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

Friday, August 23, 2013

Adapt and Overcome

Images courtesy: Terri Dunn-Campbell

Nearly a decade before Lance Cpl. Kielin Dunn raised his right hand and swore to defend the United States, he knew which uniform he wanted to wear.

"He chose the Marine Corps — that path — when there wasn't a war going on," Lance Cpl. Dunn's mother, Terri Dunn-Campbell, told The Unknown Soldiers. "After 9/11, he maintained that position."

Kielin was an 11-year-old elementary school student when the Twin Towers fell. But rather than change his goal of becoming a Marine, he followed the lead of his mom, who was serving in the U.S. Army, and her husband, who was serving in the U.S. Navy.

"As a military family, we adapt and overcome," Terri said.

Kielin joined the JROTC program at his Chesapeake, Va., high school and began studying the culture of Afghanistan.

"He definitely wanted to serve first, prior to any other endeavors," Kielin's mom said.

As always, Kielin was smiling when he finished boot camp.

"I knew first-hand what would happen if Kielin joined the infantry," Terri said. "I knew there was a great chance that he would (get) his orders and be sent to a war zone, whether it was Afghanistan or Iraq."

Terri asked her son about the possibility of going into harm's way.

"He looked at me at the age of 18 and said, 'Mom, I'm not afraid ... I'm not afraid of dying,'" she recounted.

"Should I die, Mom, just remember this," Kielin continued. "(Remember) that I died with honor."

The young Marine soon deployed to Afghanistan, where he quickly became close with his unit.

"He was their source of energy and entertainment as well," Terri said. "He was a fantastic break-dancer."

While Kielin was smaller than some fellow Marines, he excelled in his daily duties.

"Kielin was the sort of guy that if he was good at something, he didn't gloat," his mom said.

Kielin's unit patrolled Afghanistan's volatile Helmand Province, which sometimes prevented him from calling home. Adding to the challenge for Terri and her two younger children was that her husband deployed to Africa just a week after Kielin left for Afghanistan.

When Kielin called home in February 2010, he hesitated to talk about a recent, very violent encounter with the enemy.

"I know that you're in harm's way, and you know that we all love you and that we are thinking of you," Terri told her son. "Your father is also standing up for America, and we're standing up as a family, as we always have."

Before hanging up, Kielin told his mom he loved her.

"It was a somber conversation," Terri said. "I understood in the tone of his voice that he was concerned ... not for him, but more for me."

A few days later, Terri heard from Kielin again on Facebook.

"It's rough over here," the Marine wrote. "But I've got to stay strong for my boys."

On Feb. 18, 2010, Lance Cpl. Kielin Dunn, 19, was killed while supporting combat operations in southern Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon. Terri would later learn what her son chose to do during his final moments.

"He died fighting next to another Marine who was hit," she said. "He could have retreated, but Kielin kept fighting. He went down defending his fellow Marine."

With her husband traveling home from Africa, it was up to Terri to fly to Dover, Del., and meet her son's flag-draped casket. While Kielin's death was devastating and tragic, Terri was determined to adapt and overcome.

"A mom has a job to do," she said.

When Terri takes her family to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery to visit Kielin, she sees the resting place of a courageous young man who sacrificed his life for others.

"He gave," Terri said. "And when I say he gave, I mean that he gave in every sense of the word. "He was selfless."

Every day, Terri Dunn-Campbell is inspired to know that there are others still willing to give.

"It is a choice for anyone to raise their right hand and swear to serve this country and to understand they're doing it in a time of war," she said. "It speaks volumes, and it should to any of us as Americans."


Monday, August 19, 2013

Here Among Us

Image courtesy: Sgt. Corine Lombardo

"I'm not sure what all the hubbub is all about," New York Army National Guard Sgt. Joshua Young reportedly said after receiving the Bronze Star with Valor on July 19. "It happened a long time ago, and I would do it again."

According to his award citation, Sgt. Young's actions on March 16, 2012, were anything but ordinary. Surrounded by about 50 Taliban fighters after a huge explosion in southern Afghanistan, Young braved enemy gunfire to save the life of his badly wounded platoon sergeant, who lost both legs but ultimately survived the attack.

Young, who is from Perinton, N.Y., is just 26 years old. His modesty represents the most remarkable percentage point of our population: the courageous men and women who volunteer to serve in a dangerous post-9/11 world.

"We're extremely proud of Josh and his accomplishments," the hero soldier's mother, Kim Young, told Sgt. Corine Lombardo. "He never really told us a lot about the incident, so we are learning about his actions today."

U.S. Marine Sgt. Matthew Woodall, now 28, did not have to spend two days dodging bullets and crawling through cornfields in July 2011. Instead of fighting the Taliban on their turf, he could have been home enjoying a summer in Paducah, Ky. He chose to serve.

