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

Friday, April 18, 2014

Remember the 'Unselfie'

Image courtesy: Cpl. Dustin March

Before leaving for his fifth deployment to Iraq, Master Sgt. Robert Horrigan, who had been planning to retire from the U.S. Army, told his commanding officer that "if you're going, I'm going with you."

Master Sgt. Horrigan, 40, wound up making the ultimate sacrifice during that deployment.

After Staff Sgt. Travis Mills lost his arms and legs in Afghanistan, he lay in his hospital bed worrying about his fellow soldiers still in harm's way. Every day, he would have his wife send messages to his Army brothers to make sure they were safe.

Staff Sgt. Mills, now 27, has since become a nationally recognizable face of America's wounded warriors.

When 1st Lt. Travis Manion was asked why he had to return a second time to the hellish streets of Fallujah, Iraq, he told his brother-in-law that if he didn't go, a Marine with less experience would be sent in his place.

"If not me, then who... " 1st Lt. Manion, 26, said five months before he was killed in action.

Our nation is consumed with the selfie, which dominates social media and has been embraced by many media figures, celebrities and even some prominent politicians. While there is nothing wrong with posting fun pictures, the selfie fad underscores an increase tendency to celebrate ourselves.

In this column space, you read about heroes like Horrigan, Mills and Manion, who placed service above self while asking for nothing in return. These brave men and women do not seek the spotlight, and in many cases, are uncomfortable if the spotlight finds them.

While many television stations, newspapers and websites focus on the selfie, this column is a place to read about the "unselfie" — an act of unselfishness. In my mind, these are the moments that should also saturate social media, especially when it comes to the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts of national leaders.

Master Sgt. Jennifer Loredo was serving in Afghanistan when her husband, Staff Sgt. Eddie Loredo, 34, was killed in a different part of the country. When I spoke with Master Sgt. Loredo, the 37-year-old soldier was leading the Army's Master Resilience Training program to help other military families cope with tragedy.

Nobody would have looked down on Jennifer if she left the military to grieve her husband and focus solely on caring for their children. Instead, she put others above herself.

"I wanted to make (Eddie) proud and my kids proud, too," she said.

First Lt. Tom Martin's first application to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was rejected. He joined the Army anyway and eventually gained acceptance to the storied institution.

"He had a true conviction for what was right," his mother, Candy Martin, said.

The respected Army officer could have done anything he wanted with his life before he was killed in action at age 27. Instead of believing that responding to 9/11 was someone else's job, 1st Lt. Martin took it upon himself to protect America.

"I gotta go rid the world of evil," he often said.

Sgt. Devin Snyder was a popular, athletic high school track star who loved the color pink. But when high school was over, she enlisted in the Army.

"She was very strong-willed," Sgt. Snyder's father, Ed, told me. "She knew what she wanted."

Devin was devastated when she saw fellow soldiers injured in an enemy roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan. But while agonizing for her wounded friends, she enthusiastically suited up for another mission, during which she was killed at age 20.

After Devin made the ultimate sacrifice, friends painted an American flag with her smiling face on a rock in Upstate New York. Soon after a local fraternity was criticized for painting over the memorial, it issued a statement.

"In a brief moment of self-gratification, we thought of no one else but ourselves, and for that we were wrong," the statement, printed by Time Warner Cable News Rochester, read in part.

The fraternity's epiphany is instructive, because the frequency of Americans placing self above all else is too often. Whenever I'm guilty of becoming consumed with my own interests, my weekly conversations with these heroes and their families serve as dramatic wake-up calls.

The selfie is fun. The "unselfie" is what truly matters.

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM

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.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Front Porch

Images courtesy: Ristau family

We all have a favorite place. U.S. Army Sgt. Michael Ristau's was the front porch.

"When he was in Iraq and Afghanistan — when we would ask him what he needs — the very last thing he would always say is 'don't forget to pack the front porch,'" said Sgt. Ristau's mother, Susie Ristau.

For Michael, the front porch of his parents' Cascade, Iowa, home — which they bought shortly after he joined the military in 2004 — was a place of peace. It was of stark contrast to the battlefields the young soldier had experienced since 9/11, as well as a major health scare.

