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

Friday, May 30, 2014

Defining Valor

Image courtesy: International Security Assistance Force

I could see fire in the eyes of retired U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen shortly after someone at a recent Washington forum told the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan that al-Qaida has "demonstrated a great deal of valor" since 9/11.

"I don't see any valor in al-Qaida," Gen. Allen said in response to the audience member. "My first real experience with the horrific dimension of al-Qaida was the day they cut the heads off of four children going to school because they were the children of a sheikh.

"I see no valor in that," Allen, who also commanded U.S. Marines in Iraq's most violent province, continued. "And I eventually deserve the right to define valor the way I want to define it, and not how other people would like to create a relativistic view of valor."

Allen has led thousands of brave men and women into battle, and clearly agonizes for every brave American killed or wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nevertheless, he was calm and respectful while answering the questioner, who also told the accomplished military leader that "you have to admire the way [al-Qaida] fought your people."

After Allen named several terrorist organizations that he and forces under his command fought on foreign soil, he reminded the audience member that each group has "killed far more civilians in Afghanistan than they ever killed of Afghan National Security forces or my own forces."

"So I see no valor in that," the general reiterated.

Image courtesy: Sgt. Steven J. DeLuzio Memorial Fund

As I looked into the general's eyes, I thought of a harrowing story relayed to me by the parents of U.S. Army Sgt. Steven DeLuzio, who was killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 22, 2010 at age 25. Before he left for his final deployment, Sgt. DeLuzio got a tattoo on his arm that bore the mysterious image of an Iraqi woman's shrouded face.

"The lady saved his life," Steven's dad, Mark DeLuzio, told me.

As Steven patrolled the treacherous city of Ramadi in 2006, the Iraqi woman told American forces about a bomb buried on a stretch of road they would soon encounter. Without the civilian's warning, Steven's Humvee would almost certainly have struck the enemy improvised explosive device.

A few days later, Steven and his unit returned to thank the Iraqi woman for her courageous act.

"Steven found the woman, her husband, and their kids all beheaded," Mark said.

That is one example of terrorist barbarism that I heard about while writing this syndicated column. Allen, who spent 12 years battling al-Qaida and the Taliban, witnessed terrible atrocities by the enemy on a daily basis.

Image courtesy: International Security Assistance Force

The May 22 American Enterprise Institute event was focused on the meaning of Memorial Day and "Brothers Forever," which I coauthored with retired Marine Col. Tom Manion. General Allen wrote a moving Foreword to our book, and offered another stirring, emotional reflection on the heroism of our military in person.

"At night in Afghanistan when I commanded there, I always wrote the letters home to the families of our dead at night," he said. "And I'd always take the time to go through the kid's record book to see when they were born.

"By the time I commanded the war in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2013, many of these kids were 9 or 10 years old when the war broke out," Allen continued. "And they still came ... nothing stopped them. They still came, and they still enlisted, and they still knew they were going to war, and they still came over. And they still fought for us, and they died for us."

Memorial Day weekend is over. Soon, the war in Afghanistan — according to politicians overseeing the U.S.-led effort — will be over, too.

As a significant chapter of American history comes to close, there are two sentiments that I hope will never cease. First: gratitude to the valiant men and women to serve our country in uniform, and second: disdain for the terrorists who started this war.

"To get to your point about whether we can coexist with al-Qaida: I hope not," Gen. John Allen said to his questioner. "I hope that al-Qaida has to wonder every night whether they'll wake up the next morning alive."


(Note: Gen. Allen's remarks begin at 49:00)

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

Friday, May 16, 2014

Remember the Fourteenth

Images courtesy: Samantha Daehling

On the night of May 14, 2013, Samantha Daehling awoke to startling words from a friend who was staying at her house in Westford, Massachusetts.

"There are uniforms at the door," Samantha's friend said. "Go get the door."

When Samantha cracked the door open and peered outside, her heart sank.

"As soon as I saw the National Guard standing there, I knew right away," Samantha, 23, said.

On the fourteenth day of the previous June, Samantha had married U.S. Army Spc. Mitchell Daehling. It was the happiest day of her young life.

"I looked up and saw Mitch standing there," Samantha said. "Mitch laughed and said I'd never looked prettier."

The couple originally met in Nashua, New Hampshire, while Mitch was attending Daniel Webster College. Even though neither forgot meeting the other, Mitch and Samantha didn't see each other again until two years later.

"I kind of laughed with him, and then after that, we just kind of became one," Samantha said.

The couple started dating on Dec. 14, 2008. From the beginning, Samantha loved her future husband's defining traits.

"Mitch was very bold, competitive and strong-willed," she said.

Mitch had wanted to join the military from a young age, but promised family members that he would get his college degree first. After the death of his grandfather, who had lost both his legs while serving overseas before Mitch was born, he decided to follow his selfless example.

