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

Friday, February 28, 2014

Never Complain

Images courtesy: Kantor family

Navy SEALs are known for their bravery, toughness and physical prowess. But as I've met, interviewed and written about these American heroes, the trait that's impressed me most is the one Mary Jane Kantor emphasized about her son during our recent phone interview.

"He never complained," she said repeatedly.

Long before U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Kantor became one of our nation's elite warriors, he was thinking about serving his country while growing up about 30 miles from Manhattan in Gillette, N.J.

"He always wanted to go into the military ... since the day he was born, really," Mary Jane said.

When Matt was in high school, military recruiters started calling the Kantor home. His mother would usually hang up on them, fearing that the horror her community had felt on 9/11 — when Matt was 11 years old — would someday put her son's life at risk. But no matter how much she tried to dissuade him, Matt was on a mission.

"He was training for something," Matt's mom said. "He wasn't joining the swim team for fun ... he would be swimming lap after lap."

Following high school, Matt received a full scholarship to the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He returned home to his parents after four days.

"Your dream is college," Matt said to his mom. "My dream is to become a Navy SEAL."

Each year, hundreds of the nation's strongest and bravest try to become SEALs. Most fail. Matt, who trained in New York with former SEALs before heading to Coronado, Calif., was unwavering in his quest to graduate from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training.

"He was determined," Mary Jane said. "Things were going pretty well ... he never complained about it."

In May 2010, after making it through "Hell Week" and more than five additional months of one of the world's most rigorous training programs, Matt completed BUD/S. He wasn't old enough to buy a beer, but Matt had earned his Navy SEAL trident.

Soon after he was stationed near Virginia Beach, Matt called his mom with big news: He would soon deploy to Afghanistan with SEAL Team Four.

"To him, and to all those guys, I think, that's where they want to go," the SEAL's mom said. "You train for it for three years."

Matt had been in Afghanistan for about six weeks when Superstorm Sandy began ravaging his home state. On Nov. 1, 2012, Matt's parents had just returned home from their daughter's college, Rutgers University, where they took their first hot showers in days after losing electricity.

Then, at about 11 p.m., their doorbell rang. When Matt's father, Kenneth, answered, he saw something just as terrible as the surrounding aftermath of a deadly hurricane. Outside in the dark were two Navy sailors tasked with sharing dreadful news about their son.

"I really did not believe it," Matt's mom said of the harrowing moments that followed.

A few days later, the devastated Kantors received a letter from SEAL Team Four in Afghanistan.

"While on patrol, several insurgents mounted a complex machine gun attack on Matt and his team," it read in part. "Without fear or hesitation, Matt moved to protect his teammates and was mortally wounded by the heavy machine gun fire.

"He was the first line of defense for his team and his actions were directly responsible for saving the lives of his element and protecting the main body of the patrol," the letter continued. "Matt was true to form in his last moments, a gallant and noble warrior who put his team above himself."

Petty Officer 2nd Class (SEAL) Matthew Kantor, 22, would posthumously receive the Bronze Star with Valor. When Kenneth eulogized his son in a packed church operating on generator power, he captured the feelings of the fallen warrior's loved ones, friends and teammates.

"I am so, so proud of you," Matt's dad said. "You died a hero."

Even after losing their oldest son, Kenneth and Mary Jane Kantor exemplify the trait that Matt shared with his fellow Navy SEALs. They never complain, and are also grateful to everyone who continues to surround their family with love and support.

"As hard as it is, it's nice that people aren't forgetting him," Matt's mom said.


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and co-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, February 21, 2014

The Tattoo

Images courtesy: Sgt. Steven J. DeLuzio Memorial Fund

Shortly after returning from six tense months on the violent streets of Iraq's Al Anbar Province, U.S. Army Sgt. Steven DeLuzio sat down with his parents.

"Steven came home from Iraq and said 'you have 30 minutes to ask me anything you want, and then I'll never talk about it again,'" the soldier's father, Mark DeLuzio, said.

Steven's dad quickly noticed a tattoo on one of his son's arms that appeared to depict the shrouded face of an Iraqi woman. When Mark asked Steven what the tattoo signified, the soldier explained that the female civilian had warned his patrol about a roadside bomb buried not far from their Humvee.

"The lady saved his life," Mark said.

Eventually, the grateful American soldiers went back to the Ramadi neighborhood to thank the woman for her words of warning. What they found inside her home was shocking and horrific.

"Steven found the woman, her husband and their kids all beheaded," the soldier's father said. "It really weighed on him."

Nobody forced Steven to serve in western Iraq, where countless insurgents have terrorized innocent men, women and children. While growing up in suburban Connecticut, Steven and his older brother, Scott, developed a deep respect for our nation's flag and those who defend it.

"They were very patriotic kids, and when 9/11 happened, they both felt a call and felt they wanted to do something," Mark said.