Long before Michael joined the military, he was the neighborhood prankster growing up in Rockford, Ill.

"He was a fun kid ... he was a jokester," Susie said. "Whenever he walked into a room, it could be 'blah' but he would have everyone laughing within five minutes."

After getting into trouble during high school, Michael went to a military academy, where he gained both discipline and a diploma. He also made a decision about what would come next: enlisting in the Army.

"I said 'no ... I don't want you to go,'" Susie recounted. "Then my husband sat him down and said 'Michael, this is not fun and games ... we are at war.'"

Undeterred by the conflict in Afghanistan and increasing bloodshed in Iraq, Michael, then 17, convinced his parents to sign release papers.

"Mom, I have to do this," Susie quoted her son as saying. "I have to go fight for our country."

From that moment on, Michael received his parents' unflinching support.

Roughly three years after finishing basic training and being stationed at Washington's Fort Lewis, Michael called his parents from Iraq with shocking news.

"While he was there they discovered a lump in his throat, took him to Germany for a biopsy and found out that he had cancer," Susie said.

For the young soldier, the most frustrating part of the disease wasn't the diagnosis itself. It was leaving Iraq early and missing the chance to deploy a second time with his brothers and sisters in arms.

"He felt he needed to be there," the soldier's mom said. "That was pretty hard on him."

By May 2011, Michael was cancer-free and cleared for a deployment to Afghanistan. He left that December, just 19 days after the soldier and his wife, Elizabeth, welcomed their first child.

In May 2012, Michael re-enlisted. His mom — already on pins and needles while her son served in a war zone — was upset, but eventually came to understand Michael's decision.

"He felt that the Army was where he needed to be," she said.

On July 13, 2012, Susie was alone in her house when she saw a strange brown truck sitting outside. Next was a series of knocks that got progressively louder.

"As I opened the screen door, I saw the chaplain and other (soldiers) walking to the side of the house," said Susie, her voice cracking with emotion. "I just dropped to the floor, because I knew."

After her husband, Randy, rushed home from work, the soldiers told both stunned parents that Sgt. Michael Ristau, 25, had been killed earlier that day in Afghanistan when enemy forces attacked his vehicle with an improvised explosive device.

For Susie, nothing was worse than sharing the dreadful news with Michael's siblings.

"It was horrible," she said.

Over 1,000 people and 2,000 American flags filled the small Iowa community to salute the fallen soldier and his family. But for Susie, the hardest part came when the ceremonies ended.

"It's still day-by-day," Susie said 20 months after Michael's death. "I was in a very bad depression stage until about three weeks ago."

If there is one calming place, it is the front porch that gave Sgt. Michael Ristau a respite from the horrors of war.

"That summer in 2012 ... I lived on that front porch," the Gold Star mom said. "That was the place where I found the most comfort."

As the Midwest warms up from a hard winter, Susie Ristau plans to sit in her favorite place and remember the 25 years she had with her son.

"He's with me all the time," she said.

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM

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.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Bigger Than Life

Images courtesy: John Horrigan

As twin brothers, Robert and John Horrigan did everything together. Whether it was hunting and fishing as boys or joining the U.S. Army as adults, their bond was one that could never be broken.

"The closest person to me on the face of the earth was my twin brother," John, 49, said.

From an early age, Master Sgt. Robert Horrigan displayed qualities that would lead to him becoming one of America's most respected battlefield warriors.

"He would give you the shirt off his back," the soldier's twin said. "Robert would do anything for anybody ... if he had a dollar in his pocket and you needed it, he'd give it to you."

Dollars were sometimes hard to come by as the Horrigan family endured financial struggles during parts of Robert and John's boyhood.

"You earn what you've got, and my father, my mom ... all of us were like that," John said. "It takes hard work and dedication to get where you are, and Robert was the same way."

In 1984, the Horrigan twins joined the U.S. Army. The brothers would eventually end up in the same Ranger platoon, where they served under Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the future commander of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

"It was phenomenal being in the Army together with my brother," John said.

