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

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Gift

Images courtesy: Small Steps in Speech

Before U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Marc Small left for a month of Special Operations training, he sent a gift to his fiancee, Amanda Charney.

"In the box ... there were 30 envelopes for every day he wouldn't be able to talk to me," Amanda told The Unknown Soldiers. "Every day he was gone, I would open up an envelope."

Marc and Amanda were immediately drawn to one another when they met on New Year's Eve in 2005.

"He would smile and others would start to smile," Amanda said. "(Marc) laughing was the number one thing that got me going."

Amanda had no previous connection to the military, which resulted in a challenging adjustment to life as a soldier's girlfriend. She lived outside of Philadelphia in Collingswood, N.J., while Marc, who was from nearby Collegeville, Pa., was stationed at North Carolina's Fort Bragg.

"I never made the formal move down there," she said. "We were just trying to make it through a lot of traveling, and it was difficult."

Despite the unavoidable tribulations of a long-distance relationship, Marc and Amanda emerged stronger than ever. The soldier asked the girl of his dreams to marry him, and when she said yes, Marc knew the only thing standing in the way was a six-month deployment to Afghanistan.

Once Marc came home, the couple decided, they would marry and open up their house to children with disabilities. Marc wanted to assist Amanda — a language pathologist — in giving a voice to the voiceless.

"He said I could work with children out of our home," Amanda said.

Instead of complaining about their dreams being put on hold, Marc — a Green Beret — trained hard and focused on his unit's difficult mission overseas.

"He was so committed and determined," Amanda said.

After spending Christmas 2008 in each other's arms, the soldier and his fiancee said goodbye. In six short months, they would be together forever.

"We had our whole future planned," Amanda said.

Throughout January 2009, Amanda communicated with Marc using technological innovations that were difficult to imagine when the war in Afghanistan erupted back in 2001.

"Even when he was there, we would FaceTime and Skype," Amanda said.

When she asked Marc if he was OK, his response was almost always similar to what he told his fiancee before deploying: "Don't cry, I'll be back in no time."

"I'm sure he masked everything he saw so he wouldn't worry me," Amanda said.

On Feb. 12, 2009, Staff Sgt. Marc Small, 29, was killed when insurgents attacked his unit with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire, according to the Pentagon. For the valiant soldier's family and bride-to-be, life as they knew it was shattered in a matter of seconds.

"I didn't believe it at all," an emotional Amanda said. "It was a sadness and a shock that was just not real."

Instead of exchanging vows with the man she loved, Amanda watched in stunned silence as Marc's flag-draped casket returned to U.S. soil.

"All you saw were hundreds of children waving American flags," Amanda said. "It was a beautiful sight that I'll never forget."

As grief's dense fog began to clear, Amanda focused on making Marc's dream of helping children a reality. Putting her linguistic expertise in action, she launched a non-profit organization that helps children with language disorders communicate with one another. The charity's name — "Small Steps in Speech" — was Marc's idea.

"It's amazing that after four and a half years, we have distributed almost $300,000 to children around the country," Amanda said.

Amanda added that she never could have made it this far without the support of her fiance's grieving, equally determined relatives.

"I'm just so blessed to have continuing support from Marc's family," she said.

On Feb. 14, 2009, two days after her fiance's death, Amanda received another package in the mail. To her astonishment, it was a Valentine's Day gift from Marc.

"He planned this ahead of time before he left for Afghanistan," Amanda, now 34, said. "He had flowers delivered."

Nearly five years after tears of grief first filled Amanda Charney's eyes, the legacy of Staff Sgt. Marc Small endures. He placed the well-being of others above his own and gave his country a gift it can never repay.


Friday, October 18, 2013

The Brave Ones

Image courtesy: Sgt. Margaret Taylor

This weekly column is about the thousands of brave men and women in uniform who selflessly serve and sacrifice. It's also about their families, who shoulder an immense burden that few outside the military community can comprehend.

I've learned many things while talking to these fine Americans. One is that every single man and woman who volunteers to defend freedom is brave. Another is that when a U.S. service member is killed, whether by hostile fire, an accident or suicide, every family member responds differently.

Kelsey Mills has been through more than most young wives could imagine. On April 10, 2012, her husband, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, then 25, lost both arms and legs during an enemy improvised explosive attack in Afghanistan.

"I'm happy that my husband is still alive," Kelsey told The Unknown Soldiers less than a month after the explosion. "He's still here."

Every day since, Travis and Kelsey, who are raising a little girl, have inspired us with their dignity and courage. In my mind, it is people like these — not Miley Cyrus — who define what it means to be a true celebrity. I wish more people agreed.

