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

Friday, June 28, 2013

Don't Forget

Image courtesy: Spc. Robert Porter

During a June trip to San Diego, I met the wife of a U.S. Navy bomb specialist who was recently killed while serving in Afghanistan. Still devastated and overwhelmed by grief, she shared a concern that is paramount, both now and in the difficult years to come.

"I just want to make sure people don't forget," she said.

The grieving widow's poignant words are similar to what I've heard from many Gold Star spouses, parents and siblings during almost three years of authoring this weekly column. While their loss hurts in a way very few can understand, they are comforted by knowing people remember their loved ones.

This is hard to write and probably even harder for many families of fallen service members to read. In 2013, most Americans are not only forgetting the sacrifices of the brave men and women who preserve their freedom; they're not noticing in the first place.

As of the month's 26th day, 15 U.S. troops had been killed in Afghanistan in June 2013. The fallen heroes are from small towns like Evans Mills, N.Y., Moseley, Va., and Panama, Okla., and large cities like Houston, Phoenix and Sacramento.

Aside from honorable ceremonies in their hometowns and on various military bases, where was the national outpouring for these fallen warriors and their families? Where were the candlelight vigils, celebrity-filled telethons and emotional speeches by national leaders on both sides of the political aisle?

Maybe some Americans were too busy at the beach, at the movies or watching the NBA and Stanley Cup Finals. Maybe some politicians on Capitol Hill, in particular, were too busy enjoying their annual Memorial Day Recess to remember what the holiday actually means.

I used to blame the media for a disturbing, dishonorable national trend. After all, the press has fostered a culture in which names of sex-tape performers are more recognizable to most than names like Sgt. Dakota Meyer, Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, and Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha, the most recent Afghanistan war heroes to receive the Medal of Honor.

In truth, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. Even after countless polls showing the national media is one of America's least respected, most mistrusted institutions, more journalists would report on the sacrifices on U.S. troops and their families if readers, viewers and web users pressured them to do so.

On June 18, 2013, terrorists attacked Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan with mortar fire. According to the Pentagon, four U.S. Army soldiers — Sgt. Justin Johnson, 25, of Hobe Sound, Fla., Spc. Ember Alt, 21, of Beech Island, S.C., Spc. Robert Ellis, 21, of Kennewick, Wash., and Spc. William Moody, 30, of Burleson, Texas — were killed in the attack.

Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/Greg Davis

I first heard about the battle at Bagram while watching CNN at San Antonio International Airport. Many national media outlets did report news of the attack, even if some didn't subsequently report the names of the American heroes killed. After all, there were other stories to follow, like the name of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian's baby.

The media is an easy target. The much more difficult one to identify is the one staring at each of us in the mirror.

We are Americans. Thousands of good men and women have died and suffered physical and emotional trauma to give us the privilege of uttering those three words. What being an American will mean, long after the war in Afghanistan ends, is up to us.

The name of the fallen U.S. Navy hero whose wife I was honored to meet is Lt. Chris Mosko. A 28-year-old explosive ordnance disposal platoon commander, Lt. Mosko was born in Massachusetts before living different parts of his life in Connecticut, Delaware, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and California.

During his years of military service, Chris disabled numerous enemy improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on post-9/11 battlefields. The elimination of these bombs saved countless lives, including those of innocent children. Chris was killed by an IED in Afghanistan on Apr. 26, 2012.

Will we remember Chris and his fallen brothers and sisters? Will we salute their honorable, voluntary service by overcoming our collective discomfort about discussing the sacrifices being made by the tiny percentage of the population that fights our nation's wars?

Hopefully, we will remember Amanda Mosko's words: "Don't forget."


Image courtesy: Mosko family

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Rescuers

Images courtesy: Char Fontan Westfall

Shortly after word reached military commanders that four U.S. Navy SEALs were engulfed in a chaotic Afghanistan firefight, Chief Petty Officer (SEAL) Jacques Fontan boarded a helicopter to aid in their rescue.

"I was always worried about him and always praying for him," Chief Petty Officer Fontan's wife, Char, told The Unknown Soldiers. "But I never had any doubt that he was coming home."

In May 1996, nine years before he sprung to action during Operation Red Wings, Jacques was a Navy sailor stationed in Jacksonville, Fla., when he met Char, who was working as a lifeguard at several pools on base.

"He was a rescue swimmer instructor," Char said. "We shared the same pools."

Char and Jacques were instantly drawn to each other.

"We just hit it off ... we immediately clicked," she said. "We had a good time together and enjoyed a lot of the same activities."

In 1998, Jacques was about to leave the Navy when he was given a shot at Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. After six painstaking, rigorous months at BUD/S, Jacques earned his Navy SEAL trident and quickly proposed to Char. They were married in 2000.

