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

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Thank You

Image courtesy: Staff Sgt. Joseph Swafford

The sight of a fallen hero's flag-draped casket returning to American soil. The sound of a grieving loved one's anguish. The indelible memory of meeting a young man or woman who lost one or more limbs on the battlefield.

Since February 2011, when my first newspaper column was released, these devastating moments have echoed through every facet of my life. The last three and a half years have been difficult and emotional, but what I've endured is nothing compared to what a U.S. service member, veteran or military family sacrifices on a daily basis.

The Americans I've met and spoken to while writing this weekly column are some of the most extraordinary people on the planet. They are brave, selfless, and strong. They are husbands, wives, dads, moms, brothers and sisters. They are, without a doubt, the best our nation can offer to a troubled world that is in dire need of America's leadership and compassion.

Even though I had worked at CNN and blogged about the military before launching this column, I came into this effort with little understanding of the Armed Forces. I knew our troops were courageous, but didn't realize just how much is required of service members and their families. I knew that families of the fallen suffered, but failed to grasp that for them, the war will never end.

I knew that many combat veterans came home from war with harrowing memories, but didn't have a handle on what witnessing the evil of America's enemies could do to a young man or woman. I knew that suicide in the military was a problem, but couldn't have possibly understood its gravity before speaking to family members suffering from the permanent grief and confusion of a loved one taking their own life.

In short, I knew almost nothing about military life. I started writing the column because I thought that millions of Americans probably felt the same way: They respected our Armed Forces, but didn't fully comprehend the depth of the military community's sacrifice.

Image courtesy: Cpl. Reece Lodder

Less than 1 percent of Americans serve in uniform. While many of my relatives served in previous wars, I only knew one person who had deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan before I started interviewing troops and veterans. My guess is that many people reading this column have a similar connection, or lack thereof, to the America's post-9/11 conflicts.

It is absolutely critical that every single one of us makes a concerted effort to learn more about the men and women who protect us. We can't help solve the many challenges that our heroes face if we have no understanding of their sacrifices.

Whether it's been a story about a fallen hero, veteran or service member, I hope this column has given you a better appreciation of this new Greatest Generation, as some now rightfully refer to our nation's volunteer warriors. For me, the way I look at our military will never be the same. Our men and women in uniform are even more heroic than I thought they were.

My daughter is 3 years old. Someday, I will ask her to read the stories of the men and women who stepped forward to defend our nation after it was attacked. Rather than trying to follow in the footsteps of so-called celebrities, I hope she will grow up wanting to be like our nation's real stars: those who are willing to fight for freedom.

A new career opportunity is forcing me to end this column. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to Creators Syndicate and my editor, Simone Slykhous, for your graciousness and guidance. Thank you to each newspaper for running these weekly stories, and to you for reading them.

Most of all, thank you to the troops, veterans and military families who trusted me to help tell your incredible stories. I am in awe of your kindness, integrity, and valor.

I conclude this journey with a quote from "Brothers Forever," which I co-authored with the father of a fallen Marine. The short passage was written to describe thousands of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, where so many American heroes rest.

"There is no inscription to define the meaning of their sacrifice. That mission is ours."


Image courtesy: Matthew Sileo Photography

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Landon's Mom and Dad

Image courtesy: Marcia Truitt/Inara Studios

The first time I spoke to Crissie Carpenter, she had just suffered an unimaginable tragedy. Days earlier, her husband had passed away after being wounded in Afghanistan, all while she was eight months pregnant with their first child.

Lance Cpl. Andrew Carpenter wanted nothing more than to get to know his son, Landon, when he returned from Afghanistan. While an enemy sniper robbed Andrew of that chance, the Marine's widow immediately resolved that Landon's father would always be in their son's life.

"I want Landon to grow up knowing who his daddy is," Crissie told me in March 2011.

Images courtesy: Crissie Carpenter

Three and a half years later, Crissie still endures pain, anxiety, and the challenges of being a single mom.

"Some people will say that the more time goes by, the easier it gets," she told me on Sept. 4. "That's not necessarily true ... at least for me it's not."

Despite her constant grief, Crissie's focus remains singular. All of her remarkable strength and energy goes toward Landon, who is now 3.

"I'm just so proud of him," the young mother and widow said.

I attended Lance Cpl. Carpenter's memorial service on Feb. 28, 2011 in Columbia, Tennessee. The sight of his open casket is burned into my memory, as is the devastation on the face of his pregnant wife. Yet throughout this horrific ordeal, which started when her husband was shot in the neck on Valentine's Day, Crissie has embodied the military community's incredible courage.

"I finished my bachelor's (degree) last December, and am now in a graduate program for social work," she said. "So I feel like maybe God is just keeping us on path."

Equally inspiring is her bond with Landon, which continues to blossom.

"As far as where we are today compared to where we were then, I feel like we've both grown in a sense that we're close," Crissie said. "We definitely have a cool relationship."

Still, the little boy has "had a long road," as his mother explained. Landon's journey helps contradict one of the biggest misperceptions about war: that a given conflict is over once troops come home. For many veterans, families of the fallen, and particularly children afflicted by war, America's post-9/11 conflicts will last the rest of their lives.

"It's amazing how many questions a 3-year-old can have," Crissie said. "I didn't expect that to happen so fast."

After Crissie gave a speech at an event hosted by Folds of Honor, which awarded her a scholarship for school, Landon had a particularly difficult question.

