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

Friday, November 22, 2013

Their Destiny

Images courtesy: Sgt. April Trent

A heavy snowstorm blanketed much of eastern Afghanistan on Dec. 13, 2012. While conditions were miserable, Sgt. April Trent and her South Carolina Army National Guard unit tried to make the best of it.

"We had a huge snowball fight," Sgt. Trent told The Unknown Soldiers. "We were having so much fun ... more fun than you'd think you could ever have in a combat zone."

For April, it was a welcome break from missing her two children and worrying about her husband, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Nelson Trent, who was serving to her south in Kandahar. Since November, the husband and wife were both deployed to Afghanistan.

That night on the frigid Forward Operating Base, April awoke to someone banging on her door. It was her commanding officer.

As Sgt. Trent put down her weapon and followed her superior to his office, she wondered if life was about to change. Since the first of her husband's two Iraq deployments began in 2003, Nelson believed that his military career could only end one way.

"He would tell me 'it is my destiny to die in war,'" April said.

Since 1999, when Nelson and April met while stationed at Georgia's Fort Gordon, she admired the Texas soldier's sense of humor.

"(Nelson) was just funny ... all the time," she said. "There was never a dull moment when he was around."

Nelson and April got married on Nov. 21, 2000. On Mar. 19, 2003 — the day U.S. forces invaded Iraq — April found out she was pregnant with the couple's first child. Her husband deployed the next day.

"He was on the phone with me when my son was born and got to hear his first cry," April said. "During his second deployment in '05-'06, he got to come home for his son's 2nd birthday."

April took a break in service to care for their son and later gave birth to a daughter. But even while sacrificing as a military spouse, April decided it was time to resume her career in uniform.

Before the Texas couple knew it, both April and Trent faced deployments to Afghanistan. With two Iraq tours under his belt, young children at home, and a wife headed overseas, Nelson was in agony.

"He said 'you know it's my destiny,'" April recalled. "And I said 'I'll see you when we get back.'"

When April stepped inside her commander's office in the early morning hours of Dec. 14, 2012, her heart sank when she saw an Army Chaplain.

"We regret to inform you that your husband, Nelson Trent, has been killed in action ... " April's commander began. Those words are the last she remembers from that terrible night.

After several agonizing days on her snowed-in base, April was flown out of Afghanistan. She arrived in Germany just in time to meet her husband's flag-draped casket.

"I was able to fly home with Nelson," she said.

April would soon learn that her 37-year-old husband was killed in a bombing carried out by terrorists near a military base that was just visited by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

"You can't be scared," April said Nelson told his fellow soldiers just hours before his death. "You have to put your faith in God."

Sergeant 1st Class Nelson Trent was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Jan. 8. Just ten days later, his wife was back in Afghanistan. But as her children struggled to understand their father's death, especially with their mom still in harm's way, the Army let April return to South Carolina, where she and her kids would eventually move.

On Valentine's Day 2013 — April's 32nd birthday — the tearful soldier surprised her children at school.

"It was like winning the lottery," she said. "It felt so good to feel my kids' arms around my neck."

As they grow up, the Trent children will always know that their father was an American hero.

"Everyone has their calling — whatever it is they're supposed to do — and Nelson was supposed to be a soldier," April said. "He died doing what he loved."

Shortly before our phone call concluded, Sgt. April Trent, who was shopping for groceries, paused to thank a passing soldier for his service. Hopefully, both of April's kids already know that their remarkable mother is an American hero, too.


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER will be released in May 2014. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Story Goes On

Images courtesy: 1LT Tom Martin Memorial Foundation

When U.S. Army 1st Lt. Tom Martin called or emailed his mother from Iraq, he would almost always end with the same words.

"I gotta go rid the world of evil," 1st Lt. Martin said.

Few mothers could understand the risks her son faced like Candy Martin. When Tom deployed to Iraq in October 2006, she had just returned from the war-torn country.

"I got home in July 2006," U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Candy Martin (Ret.) told The Unknown Soldiers. "Even though I knew where he was going to be — I had been there — I truly believed he was going to be OK."

Tom's father, Ed, served in the Army until 1995. But even though Tom grew up in a military family, his mother said that the future warrior's motivation to serve came from within.

"We have pictures of him at Halloween dressed as a soldier, but I'm not sure his interest in the military came from us," Candy said. "He definitely had a mind of his own."

After his application to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was rejected in high school, Tom enlisted in the Army and refused to give up his dream of becoming an officer.

"He made very solid decisions," the soldier's mom said. "We saw a huge maturity."

Tom was eventually accepted to West Point and enrolled in the fall of 2001, just before America went to war. But even after 9/11 changed everything, Tom's outlook stayed the same.

