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

Friday, April 25, 2014

Mothers, Fathers, and Sons

Images courtesy: Sisson family

Kevin Sisson will never forget the day he challenged his son, future U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Justin Sisson, on a baseball field in Overland Park, Kan.

"I met him as he was coming back to the dugout," said Kevin, who was coaching his teenage son's team, which was behind in the game. "I said, 'You need to step up ... the team needs you to lead.'"

The next time Justin came to bat, he hit a home run. Then, with the game on the line, Justin did it again.

"It was his second home run," Kevin proudly recalled. "And it was Father's Day."

Justin had never hit a ball out of the park before the memorable Father's Day gift, and he never did so again. But the moment reminded his parents that whenever their son was challenged, he would respond.

"He always fought back," Kevin said. "He was never down and out."

Justin strived to follow in his grandfather's footsteps by attending West Point. But when he initially failed to gain a coveted spot at the U.S. Military Academy, Justin refused to give up his dream of becoming an Army officer.

"He went to (Florida State University) with an ROTC scholarship," Justin's mom, Phyllis Sisson, said. "He wound up joining the National Guard."

During his sophomore year, Justin volunteered for a deployment to Iraq with his National Guard unit.

"As a college student, he did not have to deploy," Justin's dad said. "He did not have to go."

"He felt like it was going to make him a better officer," his mom added. "He got his first Bronze Star as a Specialist."

Sure enough, when Justin came home, a letter inviting him to attend West Point — the second since his initial rejection — was waiting.

"Justin once again said no," Phyllis said.

After the Iraq war veteran graduated from Florida State, 2nd Lt. Justin Sisson was commissioned as an officer and soon became a Ranger with the 101st Airborne Division, which he was eager to join on an upcoming Afghanistan deployment.

"This is what he wanted to do," the soldier's mother said.

"He wasn't going to do it any other way," his father added.

In May 2013, with Justin leading his platoon near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, Kevin and Phyllis knew their son faced grave danger.

"Justin had told us before he deployed that the Taliban and al-Qaida were coming back over the mountains," his mom said.

But when both parents connected with Justin for a rare Skype call on his remote base, they saw a 23-year-old man making a difference.

"He looked really good," Phyllis said.

"He was happy," Kevin agreed.

On June 3, 2013, the Sissons learned that their son had been killed — along with Spc. Robert Pierce, 20 — by a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. Justin's parents said that the attack also killed an Afghan police officer and 10 schoolchildren.

"He was fighting the whole way," Phyllis said of Justin, who eventually succumbed from blood loss after suffering a devastating shrapnel wound.

Justin's parents, who now live in Phoenix, are thankful to the Army, the Patriot Guard Riders and communities across the country for coming together to honor their son, who was buried at Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas.

"When we got to Leavenworth, all these kids and families were holding signs and posters," Kevin said. "It was just tremendous."

When Justin's personal effects were sent home from Afghanistan, one item may have meant the most of all.

"Justin had told me that he had a Mother's Day gift for me," Phyllis said.

Sure enough, a jewelry box wrapped in bubble paper found its way to Justin's mom. A fellow soldier was with Justin in an Afghan village when he bought it.

"That would be perfect for my mom," the soldier quoted Justin as saying.

Less than a year after 2nd Lt. Justin Sisson's death, Kevin and Phyllis have endowed an ROTC scholarship fund in his memory at Florida State. They miss their son, and they will always treasure his Mother's and Father's Day gifts.

"Our greatest fear is that we're going to forget something," the father said.

"So we're doing whatever we can to keep his memory alive," the mother added.


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.

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