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

Friday, May 31, 2013

Right On

In late March, Kennedy Johnston made a Facebook post about going to college to become a teacher. One of the first responses was from her big brother, U.S. Army Sgt. Michael Cable, who was serving in Afghanistan.

"Right on," he wrote.

Kennedy, 19, knew she could always count on Michael's support, as could their four siblings. In fact, Michael's favorite activity was being there for his friends and family, as well as making them laugh.

"Whenever he did talk, it was always something funny," Kennedy said. "He never really talked about anything negative."

Sgt. Cable joined the Army in the summer of 2007. Three years later, he was stationed at Fort Campbell, located on Kentucky's border with Tennessee, as a fire support specialist with the "Screaming Eagles" of the storied 101st Airborne Division.

"He's always been driven for other people, not just himself," the soldier's sister said. "(He wanted) to be all he can be for everybody."

When Michael first deployed to Iraq, his sister wasn't worried.

"It wasn't scary at all," Kennedy said. "If there was anybody in the world who could have went to war and not had any problems, it would have been him."

Sure enough, Michael returned home and spent time with his parents, grandparents, siblings and friends in Owensboro, Ky. Then, the soldier learned he would be deploying to Afghanistan in November 2012. Even though Kennedy knew she would miss her brother, she was similarly undaunted about his next combat deployment.

"I've never been worried ... I've never been concerned," she said. "He's the strongest person I've ever known and I didn't think anything could happen."

Kennedy communicated with Michael as often as possible while he served his country in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

"I talked to him a little on Christmas," Kennedy said. "He sent me pictures and he commented on my Facebook statuses about going to college."

Michael was particularly close with his grandparents, who heard from him almost every day. They were the first to sense the concern in the deployed soldier's voice.

"He was telling them that he loved them over and over again," Kennedy said. "You could tell it was way different than (Iraq)."

A few days after Michael's "right on" comment on Facebook, his sister was taking a break in between classes when she noticed something strange.

"I looked at my phone and saw I had 12 missed calls," she said. "My dad texted me and said, 'Hey baby, I need you to call me as soon as you can.'"

When she called, her father told her to leave school and come home as soon as possible.

"I started having really bad anxiety attacks because I didn't know what was going on," she said.

Kennedy's dad broke the news as soon as she walked into her grandparents' house. Michael was dead.

According to the Department of Defense, Sgt. Michael Cable, 26, died on March 27, 2013, from injuries suffered during an attack in the Shinwar District of Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province. The soldier was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for the heroism he displayed during his deployment.

Speaking to The Unknown Soldiers on Michael's 27th birthday, Kennedy courageously summoned her strength to describe two months of unimaginable confusion, pain and grief.

"We have people who don't even know Michael or never even met Michael who are hurting," she said. "It's not just us."

Some Americans may no longer be aware that American troops are still fighting a war in Afghanistan. That's not the case in Owensboro, where the city and surrounding communities quickly rallied around the grieving family of Sgt. Michael Cable.

"It's so appreciated that we can't even put it into words," Kennedy said. "People are coming in and hanging out with us because they don't want us to be alone."

I asked Kennedy how she wants her brother to be remembered.

"A hero," she said. "But he's not just a hero ... he's a friend. He was there for everybody."

Right on.


Friday, May 24, 2013

Hot Dogs and Hamburgers

What does Memorial Day mean to you?

For some, it's about a rare weekday off to relax, spend time with family and friends, and perhaps grill some hot dogs and hamburgers. Pools are back open, baseball is on TV, and summer blockbusters have started hitting movie screens.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with enjoying a national holiday. But no matter how difficult or unpleasant, we must also remember the sacrifices that give us the freedom of enjoyment, especially in the aftermath of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Duane Wittman lost his son, U.S. Army Sgt. Aaron Wittman, 28, earlier this year in Afghanistan. We exchanged emails a few days ago.

"I can't begin to explain the emotions that Carol and I experience every day," Aaron's dad wrote. "The grief is enormous!"

As the Taliban launches its annual spring offensive, thousands of U.S. troops are in harm's way. On May 4, five U.S. soldiers were killed by an improvised explosive device planted by terrorists in Maiwand, Afghanistan.

Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/Roland Balik

After being flown to Dover, Del., five flag-draped caskets arrived in American towns and cities from Meridian, N.Y. to Meridian, Idaho. The fallen heroes were brought home with honor and saluted by their families, friends and neighbors.

