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

Friday, January 31, 2014

Go Get 'Em

Images courtesy: Marcie Robertson

Moments after being shot while charging toward the enemy, Sgt. 1st Class Forrest Robertson had a message for his U.S. Army teammates.

"Go get 'em, boys," Sgt. 1st Class Robertson uttered just before his final breath.

It was Nov. 3, 2013, and in about three weeks, Forrest, 35, was supposed to return from his fifth combat deployment to his wife and three daughters. Instead, Marcie Robertson heard her doorbell ring shortly after the fierce battle in Pul-i-Alam, Afghanistan, was over.

"I couldn't speak," the soldier's wife said about the moment she knew her husband had been killed. "I couldn't form words."

Though under vastly different circumstances, the last time Marcie's ability to speak failed her was in high school, when she and Forrest, who had grown up together in Kansas, first realized how attracted they were to one another.

"I could tell by the way he looked at me that he loved me," Marcie said.

Just before finishing high school in 1996, Forrest joined the Army. Even though it was peacetime, a teenage Marcie, who was terrified by the idea of becoming a military wife, told Forrest it was time to break up.

"I didn't think I could handle it," she said.

By 2000, just as Forrest was returning from a deployment to Bosnia, the couple got back together and quickly decided to get married.

"We were planning our wedding for October 2001," Marcie said. "(Then) September 11th happened, and he was hearing rumors that he could get deployed."

After speeding up their wedding in case Forrest had to leave, the couple was hastily thrust into the rigors of military life during wartime. With every family milestone, it seemed, there was a parallel to history.

"My daughter was born the day the war started in Iraq," Marcie said. "She was three weeks old when he left."

Forrest served two combat deployments in Iraq as his wife adjusted to being, in essence, a single mom while he was away. Whenever she became stressed by caring for the kids alone, however, Marcie would lean on her husband's strength.

"It always amazed me how good he was at being a dad," she said. "I think I adapted the same way he did."

Marcie vividly remembers a phone call from her husband's subsequent first deployment to Afghanistan. It came after the platoon sergeant led his men through a chaotic firefight.

"He said that all his guys did exactly what they were supposed to do," said Marcie, whose husband received a Bronze Star with Valor following the battle. "That's what I remember ... him being so proud of his guys."

Forrest left for Afghanistan a second time in February 2013. The soldier was promoted during the deployment, which shifted his job from the battlefield to sitting behind a desk. But by Nov. 1 — the day he called his wife for the last time — Forrest was once again leading a platoon in combat.

"He was so happy," Marcie, her voice cracking from emotion, said. "I'm so, so glad that I got to hear him that happy."

For months, Forrest's fellow soldiers have been describing their leader's final acts of courage — including "go get 'em boys" — to his grieving wife.

"You see movies, and you hear people talk about things like this, but he was a hero," Marcie said. "(The soldiers) all say they'll never forget what he did."

Almost 2,000 American flags lined the streets when Forrest's flag-draped casket arrived in frigid Wamego, Kan. At the soldier's funeral, hundreds of shivering mourners listened to the service on a loudspeaker outside the overflowing church.

"I just felt like I wasn't alone," Marcie said. "I know that he was loved ... the time he was with us wasn't wasted."

Twelve years after 9/11, Marcie Robertson, 34, is raising three girls who desperately miss their dad.

"I have to sit and cry with them ... that's my job," she said. "I just tell them that someday, we're going to be OK."

Every day, the last words spoken by Sgt. 1st Class Forrest Robertson inspire his brothers in arms. Perhaps, as his wife and daughters try to overcome an incomprehensible loss, they will hear a similar battle cry: "Go get 'em, girls."


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. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Two Families

Images courtesy: Chambers family

When U.S. Army Sgt. David Chambers left for his first Afghanistan deployment, he told his mother how he felt about his fellow soldiers.

"I leave one family to go to the other," Sgt. Chambers said.

During his combat tour, which lasted from June 2010 to May 2011, Dave and his Stryker Brigade teammates were struck by an enemy improvised explosive device.

"They were in a transport vehicle when they hit (the IED), so it got blown over," Dave's mom, Julie Chambers, told The Unknown Soldiers. "(Dave) had injuries to his ear and shoulder, but nobody was severely hurt."

The incident was a harrowing reminder of Julie and her husband Mike's initial fears about their youngest son's 2009 decision to enlist.