"He had true conviction for what was right," Candy said.

When Tom arrived in Iraq five years later, the platoon leader sent his mom pictures of several familiar places.

"I was in the Green Zone and climbed the towers ... the statues where Saddam Hussein was holding the swords," Candy said. "He said, 'My mom did this ... I'm going to climb this.' He wasn't going to let his mother outdo him."

Adding to the unusual nature of Tom's first combat deployment was that his fiancee, U.S. Army Capt. Erika Noyes, was serving in the same area.

"I haven't gotten to see Erika very much since she's been here, but once in a while I miracle myself to her FOB (Forward Operating Base) for a short visit," Tom wrote in September 2007.

Instead of planning their wedding, the young couple was in the middle of a war.

"She hasn't been getting the flight hours she would like," Tom wrote about Erika. "But in the grand scheme of things, that's a good thing because it means people aren't in need of a Medevac flight."

About a month later, with Tom still in Iraq due to the troop surge that extended his deployment, Erika was working the operations desk when a Medevac flight was requested. As she would soon learn, her fiance had been hit with small arms fire.

"Tom had been pronounced KIA (killed in action)," Candy said. "She was in disbelief."

First Lt. Tom Martin died on Oct. 14, 2007, four days after his 27th birthday. Erika, whose own birthday was the next day, left Iraq amid the incomprehensible realization that their Oct. 12, 2008, wedding would never take place.

Candy, who has three surviving daughters and calls Erika her "fourth child," was also in disbelief when casualty assistance officers arrived on the doorstep of her family's San Antonio, Texas, home.

"It was the worst news possible, because he was just so close to coming home," she said.

Six years later, Tom's parents, sisters, fiancee, friends and fellow soldiers are keeping the fallen hero's memory alive.

"On the anniversary of his death this year, we got a letter from his battalion-level commander at Fort Richardson," Candy said. "While he didn't know Tom personally, the stories go on."

Tom's loved ones also established the 1LT Tom Martin Memorial Foundation, which supports scholarships, church missions and Tom's former Boy Scout troop.

"He's still leading today," Candy Martin said about her son. "These stories can make a difference in people's lives."

Because of 1st Lt. Tom Martin's ultimate sacrifice and the courage of his loved ones, other young men and women are being inspired by the soldier's selfless deeds and powerful words: "I gotta go rid the world of evil."


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER will be released in May 2014. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website.

Friday, November 8, 2013

War Fatigue

Images courtesy: Lance Cpl. Zachery Martin

One of the biggest myths about the conflict in Afghanistan is that we're "tired" of it. Given that 99 percent of Americans have never fought in the war-torn land, the pundits have once again succeeded in getting the story wrong.

I haven't served in uniform. The closest I've been to war are in places like the hospital room of a courageous soldier who lost both legs in Afghanistan or in front of a brave young Marine's open casket.

Conducting an interview with a family member of a fallen hero is often heartbreaking. But whenever I start to feel emotionally drained, I think of America's real "one percent" — the valiant men and women who serve and sacrifice.

If anyone is suffering from "war fatigue," it is our nation's military community. None of us — particularly politicians and journalists — have any business claiming otherwise.

When it comes to those propagating the myth of a country that's "exhausted" from the military's post-9/11 battles, many of the same talking heads assure us that the war in Afghanistan is also winding down. If that's the case, someone forgot to tell Beth Strickland Funk, who lost her son there on Sept. 21.

"I fell to the ground and started crying before they started saying anything," Beth said of the moment she realized that her 23-year-old son, U.S. Army Sgt. Joshua "Jay" Strickland, was dead.

Like so many other members of America's community of protectors, Beth refuses to complain.

"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.

Eight years ago, the war in Iraq saturated most television and computer screens. Those responsible for setting war policy were under siege, and to this day, there are still heated debates about the conflict's merits.

There is little debate about Afghanistan because so few are paying attention. Whenever I attend a sporting event or concert, I often wonder how many in the stadium — including those on the playing field or stage — even know a war is still being fought. My guess is that if I polled the audience, less than half would answer correctly.

Only a tiny fraction of our population has to deal with the possibility of being killed or maimed in battle. Unlike World War II or Vietnam, millions have no personal connection to the war being fought by their fellow citizens.

One young American making sacrifices on our behalf is Cpl. Geoffrey Scarborough. When I spoke to the Marine in August, he was documenting perilous U.S. combat patrols in southern Afghanistan, where so many coalition forces have fought and bled since 9/11.

"It's awesome," Cpl. Scarborough said about his dangerous job.