Everything changed for the Fontans when 9/11 jolted the entire military community. From the beginning, it was clear to Char that Navy SEALs would play a key role in hunting down the terrorists responsible for attacking America.

"I went from having a happy-go-lucky life and living in a bubble to realizing that (Jacques) was going to be much more involved," she said. "I think it just became much more real what his job was and the danger he was going to be in."

By 2003, Jacques was leaving for missions so secret that he often couldn't tell his wife which countries he'd be fighting in.

"He told me we weren't going to speak for a three month period," Char said. "To this day, I still don't know where they were."

In April 2005, Jacques was permitted to tell his wife that he was leaving for Afghanistan. It was supposed to be his final combat deployment after almost seven years as a Navy SEAL.

"We were going to start a family and enjoy some downtime," Char said of their plans upon Jacques' return.

Less than 48 hours before the June 28, 2005, rescue mission Jacques didn't know was on the horizon, Char ended a phone call with her husband as she always did.

"Be careful," she said.

"We're just flying around in helicopters," Jacques, shielding his wife from worry, said. "It's no big deal."

After a day tutoring a child with autism in Virginia Beach, where Jacques was stationed, Char was at a pizza parlor with the boy and his brother when she saw a troubling news report.

"I saw something on TV about a helicopter crash, and I remember saying a prayer right there for those families," she said. "Then I got a call from one of the (Navy SEAL) wives, and from that point on, I just had a really bad feeling thinking about what I saw on the TV."

Soon after, Char was informed that her husband, Chief Petty Officer Jacques Fontan, 36, was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his helicopter. Seven fellow Navy SEALs and eight Army special operations soldiers died in the attack.

Of the four SEAL heroes fighting on the ground, three were killed and one survived. As the U.S. Navy summary of action notes, June 28, 2005, at that point, "was the single largest loss of life for Naval Special Warfare since World War II."

Eight years later, with bestselling books and a forthcoming major motion picture now telling the Operation Red Wings story, Char Fontan Westfall is remarried and raising children. To this day, when a Navy SEAL is killed in battle, Char springs to action to comfort their loved ones.

"It's my way to thank God and also make Jacques proud and also keep his memory alive," she said.

From rescue swimmer instructor and lifeguard to Navy SEAL hero and Navy SEAL widow, one American couple managed to impact countless lives.

"People say, 'do you think he would have still gone if he knew he wasn't coming back?'" Char said. "And I say he would have."


Friday, June 14, 2013

Two Candles

Images courtesy: Ana Sabrina Carmona

Ana Sabrina Carmona was talking to her fiance, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Rex Schad, on March 10 when the soldier, who was deployed to Afghanistan, asked her to do him a favor.

"Please light a candle for my buddy, Wittman," Staff Sgt. Schad said.

Sgt. Aaron Wittman, 28, of Chester, Va., was killed by enemy fire on Jan. 10 in Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province. His death deeply impacted soldiers serving in eastern Afghanistan with the Army's 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, including Rex.

"It was the first time it hit (Rex) that 'it could have been me,'" Rex's fiancee told The Unknown Soldiers.

Ana Sabrina met Rex through a mutual friend while they were both living in Savannah, Ga.

"We just talked for hours," she said about their first date in one of Savannah's historic squares. "We decided that we were going to be New Year's dates."

After celebrating the dawn of 2012 together, Rex and Ana Sabrina became inseparable.

"It was this whirlwind romance," she said. "I'd never experienced being with a military man, and I didn't really know the risks."

Eleven months later, Rex told Ana Sabrina that he wanted to marry her just before leaving for Afghanistan. After subsequently mailing her a ring just in time for New Year's Eve, the deployed soldier and his bride-to-be started to plan their wedding.

"I can't wait to marry you," Rex often told Ana Sabrina during daily phone conversations. "I can't wait to come back."

First, Rex, who was on his second deployment to Afghanistan, knew he had an important job to do. Winter was coming to a close, which meant the Taliban's annual spring offensive was about to commence.

"As soon as the ice melts, it's going to get bad," the soldier told his fiancee in early March.

Ana Sabrina didn't know that Rex had already saved multiple lives on the battlefield. The Army squad leader was too humble to take credit for his accomplishments.

"Rex was a huge hero and he never even told us," Ana Sabrina said. "He was the ultimate military man ... he was a great soldier."

After Rex asked his fiancee to light a candle for Sgt. Aaron Wittman on March 10, Ana Sabrina, who lives in Atlanta, became nervous when he didn't call her the following morning.

"Sure enough, later that night, his mother called me and told me he was gone," Ana Sabrina said.