"After what happened with Grandpa Ken, he knew he had to join the military," Samantha said. "He felt like he just had to do it."

Mitch's next decision would initially break Samantha's heart.

"Mitch said he didn't want to see me anymore," she said. "I was shocked by it."

The future soldier loved his girlfriend so much that he didn't want her to endure the rigors of military life.

"He told me later that was why he broke up with me ... because he didn't want me to go through what his grandmother did," Samantha explained. "If he came back without legs, or not at all, he didn't want me to go through it."

Just before Mitch started basic training, he visited Samantha at her parents' house.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" he said.

"Let's do this," Samantha responded.

Samantha and Mitch got engaged on March 14, 2011. In the years ahead, the couple would only be separated by geography when Mitch's job required it. He trained at Georgia's Fort Benning and was stationed at Texas' Fort Bliss before learning that he would deploy to Afghanistan in December 2012, just six months after he and Samantha were married.

Before Mitch went to war, he had an unimaginably painful conversation about Afghanistan with his worried bride.

"I need to be the first man to jump in ... the first man to help," the soldier told his wife. "And I don't think I'm coming back."

During a Skype conversation on May 12, 2013, Mitch told Samantha that he'd been given an even bigger role on his combat team.

"As soon as he got promoted to team leader, I knew he wasn't coming back," she said.
When she answered the door two days later, Samantha's worst fears were realized.

"It didn't feel real," she emotionally recounted. "I kept waiting to wake up from a nightmare."

According to the Pentagon, Spc. Mitchell Daehling, 24, was killed in a May 14, 2013 improvised explosive device attack that also killed Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Baker, 29, Spc. William Gilbert, 24, and Pfc. Cody Towse, 21.

Less than a month after the Boston Marathon bombings, the same spirit of togetherness that was famously displayed by New Englanders quickly surrounded Samantha and her loved ones.

"My front yard (was) filled with people," she recalled. "Friends drove from all over ... cards (were) all over."

For many of us, the fourteenth of each month is just another date on the calendar. For Samantha Daehling, it is a reminder of the days she met, got engaged and married the man she loves.

"The fourteenth is not a day for me to be lying in bed crying," she said. "The fourteenth — and every day of the year — is a day for me to live for him."


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

Friday, May 9, 2014

Brothers Forever: Maggie's Prayer

Image courtesy: Travis Manion Foundation

The following scene is an excerpt from "Brothers Forever: The Enduring Bond between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended their Ultimate Sacrifice," which I co-authored with retired U.S. Marine Col. Tom Manion, who lost his only son in Iraq.

In the scene, the oldest niece of 1st Lt. Travis Manion is saying a prayer on the same evening as the wedding of the fallen Marine's U.S. Naval Academy roommate, U.S. Navy LT (SEAL) Brendan Looney, who is just 48 hours away from deploying to Fallujah, Iraq as a member of SEAL Team Three. Just over a year earlier, Travis had been killed while shielding his fellow Marines from enemy fire in the same violent Iraqi city.

Every week in this column space, you read about the selfless American heroes who serve and sacrifice in the spirit of five unforgettable words uttered by Travis just before his second and final combat deployment: "If not me, then who ... " Hopefully, the story of Travis, Brendan and their loved ones will inspire more Americans to put the needs of others before our own. "Brothers Forever" will be released on May 13.

"'God bless Uncle Travis,' a blonde-haired, 2-year-old girl said in her soft, tender voice.

A step down from her family's kitchen, where little Maggie Rose Borek was saying her prayers at the dinner table, pictures of Travis (Manion) hung on the living room wall. One photo showed the smiling Marine holding her when she was a baby.

Old enough to comprehend that her uncle had gone to heaven, Maggie finished her nightly prayers on a muggy summer evening in Doylestown, Pennslyvania. Fourteen months earlier, flag-carrying mourners had solemnly filled Doylestown's quaint streets to honor Travis after he was killed on Apr. 29, 2007.

As Maggie prayed for her fallen uncle on July 12, 2008, the city and surrounding Bucks County were bustling with life. Malls and movie theaters were packed; hoagie and ice cream shops had long lines; and most television screens portrayed the 2008 presidential campaign, along with Philadelphia Phillies games, instead of the daily struggles and accomplishments of U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. After Travis died, things went back to normal for almost everyone except the Manions, whose lives had not been the same since two Marines arrived at their door on a horrible Sunday that Maggie was mercifully too young to remember.

Maggie's mom and Travis's sister, Ryan (Manion Borek), had been aware of the risks of her younger brother's post-9/11 military service, but never really thought Maggie would grow up learning about her uncle through stories and pictures. Ryan had even dismissed Travis's attempt to bring up the possibility of not coming home from Iraq, preferring to imagine a world in which tragedy couldn't reach her family's doorstep.