"We didn't want him to join the Army," Julie, who noted that Dave chose a dangerous infantry assignment, said. "But we knew there was nothing we could do ... Dave wanted to be in the Army. We just had to love and support him."

As a young boy growing up in Hampton, Va. — where his family still lives — Dave and his older brother, Steve, always seemed to be playing baseball and exploring the neighborhood.

"He liked to be active, even at that age," Dave's mom said. "He liked to work out and run."

The only quality Dave lacked as a youngster, according to his mother, was consistent focus. That all changed once he chose to serve his country.

"The Army was made for Dave, and I would never thought it before I saw him (after boot camp)," Julie explained. "He just loved it."

Even after a difficult year in Afghanistan, Dave showed no trepidation when he found out that his Fort Lewis-based unit would deploy a second time.

"He enjoyed his first tour, which scared me to death since his ear was already torn up," his mother said. "I was scared about what Dave was doing."

Almost immediately upon Dave's November 2012 arrival in Afghanistan, the team leader noticed stark differences between his respective deployments.

"It was stressful there ... there was a lot of fighting every day," Julie explained. "He said 'it's just constant, not like the first time.'"

Dave was appalled by the enemy's brutal treatment of civilians.

"The Taliban doesn't care about these people," said Julie, paraphrasing her son's words. "They'll kill them."

On Jan. 15, 2013, Dave sent a Facebook message to his mother before heading out on a mission.

"I'm OK, mom," he wrote. "Don't worry."

The next day, Julie received a knock on her front door and received the news she had been dreading since her son originally joined the Army. Sergeant David Chambers, 25, had been killed while serving in Afghanistan's volatile Kandahar Province.

The details of the tragedy were excruciating, but also crystallized the dedication of the fallen hero and his unit. While leading a combat patrol, Dave stepped on an IED that resulted in devastating injuries to his arms and legs. The soldier walking behind him, who was also hit, rushed to care for his team leader before worrying about his own injuries.

For two hours, Dave's teammates did everything they could to keep their wounded brother alive. After a courageous struggle, Dave succumbed to his massive wounds.

"I know that was hard on them," Julie said of her son's fellow warriors. "But they all said they would have given their lives for Dave."

Speaking the day after the one-year anniversary of Dave's death, Julie recalled her son's funeral procession. Braving a snowstorm, hundreds of supporters came together to warm a grieving family's heart.

"Sidewalks were just lined with people," the fallen hero's mom said. "It just made me understand that people appreciated his sacrifices."

The day before we spoke, Julie received a call from the soldier who survived the Jan. 16, 2013, IED attack that took her son's life.

"He's just missing Dave," Julie said. "He said (Dave) was the best team leader he ever had."

While the void left by the passing of Sgt. David Chambers will never be filled, his loved ones will always be grateful to the fallen hero's second family.

"The Army was so good to us," Julie said.


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. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Real Life Heroes

Image courtesy: Char Fontan Westfall

For me, the most moving part of "Lone Survivor," Peter Berg's film based on real events in Afghanistan, comes just before the final credits. As Peter Gabriel's cover of the classic David Bowie song "Heroes" plays, we see photos of not only the real life heroes of the Operation Red Wings mission, but many of their loved ones.

I was particularly touched by the picture of U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer (SEAL) Jacques Fontan and his wife, Char. Last year, I spoke with this courageous Navy SEAL widow about her fallen husband and his towering legacy.

"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."

Eight years after her husband was among those killed trying to rescue four fellow Navy SEALs cornered during the June 28, 2005 battle that is so grippingly portrayed in the movie, Char perfectly summarized the selfless mindset of our country's military community. Since 9/11, less than one percent of our population has carried almost impossible burdens to shield 99 percent of us from having to join the fight.

Some reviews of "Lone Survivor," which opened in the top spot of the North American box office, have accused the film of being a "jingoistic" oversimplification of the war in Afghanistan. The trepidation coming from certain media precincts is predictable, as some journalists are uncomfortable with the age-old concept of good and evil.

The simple truth, with rare exceptions that are usually splashed all over television and computer screens, is that our brave men and women in uniform are good, while members of al-Qaida and the Taliban are bad. In no way does that view advocate, as one reviewer inaccurately and disgracefully suggested, that the movie portrays all non-Americans as enemies. In fact, two of the film's heroes are an Afghan father and son who put their lives at risk.

