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

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A painful month

Image courtesy: Pfc. Sarah Anderson

June may be coming to a close, but for at least 50 American families, the heartbreak of this month will never fully subside. While there was some success on the battlefield in Afghanistan, the past 29 days mark the deadliest month for coalition troops in the war theater.

Over the past 24 hours, the Pentagon has released names of eleven volunteer warriors who recently lost their lives serving on the war on terrorism's central front.

Staff Sgt. Edwardo Loredo, 34, Houston, Texas
Sgt. Joseph Caskey, 24, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Spc. Blair Thompson, 19, Rome, New York
Spc. Jared Plunk, 27, Stillwater, Oklahoma
Cpl. Daane Deboer, 24, Ludington, Michigan
Lance Cpl. William Richards, 20, Trenton, Georgia
Pfc. Robert Repkie, 20, Knoxville, Tennessee
Sgt. David Holmes, 34, Tennille, Georgia
Sgt. John Rogers, 26, Scottsdale, Arizona
Staff Sgt. Eric Shaw, 31, Exeter, Maine
Spc. David Thomas, 40, St. Petersburg, Florida

All of these fallen heroes were raised with unique values and backgrounds. Yet they came together in a faraway land to help complete a difficult, important mission. The Unknown Soldiers sends its deepest condolences to all military families mourning the loss of a loved one, and particularly those being forced to come to grips with the permanent effects of this painful month. You do not grieve alone.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Forever young

Images courtesy: Bradshaw family/Facebook

"Service (to others) is the foundation of life," future 1st Lt. Brian Bradshaw wrote as a junior in high school. "Without service, our lives have the same impact and meaning as a stick lying on the ground."

One year ago today, America lost a young man who dedicated his life to helping his fellow man, from Washington state all the way to Afghanistan. The idea that 1st Lt. Bradshaw served others is not a cliche, because he backed it up with every bone in his body.

"He had many connections to people, and he made everyone around him better," Bradshaw's aunt, Martha Gillis, told The Unknown Soldiers in January. "He has made everyone he touched think more about not wasting opportunities."

While being raised by military parents in Steilacoom, Washington, Bradshaw joined the Pierce County Search and Rescue team, which specializes in finding missing hikers and mountain climbers. He later volunteered at two Catholic youth organization camps, where he had once spent many summer days during his childhood. Instead of spending his teenage years out partying every night, he mentored children and taught them how to deal with fear and disappointment. Many parents told the Bradshaw family that he served as an inspiration for their sons and daughters.

Even though he was "living life in high gear," climbing mountains and hiking difficult trails in the Washington state and British Columbia wilderness, the time came for Bradshaw to make a decision about his career. Despite the fact that both his parents had long military histories, they were not pushing him toward a post-9/11enlistment in the Armed Forces. Ultimately, his family said he decided to join the Army not necessarily to "blow guys up," but to help children and adults caught in the middle of a war zone.

While completing the mission was always his top priority, Bradshaw insisted on taking extra time to reach out to kids during his deployment. He frequently asked relatives and friends for packages of candy and toys, which he would then hand out to young Afghans in local villages. Giving crayons to kids may not be universally recognized as an act of heroism. Yet during a war where terrorists hide improvised explosive devices under piles of garbage and strap bombs to themselves or others, are the efforts of Bradshaw and his fellow troops not compassionate and brave?

1st Lt. Bradshaw died of wounds suffered from a June 25, 2009, explosion in Kheyl, Afghanistan. Capt. James Adair and Master Sgt. Paul Riley, who flew the volunteer warrior's flag-draped casket home on a C-130 from Bagram Air Base, wrote a poignant letter to the Bradshaw family. This is an excerpt:

Before closing up the back of the aircraft, one of Brian's men, with tears running down his face, said "That’s my platoon leader, please take care of him."

We taxied back on the runway, and, as we began rolling for takeoff, I looked to my right. Brian’s platoon had not moved from where they were standing in the darkness. As we rolled past, his men saluted him one more time; their way to honor him one last time as best they could. We will never forget this.

Determined to honor their 24-year-old son's sacrifice, Bradshaw's parents showed strength in the aftermath of the tragic bombing, even on the day he was buried.

"I came away from that service so impressed and respectful of Mary and Paul," Gillis told me.

While Bradshaw was decorated for valor on the battlefield, his legacy will be the difference he made in the lives of children around the world. Thanks to about $50,000 in donations, a special high ropes obstacle was built at Camp Hamilton in the fallen soldier's honor. Officially dedicated on May 22, Washington state kids are now swinging around in the sky on the Brian Bradshaw Memorial Challenge Course. Half a world away in Afghanistan, there are children still coloring with the crayons Bradshaw and his unit risked their lives to hand out. Some of those same kids are still alive because of the missions he helped complete.

