Image courtesy: Spc. Mahlet Tesfaye
On June 24, with Hawaii's magnificent palm trees and mountains as a backdrop, soldiers from the 2nd 'Warrior' Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, gathered in front of fellow troops and family members at Sills Field. Six subordinate battalions were departing for a year-long deployment to a war zone, which meant trading tropical paradise for sandstorms and brutal desert heat. As an article by Spc. Jesus Aranda helps us visualize, family members flooded the field to hug and kiss their loved ones heading overseas after the ceremony ended.
"I am ready for this deployment, but it is going to be hard leaving my three daughters and my wife, even though I know my family will be taken care of while I am away," said Spc. Brandon Cabalar, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
Given the intense combat in Afghanistan, where 19 U.S. troops have been killed in the past four days, as well as what you hear from politicians and media pundits, you might think these soldiers were leaving for that war-torn country. Yet these troops now make up the almost 50,000 U.S. forces in Iraq, as President Obama will talk about tonight in his speech declaring the end of combat operations in the seven and a half year conflict. As the story of one soldier who participated in that Hawaii ceremony shows, we cannot afford to take the safety of these remaining volunteer warriors for granted, nor should we stop paying attention to events on the ground in Iraq.
"I just pray and ask God for strength and keep me safe," then-Spc. Jamal Rhett wrote in a June 29 Facebook post from his Blackberry. "I look forward to seeing my mother family and friends again. I ask that [people] continue to pray for me."
Rhett had already been to Iraq once, and judging by his writings, the soldier wanted to do his job, get his second deployment over with, and come back home. But putting his family first should not disguise the fact that Rhett was fully committed to his duty and fellow troops. In fact, according to The Bucks County Courier Times, the soldier was in line for a promotion to the rank of sergeant. He was simply waiting for the necessary paperwork to be approved.
According to David Levinsky's article, the 24-year-old Army medic wound up getting that promotion. But in a tragic turn of events, it would come posthumously. A Pentagon press release said Rhett was killed on August 15 in Ba Qubah, Iraq, when terrorists threw grenades at his vehicle. A soldier who served with Sgt. Rhett, Spc. David Vega, flew all the way to Philadelphia to attend his friend's memorial service in the south Jersey suburb of Palmyra.
"A lot of soldiers under him are doing a lot of great things because of the knowledge Jamal instilled in them," Vega said. "It's a shame all the soldiers aren't able to be here. If they could, we'd need about 40 more benches."
On July 23, another soldier stationed at Hawaii's Schofield Barracks, 1st Lt. Michael Runyan, was killed in combat in Balad, Iraq. The Unknown Soldiers recently brought you the stories of fallen heroes like Spc. Faith Hinkley, who died in Iskandariya on August 7, and Sgt. Brandon Maggart, who was killed near Basrah on August 22. These personal stories have not gotten much attention from the national press.
As you've read on this site since my departure from CNN in December, consistent, daily coverage from the war fronts is no longer something the American public can expect from its media. Despite some isolated examples of excellent reporting, which this blog always tries to spotlight and credit, coverage usually increases only when prominent politicians call attention to the conflicts, which will happen Tuesday evening. Otherwise, media executives will continue their neverending quest for ratings with stories about Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Tiger Woods, or beltway bickering.
Sgt. Jamal Rhett, who was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his actions in Iraq, leaves behind his mother, father, and many more grieving relatives, fellow soldiers, and friends.
"My heart hurts sooooooo bad right now," Natalie Prospere posted on the fallen soldier's Facebook wall. "R.I.P. to one of the most loyal friends I've ever had. I love you Jamal Rhett."
As long as thousands of troops are in harm's way and families at home are staying up at night worrying, the war in Iraq is not over. While we should celebrate the incredible victories the U.S. military won and remember more than 4,400 American heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice to secure victory on the battlefield, our attention must not waver.
Image courtesy: Facebook