Even though John had long since retired from military service by Sept. 11, 2001, he could see the impact the terrorist attacks had on his brother, who had earned a coveted spot on the Army's elite Delta Force.

"I know it affected him a lot, especially with the unit he was with," the soldier's brother said. "He went down and got the U.S. flag tattooed on his left (pectoral muscle)."

By December 2001, Robert was hunting Osama bin Laden in what would become one of the most important chapters of the entire U.S.-led war on terrorism.

"Robert was in Tora Bora," John said. "Robert told me was running through a field not far from (Taliban leader) Mullah Omar's house."

In the years to come, Robert was part of many historic battles. His astounding bravery and heroism has been chronicled in several books, and quickly became legendary in military circles.

"Robert saw Gen. McChrystal about 15 years after we were in Ranger battalion, and Stanley remembered," John recalled. "For someone to remember your name 15 years later is pretty incredible."

Still, the burdens placed on Robert's shoulders were almost superhuman in nature.

"Robert went to Afghanistan three times and went to Iraq five times," his twin said.

Having served in the military himself, John knew that his brother was frequently in life or death situations. He remembers one particular conversation they had about preparing for the worst.

"If I get killed, you're just going to have to get over it," Robert told his twin.

"It's easier said than done," John replied.

By 2005, John was a firefighter in Austin, Texas, while Robert, who was married with one daughter, was starting to look beyond his 19-year military career.

"He wanted to get out and he wanted to make knives," John said. "He enjoyed the craft of it."

Before he retired from the Army, Robert volunteered for one last deployment with his Delta Force brothers.

"If you're going, I'm going with you," the master sergeant told his commanding officer.

As Robert fought insurgents in Iraq and John fought fires in Austin, the Horrigan twins kept in close touch via email. But one summer day, their frequent communication suddenly ceased.

On June 17, 2005, Master Sgt. Robert Horrigan, 40, was killed while raiding a suspected enemy safe house in al-Qaim, Iraq. Master Sgt. Michael McNulty, 36, who was also killed in the fierce battle, also left behind a twin brother.

"I loved my brother so much that I wouldn't want him to experience the pain I'm going through," John said. "Losing him was probably the hardest thing I've ever done in my life."

John Horrigan, who makes knives while he's not fighting fires, is proud of his twin brother's three Bronze Star medals. But to this day, he admires Robert's mettle most.

"Robert was bigger than life," he said. "He is and will always be my hero."

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM


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.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A Father's Duty

Images courtesy: Sara Beth Bedgood

Sara Beth Bedgood was only 13 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. As the Twin Towers collapsed, she felt anguish for the victims and a deep sense of concern for her father, Col. Thomas Felts Sr., who had been serving in the U.S. Army since before she was born.

"I remember thinking that my dad's going to have to go to war," Sara Beth said. "He's going to go fight people."

To this day, Sara Beth vividly recalls a conversation she had with her dad just as the U.S.-led war on terrorism got underway.

"Yeah, that's my job ... that's my duty," she quoted her father as saying. "That's what I train to do every single day."

As the oldest of four children, Sara Beth had the clearest understanding of a soldier's sacrifices. Ever since she was a little girl, she had been moving around the world with her parents and siblings, while also observing her father's shared commitment to family and country.

"Even when he was away, he knew what we were doing in school," Sara Beth said. "He and my mom talked constantly and he was very much a part of our lives, no matter what."

Sara Beth recalls going to work with her father one day when she was young.

"I remember another soldier saluting my dad and saying 'yes, sir,'" she said. "And I remember thinking that my dad was very important."

Indeed, by the time Col. Felts and his family moved to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, he was a deeply respected military officer who was known for genuinely caring about the soldiers under his command.

"He shared with me how much he admired the men around him," Sara Beth said.

While the Felts family had started preparing for a combat deployment on 9/11, it took almost five years for the colonel to deploy overseas. For such a dedicated leader, watching younger troops go to Iraq and Afghanistan while he stayed on the home front "really tore him up inside," according to the soldier's oldest child.

"These men had been away from their families so many times, and he wanted to share that load," Sara Beth said.

As Sara Beth finished her senior year of high school and prepared to leave for college, her dad deployed to Iraq in the winter of 2006.

