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

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.

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM

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 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.

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM

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.

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM

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.

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM

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, June 27, 2014

This Journey

Image courtesy: Facebook/"In Memory of CPL Brandon Garabrant"

On April 4, U.S. Marine Cpl. Brandon Garabrant updated his Facebook page as the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion left North Carolina's Camp Lejeune for Afghanistan.

"Going to do what we do best. Fighting for our country, (our) brothers to the left and right, our friends and families back home," the Marine wrote. "So that you can have the right for freedom and to live the American dream without fear of anything."

Corporal Garabrant was proud to be a Marine. Less than a year before going to war, the New Hampshire native made headlines when he told his Peterborough high school that he would wear his military uniform to graduation. Brandon eventually agreed to wear the standard cap and gown after the school denied his request, but even so, the young Marine's point had been made.

"The United States Marine Corps is proud to have him amongst our ranks, but support the school's decision to have (then-) Pfc. Garabrant walk across the stage in a cap and gown, as this is recognition of his accomplishments at ConVal (Regional High School) and the final chapter of his high school career," a June 2013 statement said.

Ten months later, in the same April 4 Facebook post, Brandon was anxious to fulfill his duty as a Marine, even if it meant spending many months away from home.

"This is what I signed up for," he wrote. "Here comes a long journey into the unknown."

Twelve days later, Brandon posted an update from Afghanistan. Despite enduring a "pretty bad sinus headache," he ended his post with a smiley face.

"I'm doing well and still going strong," he wrote.

After another 12 days in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, where so many have made the ultimate sacrifice since 9/11 (when Brandon was in elementary school), the Marine's spirits seemed high.

"Thank you all for your support and helping me out with this deployment!" he wrote after asking friends if they could send some powdered coffee, Slim Jims and other care package items. "It means a lot and I thank you very much!"

On June 7, Brandon posted from Afghanistan's Camp Leatherneck, where temperatures had reached 95 degrees. Five days later, highs were well above 100 degrees.

"The breeze makes it hotter," he wrote while explaining brutal conditions inside the war zone. "As if your face was in front of the oven."

Many Americans take air conditioning for granted, but for Brandon and his fellow Marines, it was a luxury.

"Thank God for A/C in our rooms," he also wrote on June 12.

Eight days later, on June 20, Cpl. Brandon Garabrant, 19, was conducting combat operations in Helmand Province when he was killed alongside two fellow Marines, according to the Pentagon. Staff Sgt. David Stewart, 34, was from Stafford County, Va. Lance Cpl. Adam Wolff, 25, hailed from Ottumwa, Iowa.

In New Hampshire, where Brandon grew to pursue his dream of Marine Corps service, reaction to the tragic news came swiftly and from the very top.

"As a volunteer firefighter and dedicated Marine, (then-) Lance Cpl. Garabrant was committed to serving his fellow citizens, and he was tragically taken from us far too soon," New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan said in a statement posted on her website. "It is our responsibility as Granite Staters and Americans to come together to support his family and his community."

I will be reaching out to this fallen hero's family at an appropriate time to hopefully learn more about Brandon's extraordinary life. Now is a time for grief, and as the governor expressed, unity and support.

How is our nation so blessed with young warriors like Cpl. Garabrant and the two Marines who made the ultimate sacrifice alongside him? Are we doing enough to make sure the incredible stories of these heroes live on in the hearts of our children and grandchildren?

When I look at my young daughter, I am enormously grateful to the troops, veterans and military families who've given her the privilege of growing up in a land of freedom and opportunity. At the same time, my heart aches for those enduring war's incalculable sacrifices.

"May God be with us on this journey," Cpl. Brandon Garabrant wrote on April 4.

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM

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, June 13, 2014

The Longest Year

Images courtesy: Ellis family

In November 2012, Joelle Ellis watched her son deploy to Afghanistan before he was old enough to buy a beer.

"You have to remember that a lot of these young men and women serving were in elementary school on 9/11," the military mom said. "(U.S. troops) have a strong patriotic heart to defend our country, and that's definitely what we instilled in our children."

Since he was a young boy playing cops and robbers in his Kennewick, Washington neighborhood, future U.S. Army Spc. Robby Ellis wanted to ensure that good defeated evil.

"He had a strong faith," Robby's mother said. "He had a strong sense of justice."

Ten years after the World Trade Center collapsed as smoke rose from the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, Robby swore an oath to defend his country. To Joelle and her husband, John, seeing their son enlist was no surprise.

"He just went from our little boy to a man," Joelle said. "He was so mature."

Buoyed by his unshakeable belief in God and country, Spc. Ellis deployed to Afghanistan while determined to make a difference. As politicians at home assured Americans that the conflict was "winding down," Robby celebrated his 21st birthday in a war zone that — to this day — is still difficult and dangerous.

"His lieutenant himself said they could count on (Robby) to lighten the load a little bit for them," the soldier's mother said. "He had a love and a care for his brothers in arms."

Whenever there was a tough job or task, Robby would immediately raise his hand.

"He volunteered for every mission that they went out on," said Joelle, citing her son's commanding officer. "I used to tell Robby that I was so impressed about his courage."

On June 17, 2013, Robby and Joelle were chatting on Facebook when the deployed soldier assured his mom that staying in close contact was not distracting him from the mission at hand.

"That's OK, mom, that's OK," Robby wrote.

Even after a nice Facebook conversation with her son, who was serving thousands of miles away from Washington state, Joelle felt strange the next morning.

"All that day, I just didn't feel right," she said. "I guess that's maybe the mother's instinct ... I don't know."

While at work, Joelle got an earth-shattering call from her husband.

"I'm about 20 minutes away from my home when I get the phone call from John saying that Robby's gone," the grieving mother recounted.

According to the Department of Defense, Spc. Robby Ellis, 21, was killed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on June 18, 2013, alongside Sgt. Justin Johnson, 25, Spc. Ember Alt, 21, and Sgt. William Moody, 30, with whom Robby was particularly close.

Joelle, who said an enemy rocket attack took Robby's life, was emotional when we spoke less than a year after she lost her oldest of two sons.

"We've just kind of been existing since," she said. "Trying to find the new normal, trying to lighten the load for his younger brother, and trying to fill a void."

Joelle's paramount concern is for her surviving son, Jimmy, 18.

"His younger brother is going to live the rest of his life without his brother," she said through tears.

After thanking her family's casualty assistance officer and the surrounding community for their support in the days and weeks after Robby's death, the Gold Star mother reflected on what the worst year of her life had taught her.

"Now that I've got a son that is now passed away because of this war, now I'm thinking outside of that bubble more," Joelle said. "It's a scary thought that we have more people who are dying because of this."

While the rest of America enjoyed this year's Super Bowl, the fallen soldier's parents were thinking of Robby, who didn't get to see his beloved Seattle Seahawks win their first championship.

"That was the most heartbreaking Super Bowl I've ever been through," Joelle said.

As Joelle Ellis prepared to mark one year since Spc. Robby Ellis' passing, she was comforted by the traits of selflessness, heroism and faith that will be forever be associated with her son's name.

"It wasn't just us who raised him," she said. "It was God."

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM

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 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."

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM


(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."

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM

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."

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM
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."

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM

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.