"I was doing my job; I don't think I did anything different than anyone else would," Woodall, who recently left the Marine Corps, told Sgt. Alfred Lopez.

Image courtesy: Cpl. Benjamin Crilly

Woodall's humility became even more apparent after reading his citation for the Silver Star, which he was awarded on Aug. 2.

"(Then-Corporal) Woodall rushed his squad forward when enemy fire wounded the Marine directly in front of him," the citation reads. "Exposed and under a hail of enemy fire, he laid down suppressive fires and shielded the wounded Marine with his body until a (Navy Hospital) Corpsman arrived."

Even though the citation credits Woodall with defeating an enemy attack, the hero Marine is quick to shift attention elsewhere.

"I know that the citation that was read says my name on it, but I'm just an individual Marine," Woodall told the military reporter. "My squad was just amazing."

On Apr. 23, 2011, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Zachary Kline spent about six hours taking enemy gunfire near Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan while helping rescue two Army pilots involved in a helicopter crash. On July 14, the Albuquerque, N.M., airman received the Silver Star for saving the soldiers' lives.

Image courtesy: Airman 1st Class Christine Griffiths

"It's an honor being recognized for just doing my job," Kline, 33, told Airman 1st Class Christine Griffiths. "I worked with some awesome guys, and (it) was nice being a part of it."

U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Benny Flores, 30, is from the U.S. territory of Guam. On April 28, 2012, the Navy Hospital Corpsman was in remote southwestern Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device blew up under the vehicle he was riding in.

"With shrapnel wounds to his arms and neck, Hospital Corpsman First Class Flores treated the nearest wounded Marine while he was engaged by enemy small arms fire," Flores' Silver Star citation reads. "He assisted the wounded Marine in maneuvering to a covered position and without hesitation, ran back into the street, exposed to enemy fire, and quickly provided medical assistance to a severely wounded Afghan Uniform Police Officer."

Image courtesy: Petty Officer 3rd Class Monique LaRouche

When Flores received his award on May 3, his thoughts were with the family of a Marine who didn't survive the harrowing attack.

"We lost one guy, Master Sgt. Scott Pruitt, and to this day he's always in my thoughts and prayers," the hero sailor told Cpl. Mark Garcia. "I really wish he were here, maybe not for the ceremony, but just to see his face and him being with his family — his two daughters that he left behind."

I wish some of our nation's so-called celebrities could read the words of Sgt. Joshua Young, Sgt. Matthew Woodall, Staff Sgt. Zachary Kline and Petty Officer 1st Class Benny Flores. Instead of being consumed with their own popularity, their first instinct is to salute others.

You won't find most of America's true celebrities in Hollywood. They're in communities all around us. The next time you see a U.S. service member or veteran, shake their hand and say thanks.


Friday, August 9, 2013

Every Day is a Good Day

Images courtesy: Barfield family

Whenever U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Jason Barfield called his parents from Afghanistan, he had the same message.

"We'd ask him how things were going over there and he'd say 'every day is a good day,'" Lance Cpl. Barfield's father, Ray Barfield, told The Unknown Soldiers. "He truly lived that motto."

As a young boy growing up in Alabama, Jason embraced each day with a fervor that took even his mother by surprise.

"I used to have to watch him in stores because he would just talk to everyone," Kelli Barfield said. "He never had a fear of being in front of others ... he never had a fear of people."

From a young age, Jason was guided by the compassion he felt for others. After a close friend's mother was murdered when Jason was in third grade, he started raising funds to help the child's family.

"He loved everybody," Kelli said.

Upon graduating from high school in Ashford, Ala., Jason knew he wanted to join the military. After eventually choosing the Marine Corps, the young recruit pledged to do everything in his power to defend America.

"He said 'I want to be a part of the best ... I want to make a difference,'" Jason's mom said. "From that day forward, he never looked back."

In September 2011 — ten years after the 9/11 attacks — Jason would deploy to Afghanistan for the first time. But before he left, his dad sat him down for what Ray called "the talk." While the topic of discussion was unthinkable, Ray asked his son to share his final wishes.

"We started talking about it a little before I said 'Jason, I can't talk about this anymore ... you're coming back,'" Ray said.

Unfazed, Jason wrote down instructions for his funeral and gave the piece of paper to his dad.

"Jason was like an old soul in a young body," his father said.

The night before deploying, Jason's roommate heard him crying.

"They all just assumed he was nervous about the deployment," Kelli said. "But when (Jason's roommate) got to the room, it had nothing to with him being scared about being over there."

Jason wasn't worried about himself.

"He was nervous about making a mistake and getting one of his guys killed," Jason's mom said. "It wasn't all about him ... it was about keeping the others safe."

In Afghanistan, Jason displayed the same concern for others that his mom first noticed when he was younger.

"He wanted to boost everyone's morale," Kelli said. "He even started learning the language so he could barter with the Afghanis for food for his (fellow Marines)."