"The father of a friend of mine was supposed to go, and my dad actually volunteered in his place," she said, adding that her friend's father had already served multiple tours.

The deployment was relatively smooth until November 2006, when a group of Sara Beth's relatives unexpectedly showed up at her dorm room. She will never forget the moment her uncle delivered the most shocking news any teenager can experience.

"God has decided to take your dad home," Sara Beth's uncle said.

On Nov. 14, 2006, Col. Thomas Felts Sr., 45, and Spc. Justin Garcia, 26, were killed by an improvised explosive device that blew up near their vehicle in Baghdad, according to the Pentagon. Suddenly, Sara Beth, who was attending Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., was heading back to Kansas for her father's funeral.

"It was very surreal," she said. "I remember clearly thinking I was in a dream."

Her dad's memorial service was attended by military leaders like Gen. David Petraeus, as well as countless relatives, friends, supporters and even a stranger who brought her little boy.

"I needed to show my son what a hero looks like," the supporter told the Felts family.

Col. Thomas Felts Sr. is remembered for his faith in God and the people around him, including his wife, four children, fellow soldiers, and even the Iraqi troops and civilians with whom he shared a close bond.

Sara Beth, 26, is now married and lives near Raleigh, N.C. Her husband is a soldier, and the couple has already endured one overseas deployment.

While Sara Beth Bedgood will always miss her father, his spirit lives on inside her heart.

"My family and I love talking about my dad and sharing his memories," she said. "We really try to keep him alive in that way. We know we're going to see him again."

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM

Note: Sara Beth appears in center of photo
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.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Brothers Forever: 'Loon-Dog'

Images courtesy: Da Capo Press

The following is an excerpt from "Brothers Forever," which I co-authored with retired U.S. Marine Col. Tom Manion. The book will be released on May 13.

In this scene, U.S. Navy LT (SEAL) Brendan Looney is serving in Afghanistan three years after his friend and Naval Academy roommate, Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion, was killed in Iraq.

"With the Taliban launching its annual spring offensive, Brendan and his platoon started to see more action in May [2010], just as he had predicted in his email to Tom and Janet [Manion]. Surrounded by jagged cliffs, extreme poverty, and acute desolation, which many of the younger SEALs had never experienced, it was Brendan's responsibility to keep them optimistic, focused, and sharp. But considering that the SEALs were sleeping on a [base] 'in the middle of nowhere,' thousands of miles from home, setting a positive tone was never an easy task.

"Rather than barking out orders to the SEALs under his command, Brendan was 'Loon-Dog.' The enlisted SEALs, or 'E-Dogs,' as they were nicknamed, loved working for the 29-year-old lieutenant, because even though Brendan was an officer, he still thought of himself as just one of the guys.

"During his deployment, Brendan spent roughly the equivalent of two full weeks on 'over watch' missions above three districts in northern Zabul province, where the lieutenant and SEALs under his command would look down from the cliffs to make sure their brothers in arms operating below were safe from lurking Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. But after only a day or two on the high ground, Brendan was concerned that his primary responsibilities as an officer and squad commander weren't enough of a contribution to his platoon. Upon returning to base, he started training on a .50 caliber sniper rifle so he could directly help his teammates blunt the enemy threat.

"After only limited training, Brendan was a consistent shot from a thousand yards. Over the next few months he made some of the most accurate shots his teammates had ever seen to protect Americans and Afghans in the villages below.

"Wearing a half-shell helmet and carrying heavy gear and the .50 cal sniper rifle in his huge backpack, the bearded warrior patrolled, exercised, ate and hung out with his entire platoon.

"When there was extra gear to carry, the officer threw it on his back instead of ordering enlisted SEALs to carry it. Regardless of the command structure or rank, Loon-Dog treated everyone with the same respect.

"When things got dicey on the battlefield, however, there was no mistaking who was in charge, like one day when gunfire rang out beneath the over watch position Brendan's SEAL team had established above a small, Taliban-controlled Afghan village.

"'Incoming!' Brendan yelled.