A year after his death, 1st Lt. Brian Bradshaw is still having a measurable impact on the society he pledged to serve from a young age. While perfection is a quality no man can reach, it's hard to imagine someone doing more with 24 years.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Change of command

Image courtesy: Petty Officer 1st Class Mark O'Donald

Gen. Stanley McChrystal has resigned as the top American commander in Afghanistan. Assuming there is a smooth confirmation process, he will be replaced by Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command. While opinions are strong on both sides about this controversy, spurred by a series of interviews Gen. McChrystal and his staff granted to Rolling Stone magazine, two facts are clear and indisputable. Today is a sad day for our country, yet we must quickly refocus our attention to our men and women serving on the ground in Afghanistan as they risk everything for the sake of victory.

As I have written about extensively, the U.S. media's drive-by coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years, especially on cable news, damages the morale of our troops, military families, and the American public. The explosion of media attention over the McChrystal incident is warranted, as the military's leadership is very important to the overall post-9/11 conflict. Yet it also exposes a tremendous gap in press interest between events on the ground and events in Washington. Afghanistan and Iraq should be a major part of the national discussion every single day, instead of only when controversy erupts or U.S. troops are accused of wrongdoing. While political bickering and celebrity 'news' will almost always be the first choice of ratings-driven news executives, we have the power to change it by demanding a fuller perspective about the wars our nation continues to fight.

Debating whether Gen. McChrystal and his staff should have given these interviews, or if President Obama should have replaced the wartime commander, are certainly valid topics of discussion. Yet I believe the stakes are too high to divert attention from the sacrifices our troops are making every single day. The Pentagon announced the deaths of six soldiers within a recent 24-hour span, showing how dangerous the battlefield remains. Americans cannot collectively honor our heroes, or understand the impact of war on families and communities, if we are not informed.

Gen. Petraeus, after he is confirmed as the new commander of the war effort in Afghanistan, has another enormous task ahead of him after already spending many sleepless nights leading our troops. I hope you will join me in praying for his continued strength, creativity, and health. Putting the current controversy aside for a moment, we should also thank Gen. McChrystal and his family for many years of dedicated service to this proud nation. Most importantly, we must keep every volunteer warrior, as well as their loved ones, in our daily thoughts. When it comes to the debt all of us owe to these protectors of freedom, there is no debate.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Without controversy

Image courtesy: Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Mobley

The war in Afghanistan is the top story on most cable news shows and websites today, but only because controversy has erupted over an interview Gen. Stanley McChrystal recently granted to Rolling Stone. Unfortunately, finger pointing and beltway bickering interests many members of the press much more than sacrifices being made on the battlefield.

Over the past 24 hours, the Pentagon has announced six Army casualties from various locations in Afghanistan. The fallen heroes hailed from different states, where their families and friends grieve at this hour. The Unknown Soldiers will make every effort to bring you their stories in the weeks ahead.

Spc. Joseph Johnson, 24, Flint, Michigan
Pfc. Gunnar Hotchkin, 31, Naperville, Illinois
Spc. Nathan Cox, 21, Fremont, California
Pfc. Benjamin Park, 25, Fairfax Station, Virginia
Staff Sgt. James Hunter, 25, South Amherst, Ohio
Spc. Scott Andrews, 21, Fall River, Massachusetts

When the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan make brief reappearances in the headlines, we cannot lose sight of the thousands of men and women on the ground or their families at home. While I have not had the honor of serving our country, I can say with certainty that war is not about meetings, hearings, or cable news shouting matches. It is about men and women volunteering to put everything on the line for this great nation.

While I will leave debating the McChrystal interview to others, politics should never get in the way of honoring our heroes. Without these extraordinary American patriots, who serve with pride and dignity, we wouldn't have the freedom to argue in the first place.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

'As Americans, we don't quit'

Image courtesy: Department of Defense

Thousands of servicemembers at Pensacola Naval Air Station hosted a special visitor on Tuesday: the commander-in-chief. While President Obama's visit to Florida was primarily centered around the disastrous oil spill affecting Gulf states, he also delivered important remarks about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While this site has always placed troops above politics, a rallying cry from the commander-in-chief is not a political event and should never be viewed through a partisan lens. It is essential for volunteer warriors to know that their leader stands with them, regardless of the president's political party.

While congratulating the military on its success in Iraq and pledging to defeat terrorism in Afghanistan, the president also extended his condolences for the loss of four Pensacola-based fallen heroes in a recent training crash in north Georgia. Retired Lt. Cmdr. Charles McDaniel, Capt. Jason Paynter, 1st Lt. Shawn Nice, and Ens. Zachary Eckhart were killed in the April 12 accident. President Obama also sent his prayers to the families of five servicemembers from California's Camp Pendleton, who were killed last week in Afghanistan.

Like many speeches given by President Bush to the military since the 9/11 attacks, it is inspiring to hear an enthusiastic crowd of America's best and brightest cheering during an address by President Obama. While nothing is certain in the world of politics, men and women like the proud personnel stationed at NAS Pensacola ensure that America remains the greatest nation on earth.

Not forgotten

Image courtesy: Spc. Anderson Savoy

As the withdrawal of troops from Iraq accelerates, some may forget that our men and women stationed there are facing dangerous remnants of a broken enemy. The above image, which was taken in Jalula in April, shows that American troops are often battling deplorable conditions as they help Iraqis clean up from years of violent conflict.