Ryan and Travis's parents, Tom and Janet (Manion), weren't in Doylestown that night. They were in Annapolis, Md., for the wedding of Amy and Brendan (Looney), who were getting married not far from the dorm where Brendan and Travis had roomed together. Ryan had spoken to her mom earlier that day, who had said she was dreading her first overnight stay in Annapolis since Travis's death. But seeing Brendan for the first time in almost a year would make the pain worthwhile.

Ryan knew how close Travis had been to Brendan, his now twenty-seven-year-old, former U.S. Naval Academy roommate. She also knew that Travis should have been one of Brendan's groomsmen, which weighed heavily on her mind as the sun set during a mild Pennsylvania thunderstorm.

After putting Maggie to bed Ryan, who was six months pregnant with her second child, watched the rain from the window of her darkened upstairs bedroom. The Marine's pretty older sister, who always wore a bracelet bearing Travis's name, pictured what should have been happening that night: Her brother, her parents and Brendan laughing up a storm and doing shots of Patron (tequila), just like at their friend Ben Mathews's wedding shortly before Travis was killed.

Ryan still spoke about her little brother in the present tense and usually immersed herself in long hours at work to avoid thinking about losing him. But on this Saturday night, there was no escape."

Note: "Brothers Forever" will be released on May 13. You can order the book today from Amazon, Audible, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, iTunes, IndieBound, and The Doylestown Bookshop.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Meaning of Memorial Day

Images courtesy: Liz Harman

On May 27, 2010, then-U.S. Army Maj. Jaimie Leonard wrote a stirring piece about the meaning of Memorial Day for her hometown newspaper.

"It was not until I actually went to war in Iraq and when fellow soldiers in my unit failed to make it back from patrol did I truly internalize the distinction," the soldier wrote in The Warwick Advertiser. "It wasn't until then that I truly valued how these brave men and women who died serving our country deserved their own day memorializing their sacrifice."

Long before she became an Army officer, Jaimie, who grew up in southeastern New York state, was carrying herself like a future leader.

"Jaimie was always determined and always wanted to do well in everything she did," her oldest of four sisters, Liz Harman, told me.

When Jaimie's dreams of attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point were initially dashed, she dedicated every subsequent day to proving she belonged.

"She had that drive and determination to never, ever quit," Liz said. "She got into West Point that second year."

After being commissioned as an intelligence officer in 1997, Jaimie deployed to Bosnia in 1999, along with a subsequent stint in Korea and two in Germany. She served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 and then in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011.

"When she was deployed, we would send her food, but it turns out she'd work through all the meal times," Jaimie's oldest sister said. "She wanted to make sure she had everything together to support those around her."

Jaimie was a smart, hard-nosed soldier, but as soon as she came home from work, it was time to relax.

"She was either in a military uniform or a dress," Liz said with a chuckle. "There was no in between for her."

Time after time, Jaimie received high praise for her relentless efforts around the globe. The humble soldier, however, would never trumpet her accomplishments.

"It wasn't about the medals," Liz said. "She was proud of them, but they didn't define her."

Liz became understandably emotional when our discussion turned to Jaimie's 2013 deployment to Afghanistan, which started with a family tragedy. The day after Jaimie arrived on base, her and Liz's father died.

"She wanted to come home," Liz, 39, said. "But she wanted to get her troops together ... she felt like she had a responsibility."

For the next five months, Jaimie would email Liz to share her favorite memories of their dad. The sisters communicated more than during previous deployments, including an exchange about a care package Liz was preparing for Jaimie in early June.

"It was not only things for herself, but for the people around her," Liz said.

Then, on June 8, Liz, who was traveling with her husband and children, received a shocking phone call from one of her sisters. Jaimie, she learned, had been killed in Afghanistan.

"I didn't believe it," Liz said. "I was just screaming ... "

Liz said that Jaimie, 39, was shot and killed by a disgruntled Afghan National Army soldier. According to the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Todd Clark, 40, was also killed in the tragic incident.

Liz is not bitter toward the Afghan people for the apparent "insider" attack.

"They said at the service in Afghanistan at the (Forward Operating Base) for them, Afghan generals were crying," she said.

There have been plenty of tears shed by Liz and her four siblings, and many well-deserved honors for Jaimie, who was posthumously promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

"Everybody came together," Liz Harman said.

While closing her unforgettable Memorial Day 2010 column in The Warwick Advertiser, future Lt. Col. Jaimie Leonard called upon Americans to "consider your duties as citizens."

"Remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country in war, but also honor those others who sacrifice in other ways to make this country great — law enforcement, firefighters, teachers, volunteers, etc.," she wrote. "Please honor them in deed and not just giving thanks, parades, or planting flowers or flags on graves.

"Take measure of what have you done for your country and ask yourself if you could do more."


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 on May 13. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website.