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

Friday, July 26, 2013

Josh's Dog

Images courtesy: Tammie Ashley

Before Sgt. Joshua Ashley left for his first combat deployment, his thoughts weren't centered on his own safety. The Marine K-9 handler was particularly concerned about his military working dog, Sirius.

"Josh loved his dog," Sgt. Ashley's mother, Tammie, told The Unknown Soldiers. "He had told his oldest brother that if anything ever happened to Sirius, he didn't think he could deal with it."

The affinity Josh had for the German Shepherd became clear shortly before they left for Afghanistan's rugged, war-torn landscape.

"I was able to meet Sirius before they deployed," Josh's mom said. "You could see the bond between them."

Since Josh was a young boy growing up in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., he demonstrated many of the qualities championed by the Marine Corps, including defending the defenseless.

"If there were little kids being (bullied) on the bus, he would stick up for them," Tammie said. "He was always a protector."

As a 12-year-old, Josh watched the horrors of 9/11 unfold on live television, and he listened to his mom call several friends who narrowly escaped the World Trade Center's collapsing towers.

"It was kind of personal to us, since we knew people who were in the buildings," she said.

Josh resolved to dedicate his life to serving others, first in the military and ultimately as a police officer. But with America at war, Tammie was worried about her son ending up on a perilous, faraway battlefield.

"I made him go to one year of college to make sure (the military) was what he wanted to do," she said.

After completing his freshman year, Josh told his mom, dad and brothers that he was joining the Marines.

"His goal in the Marine Corps was to deploy," Josh's mom said. "He didn't tell me how dangerous his job was."

As a K-9 handler, Josh was trained to lead searches for improvised explosive devices with a military working dog. Josh arrived in Afghanistan on May 27, 2012 — his 23rd birthday — and started going on missions with Sirius and members of the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command.

"He was so excited at that point," the Marine's mom said. "He was ecstatic."

Two months into the deployment, Josh called home and told his mom that he planned to re-enlist in the Marine Corps. But upon his return from Afghanistan, Josh said he would likely start a new job that wouldn't include his trusted dog.

"In his position, he may not be able to have Sirius," Tammie said. "He wanted to adopt him, and asked if I would take him."

Tammie knew how much her son worried about Sirius, and did not hesitate in agreeing to care for her son's dog until Josh was eventually able to take over.

A few days later, Josh and Sirius left for a dangerous assignment in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province, where so many U.S. troops have served and sacrificed during almost 12 years of war.

"He volunteered for this mission," Tammie said. "He was a go-getter and he always volunteered for everything."

Josh's unit and several Afghans were crossing a waterway on a windy night when Sirius jumped to the other side.

"Josh made sure Sirius got over, thankfully," the Marine's mother said. "And then Josh jumped over and hit it."

The July 19, 2012, IED explosion killed Sgt. Joshua Ashley. His beloved dog survived.

"They tested (Sirius) after," Tammie said. "At first, they could tell he knew something had happened."

More than a year after Josh's death, Tammie still deeply mourns the loss of her son. But she's also grateful for the support of her California community, as well as the Marine Corps, which posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with Valor to Josh on July 20.

"He's had buddies join the military because they were so proud of him," she said. "He's been my hero since he was born."

Tammie Ashley wants Americans to remember that brave volunteer warriors are still in harm's way. Sirius, the courageous dog that Tammie plans to adopt, is one of them.

"He's still an active K-9 and he's with one of Josh's good friends," she said. "But (the Marine) doesn't consider (Sirius) his dog. It's Josh's dog."


Image courtesy: Cpl. Mark Garcia

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Text

Image courtesy: U.S. Army

On July 3, 2012, Carla Chandler Colvin got a lengthy text message from her 21-year-old son, who was serving in Afghanistan.

"When your child is in Afghanistan, you don't shut your cell phone off," Carla told The Unknown Soldiers. "You just never know."

As he sacrificed as a soldier, U.S. Army Pfc. Julian Colvin made sure Carla knew how much he appreciated her many years of sacrifices as a mom.

"Remember those dark nights when I would hear you crying and I would climb into your bed?" Julian wrote. "I would tell you 'don't worry, Mom, everything is going to be all right.'"

Pfc. Colvin did not become a compassionate, selfless warrior by accident.

"I placed a lot of responsibility on (Julian) to prepare him for manhood," Carla said. "I was not necessarily the kind of parent that a teenager wanted."

After Julian's high school graduation, his mom rewarded him with a year off from work and school while living at her Birmingham, Ala., home. But at the conclusion of his yearlong holiday, Julian would have to present his mom with a comprehensive career plan.

"A lot of young people don't know what they want to do at 18," Carla said. "But (Julian) finally created his plan, and decided emphatically that he wanted to enlist in the U.S. Army."

After carefully discussing the decision with his mom, Julian started training to become a combat engineer.