Having read the book of the same name, written by Petty Officer 1st Class (SEAL) Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson, the ultimate purpose of "Lone Survivor" is to salute America's armed forces and the bold Afghans and Iraqis who have joined the fight against those who terrorize the innocent. One does not have to support either war — or the two U.S. presidents to oversee them — to appreciate the valor of patriots who are willing to sacrifice everything.

The Basic Underwater Demolition (BUD/S) training footage at the beginning of the film is real, and helps illuminate the seemingly impossible obstacles that young Americans must overcome to become Navy SEALs. Having recently visited the Coronado, Calif., compound where hundreds of aspiring warriors tackle BUD/S training with uncommon determination and endless grit, my respect for this noble, tight-knit community is unlimited.

The film's four key actors — Mark Wahlberg (who plays Luttrell), Taylor Kitsch (LT Michael Murphy), Emile Hirsch (Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny Dietz) and Ben Foster (Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Axelson) — do an admirable job of portraying SEALs who were not only authentic superheroes, but also men with families and dreams that went beyond military life. While I am often critical of a Hollywood culture that frequently celebrates itself instead of those who make their luxurious lives possible, it is refreshing to see the strong-willed commitment of these artists and their colleagues. They have brought honor to a profession that needs more of it.

I have spoken with too many brave service members, veterans and families of fallen heroes to conclude that "Lone Survivor" is the only story from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that deserves a place on the big screen. A documentary called "Murph: The Protector," which portrays the valor of LT (SEAL) Michael Murphy — the Medal of Honor recipient portrayed in "Lone Survivor" — is another film that every American should see.

In "Lone Survivor," the tragic incident that took the lives of Chief Petty Officer (SEAL) Jacques Fontan and his fellow rescuers serves as a key moment. Instead of viewing the sequence like any other special effects-laden movie scene, I hope filmgoers realize that the sacrifices of our military community, which continue to this day, are not being made in some fictional universe. They are real.


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. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Always With Us

Images courtesy: Karen Eggleston

Moments after Karen Eggleston learned that her husband had been killed in Afghanistan, the couple's oldest daughter, Molly, returned from a fun day at preschool.

"She said 'Mommy, what's wrong with you?'" Karen told The Unknown Soldiers. "You look like you're going to cry."

Karen's casualty assistance officer knelt down and told Molly, 4, that her father, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Eggleston, wouldn't be coming home from Afghanistan. The terrible news was too much for Karen's little girl to process.

"I said that Daddy was in a car accident, he hit his head, and he's in heaven," Karen painfully recounted. "And she said, 'but that means I'll never see him again.'"

Years before military messengers arrived at her Raeford, N.C., doorstep on April 26, 2012, Karen was drawn to Brandon's outgoing, unwavering personality.

"He was a person that was very determined," she said. "He was always seeking a challenge."

When the young couple began discussing marriage, Brandon told Karen that he was thinking about joining the military. Fearing for his safety, she was "totally against" the idea until Brandon explained his rationale.

"If I'm not willing to fight for this country, I'm not worthy of enjoying its freedoms," he said.

The couple married in 2007. Two years later, Brandon was heading to Afghanistan as a member of the U.S. Army's elite 4th Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), based out of North Carolina's Fort Bragg. While she called the first deployment "very, very difficult," Karen credited fellow Army wives for helping her young family weather the storm.

"Molly wasn't even one year old when he deployed, so I felt like he was just missing out," she said. "(But) we had very good communication."

Brandon's second overseas combat tour was even more challenging.

"I was pregnant with our second child during that deployment, so I was extra emotional," said Karen, noting that the deployment ended happily with the birth of their youngest daughter, Avery. "He came back early in time for our child to be born."

Just before midnight on Jan. 4, 2012, with their two little girls asleep in the back seat, Karen dropped Brandon off at Fort Bragg for his third combat tour, which the couple knew would be the riskiest deployment of all.

"Everyone knew it was going to be a very, very dangerous place where they were going," she said. "He never really got upset too much before he deployed, but this time, he had a hard time going in."

After hugging his precious daughters and beloved wife, Brandon vanished into the darkness. For months, he would be running perilous combat missions to find high-value targets.