"He asked, 'Mommy, was my daddy shot by a gun when he died?'" Crissie recounted. "That sounds like such a grown-up question by a 3-year-old. I just kind of sat there and I didn't know what to say."

After collecting her thoughts, Crissie drew a comparison to the story of Batman, which her husband always revered.

"So now (Landon) relates his dad to a superhero, protecting us from the bad guys," she said.

Still, the questions about the circumstances of his father's death keep coming.

"I had to explain to Landon, that we want to remember daddy happy," Crissie said. "It amazes me what a 3-year-old can think about."

It amazes me how tough a 3-year-old can be. But when one considers the characteristics of his parents, maybe the little boy's tenacity isn't so shocking.

"Every day he surprises me with different things that remind of his daddy," Landon's mom said.

Crissie is also thankful for the outpouring of support she's received since the day her husband was shot.

"Everything that everyone has done has been an incredible blessing for us, and continues to be," she said.

Lance Cpl. Andrew Carpenter, 27, died on Feb. 19, 2011. Yet more than three years later, the fallen Marine, along with his wife and son, set an example that all of us can follow.

"I'm not always the best mom in the world," Crissie Carpenter said.

Yes, Crissie, you are.


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, September 5, 2014

The Porch Light

Image courtesy: U.S. Army

When 6-year-old Darren Baysore looks up into the night sky, he thinks of his dad.

"They were all about the stars and 'I love you to the moon and back,'" said Darren's mom, Jamie Baysore, wife of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Baysore Jr.

Less than a year ago, Darren's father made the ultimate sacrifice while serving in Afghanistan. While the loss of a loved one is crushing for any military family member, the impact on a child is immeasurable.

"At first he was OK because he didn't really understand," said Jamie, while adding that war's painful reality is starting to set in.

Jamie, 31, met Thomas in 2006 through MySpace.

"He drove two hours to take me on our first date," she said with a chuckle. "His eyes were gorgeous."

In October 2007, Jamie exchanged vows with a soldier who embodied the very best qualities of a good husband.

"He was driven," she said. "He had everything together and he was all about family values."

Stationed on the Kentucky-Tennessee border at Fort Campbell, Staff Sgt. Baysore had already completed respective deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq before being called upon to serve a third combat tour. Under the evening sky, Thomas said goodbye to his wife and son just as the summer of 2013 began.

Not long after arriving in Afghanistan, the soldier told his wife that his unit faced serious challenges on a still-volatile battlefield.

"He said this deployment was worse than the one he went on after 9/11," Jamie recounted.

On Aug. 1, 2013, Thomas received word that several Afghan civilians had been injured in an improvised explosive device attack. The soldier recounted the day's events in his journal, which Jamie subsequently released to the media. The Standard-Journal in Thomas' hometown of Milton, Pa., reprinted the entry.

"The gentleman informs me that there is only one person injured, a girl about 9 years old," Staff Sgt. Baysore wrote. "She is laying in the back of one the vehicles. So, again I push the locals away for my own security and start to look at the girl.

"I saw that her face is somewhat messed up, a lot of blood, but no missing facial features (which is good)," he continued. "However, her right eye looks bad, damaged in some way. I asked if I can look her over being that she is a female and a little girl."

After receiving permission, Thomas began looking for injuries.

"I start checking the parts I can see, since they have her covered by some blankets," the soldier wrote. "Her legs were bloodied but I don't see anything major yet. I asked the local what other injuries she has. He told me her arm is gone. I said what do you mean 'gone.' I asked if it was recent or something that happened a while ago. He told me it was the IED. That's when they moved the blanket. Her right hand and part of her arm was gone."

Thomas sprung to action, finding more wounds to her thigh and working with medics to tie tourniquets. He asked his superiors to authorize a medevac flight for the girl, and agonized as the request went up the chain of command.

"I am literally staring this girl in the one eye that still is working, waiting for her to die in my arms," he wrote.

The helicopter arrived, and the little girl survived. Thomas saved her life.

"I'm glad you are my friend and I'm glad you were strong enough to fight for your life," Thomas wrote to the girl in his journal.

On Sept. 26, 2013, Staff Sgt. Thomas Baysore Jr., 31, was killed in Afghanistan's Paktya Province by "an enemy combatant wearing an Afghan National Army uniform," according to a news release.

"I remember falling in front of the door and my son asking what was wrong," Jamie said.

As Darren marks one year since the passing of his dad, an American hero who saved the life of an Afghan child, he has one deeply moving request.

"On (September) 26 we're asking everyone at Fort Campbell and everywhere else to leave a porch light on," Jamie Baysore said. "(Darren said) if you leave your light on, that dad can see that he's sending his love."


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, August 22, 2014

Many Different People

Images courtesy: Michelle Bannar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and co-author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER is available now. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website.

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

Friday, August 1, 2014

Their Names

Images courtesy: U.S. Army

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and co-author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER is available now. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website.

Friday, July 25, 2014

24 Flags

Images courtesy: Ollis family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and co-author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER is available now. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website.

Friday, July 18, 2014

To Serve

Images courtesy: Margy Agar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was one song Kimberly enjoyed singing most.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and co-author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER is available now. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Heart Still Beats

Images courtesy: Jill Stephenson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"He saved so many lives," his mother said.


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and co-author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER is available now. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website.

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.


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."


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.