Bob Bagosy, who I met through the Travis Manion Foundation, watched in agony as his son, U.S. Marine Sgt. Tommy Bagosy, drifted toward depression and despair because of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. At age 25, Tommy, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, killed himself.

Bob was haunted by the mystery of Tommy's suicide.

Image courtesy: Bagosy family

"I know the who, what, where, when and how," Bob said. "But the 'why' has been eluding me."

Having spent time with Bob, I have seen the fortitude he has displayed while honoring his son's memory by helping other military families that have been forced to cope with tragedy. He and his wife are great parents and truly inspirational people.

Emily Feeks has served in the U.S. Navy and deployed to Afghanistan. She also watched her husband, Special Warfare Operator Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick Feeks, deploy to Afghanistan as a Navy SEAL while she was serving in the Philippines.

Image courtesy: Emily Feeks

On Aug. 16, 2012, Patrick, 28, died in a helicopter crash that killed seven Americans.

"You look around and everyone is happy go-lucky, and you wonder why you can't have that," Emily said less than three months after the crash. "Why does it have to happen to you?"

During a June trip to San Diego, I finally met Emily, along with Karlyn Deveau, who lost her fiance, Special Warfare Operator Petty Officer 2nd Class David Warsen, 27, in the same crash. While tears were shed, both of these young women showed the same brand of tenacity that their loved ones displayed as Navy SEALs. If my daughter grows up to be like Emily and Karlyn, I will be proud.

Thad Forester lost his younger brother, U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Mark Forester, 29, in Afghanistan on Sept. 29, 2010. When we spoke less than three years after Mark died while trying to save his unit's medic, Thad was in a state of proud reflection.

"We all have missions on this earth and some of them are different for each person," Thad said. "One of Mark's was to help defeat terrorism, and he did it."

Image courtesy: Forester family

On Sept. 23, Thad released a book about Mark called "My Brother In Arms," which was written with Matthew Glencoe. I hope everyone who reads this column will also take the time to read the story of this remarkable American hero.

Beth Strickland Funk, who courageously spoke with The Unknown Soldiers for last week's column, is not thinking about anything other than caring for her family and making it through the next day. Her son, U.S. Army Sgt. Joshua "Jay" Strickland, was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 21.

"We're all going back and forth between the anger and the grieving," Beth said ten days after her son was killed by small arms fire.

When I go to sleep at night, I think of people like Beth Strickland Funk and everyone else mentioned above. They've been through more pain than most of us will in a lifetime.

Our men and women in uniform are incredibly brave. Hopefully, everyone will join me in realizing that their families are, too.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Pay Attention

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

Ten days after losing her son in Afghanistan, Beth Strickland Funk was trying to make sense of an unthinkable tragedy.

"We're all in shock," the grieving mother told The Unknown Soldiers on Oct. 1. "We're all just kind of walking around dazed and confused."

The last time Beth spoke to her son, "he was fine." Sgt. Joshua Strickland, who was called "Jay" by family and friends, seemed to be coping well with the strains of a tough combat deployment.

"He would talk about his family and getting the job done," Beth said. "He didn't sound stressed."

Then, without even the slightest hint of foreshadowing, everything changed.

Sergeant Strickland was born with a twin brother. From that day forward, he seemed to form a close bond with almost everyone who crossed his path.

"Everyone loved Jay," his mom said.

Image courtesy: U.S. Army

Jay went to high school in Georgia before his parents moved to Texas in 2008. He joined the U.S. Army that June, and after extensive training, became a Special Forces warrior stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State.

"He was just an amazing young man," Beth said.

Before leaving for Afghanistan in April, Jay got married and was helping raise three children.

"This was his first full deployment being in Special Forces," the soldier's mother said.

With another son serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, Beth embraced life as a military mom.

"I knew from the moment our boys were born that they would do something big," she said of her four sons.

In late September, Beth's husband, Jim, was mowing the lawn when he suddenly came inside with tears in his eyes. After opening the door, Beth saw two fully uniformed soldiers.

"I fell to the ground and started crying before they even said anything," she said.

According to the Pentagon, Sgt. Strickland, 23, was conducting range training on Sept. 21 in eastern Afghanistan's Paktia Province when his unit was attacked with small arms fire. He was killed alongside Staff Sgt. Liam Nevins, 32, and Staff Sgt. Timothy McGill, 30.

While numerous media outlets have reported that the attack was carried out by a man wearing an Afghan National Army uniform, a NATO news release said the incident is under investigation.

"We're all going back and forth between the anger and the grieving," Jay's mom said.