U.S. Army Spc. Kevin Cardoza, 19, was the youngest soldier killed in the attack. Staff Sgt. Francis Phillips IV, 28, was the oldest. The other three soldiers — Spc. Thomas Murach, Spc. Brandon Prescott, and 1st Lt. Brandon Landrum — were 22, 24 and 26, respectively.

Less than two weeks after her son's death, Mary Murach wrote to his fellow soldiers still serving in Afghanistan on Facebook.

"Thank you so very much for your service to our country," she wrote. "Thank you for the sacrifices that you and your families make."

Even in their darkest, most difficult hours, the first instinct of America's Gold Star moms, dads, wives, husbands, brothers and sisters is often to thank others. While she will spend Memorial Day dealing with unimaginable pain, Spc. Murach's mother, like her son, sets a selfless example that every American should follow.

No matter what's going on in our lives, good or bad, we should always show appreciation to our men and women in uniform, veterans, fallen heroes and their families. While about one percent of our country volunteers to serve, 100 percent should be saying "thank you."

While speaking earlier this year with the mother of fallen U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Edward Dycus, 22, she said her son was shot in the back of the head by an Afghan soldier who turned against the U.S. forces trying to help him.

"It's hard to talk about," Carol Dycus said. "It's hard."

Carol deals with grief that very few of us can comprehend. She also makes an important point.

It's hard to talk about the horrors of war and the price that so many military families have paid during almost 12 years of constant conflict. Explaining the price of freedom to our children is even more complicated.

But more than any other holiday, Memorial Day is a springboard for that discussion. Stated simply, every American child should grow up learning about our country's fallen heroes and what they were willing to sacrifice.

Just weeks before he was killed in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Spc. Douglas Green, 23, wrote a letter to his loved ones.

"I will always love and cherish all the time I was given on this earth and am thankful for this life and everyone in it," the soldier wrote.

Memorial Day is about being thankful. It's about being grateful not only for a day off work and a chance to grill hot dogs and hamburgers with family and friends, but for the opportunity to live in a nation that brave men and women are willing to step forward and protect.

To thousands of families who've lost loved ones to war, Memorial Day is one of the most meaningful dates on the calendar. It's the one day of the year that the nation officially pauses to remember the men and women who've sacrificed their futures for America's tomorrow.

What does Memorial Day mean to you?


Image courtesy: Erin Kirk-Cuomo

Friday, May 17, 2013

Rally Cry

Images courtesy: RallyPoint

U.S. Army Capt. Aaron Kletzing first felt the lumps while serving a 15-month combat tour in Iraq.

"Part of the way through the deployment I noticed these big lumps around my collarbone," Kletzing told The Unknown Soldiers. "I figured it was really badly pulled muscles."

After coming home, it became clear that something was seriously wrong.

"I got back from Iraq, and my body was really out-of-whack," Kletzing said. "I was sweating all the time and my energy was really off."

One Friday afternoon in the fall of 2009, Capt. Kletzing got a phone call he would never forget.

"Hey, this is the doctor," he was told. "You have cancer."

When the soldier deployed in December 2007 to a volatile area north of Baghdad, a cancer diagnosis seemed impossible.

"I turned 23 and 24 in Iraq, and I thought to myself that my next birthday, I'm going to have the biggest party ever," Kletzing said. "But my next birthday, I was doing chemotherapy in Chicago."

Kletzing, 29, followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Capt. Andrew Kletzing, when he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2006.

"By then, both wars were going on, so I figured (serving) was the best thing to do," he said.

Kletzing then flew to Hawaii to prepare for war.

"I think the overall feeling is you have good nerves ... you're focused," the combat veteran said about getting ready for battle. "But there are also those nerves that keep you awake at night."

As his unit's company fire support officer, Kletzing spent seven months leading troops through Iraq's war-torn streets by day while sleeping in deplorable conditions at night.

"That was the world ... that was the universe," he said. "You're living there with Iraqi Security Forces ... living on top of each other with mice everywhere."

After several months without a shower, Kletzing and his soldiers initially welcomed a move to the east side of the Tigris River. The problem was that insurgents and terrorists were there wreaking havoc.

"For a while near (the new outpost) we had a cell of al-Qaida particularly adept at making homemade explosives," Kletzing said.

To this day, the veteran has images from Iraq burned into his memory.

"The thing I remember most vividly is seeing locals who had been hurt," Kletzing said. "(Many of) these people are maimed or shot, and those locals are brought into your aid stations."