"Daddy's got to go over there and get the bad guys so they don't come over here and hurt you," the soldier told his daughters before he left.

Karen talked to Brandon as often as possible during what tragically wound up being the last four months of his life. After one particularly difficult phone call, during which the soldier said how much he missed home, Karen sat down and wrote him a two-page letter.

"It was just telling him exactly how I felt — how proud I was of him — about how the girls were proud of him," she said.

On April 26, 2012, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Eggleston, 29, was killed in Afghanistan's Ghazni province alongside Navy LT Chris Mosko, 28, Army Staff Sgt. Dick Lee Jr., 31, and a military working dog, Fibi. The Pentagon said their vehicle struck an enemy improvised explosive device.

Speaking two years after Brandon left for his final deployment, Karen recalled several poignant moments during the difficult days following his death.

"I met so many people telling me stories," Karen, 30, said. "He just touched so many peoples' lives, and I had no idea."

The day after her father's death, young Molly sat alone in her family's front yard. As relatives tended to her youngest daughter, Karen went outside and asked the 4-year-old how she was coping.

"Mommy, I'm happy," the little girl said, prompting her surprised mother to ask why.

"I'm happy because daddy is in heaven," Molly continued. "He can see everything that we do, and he'll always be with us."


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. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Max and Fenji

Images courtesy: Gunnery Sgt. Chris Willingham

Moments after terrorists set off an improvised explosive device in southern Afghanistan on Aug. 4, 2010, a Marine and his dog clung to life.

"Max's wounds were inexplicable," Julie Schrock said about her son. "(The surgeons) had seen soldiers with far less severe wounds who have died, but he just wouldn't quit."

U.S. Marine Cpl. Max Donahue had already lost both of his legs and would later have his right arm amputated. In addition to wounding another member of his unit, the remotely detonated blast wounded the 23-year-old Marine's trusted military working dog, Fenji.

"Fenji was a new dog, and this was her first deployment," Julie told The Unknown Soldiers. "Max was her first handler, so he worked with her a lot."

In Afghanistan, Max had developed a reputation for shielding those around him. He displayed the same trait as a young boy growing up in the Denver suburb of Lone Tree, Colo.

"He was very protective," Max's mother said. "For many years, I was a single mom, so he, his younger brother and I were a very tight unit."

When al-Qaida attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Max — like so many volunteer warriors of his generation — became a "fighter" who was determined to defend his country from future attacks.

"I was driving him home from school, and he said, 'You know, Mom, I should be signing up,'" Julie said. "And I said, 'As an American woman, that makes me proud, but as a mom, it makes me scared.'"

Image courtesy: U.S. Marine Corps

A month after his 19th birthday, Max was headed for boot camp.

"His sweet soul didn't change, but his body was definitely different," Julie said. "He also became much more organized and clean ... when he became a Marine; he followed the code."

When her son deployed to Iraq in 2008, Julie agonized over the possibility that Marines would one day inform her that Max wasn't coming home alive.

"I was very fearful," she said. "I realized that when Max joined the Marines, the whole family joined."

One of Julie's most treasured memories was being surprised by Max after he secretly drove to Denver after returning from Iraq.

"I walked into my office, shut the door, and there was Max," the Marine's mother said.

For the young Marine, it was a great source of fulfillment to become a dog handler and train dogs such as Fenji to search for IEDs that were harming coalition troops and civilians.

"He was very proud of it, and he was very good at it," Max's mom said. "One of his promotions was done meritoriously. ... It was expedited because of his accomplishments."

Soon after Max and Fenji left for Afghanistan on June 4, 2010, Julie quickly realized that the risks were even greater than his previous combat tour.

"He was out on a lot more patrols and a lot more dangerous patrols," she said. "In Iraq, they were looking for the weapons caches and the bad guys, and in Afghanistan, they were looking for the IEDs."

In the early hours of Aug. 4, 2010, Julie said her son informed his fellow Marines that he and his dog would be taking the lead on a dangerous mission.

"He wouldn't have wanted anyone else to take his place," she said.

After Fenji sniffed out four enemy IEDs, Max lay on his stomach and prepared for a possible firefight. It was then that a terrorist flipped a remote detonation switch.

Max died two days after suffering catastrophic wounds in the blast, according to his mom. Max's wounded teammate survived, as did his loyal dog.