"It's a volunteer Army and they both volunteered to go," Steven and Scott's mother, Diane DeLuzio, added. "That's what they wanted to do."

In 2006, Steven was attending college in Vermont when he deployed to Iraq with the state's National Guard. While fearing for their youngest son's safety, Mark and Diane already knew of his bravery. At age 3, Steven had jumped on a bike without training wheels, and from that day forward, never backed down from a challenge.

"He wasn't a perfect kid — we knew he had his flaws — but he was always mature for his age," Diane said.

Much happened between Steven's 2006 return from Iraq and another 2010 combat deployment to Afghanistan. He graduated from college with an accounting degree, became an uncle and learned that his brother, Scott, would also deploy to Afghanistan around the same time.

Steven also asked his high school sweetheart, Leeza, to marry him. Their wedding date was set for Sept. 17, 2011, but before anyone could celebrate, Steven and Scott would have to survive Afghanistan.

"You worry, of course," their dad said. "We knew how dangerous Ramadi was, we knew how dangerous Afghanistan was, and now we had two there at the same time."

When Steven arrived in mountainous eastern Afghanistan, communication with his parents became scant, unlike Iraq. But whenever they did hear his voice, like in one particular August 2010 voicemail, Mark and Diane would smile.

"He was so excited that Leeza's sister was going to have a baby ... he was so excited to be an uncle again," Steven's mom said. "That was the last time we heard his voice."

On Aug. 22, 2010, Sgt. Steven DeLuzio, 25, and a fellow soldier, Sgt. Tristan Southworth, 21, were killed during a fierce clash with enemy fighters. Before anyone could blink, Sgt. Scott DeLuzio was escorting his brother's flag-draped casket out of Afghanistan.

"Steven was the first one killed in the battle," the fallen hero's dad said. "(U.S. forces) ended up prevailing, believe it or not."

When thousands lined Connecticut highways and South Glastonbury streets to honor their hometown hero, the DeLuzios knew their youngest son — like his big brother — had truly made a difference.

"It was very comforting to me at the time to know that so many people missed him," Steven's mom said. "In 25 years, he did so much."

One of the things Steven did was permanently memorialize the Iraqi woman who gave him the opportunity to live four more years.

"That's why he had the tattoo — to remember her," Mark said.

While we may not all have tattoos honoring the thousands of brave men and women to make the ultimate sacrifice since 9/11, the names, faces, words and deeds of heroes like Sgt. Steven DeLuzio should be emblazoned inside our hearts.

"Steven was a real leader," his father said.


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and co-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, February 17, 2014

Brothers Forever: 'If Not Me, Then Who...'

Image courtesy: Travis Manion Foundation

Every week, I write a column about America's heroes and their families that your newspaper is kind enough to publish. I am eternally grateful for the support of readers like you, who are eager to read the personal stories of our nation's brave men and women in uniform.

On Feb. 6, 2011, my first column — "Closer to You" — marked the beginning of this series, which was aimed at increasing awareness about the sacrifices still being made by our military community. It told the story of U.S. Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion, 26, who was killed in Iraq on Apr. 29, 2007, and U.S. Navy LT (SEAL) Brendan Looney, 29, who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan on Sept. 21, 2010. These close friends and U.S. Naval Academy roommates are buried side-by-side at Arlington National Cemetery.

Nine months later, I started writing a book with 1st Lt. Manion's father, U.S. Marine Col. Tom Manion (Ret.). "Brothers Forever," which will be published by Da Capo Press in May, chronicles not only the enduring bond of Travis and Brendan, who met just before 9/11, but salutes their courageous families and all the heroes who have stepped forward since our country was attacked.

The following excerpt is adapted from the fourth chapter of "Brothers Forever." In December 2006, Travis was attending a Monday Night Football game with his brother-in-law while preparing for his second deployment to Fallujah, Iraq. The five words Travis uttered that night — "if not me, then who ... " — deeply inspired his friend and former roommate, Brendan, as he subsequently trained to become a U.S. Navy SEAL. It also sparked a national movement and motivated people outside the military community, like me, to help tell this powerful story.

"Even so close to going back to Iraq, Travis's demeanor was calm. He was doing exactly what he wanted with his life, and instead of complaining about spending the next 12 months in a war-ravaged city that could justifiably be labeled a hell hole, he felt fortunate for the chance to put all the hard work of the last eight years to good use.

As [Travis and his brother-in-law, Dave] listened to one of Travis's favorite iPod playlists, which consisted of everything from Johnny Cash and Elton John to Ben Harper and The Roots, Dave took a sip of his beer and leaned against his car in silence as his visible breath blended with smoke from a small grill to fill the chilly air near the two-man tailgate. Dave knew young Americans were dying in Iraq almost every day, including a soldier named Pfc. Ross McGinnis, who had died the previous weekend in Baghdad. The 19-year-old Knox, Pa., native, who dove on top of a grenade to save the lives of fellow Army soldiers, would later become the fourth U.S. service member to be awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism displayed in Iraq.

