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

Friday, July 25, 2014

24 Flags

Images courtesy: Ollis family

Robert and Linda Ollis were on an August 2013 trip to London when they were awoken by a call from back home. Their oldest daughter, Kimberly, needed to relay a neighbor's troubling message.

"There were two soldiers at our door," Linda said. "They were looking for us."

Despite being thousands of miles from their Staten Island home and Afghanistan, where their only son was serving, the parents could sense that the soldiers carried the worst possible news.

"In our hearts, we really knew," the mother told me.

Staff Sgt. Michael Ollis was meant to be a soldier. Both his grandfathers were World War II veterans who survived the Battle of the Bulge. His dad fought in Vietnam.

"He was very, very proud of having two grandfathers who served and a father who served," Robert said. "He always made me feel special (for serving) in Vietnam."

Swearing an oath to defend the United States is a major achievement for any young man or woman, but for Michael, it was an almost foregone conclusion.

"There was absolutely no doubt that he was going into the Army," Michael's father said. "You would have one hell of an argument if you tried to stop him, which we never did. We always supported him."

After his parents allowed him to enlist at age 17, Michael would eventually serve combat deployments in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Channeling his own experiences in Vietnam, Robert was amazed by how well his son handled his harrowing deployments to America's post-9/11 battlefields.

"When he came home, his personality did not change," Robert emotionally recounted. "In fact, he taught me a little bit about life."

Staff Sgt. Ollis left for his third combat deployment, and second to Afghanistan, in January 2013. Later that summer, when his sister called their parents in London, it took five agonizing hours before Robert and Linda's worst fears were confirmed by military personnel from the U.S. Embassy in London.

"It was surreal," Linda said. "It just didn't seem possible."

Robert said his son and a wounded Polish soldier were securing the zone around a massive truck bomb blast on Aug. 28, 2013, when an insurgent ambushed them in Afghanistan's Ghazni Province.

"Michael stepped in front of (the Polish lieutenant), took out the insurgent, and apparently must have been reaching down to disarm him also," Robert explained.

The enemy fighter ignited his vest. Michael's dad said the ensuing explosion caused catastrophic injuries that eventually took his 24-year-old son's life.

"The Polish lieutenant was on the gurney next to him," Robert said. "He said (the doctors) did everything they could."

Today, the Polish soldier and his grateful nation are doing everything they can to thank Staff Sgt. Michael Ollis for his final act of courage. The Polish government has already bestowed its Armed Forces Gold Medal upon the fallen American soldier.

"He made a point to tell people that Michael had saved his life," Linda said of the Polish lieutenant. "As a result of that, Michael has really been honored by the Polish people."

The fallen hero's parents, who posthumously accepted Michael's Silver Star medal from the U.S. Army this past October, said the American people have also done an incredible job of saluting their son.

"We've received so many cards from people throughout the country, and gifts," Michael's mom said. "Our neighbors have been unbelievable."

One gesture stands out. When Linda and Robert returned from receiving their son's flag-draped casket, they noticed 24 American flags mounted on a fence near railroad tracks.

"One for each year of Michael's life," Linda said.

This August, Michael's parents will travel to Poland, where their son will be saluted on the country's Armed Forces Day. Upon returning to the United States for the anniversary of Michael's passing, they plan to spend a quiet day in Staten Island with their surviving children.

"Being together as a family is the best way to honor him," Michael's dad said.

On Aug. 28, let's honor Staff Sgt. Michael Ollis and his family by placing 24 American flags in front of our homes. The flags pay tribute to the 24 years that an American hero lived, and also to the hours of each day, which we are privileged to spend in freedom.


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, July 18, 2014

To Serve

Images courtesy: Margy Agar

It took a long time for Margy Agar to say the word "suicide" after her daughter, U.S. Army Sgt. Kimberly Agar, took her own life. Today, spreading awareness is her greatest passion.

"My number one mission is for people to learn that (people) don't commit suicide," Margy told me. "They die from it."

While the grieving Texas mother still struggles with unanswered questions about how her "energetic" and "vivacious" daughter's life descended into hopelessness and tragedy, Margy traces Kimberly's death to Oct. 7, 2007: the day she was injured by an improvised explosive device in Iraq.

Sergeant Agar didn't tell her mom she had been hurt until she returned from the battlefield in December 2008. It would take another two years for Kimberly to reveal specific details about the attack.

"She called me from Germany and told me about the IED," Margy said. "I knew she was keeping it hidden."

Kimberly was never known for hiding her emotions while growing up in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs. In fact, her zest for life was almost always on display at frequent singing performances and beauty pageants.

"She started singing in her room when she was about 3," Kimberly's mother said. "She sang at nursing homes and assisted living facilities ... just celebrating her God-given talent with people who needed music in their lives."

There was one song Kimberly enjoyed singing most.

"She was very patriotic," Margy said. "Her favorite song was the National Anthem."

As she sang all around the Lone Star State, including at Texas Rangers games, Kimberly clung to three goals she had set for herself during childhood.

"To sing, to see the world and to serve," her mom said.

In October 2006, Kimberly surprised her mother by joining the Army.

"It came out of left field for me ... she never talked about it, ever," said Margy, who had watched her oldest son join the military a few months earlier. "I was devastated, basically, but at the same time, proud."

Without much time to adjust, Margy's daughter was suddenly part of the 2007 U.S. troop surge in Iraq.

"They were there for 15 months and they were constantly (dealing with) IED after IED and ambush after ambush," Kimberly's mother said.

Years later, Margy would learn that Kimberly — under the enormous stress of combat — had been cutting herself in Iraq. But when Kimberly came home from the deployment, Margy saw no significant warning signs of depression beyond some rowdy, alcohol-fueled behavior.

"I didn't see it at all as a way of coping," the soldier's mother said. "It surely could have been, but I also knew her. She was a very social person."

Kimberly was stationed in Germany as part of the U.S. Army Europe Band and Chorus on July 4, 2011. That's when Margy realized something was wrong.

"After the 4th it was like night and day," she said.

Two months and two days later, Margy said that her daughter — under the influence of alcohol and pills — slashed her wrists. During her 11-day hospital stay, Kimberly displayed more erratic behavior when she yelled at her mom during one of their last phone conversations.

"She never yelled at me," Margy said about Kimberly's usual demeanor.

Kimberly, 25, was scheduled to return from Germany that Christmas. Margy was busy planning a welcome home party when her phone rang on Oct. 3, 2011. Two soldiers were waiting at her door.

Margy, too panicked to drive, was taken home by police to receive the dreadful news of Kimberly's death.

"They told me," Margy said. "I screamed, collapsed and pounded the wall."

Margy's confusion, anger, and frustration were immediately channeled into sharing Kimberly's story, both inside and outside the military community.

"You die of sadness; you die from depression," she said. "That's what I'm trying to get out there."

Margy believes the traumatic brain injury Kimberly suffered during the explosion in Iraq permanently changed her daughter.

"TBI is not a mental illness," Kimberly's mom said. "It's a physical wound."

Despite the way Sgt. Kimberly Agar's life ended, her mother will always be proud of her. After all, she had accomplished her three goals: singing, seeing the world and serving others.

"I'm constantly amazed by her courage," Margy Agar 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 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.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Heart Still Beats

Images courtesy: Jill Stephenson

When future U.S. Army Cpl. Ben Kopp was just 8 years old, his heart was set on following in his great-grandfather's footsteps.

"He would tell people he was going to grow up and go into the Army," Cpl. Kopp's mother, Jill Stephenson, told me.

It took Ben's great-grandpa — a World War II veteran — to help the young boy understand the true meaning of service.

"You don't join the Army because someone else did it," said Ben's hero and role model, Leroy Rogers. "You do it because it's something you want to do."

Ben was devastated when his great-grandfather died in April 2001. Five months later, when flames rose from the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and a rural Pennsylvania field, the Minnesota teenager's grief turned to rage.

"He considered the terrorist attack on America — killing innocent people — a mockery of his great grandfather's service to our country," Ben's mom said. "He made a pledge to become an Army Ranger."

Jill's son kept his word. By 2007, he was a Ranger serving in Iraq.

"When 9/11 happened, there was no doubt in my mind that Ben would fulfill that manifest destiny, if you will," she said.

After two deployments during one of the Iraq war's most violent chapters, the young Ranger's passion for his country was even stronger.

"What he saw over there ... it made him appreciate what it was to be an American," Jill said.

Ben left for Afghanistan in May 2009. While the Rosemount, Minnesota, native had been known for his tenacity since childhood, embarking on his third combat deployment at age 21 was a burden that very few young Americans are asked to shoulder.

"He knew going into Afghanistan was going to be a completely different experience than going into Iraq," the Ranger's mother explained. "They were going into a hot zone where nobody had been for quite some time."

Indeed, when the soldier and his mom spoke that July, he confirmed that Afghanistan's Helmand province was as close as it came to hell on earth.

"He said it was as bad as (fellow Rangers) had warned him about," Jill said.

On July 10, 2009, Jill received a shocking phone call. Ben had been wounded in Afghanistan, undergone surgery and hadn't regained consciousness.

"The days that went by — the next three days before I went to Walter Reed — were probably the most difficult days of my life," Ben's mom said. "I didn't know the true condition of things."

Ben, who was shot while helping save the lives of six fellow Rangers pinned down by a Taliban sniper, arrived at Walter Reed on July 14. The next morning, doctors told Jill that her son might be brain dead.

"There was a concern because he had a cardiac arrest when he was recovering from his surgery," Jill explained. "They revived him, but he never woke up."

On July 18, 2009, every military mom's worst nightmare became Jill's reality. A test confirmed that no blood was flowing to her son's brain. At the same time, doctors were busy trying to preserve the dying hero's organs, which Ben had designated for donation if he was ever killed in action.

"There was some doubt — actually considerable doubt — about whether they could use his heart," Ben's mother said. "But we have to keep in mind that he was a 21-year-old Army Ranger. He was in really great physical condition."

As the tragic events unfolded at Walter Reed, Jill learned that one of her cousin's friends was in need of a heart transplant. In what can only be described as a miracle, Ben's heart was subsequently identified as a perfect match.

"I had this incredible joy and this incredible sorrow at the same point," Jill said. "It was so special to know that his heart would save someone else's life.

Corporal Ben Kopp is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His heart is inside Judy Meikle, 62, who lives in Chicago.

Jill Stephenson and Judy Meikle
"She will celebrate five years with Ben's heart (this July)," Jill said. "He also saved three other lives with his kidneys and his liver."

Five years after a selfless warrior's final acts of courage, Ben's heart still beats.

"He saved so many lives," his mother 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 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.