When we spoke, Beth was still preparing for the funeral of her son, whose flag-draped casket returned to American soil on Sept. 23. But she was already thanking supporters in Texas, Georgia, Washington state and around the country for showing so much love to her family.

"I'm just amazed by how many people have come out," she said. "Just last night, I came outside and saw two (American) flags in my yard."

In addition to the devastating impact on Jay's wife and children, one of the hardest aspects of the tragedy for Beth has been explaining the soldier's passing to his little sister. As Beth struggled to share the terrible news, her youngest child said that she'd just had a dream about Jay.

"I think that was God's way of letting me know that she understands," Beth said.

Still, it's hard to make sense of another wartime tragedy that robbed three American families of such selfless, heroic young men. But as Beth mourns the loss of her son and his brothers in arms, she is also thinking about the thousands of men and women still serving in harm's way.

"This has just brought home to so many people that we still need to be praying and paying attention ... and praying for our soldiers and their families," she said.

As the conflict in Afghanistan enters its 13th year, Beth Strickland Funk's words should inspire the nation for which her son sacrificed everything to defend. While thinking about war is difficult, we must honor Sgt. Joshua "Jay" Strickland and his courageous family by paying more attention.


Image courtesy: Beth Strickland Funk

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Man He Became

Images courtesy: Funcheon family

Before Alex Funcheon became a soldier, he was a high school dropout.

"He was a handful," Alex's father, Bob Funcheon, told The Unknown Soldiers. "He got involved with drugs ... it messed him up."

After quitting school, Alex, who grew up in Wichita, Kan., quickly found himself broke and in trouble with the law. That's when he turned to a lifelong source of inspiration.

"He was always interested in the Army ever since he was a little boy," Alex's mother, Karen Funcheon, said. "His grandfather served in World War II ... he landed at Normandy."

Alex "didn't enlist because of 9/11," according to his dad, but because he recognized that when it came to turning his life around, time was running out.

"He wanted to earn his spurs," Bob said. "He wanted to live up to the expectations of a professional soldier."

After initially struggling with the rigors of boot camp, Alex surprised his parents by earning the reputation of a serious young warrior, rather than the irresponsible partier of his youth.

"It just showed that he was really starting to figure things out," Alex's dad said. "(The military) allowed him to start becoming the man he was meant to be."

On the eve of the military's troop surge in Iraq, U.S. Army Sgt. Alex Funcheon spent a night with his parents before deploying in the fall of 2006.

"I'm not scared of dying," Alex told his dad. "I'm scared of letting my friends down."

Alex was always extremely popular.

"He was very loyal ... he would never 'rat' on anyone," his mom said. "Everybody just loved him."

"He always took care of his friends, and that carried over to the military," Alex's dad added.

As a soldier, Sgt. Funcheon made sure to keep in touch with his parents, who worried every day about his physical safety and emotional well-being. Their fears escalated around the 2006 holiday season, when Alex didn't contact them for almost three weeks.

"Then we found out that there was a Humvee that had blown up in his area, and he was part of the detail that was there to clean up after it," Bob said. "I can only imagine how that affected him."

When it became clear to Bob and Karen that their only son was experiencing some of war's most visceral horrors, they worried he would return to Kansas with wounds, including the kind nobody can see.

"The more I learned about (post-traumatic stress), the more I realized that he probably would have come home with that," Alex's dad said. "Even though I knew he could die, I never really expected that."

Bob was out playing golf on April 29, 2007, when his wife had an encounter that every military mother was dreading during that violent spring of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I heard this big old knock on the door," Karen said. "I turned the corner, saw the window and saw the two uniformed men standing there.

According to the Pentagon, Sgt. Alex Funcheon, 21, was killed when an explosion tore through his vehicle in Baghdad. Two fellow Americans died at Alex's side, along with an Iraqi interpreter. The Funcheons later learned that one U.S. soldier survived the attack.

"My initial response was disbelief," said Bob, who will always remember his wife's frantic phone call.

For Bob and Karen Funcheon, as well as their surviving daughter, the last six and a half years have been filled with surreal moments, including a funeral attended by over 1,000 people and an Air Force One meeting with President George W. Bush. They've also been haunted by painful dreams of what could have been.

"(Alex) wanted to get married; he wanted to have children," the fallen hero's mom said. "He wanted to have grandchildren."

"He started living up to his abilities," said Bob Funcheon as his voice cracked with emotion. "The toughest part for me is that I'll never meet that man he had become."

As politicians insist that America's post-9/11 conflict is "winding down," it's easy to set aside the sacrifices made in Iraq and Afghanistan. The words of a grieving family remind us to never forget.

"He wasn't a number," Karen Funcheon said. "He was our only son."