According to the Department of Defense, Staff Sgt. Rex Schad, 26, and a fellow soldier, Capt. Andrew Pedersen-Keel, 28, of South Miami, Fla., died March 11 in the Jalrez District of Afghanistan's Wardak Province when they were attacked by small arms fire. Multiple reports said the soldiers were killed when an attacker dressed as an Afghan police officer opened fire on U.S. troops.

A few days later, Ana Sabrina was in Edmond, Okla., where her fiance grew up, to attend Rex's funeral with his grieving family and friends.

"I was walking down an aisle, but it was not my wedding," she said. "It was to his casket."

Instead of reciting her vows at their wedding, Ana Sabrina, 23, read them aloud at Rex's memorial service. While the pain of losing her future husband remains excruciating and surreal, Ana Sabrina continues to take comfort in what she witnessed in Oklahoma.

"I could tell that he was so loved and it was amazing to be able to see that and experience it," she said. "I think that's a lot of what's gotten me through this ... the support of everyone and the love they had for Rex."

Rex, who was also survived by his mother, father and brother, left a lasting imprint on many, including the woman he was so excited to marry.

"I want to continue living for him," she said. "That said; I don't take things for granted anymore."

Each night, Ana Sabrina Carmona lights a candle for two fallen heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice in 2013: Sgt. Aaron Wittman and Staff Sgt. Rex Schad.

"It's crazy to me that I'm lighting two candles now," she said. "But that was Rex's request."


Friday, June 7, 2013

The Last Mission

Images courtesy: Staff Sgt. Brian Jopek (Ret.)

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brian Jopek was deployed to Iraq when his oldest son, Ryan, also volunteered to serve his country.

"He went to basic training when I was in Iraq," Staff Sgt. Jopek, who has since retired from the Wisconsin Army National Guard, told The Unknown Soldiers.

Brian also missed his son's high school graduation while serving in combat, but always stayed in close contact with Ryan to give him pointers on life as a soldier.

"Keep your eyes open, keep your head low, and don't get complacent," Brian often told his eldest son.

Born in Nebraska, Ryan spent his formative years in Kansas before attending the last two years of high school in Merrill, Wis., a small city on the picturesque Wisconsin River.

After suffering an early football injury, Ryan grew to love the basketball court, where he excelled from beyond the arc.

"It was just incredible to see him hit those shots," his dad said. "The other guys were a lot faster, but he was the one guy who could hit those three-point shots."

Ryan joined the Army National Guard in 2003, just as thousands of American troops were beginning to fight the nation's second war since the 9/11 attacks.

"We were very proud of him," Brian said. "He was willing to do just about anything for anyone else ... whatever he could."

Not yet old enough to legally buy a beer, Sgt. Ryan Jopek deployed to Iraq during one of its most volatile, violent chapters. With his dad's advice in the back of his mind, the Cavalry Scout would often patrol the war-torn country's streets while manning the "gun tub" atop an armored military Humvee.

Ryan loved trucks since he was a boy.

"I took him to a couple monster truck shows when he was a little kid," Brian said. "He liked to watch monster trucks."

Ryan owned a 1966 Chevrolet pickup truck that he affectionately named "Walter" — after his all-time favorite football player, Chicago Bears legend Walter Payton — which he meticulously washed and repaired. He took both "Walter" and a new car out for spins when he came home in June 2006 for a short break from his Iraq deployment.

"I think he was doing pretty well overall," Brian said of Ryan's spirits before returning to war. "He didn't want to go back, but he knew he needed to ... he didn't want to leave the guys he'd been deployed with."

On the night of Aug. 1, 2006, Brian was in a bar watching monster trucks on television when he thought of Ryan and their many fun-filled outings. With Ryan's deployment nearing its end, the dad was looking forward to spending even more quality time with his 20-year-old son.

"The next morning, I got the knock on the door," Brian said. "At first, I didn't think anything of it, but when I looked at the people and saw the two officers standing there, I knew."

According to the Pentagon, Sgt. Ryan Jopek was killed on Aug. 2, 2006, when an enemy improvised explosive device blew up next to his vehicle near Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. To this day, Brian is thankful that everyone riding with his son survived.

"The driver was able to get the Humvee out of the kill zone," he said. "Thank God — as bad as it was — that it wasn't worse."

The fallen soldier's father, mother and two siblings subsequently learned that Ryan's final act, carried out just a few days before he was scheduled to leave Iraq, was selfless and heroic.

"He volunteered to go on one last mission that he didn't have to go on," Brian said. "An opening came up on that last convoy, on that gun truck, and he took it. He said he'd go."

The day before what would have been Ryan's 27th birthday, Brian Jopek reflected, as he often does while driving "Walter" around Wisconsin, about his son's willingness to go on one final combat patrol.

"To me, that one last mission is a prime demonstration of what kind of kid he was," the Gold Star father and Iraq war veteran said. "When you're over there ... that's what it's about. It's about the guys next to you."