In the early morning hours of Oct. 23, 2011, Jason called home.

"I just want you to know how much I love you, mom," the Marine said.

"Dad, I just want to give you a big old hug," Jason also said. "You're the best thing that's ever happened to me, and I just want you to know."

The next day, the Marine's devastated father reached into his wallet and retrieved the list of his son's final wishes. After embracing every day for 22 years, Jason's life had ended with an ultimate sacrifice.

According to the Pentagon, Lance Cpl. Jason Barfield was killed in Afghanistan's Helmand Province on Oct. 24, 2011. The fallen Marine's parents said Jason alerted his platoon to a potential threat before kneeling on top of an improvised explosive device. While Jason died instantly, everyone else on the patrol survived.

When Ray and Kelli later met the seven brave Marines who served with Jason during his final moments, they shared a singular message.

"If it had not been for his actions that morning, they would not be alive today," Jason's grieving father said.

On what would have been his 24th birthday, Jason was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with Valor. But more important than any medal, his parents said, is the legacy their son left behind for his 12-year-old sister.

"Never forget who you are," Kelli tells her daughter. "Strive each day to be a better person."

Every day is a good day. If we strive to follow the example of Lance Cpl. Jason Barfield, each day will be even better.


Note: This column was edited on Aug. 9 at 3:30 p.m. EST

Friday, August 2, 2013

Cruel Summer

Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/David Tucker

For most Americans, summer is a time for vacations, barbeques and beaches. For the fraction of one percent that's still shouldering the heaviest burdens of America's longest war, summer is a time for sacrifice.

"First there was a shock, and then I felt numb," Sonja Stoeckli, mother of U.S. Army Spc. Kyle Stoeckli, said. "It's even physical ... it's a physical pain that's stabbing inside of my heart."

Before Sonja's 21-year-old son left for Afghanistan late last year, he got two tattoos. The first was on his heart.

"It says 'I sustain myself with the love of my family and thrive off the support of my friends,'" Spc. Stoeckli's mother said.

Since he was a little boy, Kyle and the Army always seemed like a logical fit.

"He always liked the military," Sonja said. "His real decision was when he came out of high school ... that's when he said 'I definitely want to join the Army.'"

After Kyle announced his intention to enlist, his mother's relatives, who live in Switzerland, asked Sonja why she didn't try to talk her son out of his decision.

"That's his passion, that's what he wants, and that's his life," she said. "That was his will: to go into the Army and serve for America."

Kyle, who grew up in Chesterfield County, Va., near Richmond, spent time with his mom, dad, and older sister before deploying to Afghanistan. When he left, the young soldier was confident in his ability to complete a very difficult mission.

"He just knew he had a job to do and he did it," Kyle's mother said. "He didn't hesitate at all."

Every two or three weeks, Kyle would call his mom with enthusiastic updates about the accomplishments of his unit while patrolling volatile southern Afghanistan.

"He was soldier of the month in either February or March because (his commanders noted) what a positive outlook he had," Sonja said. "His smile and his positivity were contagious throughout the platoon."

On May 30, Kyle called home and gave his mom the best news that any parent with a son or daughter at war can possibly hear. In just a few days, the platoon would pack up and leave Afghanistan.

"He was so happy," the soldier's mom said. "He said, 'We're coming home.'"

Two days later, Sonja was standing across from two Army officers with Kyle's father. They informed both parents that their son was dead.

"I just couldn't breathe anymore. ... I broke down," she said. "Then, of course, we had to call our daughter too, which I knew would be horrible."

According to the Department of Defense, Spc. Kyle Stoeckli was killed on June 1 by an improvised explosive device planted by enemy fighters. The Fort Bliss, Texas-based soldier was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star for the courage he displayed in combat.

"He saved a lot of lives," Sonja said. "There was one soldier at Fort Bliss who said Kyle went beyond his fears and did what he had to do."

Sonja, who spoke to The Unknown Soldiers six weeks after Kyle's death, was overwhelmed with gratitude for the support her family has received.

"In every way, it was enormous," she said. "It felt like Kyle brought the whole community together."

The Kyle P. Stoeckli Memorial Scholarship Fund has already been established to carry on the soldier's selfless legacy.

"I want people to remember him as a really charismatic, loving guy who always smiled and always brought the smiles out on everybody's faces," Sonja said.

Hopefully, as many Americans enjoy their summers, the enormous sacrifices of the brave men and women still serving in Afghanistan will stop fading into the sunset.

"The reality, the longing and the pain is really expanding," Kyle's grieving mother said. "Once all the crowds and (events) are over, that's when the real awareness and the real pain sets in."

Spc. Kyle Stoeckli's second tattoo was a Bible verse: John 15:13. In many ways, it represents the heroism of our troops and their families.

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends," the tattooed verse said.


Images courtesy: Stoeckli family