, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Japan, Korea and the community here ... I can't even say enough words."

The last time Mary spoke to her husband was three days before he died. It was also her mother's birthday, and Jesse wanted to know if she was enjoying her new house in the Philippines, which the soldier helped pay for with a portion of his salary.

"The last words (he said to) me were 'hey honey, tell your mom happy birthday for me,'" Mary said.

When Mary visited Jesse's grave in the same cemetery where his grandfather is buried, she noticed a "for sale" sign in the window of the house the couple once admired. She decided to buy it.

"We get a lot of snow in the winter, but in summertime, the fall, or the spring, my kids drive their little smart cars and go visit," Mary said. "I can even hear them yelling ... 'Daddy, we're here.'"

As Mary Grindey and her children mark a new point of beginning, they are comforted to know that Staff Sgt. Jesse Grindey, who spent many years putting out fires at home and abroad, is always right across the street.


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