"Fenji had eye damage and hearing damage, but she recovered and has since been deployed," the fallen Marine's mom said.

As Fenji continues searching for roadside bombs, a base in Afghanistan — Camp Donahue — has been named after the dog's fallen handler. The hero Marine's mom, who wrote a book called "Missing Max: Finding Hope After My Marine Son's Death," is also carrying on in honor of Cpl. Max Donahue.

"As a Gold Star mom, one thing that's very important to me is I do want people to remember," Julie Schrock said about the war in Afghanistan, "it's still going on."


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. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Six Reasons

File image courtesy: Staff Sgt. Todd Pouliot

It's no secret that most Americans are ignoring the war in Afghanistan. Some simply don't care, while others aren't even aware that thousands of U.S. troops are still serving there.

If you fall in that category, the point of this column is not to chastise you. It's to give you six reasons to turn your attention back to a war that our brave men and women in uniform have been fighting since al-Qaida attacked our homeland on Sept. 11, 2001.

On Dec. 17, six American lives ended when a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed in southeastern Afghanistan's rugged Zabul province. On the same tragic day, the lives of six U.S. Army families, including five based at Fort Riley, Kan., were forever altered.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Randy Billings, 34, of Heavener, Okla., served multiple overseas deployments, according to KJRH-TV in Tulsa, Okla.

"He really loved it," CWO 2 Billings' uncle, Hurschel Billings, told the television station. "He couldn't wait to go back."

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joshua Silverman, 35, of Scottsdale, Ariz., traveled to Israel as a teenager, according to the St. Louis Jewish Light. Before and during his first deployment to Afghanistan, he inspired those around him with his sense of humor and commitment to service.

"He was never concerned with what was cool," Matthew Litwack, a friend of CWO 2 Silverman, told the newspaper's editor, Ellen Futterman. "He did his own thing, and people gravitated around him."

The impact of losing Sgt. Chris Bohler, 29, of Willow Spring, N.C., can be felt by reading a two-sentence Facebook post by his mother, Deborah Bohler, on Dec. 18.

"At 5:30 this morning my heart shattered into a million pieces," she wrote. "Dear God give us strength to get through this pain."

According to Thomasi McDonald of the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., Sgt. Bohler preserved a family legacy of military service that goes back to his great-grandfather's European combat tour in World War I.

"News like this brings it all home," Wake County, N.C., District Attorney Colon Willoughby told the newspaper. "Especially when it's someone close to us."

Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams, 30, of Elkhart, Ind., last saw his six-year-old daughter, Madison, when he deployed to Afghanistan on Father's Day, according to WSBT-TV in Mishawaka, Ind.

"He lived for Madison," Staff Sgt. Williams' grieving mother, Debbie Passerallo, told the television station. "She was his little princess and she knew it."

Spc. Terry Gordon, 22, of Shubuta, Miss., graduated from high school in 2011. According to The Meridian Star, his former school and the surrounding community are in mourning.

"He was a great kid," Michael McDonald, principal of Quitman High School, told Brian Livingston. "His leadership and confidence was clearly evident."

To some, these cities and towns may seem like faraway places. With the war in Iraq over and the war in Afghanistan in its 13th year, you might think the days of being impacted by a post-9/11 conflict have long since passed.

The sixth soldier to die in the Dec. 17 helicopter crash was Sgt. 1st Class Omar Forde, 28, of Marietta, Ga., where I have lived for more than seven years. The soldier, who was stationed at Fort Riley with his wife and children, went to high school less than seven miles from my house.

According to Sgt. 1st Class Forde's high school football coach, who spoke to the Marietta Daily Journal, the future soldier was a picture of integrity, even in his teenage years.

"He had a lot of class on and off the field," Scott Jones told the newspaper.

The harsh reality of this ongoing conflict just struck my town, and, someday soon, it could impact yours. But the real reason every American should be paying close attention to Afghanistan lies within the six stories above.

As Fort Riley's commanding general reminded us in his statement honoring the six fallen heroes of the Dec. 17 crash, we owe our daily thoughts, prayers and appreciation not only to the warriors who bravely serve our country, but also to their courageous families.

"We stand ready to support them, and I urge our community and the nation, while remembering their sacrifices this holiday season, to do the same," Maj. Gen. Paul Funk II said.


Image courtesy: Capt. Andrew Cochran

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. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website.