Tragically, Jalula became the site of an attack that will permanently alter two American families on June 11. According to the Pentagon, Sgt. Israel O'Bryan and Spc. William Yauch were killed when terrorists attacked their unit with a car bomb. The soldiers were assigned to the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. Six fellow troops were reportedly injured in the attack.

The Dyersburg State Gazette reports that Sgt. O'Bryan hailed from Newbern, Tennessee, graduating from high school there in 2004. According to the article, the 24-year-old soldier, who was nicknamed "Izzy," was on his second deployment to Iraq. During his first combat tour, he met his future wife, Brenna O'Bryan, who later retired from duty to care for their young son. Sgt. O'Bryan will soon be buried in South Dakota, where his wife had moved to be closer to her family during her husband's time overseas.

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette reports that Spc. Yauch lived in Batesville, Arkansas, with his wife. Shortly after the Pentagon notified the Yauch family about Friday's tragedy in Jalula, Sen. Blanche Lincoln released the following statement:

“My heart goes out to the family of Specialist Yauch who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our nation. Along with all Arkansans, I am grateful for his service and for the service and sacrifice of all of our military service members and their families. I am committed to ensuring they have the full support that they need and deserve. Our grateful nation will not forget them when their military service is complete."

While the level of U.S. forces will soon be reduced to 50,000 and the name of their mission will change to Operation New Dawn, we cannot let solemn news from Afghanistan or the media's reluctance to report on either conflict distract us into thinking our military does not face great danger in Iraq on a daily basis. Sgt. Israel O'Bryan and Spc. William Yauch volunteered to fight for a cause bigger than themselves, and helped ensure that the war in Iraq will be remembered as a conflict American ultimately won, despite divisions at home and abroad. When it comes to thanking our troops and recognizing their sacrifices, we all stand shoulder-to-shoulder in unbreakable unity.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A higher place

For the proud men and women of the United States Air Force, June 9, 2010, will be remembered as a day of indescribable tragedy. Four airmen died when their HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter crashed during a medical evacuation operation in Afghanistan's Helmand province. Shortly after the attack, which also injured three airmen, the Taliban claimed responsibility for shooting down the chopper. By firing on a rescue team focused on caring for the wounded, the enemy has continued its track record of wanton brutality and battlefield cowardice.

After the deadliest day of battle for the Air Force in more than five years, the four fallen airmen returned home on Friday in flag-draped caskets at Delaware's Dover Air Force base. The departed heroes leave behind loving families in four different states.

Staff Sgt. Michael Flores, 31, San Antonio, Texas
1st Lt. Joel Gentz, 25, Grass Lake, Michigan
Staff Sgt. David Smith, 26, Eight Mile, Alabama
Senior Airman Benjamin White, 24, Erwin, Tennessee

The Unknown Soldiers will bring you more about the lives of these patriots in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, please keep their families and wounded comrades in your thoughts. Even though their helicopter fell, these men represent everything the Taliban doesn't: dignity, honor, compassion, and bravery. That's why they have already risen to a higher place than their murderers could ever hope to reach.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Darkness falls

Image courtesy: Senior Airman Kenny Holston

As Tuesday dawns in Afghanistan, it is Monday night in a nation that has spent more than eight years fighting terrorism in the war-torn land. While news from the front has been mostly missing from daily headlines for several years in the United States, the tragic events of June 7 command our undivided attention.

Numerous reports, citing information from NATO's International Security Assistance Force and U.S. military officials, said seven American troops were killed in three separate Monday tragedies. Three allied soldiers, from countries that have not been specified by NATO, were also lost in the fighting.

Two American volunteer warriors fell in southern Afghanistan, one in a small arms attack and the other in a bombing. In the east, five U.S. troops died when a roadside bomb planted by terrorists exploded near their patrol. The identities of these seven American heroes will be revealed in the coming days, after the military has officially notified their families.

On the homefront, the Pentagon announced Monday that four families in three states were recently informed their loved ones were killed in Afghanistan. The first three men listed below are Marines who lost their lives on Sunday in Helmand province, while the fourth is a U.S. soldier who died in Kandahar on Friday.

Sgt. Brandon Bury, 26, Kingwood, Texas
Lance Cpl. Derek Hernandez, 20, Edinburg, Texas
Cpl. Donald M. Marler, 22, St. Louis, Missouri
1st Lt. Joseph Theinert, 24, Sag Harbor, New York

As the 9:00 p.m. sky settles on the incomplete southern Manhattan skyline, let's all light candles in our neighborhoods for these eleven families. While seven are not yet aware that a husband, wife, son, or daughter fell on the battlefield, I hope they already know the communities surrounding them stand ready in case tragedy strikes one of their own. Soon, it will be time for these towns or cities to shine, and prove that no fallen American hero's family will ever be abandoned. Amid war's solemn darkness, there can still be a glimmer of light.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For thou art with me.