"As a parent, hearing the term 'combat' on the title of your child will send you into fear," she said. "I knew immediately he would be deployed to Afghanistan."

Images courtesy: Carla Chandler Colvin

After basic training, Julian graduated from Airborne School at Georgia's Fort Benning and was stationed at North Carolina's Fort Bragg.

"He completed jump school and said, 'Mom, I got my wings and I'm dedicating my first set of wings to you,'" Carla said.

While his training's conclusion was jubilant, the 2011 holiday season, which fell just before Julian's first deployment, was somber. For three days, the paratrooper sat alone in the same room where he decided to enlist. Upon emerging, Julian said something that stunned his mother and several relatives.

"I'm going to Afghanistan, and I'm going to enjoy this time with you," he said. "Because the next time you see me, I might be in a wooden box."

Even though the soldier's words made Carla cry, she was also immeasurably proud.

"He was so fearless," she said. "He wanted us to be in the reality of what could happen."

Julian deployed to Afghanistan in February 2012.

"Mom, it's more hostile than you can ever imagine," the soldier said that March.

When Julian later told his mom that a care package she sent was blown up by insurgents, Carla realized that her son's job centered on searching for improvised explosive devices. The risks were real, and on July 23, 2012, military messengers arrived at Carla's doorstep.

"That's when they delivered the most tragic, unthinkable news that a parent could receive," she said.

According to the Pentagon, Pfc. Julian Colvin and Staff Sgt. Richard Berry, 27, died in a July 22, 2012, roadside bomb attack in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

In the excruciating days that followed, Carla embraced Julian's flag-draped casket, wept at his funeral and accepted the condolences of President Obama and a U.S. Senator. While every moment was meaningful, nothing carried more weight than her final conversations with Julian.

"I want to let you know that everything you taught me has been so instrumental and helped me get through the rough times of this deployment," Julian told his mom.

Carla also marveled at Julian's concern for veterans who sometimes suffer from post-traumatic stress or struggle to find shelter or employment. Carla has since established A Soldier's Heart Foundation to address that very problem. By helping those in need, a grieving mother keeps her son's memory alive.

"I'm so tenacious and determined to make sure he's never forgotten," she said. "That keeps me going."

On the darkest nights, Carla Chandler Colvin still reads the text message that her son sent from halfway around the world. Even in death, Pfc. Julian Colvin still comforts the woman who helped him become an American hero.

"Don't worry, mom," he wrote. "Everything is going to be all right."


Friday, July 12, 2013

The Gentle SEAL

Images courtesy: Ursula Ebbert

When Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Ebbert deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, it wasn't only as a battle-hardened Navy SEAL. It was also as a compassionate U.S. Navy Corpsman who wanted to save as many lives as possible.

"He really didn't talk much about what he was doing over there in terms of being a SEAL," Petty Officer 1st Class Ebbert's wife, Ursula, told The Unknown Soldiers. "He's also a medic, and he was volunteering to work in the clinics on his free time."

Kevin, who planned to leave the Navy and study to become a doctor upon returning from Afghanistan, believed helping injured troops and civilians on the battlefield would eventually help him become a better physician.

"A lot of the calls were 'I got to help with this procedure' or 'I got to help save somebody's legs today,'" Ursula said. "He was really excited."

Ursula first met Kevin in 2002 near their hometown of Arcata, Calif. They got to know each other on a hiking trip arranged by their mothers, who are close friends.

"He's not a big talker, so I did most of the talking, but he's a very good listener," she said. "After four days of backpacking, we got very close."

Kevin, who studied music before eventually becoming a Navy SEAL, proposed to Ursula while away on a previous combat deployment.

"I got an email from Afghanistan with a PowerPoint presentation of different ring options," Ursula said. "We knew (our relationship) was serious, but I think he just wanted to see if I could handle a deployment."

After getting married on New Year's Eve, the new bride rapidly adjusted to life as a military spouse when Kevin left for Afghanistan on Sept. 25, 2012, the day after Ursula's birthday.

"On the second deployment, we were thinking about what comes after the Navy, which made it a lot harder," Ursula, 31, said. "It made it a lot harder to say goodbye this time."

On Thanksgiving, Kevin called his wife from Afghanistan to share some exciting news.

"He had just found out that it was likely that he was going to be back in mid-January (2013)," Ursula said. "It was the first I heard that he was going to be back in six weeks."

The next day, Kevin and his fellow SEALs left for a perilous combat mission.

"They were hiking into hostile territory," Ursula said. "The terrain they were moving through was a lot rougher than anticipated."

A decade after Kevin and Ursula started falling in love while hiking the California mountains, four Navy sailors rang the doorbell of their Virginia Beach home.

"They said 'we have some bad news ... Kevin was killed last night,'" she said.