Kletzing praised his fellow soldiers for helping him stay calm amid the madness.

"I just had to really rely on my buddies over there," he said.

Once he discovered the lumps near his neck, an already difficult deployment became even more challenging.

"All the way through Iraq, this was growing ... the cancer was spreading throughout my body," Kletzing said. "But I wasn't going to complain."

When the birthday he was so eager to celebrate finally arrived, the 25-year-old soldier, who lost his hair and eyebrows amid grueling chemotherapy treatment, hoped good news was on the horizon. The soldier's birthday wish was granted.

"I ended up doing scans, and it was in remission," he said.

Kletzing, now 29, was accepted to Harvard Business School. Not far from the Boston dorm room where Facebook was born, the U.S. Army veteran came up with a groundbreaking idea that a former Special Forces officer he met in Iraq helped him fully realize.

"The biggest frustration for people who are in the military — who really like being in the military and want to stay in the military — is that they have so little influence over where they're assigned," Kletzing said. "I felt like I'd figured out a way to change that."

Kletzing and Yinon Weiss launched RallyPoint, which they call a "LinkedIn for the military" and encourage all U.S. service members to join.

"We get excited emails every day from people saying 'hey, this is incredible,'" Kletzing said. "Our goal is to be the professional home for everyone in the military."

Today, Aaron Kletzing helps U.S. troops connect with one another in order to improve their lives and careers. He is also a proud Iraq war veteran and grateful cancer survivor.

"Thankfully, it is still in remission," he said. "I'm doing all right."


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Exit 41

Soon after taking Exit 41 off Interstate 85 just south of Atlanta, I saw the harsh reality of nearly 12 years at war in Afghanistan.

The pain in a young widow's eyes. The trepidation in a grieving father's voice. The empty spot in a loving mother's heart.

This is what America's longest armed conflict is about, not public opinion polls or the rhetoric of politicians. While some will have the luxury of pushing the war in Afghanistan aside once it's over, others will carry it with them for all time.

April 20 in Newnan, Ga., was a picturesque spring day. The sky was blue and bright, the sun was warm but not scorching, and a cool breeze gently enveloped the Newnan-Coweta County Airport for an emotional dedication ceremony.

With a long runway, two jets, and countless American flags as a backdrop, hundreds gathered to salute the life of U.S. Air Force Capt. Nick Whitlock, 29, who was killed in the African nation of Djibouti alongside three fellow airmen on Feb. 18, 2012. The foursome flew many special operations missions in support of U.S. troops in Afghanistan before the accident took their lives.

While you may have read about Nick before in this column space, the moving words of his family, friends and fellow airmen shed new light on the character of a young generation that has continually and unselfishly stepped forward since the 9/11 attacks.

"For those who knew Nick well, you will all agree that his charming demeanor and his gregarious personality made him very easy to befriend and get close to," Air Force Capt. Joshua Stinson, who served with Capt. Whitlock, said. "Nick and I started our training on the U-28 (aircraft), and early on I always remember hearing his unique, vivacious laugh down the hall and how he was always able to light up the classroom whenever he entered."

Other than birds chirping and the occasional light breeze, there was complete silence as Nick's father, Jimmy Whitlock, delivered a poignant tribute to his departed son. After thanking the military and political dignitaries in attendance, he looked directly at his wife.

"Thank you, Clare," he said before a heartbreaking pause. "I love you forever."

What the last year has been like for the Whitlocks is truly unimaginable. But just as Nick courageously flew above war zones, the airman's father stood in front of the Cessna airplane on which his son learned to fly and read the fallen hero's words.

"It is my desire to serve my country by becoming an officer and a pilot in the United States Air Force, a career that I believe will be most challenging and rewarding," Nick once wrote. "It is in the Air Force where I can combine my passions and abilities to serve my country anyplace, anytime and in any capacity that such an obligation requires."

Nick's words sum up the mindset of so many brave young men and women who have willingly deployed to some of the world's most violent places since the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a now-sacred field in Shanksville, Pa., first smoldered.

"Nick literally died trying to be the very best that he could be," his dad said.

Ashley Whitlock is still trying to adjust to life without her husband, who she last saw on Valentine's Day 2012. Through her immense character and infectious strength, the Gold Star wife inspired everyone in attendance.