"As bullets pounded the mountain rocks that were shielding his team, who took cover as soon as they heard their leader's unmistakable voice, Brendan's commanding officer (CO) asked for a status report over the radio.

"'We've got enemy fire coming from just outside the village,' Brendan said. 'Nobody's been hit, and we're prepping the counterattack.'

"'Lieutenant?' the CO asked.

"'Sir?' Brendan repeated what he had said a few times before realizing the signal was dropping in and out, as it had been for most of the day.

"'Lieutenant,' the CO repeated. 'If you copy, call me on the SAT [satellite] phone.'

"As soon as Brendan heard the order, he broke his crouch and stood up. The SAT phone was a few yards in front of the boulder that was protecting him.

"'Whoa, Loon-Dog,' exclaimed a surprised fellow SEAL. 'Be careful, sir.'

"Brendan knew his CO wouldn't ask him to call unless it was extremely important, and for all he knew, retrieving the satellite phone could be a matter of life and death. Without blinking, Brendan hustled toward the phone, picked it up, and returned to his position as bullets whizzed by.

"'Loon-Dog ... you all right?' [Brendan's teammate] said.

"'I'm OK,' said Brendan, acting more like he was taking an afternoon stroll than engaging in an intense firefight.

"Brendan then told his CO that his men were ready to strike back at the enemy. Moments later he aimed his sniper rifle at the enemy position. When the day was over, the Navy SEALs had once again disrupted the Taliban's plans."

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM


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

Friday, March 14, 2014

Always There

Images courtesy: Paula Boyer

When Saddam Hussein was captured by American forces, U.S. Army Master Sgt. Michael McNulty was there.

"He was just so proud and humble," Paula Boyer, then-wife of Master Sgt. McNulty, said. "But at the same time, he wasn't gloating ... it was not a time for gloating."

Like his fellow Delta Force warriors, Mike's chief concern was accomplishing a mission, rather than worrying about who got the credit.

"He would never tell us what he was doing," Paula said. "He would just say 'I have a job and I'll be out of the loop for [a certain] amount of time.'"

Growing up in northwest Chicago, Paula and Mike were high school sweethearts who would sneak around to see each other. Mike had already joined the Army when the couple got married on Jan. 3, 1987.

"Our love was bigger than any love anyone could ever imagine," Paula said.

Before she knew it, Paula was a military wife during the closing chapters of the Cold War. Even as they travelled around the world, the couple still welcomed four children in five years.

"He was a part of me and I was a part of him," Paula said about Mike. "He couldn't do his job without being whole, so we made each other whole."

Mike, Paula and their children were at Louisiana's Fort Polk when hijacked airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. They soon moved to North Carolina's Fort Bragg, where Mike quickly deployed to Afghanistan. With her husband in Special Operations during wartime, Paula knew the pattern would continue.

"He wasn't [at home] much, but when he was there, he was 100 percent there," Paula said.

Hours before the world learned that U.S. troops had pulled ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of a spider hole near his hometown of Tikrit, Mike called Paula with a simple message: "I'm OK." It wasn't until he came home that Mike's wife fully understood how the day's momentous events had impacted him.

"He was glowing because it was such a historical moment and he was there," Paula said. "He was just so proud to do something that he knows really affected the world and made the world a better place."

Less than two years later, on Apr. 8, 2005, Paula and one of the couple's two daughters dropped Mike off at his post for another Iraq deployment.

"I was used to dropping him off and never really got emotional, but that ride home ... my daughter and I just bawled and bawled," Paula said.

For the soldier's wife of 18 years, the hardest part of Mike's deployment wasn't caring for four kids. It was waiting to hear from her husband.

"Until another phone call, time just stood still," Paula said.

In the early morning hours of June 17, 2005, Paula was about to go see her youngest son, Eric, graduate from Junior ROTC when six soldiers arrived at her home.

"I will never, ever, ever forget that day," she said.

According to the Pentagon, Master Sgt. Michael McNulty, 36, and Master Sgt. Robert Horrigan, 40, had been killed by enemy fire while conducting combat operations in al-Qaim, Iraq.

"He was brought to the field hospital," Paula said about her husband. "The unit doc did surgery, and Mike didn't make it."