According to the Pentagon, Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Ebbert, 32, was killed on Nov. 24, 2012, while supporting stability operations in Afghanistan's Uruzgan Province. The fallen SEAL's wife said her husband was shot by the enemy during an ambush.

"These things happen," the grieving widow said. "You just think it won't happen to you."

As soon as news of the SEAL's death began to spread, mourners from Virginia to California surrounded Ursula and all of Kevin's loved ones with support.

"Gratitude is the number one thing that really struck me," Ursula said. "Kevin was a really quiet person and wasn't easy to get to know in that respect, but the chapel was standing room only."

For Ursula, seeing how many lives her husband touched turned initial feelings of anger into an overwhelming sense of pride.

"I was so proud of everything he'd done," she said. "I just wish he had more time."

During the funeral services, one college buddy summed up Kevin's legacy in a way that moved his wife.

"A gentle soul who was tough as nails," the friend said.

As Ursula Ebbert puts her life back together after an unimaginable tragedy, she is inspired by what Kevin left behind.

"He didn't lecture (people), he just lived his life according to his ideals," Ursula said. "That's an amazing legacy to leave, to push others to want to be better."

Hopefully, the legacy of fallen heroes like Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Ebbert will push each of us toward being better, too.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Fourth of July

File image courtesy: Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Foss

For many Americans, July 4th is a day to grill hot dogs and watch fireworks. For U.S. Army Spc. Logan Ellard and his tactical explosive detection dog, Thor, it's another day to search for roadside bombs.

"I enjoy it out here," Spc. Ellard, speaking to The Unknown Soldiers from eastern Afghanistan on June 22, said. "Most of the terrain we're around is in the mountains."

Stationed in Afghanistan's rugged Paktika Province, the 22-year-old Houston, Texas, soldier has quickly learned to appreciate the luxuries that far too many of us take for granted. During our phone call, Ellard repeatedly expressed gratitude for having air conditioning on his forward remote operating base (FOB).

"The FOB is really nice," Ellard said.

The young soldier's upbeat, positive attitude is remarkable considering his daily responsibilities. As a tactical explosive detection dog handler, Ellard's job is to lead Thor into the mountains and make sure the ground beneath the boots of U.S. and Afghan troops is free of deadly bombs.

"There are many foothills and paths that haven't been cleared in a while," Ellard said.

Thor, a Belgian Malinois with an official rank of Sergeant, has been sniffing out enemy improvised explosive devices for four years. The dog's life-saving skills and friendly nature have endeared him to every soldier on the FOB.

"Everybody knows him and everybody loves seeing him," Ellard, who's been with Thor for eight months, said. "When I take him around, he brings the morale up of everyone immensely."

Keeping morale high is a crucial challenge for any combat unit. On June 8, the Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 10th Mountain Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, which Ellard and Thor serve with, was struck by tragedy when an Afghan soldier reportedly opened fire on U.S. troops. The attack killed Lt. Col. Todd Clark, 40, and Maj. Jaimie Leonard, 39.

Thousands of miles from New York State, which both departed warriors called home, there are many thoughts and prayers for the Clark and Leonard families.

"Our hearts definitely go out to them," Ellard said. "We're greatly sad for them."

Even after a horrific act of violence, soldiers in Afghanistan must stay prepared for the unknown perils of the next mission. Every day, Ellard keeps Thor ready to find the next IED.

"We go out and hide (TNT or C4) on the FOB and give someone a route, or they hide them and give us a route," Ellard said. "We make sure our dog is still on odor every day so we know when we're outside, we make sure that we realize their change in behavior on explosive odor when we're outside the wire."

Thor, who sleeps in an air-conditioned or heated kennel, for which Ellard also expressed his thanks, has saved countless lives with his handler.

"If we're on a dismounted mission, walking, we'll be out front to make sure nobody gets hurt," Ellard said. "If we're on a mounted mission, we'll roll outside the wire, near the front truck."

When even the most gentle breeze of danger is felt inside the tall, desolate mountains, Ellard and Thor are the first soldiers to shield their fellow troops.

"I have two security guys who go with (Thor and me) and we search the area of interest," the soldier said.

Through voice commands and hand signals, Ellard communicates with Thor as if he was any other soldier.

"The very first thing they taught us in training is if (the dogs) don't listen to you on the leash, they won't listen to you off the leash," Ellard said.

At just 22 years of age, Ellard trusts a dog with his life.

"He's become my best friend," the soldier said. "We're together every day."

As you mark Independence Day, take a moment to think about Spc. Logan Ellard, Thor, and their fellow U.S. troops still serving in Afghanistan. While walking and driving through rough terrain infested by the Taliban and al-Qaida's bombs, these brave men, women and military service dogs remind us of the very heroes who first freed Americans from tyranny.

"I love my job," Ellard, who is spending July 4th in Afghanistan, said. "And I love doing my job."


Image courtesy: Spc. Mark VanGerpen