Images courtesy: Captain Nicholas Schade Whitlock Foundation

There are thousands more young women and men like Ashley, who've lost so much, yet soldier on. There's no telling what their loved ones could have accomplished if they'd made it home from Afghanistan or Iraq, but as Ashley's brother-in-law said, it's up to us to keep their memories alive.

"If we live our lives as the best people that we can be, and encourage people to be the best that they can be ... we'd have a lot better world than we live in now," Nick's brother, Iraq war veteran James Whitlock, said.

After hugging the Whitlocks and getting back on I-85, I saw a brand new Exit 41 sign for the airport that now bears a new, distinguished name.

"I am truly excited to imagine what future American history will have its beginnings here at Whitlock Field," Capt. Stinson said.


Friday, May 3, 2013

Love on the Battlefield

Images courtesy: Master Sgt. Jennifer Loredo

As soon as Master Sgt. Jennifer Loredo went into labor, she wondered if her husband, Staff Sgt. Eddie Loredo, would make it to the hospital on time.

"He was on his way home from Iraq for two weeks of leave," Master Sgt. Loredo told The Unknown Soldiers. "So I basically wound up having to go to the hospital and start labor knowing he was on the airplane from Iraq."

Moments later, Staff Sgt. Loredo ran into the hospital room to witness his wife giving birth to their son.

"He literally made it just in time," Jennifer said. "That was a pretty special time."

Jennifer was introduced to Eddie by a mutual friend in 2004, while both U.S. Army soldiers were stationed in Vicenza, Italy. They quickly fell in love.

"He deployed (to Afghanistan) a month later, but we kept in touch that entire time he was gone," she said. "We wrote love letters."

Immediately after returning, Eddie told Jennifer he wanted to marry her. They tied the knot just before returning to the United States and reporting for duty at North Carolina's Fort Bragg.

Two weeks after the birth of his son, Eddie returned to Iraq for another nine months. Then, in December 2009, the soldier left for Afghanistan. This combat deployment would be much different than his previous three, however, because his wife was headed to the war zone, too.

"It was my first deployment," she said. "At times it was overwhelming, but I had a great support system of family and friends who helped me out with my kids and were always there for me."

Jennifer left their son and her 12-year-old daughter from a previous relationship with relatives when she deployed in May 2010. While Eddie fought in the volatile south with an infantry unit, Jennifer was setting up dental facilities for U.S. troops to the north.

"It was very hard to communicate when I got to Afghanistan," she said.

During a rare phone conversation on Father's Day 2010, Jennifer was surprised when Eddie didn't sound like his normally energetic, enthusiastic self.

"The unit had lost several teammates," she said. "My husband was concerned about his soldiers' well-being."

On June 24, 2010, Jennifer's commanding officer brought her to his office and asked her to sit down. After he said two words — "Sergeant Eddie," which is how soldiers referred to her husband — the anguish quickly set in.

"Tears started rolling down his face," Jennifer said.

Eddie, 34, was severely wounded in a roadside bomb attack that had already taken his left leg. A numb, dazed Jennifer immediately boarded a plane to Kandahar, where she would stay by her husband's side.

After a frantic flight, Jennifer rushed into the hospital, much like Eddie on the day their son was born. Upon entering the room, she saw her husband lying quietly and peacefully.

"I ran to him and kissed him right away," she said. "As soon as my lips touched him, I knew he didn't make it."

Hours after collapsing into an Army Chaplain's arms, Jennifer was staring at her husband's flag-draped casket during a long, excruciating journey home from Afghanistan. While their two-year-old son probably wouldn't understand that daddy was gone, Jennifer knew her 12-year-old daughter would be devastated by her stepfather's sudden death.

"I did have a huge fear of telling my children," Jennifer said. "But I got through it."

The military and civilian communities rallied around Jennifer and the kids.

"To this day, I have so much support ... it is so overwhelming and so appreciated," she said. "The bad thing is there are many people in my situation who don't experience such a supportive environment."

Now 37, helping military families is Master Sgt. Jennifer Loredo's new mission. Stationed at the Pentagon, she supervises Master Resilience Training to assist Army families, including those who've lost loved ones, in coping with the enormous challenge of serving in a post-9/11 world.

Image courtesy: U.S. Army

"I wanted to make (Eddie) proud and my kids proud, too," she said.

When Jennifer puts her young son to bed, they talk about why daddy is a hero.

"Mommy is a soldier, daddy was a soldier, and we loved being soldiers," she said. "He gave his life for the well-being and protection of our country."