Dave was an avid reader, particularly of military-themed books and magazines, and was following the war closely. He knew Travis faced severe risks in Fallujah, particularly in a unit that guided Iraqi soldiers around the city's hostile streets. Though he never mentioned the full scope of his fears to [Travis's sister] Ryan, or for that matter Travis, he was worried about whether he would see his brother-in-law again. In fact, part of him wished he could talk Travis out of leaving, even though he knew it would be an exercise in futility.

'Hey, Trav, if I tripped you right now and you fell and broke your ankle, do you think they'd let you sit this deployment out?' he asked.

Travis chuckled at Dave's joke, but didn't say much in response. A brief moment of slightly awkward silence followed. Suddenly Travis spoke up.

'You know what though, Dave?' Travis said with an unmistakably serious look on his face. 'If I don't go, they're going to send another Marine in my place who doesn't have my training.'

'If not me, then who ... you know what I mean?' he continued. 'It's either me or that other guy who isn't ready, so I'm the one who has to get the job done.'"

"Brothers Forever" will be released on May 13 and is available now for pre-order at


Friday, February 7, 2014

The Young and the Brave

Images courtesy: Tahler Hostetter

U.S. Army Pfc. Jonathon Hostetter was 8 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. He was 20 when he deployed to Afghanistan in March 2013.

"It was very, very hard when he left," the soldier's wife, Tahler Hostetter, said.

Jon met Tahler through a mutual friend in their home state of Missouri. They were married on Jan. 26, 2013, about two months before the soldier went to war.

"For me, it's hard to pick out one thing that I loved most about Jon when I loved absolutely everything about him," Tahler wrote in an email following our phone interview. "He was everything I could of ever dreamed of in a man and so much more."

Immediately after their wedding, the young couple moved to New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range, where Jon and his fellow soldiers were making final preparations for Afghanistan.

"I'm only 20 years old, and it was pretty crazy for me to go from being in school to moving halfway across the country to become a military wife," Tahler said. "It gave me so much more appreciation for military wives and military members."

When Jon deployed, Tahler found herself in the conundrum thousands of military spouses still experience during America's longest war. All of a sudden, she was alone.

"The Internet out there in Afghanistan isn't great, but I was very thankful that I was able to talk to him because that helped me get through it," she said.

Even after dangerous missions in the southeastern province of Ghazni, the soldier would always make sure to call his wife.

"Jon was always in good spirits," Tahler said.

At 4 a.m. New Mexico time on Aug. 23, 2013, Tahler exchanged text messages with Jon, who was leaving for a combat mission.

"I love you so much," the husband wrote.

"I love you more," his wife replied. "Please be so careful."

Jon's missions usually lasted a few hours, but on that hot summer morning, it took longer than usual to hear from him. Before heading home from lunch, the soldier's wife told a friend she was worried.

"I wasn't home 20 minutes and I remember seeing someone pull up outside," Tahler said. "I could hear gravel moving and people walking up to the door and thinking 'oh, my gosh, this isn't happening.'"

According to the Pentagon, Pfc. Jonathon Hostetter and Spc. Kenneth Alvarez, 23, of Santa Maria, Calif., were killed when terrorists attacked their unit with an improvised explosive device. In the moments after receiving the dreadful news, "no" was Tahler's best defense against the unthinkable.

"I said it couldn't have been my husband because I just talked to him this morning," Tahler painfully recalled.

Just months after moving from Missouri to New Mexico, Tahler was in Delaware to meet her husband's flag-draped casket. While in Dover, Tahler also spoke with the wife and parents of Spc. Alvarez, an opportunity for which she remains grateful.

After landing in Kansas City, Jon and his loved ones were escorted to their small town of Milan, Mo., by the Patriot Guard Riders.

"Every town we went through, there were people lining the bridges and highways with huge signs saying 'thank you for your service' and waving flags," Tahler said. "Jon touched a lot of lives and it's amazing to see the impact he had."

After the funeral, Tahler moved back to Missouri to live with Jon's parents, who Tahler called "the best in-laws in the world." While grateful for the support she's received, thinking about what's next is a daily struggle for the 20-year-old Afghanistan war widow.

"It's kind of hard for me to picture my future, because it's hard for me to picture my future without Jon," she said.

In January, Tahler Hostetter enrolled at North Central Missouri College with a goal of honoring her husband, who always wanted her to finish school.

"I still think about Jon every single day and it distracts me," said Tahler, speaking through tears. "I just wish he was here with me."

Even in her most challenging moments, Tahler still hears the voice of Pfc. Jonathon Hostetter.

"I can hear Jon in the back of my head telling me to keep going," she 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.