For Paula and her four children, the world as they knew it had been shattered. The only thing they could count on was each other, as well as the compassion of those around them.

"I received so many letters and cards from people ... so much support from the community," Paula said. "It was just overwhelming."

In more than eight years since the soldier's death, his four children have made the difficult adjustment of growing up without their dad's physical presence. But as Eric demonstrated by deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq, Mike's spirit endures.

"He has a huge impact on us," Paula said.

Paula Boyer has since remarried, but like her children, she will never forget an American hero who — to this day — is always there.

"I wouldn't be who I am today without every part of Mike," she said. "I will continue to live with him, for him and about him."

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM


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.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Day After Memorial Day

Image courtesy: U.S. Army

This year, the United States will observe its 13th Memorial Day since 9/11. Thousands of Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice since our country was attacked, yet many mark this occasion with barbeques and ballgames, while forgetting to honor our nation's fallen.

The holiday's significance will never be lost on Rachaelle Langmack. The day after Memorial Day 2005, Rachaelle was worried about her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Steven Langmack, who was deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army's elite Delta Force. Things were never the same for the military wife and the couple's two children when Steven was in harm's way.

"That's when they came and knocked on my door," Rachaelle said.

At first, Rachaelle thought the soldiers standing outside her Raeford, N.C. home were two of Steven's friends. That hope ended when the Army wife heard five terrible words: "We regret to inform you ... "

"I just lost it," Rachaelle said. "But my first thought was for my kids."

Rachaelle met Steven near Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., shortly after he returned from serving in Operation Desert Storm.

"I definitely wanted no part of a military guy," she admitted with a chuckle. "But a lot of [why Rachaelle was drawn to Steven] was his confidence ... he was very self-assured and funny."

Images courtesy: Rachaelle Langmack

By the late 1990s, the couple was married and raising two sons. Even before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, raising a military family was a challenge.

"Before 9/11 and everything, guys were still going places and still jumping out of airplanes ... there were a lot of training accidents," Rachaelle said. "It was still a dangerous job."

After America was attacked, the danger Steven was already facing crystallized into an even more serious threat.

"My husband used to always equate a lot of things to practice for a big football game," the soldier's wife said. "All that training ... they were preparing to fight. Once 9/11 happened and we were going to war, that was the game."

Steven quickly deployed to Afghanistan, and was back and forth from the country numerous times in nearly four years.

"It was horrible," Rachaelle said. "There was one deployment when [a fellow soldier] was killed. That was really hard ... that was the first time I've seen him break down."

In 2005, Steven and Rachaelle were busy fixing up a 100-year-old farmhouse that their family would soon call home. Even though a deployment to Iraq was on the horizon, Steven fully devoted himself to his wife and two boys.

"He kept his work life very separate from his family life," Steven's wife said. "He never wore a uniform at home."

The soldier's work and family lives tragically merged in the violent Iraqi town of Al Qaim, where U.S. troops fought many fierce battles with insurgents and terrorists.

"Steven was shot while breaching a house," his wife said. "They were going after some bad guys."

The death of Sgt. 1st Class Steven Langmack, 33, was a devastating blow to the entire community, which immediately wrapped its collective arms around the fallen hero's children.

"How was I going to tell them?" Rachaelle said. "They loved their dad a lot ... they were very close."

In order to compose herself, Rachaelle waited a few hours after the receiving the dreadful news before having her kids picked up from school.

"I thought I had to be really strong for them, because if I broke down, they would break down," she said.

More than eight years after the brave soldier, devoted husband and loving father was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, his towering legacy gives daily strength to his widow and two sons.

"I've always admired him, and I try to raise my kids the same way that we tried to raise them together," Rachaelle Langmack said. "It's hard doing this by yourself, but I feel like when you bring them into this world — the military world — you kind of have to sacrifice part of yourself."

More than 12 years after 9/11, there is no doubt that our military's sacrifices continue. The only question is whether this Memorial Day — and the day after — the rest of the country will once again take notice.

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM

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.

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.

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM


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.

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.

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM

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.

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 brothersforeverbook.com.

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM