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

Friday, August 22, 2014

Many Different People

Images courtesy: Michelle Bannar

August 20 marked one year since Michelle Bannar lost the love of her life.

"He was many different people to me," Michelle said about her late husband, U.S. Army Master Sgt. George Bannar. "Not only the love of my life, but my best friend, adviser, teacher and hero."

For 365 days, Michelle has been reading journals that her husband kept during his fifth and final deployment to Afghanistan.

"It was incredible to read his journals ... and to feel the strength that he had and the ability to drive forward 100 percent," the fallen soldier's wife said.

After meeting in North Carolina in 2002, Master Sgt. Bannar and his future wife quickly became the closest of friends. They started dating about five years later.

"In an interview one time, (a journalist) asked me to sum up George in one word," Michelle told me. "And I thought, how the heck could I do that?"

"Positive," "upbeat," "easygoing," "confident but not arrogant," "brilliant" and "goofy" are just a few of the words Michelle used during our phone conversation to affectionately describe George.

"He's such a unique, rare bird," Michelle said with a chuckle.

Before the couple got married in 2009, George had already served in Afghanistan four times. The Green Beret's favorite assignment, however, was as an instructor in Yuma, Arizona, where the couple lived until 2012.

"He had the time of his life," Michelle said. "Jumping with students — teaching and developing them to save their own lives while falling out of an airplane — it was something he truly had a passion for."

George then learned he would be returning to Afghanistan for a fifth time, where he'd lead a Special Forces team on a series of important missions.

"It was hard for him to come back, take over another team, and start over again," the Green Beret's wife said. "Of course, he never complained."

In June 2013, George was allowed to leave the battlefield to help care for his ailing stepmother in Orange County, Virginia, where he spent part of his childhood.

"She ended up passing away just the day after George returned to Afghanistan," Michelle said.

Upon returning, George insisted on putting the well-being of his combat team ahead of his own grief.

"I can't imagine what he did, being such an effective leader and guiding his team the way he did ... wholeheartedly while at the same time trying to set aside the emotions and the hurt of loss," Michelle said.

During long, late-night phone conversations after he returned to war, George and Michelle talked about life at home instead of the daily struggles of war.

"He was so humble, didn't brag at all, and was somebody that really had that balance of work-life living," Michelle explained. "Work was left at the door, and we weren't going to bring it into our world."

Michelle will never forget the tragic moment that the war in Afghanistan entered her home.

"That day ... it makes me nauseous to think about," she said. "It was hard for me to answer the door."

Michelle subsequently learned that her 37-year-old husband, who was fearlessly leading a foot patrol, was killed in action on Aug. 20, 2013, in Afghanistan's Wardak Province.

"George was at the very front of his team and unfortunately, a sniper on the hillside, some terrible man — I don't even call him a man — happened to get that one shot that killed George," the Gold Star wife said.

As Michelle, 42, starts a painful second year without Master Sgt. George Bannar, it's the kindness of strangers — a compassionate grocery store clerk and a stranger who wrote her a moving letter were two examples she cited — that keeps her going.

"It's made every difference in the world," Michelle said. "I wouldn't know where I'd be now if it wasn't for those sending love, strength, and kindness."

Many different people have lost loved ones during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and every day, I am amazed by people like Michelle Bannar, who use their loss as a springboard to help others.

"I'm driven to continuously support and do everything I can for those who are deployed and also here at home sacrificing," she 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.

Note: This column was edited on Aug. 25, 2014.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Their Names

Images courtesy: U.S. Army

When I asked the nation's newest Medal of Honor recipient why he enlisted less than two years after 9/11, his answer was unequivocal.

"I had always wanted to serve from the time I was very young," former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts said.

As a 17-year-old high school student in Nashua, New Hampshire, the future war hero volunteered for the Army as one conflict raged in Afghanistan and another was about to erupt in Iraq.

"It had drifted from my mind somewhat in high school as I just focused on being a teenage boy," Pitts admitted. "But as my senior year drew to a close and I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my future ... I just thought what better way to spend my time than serving my country."

As Pitts spoke during a July 22 media roundtable, I tried to imagine the whirlwind that this 28-year-old veteran was experiencing. Less than 24 hours earlier, the president had placed the Medal of Honor around his neck at the White House. By coincidence, July 21 also marked the second wedding anniversary for Ryan and his wife, Amy.

"I'm taking it one day at a time," Pitts said.

Pitts simultaneously made clear that to him, the ceremonies and pageantry associated with the nation's highest military award were not about celebrating his achievements.

"It's been great this week — at this event — to have all the Gold Star families come in," he said.

"To have the president recognize them, and to be able to talk to all of them, and for them to be able to talk to the people who knew their soldiers. That's really the story of this week."

Nine U.S. paratroopers were killed in the July 13, 2008, Battle of Wanat, which Staff Sgt. Pitts survived. He knew the fallen soldiers, served alongside them, and still mourns them.

"I think about it every day," the Afghanistan war veteran said.

At every turn during the 45-minute discussion, Pitts shifted attention back to his fallen brothers.

"I was there, and I saw some of these guys do what they did, and it's still unbelievable to me," the Medal of Honor recipient said. "It's been uncomfortable being highlighted and recognized."

As President Obama explained at the previous day's White House ceremony, the courage displayed by Pitts and his teammates — while taking fire from 200 insurgents — is astounding.

"The enemy was so close, Ryan could hear their voices," the president said. "He whispered into the radio (that) he was the only one left and was running out of ammo. 'I was going to die,' he remembers, 'and made my peace with it.'

"And then he prepared to make a last stand," President Obama continued. "Bleeding and barely conscious, Ryan threw his last grenades. He grabbed a grenade launcher and fired nearly straight up, so the grenade came back down on the enemy just yards away. One insurgent was now right on top of the post, shooting down until another team of Americans showed up and drove him back. As one his teammates said, had it not been for Ryan Pitts, that post 'almost certainly would have been overrun.'"

Pitts, who credited the preparation of his fellow paratroopers for saving lives, also acknowledged that despite his reluctance in accepting an award, he has a unique opportunity to speak on behalf of his fallen Army brothers.

"I absolutely feel a responsibility," he said. "First, to the guys ... the guys who didn't come home ... the guys who can't tell their story."

While his wife, young son and post-military career are huge priorities, Pitts is equally committed to saluting this generation of heroes.

"This is a brotherhood that we've all been a part of," he said. "We think it's incredibly important to remember the guys who didn't make it home, and we're using this time to say their names as much as we can."

Their names are 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, Sgt. Israel Garcia, Cpl. Jonathan Ayers, Cpl. Jason Bogar, Cpl. Jason Hovater, Cpl. Matthew Phillips, Cpl. Pruitt Rainey, Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling and Spc. Sergio Abad.

The name of another American hero, who is dedicating his Medal of Honor to sharing their stories of sacrifice, is Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts.


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.