I wish every American could speak with 23-year-olds like Cpl. Scarborough. If more of us got to know the troops, veterans and military families in our own neighborhoods, it would be impossible for so many to turn away as a war unfolds.

If there's anything I'm tired of, it's asking people to care about a conflict that started after terrorists based in Afghanistan planned an attack on our country. While there is nothing wrong with a healthy debate about whether tens of thousands should still be in harm's way, there is no excuse for looking the other way.

When I spoke to Sonja Stoeckli six weeks after her son, U.S. Army Spc. Kyle Stoeckli, was killed by an enemy improvised explosive device, she said there was nothing more difficult than feeling isolated.

"Once all the crowds and events are over, that's when the real awareness and the real pain sets in," said Sonja, who lost her 21-year-old son on June 1.

No family member of a fallen hero should ever feel alone. Being an American is not about waving a flag or paying taxes; it is about standing shoulder-to-shoulder with those who keep our nation free.

Instead of nodding our heads when others assure us that we're tired, let's devote ourselves to honoring and remembering our country's true heroes and patriots. If there's one thing I'll never be tired of, it's learning more about their remarkable lives.


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER will be released in May 2014. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website.

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Soldier's Heart

Images courtesy: Volker family

Ever since he was a boy growing up in West Texas, U.S. Army Spc. Robert "RJ" Volker wore his heart on his sleeve.

"He had a smile that was true from his heart," the soldier's mother, Melissa Volker, told The Unknown Soldiers via email. "You could tell how he felt by the size of his smile."

From a young age, it was obvious that RJ would one day put his heart and soul into serving his country.

"As far back as I can remember, he wanted to be an 'Army man,'" Melissa wrote. "He was doing that Army crawl thing (at) about 2 years old."

Throughout his freshman year in high school, RJ hounded his mom to sign a permission form that would grant him access to Army recruiters.

"I was afraid to sign because I thought if I did, the Army would take him as soon as he graduated," Melissa wrote about RJ, who would turn 18 in August 2003.

One Tuesday morning before school, Melissa gave in and signed the form. The date was Sept. 11, 2001. Hours later, RJ watched in silence as the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon burned.

"He never said any more about joining up after that day," she wrote. "He got scared ... or so I thought."

In September 2005, RJ's younger brother, Johnathan, joined the U.S. Navy. As the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approached, RJ told his parents that he, too, would be volunteering to serve.

"Why now?" Melissa asked.

RJ explained that after 9/11, he felt an obligation to stay home and protect his family during uncertain times.

"I needed to stay," he said. "But if you're strong enough for (Johnathan) to go, I know I can go, and you and Dad will be fine."

Two weeks later, RJ left for boot camp. During the next year, he would get married and accomplish his lifelong dream of becoming a soldier. Then, in October 2006, Spc. Volker deployed to Iraq.

Almost every day, the young soldier would call his wife, Martha — who'd moved in with RJ's parents while he was away — and tell his family how much he loved them.

"As the days went by, I talked to him less and less (because) it was just so hard to think about the 'what ifs'," the soldier's mom wrote.

During one video call, RJ's camera began to shake as lights flickered in the background. When Melissa heard yelling, she realized her son's base was under attack.

"I sat there, glued to the computer, not sure what was happening and fearing the worst," she wrote. "He popped back up from under his table and said 'that was close ... you still with me, (Mom)?"

A few days before Christmas 2006, RJ's wife and mother were going through boxes of decorations when someone knocked on the door. Screams filled the house when they realized that two uniformed soldiers were waiting outside. The family's worst fears had come true.

"An IED exploded under the truck (RJ) was driving," Melissa wrote. "He took the (brunt of) the explosion by turning the truck away from it and saved the other men in his truck."

Specialist RJ Volker, who made the ultimate sacrifice in Baghdad on Dec. 20, 2006, at age 21, was escorted home to Texas and saluted by his 19-year-old brother. Melissa and her husband were in a fog as the heartbreaking scene unfolded.

"You just nod your heard and keep going," she wrote about the days after RJ's death.

After receiving letters from the president and governor, support from organizations like the Patriot Guard Riders and compassion from countless mourners, the fog began to lift.

"To know that our son's death was not in vain — that most of our nation appreciated the life he gave for them — is awesome," Melissa wrote.

Like all of our nation's Gold Star families, Spc. Robert "RJ" Volker's loved ones will never stop grieving. But whenever the past begins to haunt Melissa Volker, she thinks of her son's defining characteristic.

"RJ was just a good-hearted, hard-headed boy who heard a sound not too many people hear ... a call of duty," the soldier's mom wrote. "He had a soldier's heart."


Note: Thank you to Notes With Wings for putting the Volkers and The Unknown Soldiers in touch.