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

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Into the fog

Image courtesy: Spc. Eric Cabral

The above Army photograph, taken from a C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft just before it landed at Afghanistan's Kandahar Air Field, is both magnificent and ominous. The same can be said for what many of our troops overseas are experiencing at this hour.

For an American service member, going to war is a rare opportunity to defend your country and put your training to the test against the enemy. But it can also be a scarring, horrific experience that permanently alters your life. As someone who hasn't served in the military, I cannot speak to what these men and women are going through. I can only guess that for some, it won't be easy to sleep tonight beneath the shadow of tomorrow's unknowns.

Since Friday, the Pentagon has announced the deaths of six U.S. troops in Afghanistan. From Illinois to Guam, families have been notified that flag-draped caskets carrying their loved ones will soon be greeted with solemn salutes at Delaware's Dover Air Force Base.

Lance Cpl. Anthony Rosa, 20, Swanton, Vermont
Pfc. Clinton Springer II, 21, Sanford, Maine
Pfc. William Dawson, 20, Tunica, Mississippi
Pfc. Jaysine Petree, 19, Yigo, Guam
Sgt. Mark Simpson, 40, Peoria, Illinois
Spc. Donald Morrison, 23, Cincinnati, Ohio

The Department of Defense also released the names of three American soldiers killed in non-combat related incidents supporting Operation New Dawn. The first two departed warriors listed were killed in Iraq, while the third fallen hero lost his life in Kuwait.

Spc. John Carrillo Jr., 20, Stockton, California
Pfc. Gebrah Noonan, 26, Watertown, Connecticut
Spc. Marc Whisenant, 23, Holly Hill, Florida

The colors in the picture above are appropriate, as war's daily events can sometimes be portrayed in black and white, when reality is often more akin to shades of gray. At this moment in Afghanistan and Iraq, some troops are engaged in fierce combat and some are playing video games. Some are happy, some are at ease, some are melancholy, and some are battling feelings of desperation. All are putting their lives on the line for future American, Afghan, and Iraqi generations, and deserve our gratitude and respect.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rising souls

Image courtesy: Petty Officer 2nd Class Aaron Burden

For nine American families and the close-knit Navy SEAL and 101st Airborne communities, the last 48 hours have been filled with devastation and grief. Since Tuesday's tragic helicopter crash in Afghanistan's Zabul province, the Department of Defense has been delivering official casualty notifications to loved ones of the fallen. All nine departed warriors hailed from different states, and leave behind powerful legacies of service and sacrifice.

According to the Pentagon, four Navy SEALs were killed in the crash.

Lt. Brendan Looney, 29, Owings, Maryland
Senior Chief Petty Officer David McLendon, 30, Thomasville, Georgia
Petty Officer 2nd Class Adam Smith, 26, Hurland, Missouri
Petty Officer 3rd Class Denis Miranda, 24, Toms River, New Jersey

Five U.S. soldiers assigned to 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Kentucky, died alongside the SEALs.

Lt. Col. Robert Baldwin, 39, Muscatine, Iowa
Chief Warrant Officer Matthew Wagstaff, 34, Orem, Utah
Chief Warrant Officer Jonah McClellan, 26, St. Louis Park, Minnesota
Staff Sgt. Joshua Powell, 25, Pleasant Plains, Illinois
Sgt. Marvin Calhoun Jr., 23, Elkhart, Indiana

The Unknown Soldiers will have much more on the lives of these patriots in the days and weeks ahead. In the meantime, as Gold Star families fly American flags at half-staff from Owings, Maryland, to Orem, Utah, we share their pain. Years of rigorous training and personal sacrifices preceded these nine men climbing aboard a Black Hawk helicopter in the middle of a rugged war zone on September 21. While one chopper may have gone down, nine courageous souls did not.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Day of tragedy

File image courtesy: Capt. Mindy Yu

On Tuesday, Americans woke up to tragic news from southern Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are taking the fight to al Qaeda and the Taliban. According to numerous media reports, nine American service members were killed in a helicopter crash in the Daychopan district of Zabul province. Tuesday's tragedy marks the deadliest coalition chopper disaster since the spring of 2006.

Predictably, the Taliban is claiming it shot down the helicopter. As this Fox News article notes, terrorists notoriously try to claim involvement in any incident that takes the lives of our troops, even if it is potentially accidental. NATO said there were no reports of enemy fire in the area before the crash.

Also over the last 24 hours, the names of eight fallen heroes killed in Afghanistan over the last few days have been released by the Pentagon.

1st Lt. Scott Fleming, 24, Marietta, Georgia
Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Grider, 30, Brighton, Illinois
1st Lt. Eric Yates, 26, Rineyville, Kentucky
Staff Sgt. Jaime Newman, 27, Richmond, Virginia
Spc. Timothy Johnson, 24, Randolph, New York
Pfc. Barbara Vieyra, 22, Mesa, Arizona
Maj. Paul Carron, 33, Missouri
Spc. Joshua Harton, 23, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

From Pennsylvania to Arizona, these families are grieving incomprehensible losses. In the coming days, they will be joined by loved ones of the nine volunteer warriors lost in Tuesday's helicopter crash. Even though the war in Afghanistan is more than 3,200 days old, it is difficult to ever be prepared for this devastating form of news from the front. As we hope the relatives, friends, and fellow troops of the departed already know, they do not grieve alone at this tragic hour.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Election Day

Image courtesy: Capt. Tristan Hinderliter

The polls have opened in Afghanistan, where about 2,500 Afghan politicians are on ballots for 249 parliamentary seats. As al Qaeda and the Taliban's totalitarian zealots fume in anger, Afghans will enter voting booths hoping for a smooth, legitimate outcome.

While Voice Of America reports that an apparent rocket attack hit Kabul early Saturday morning, terrorist efforts to derail the elections have failed due to the sacrifices of Americans, Afghans, and coalition partners determined to give citizens clear paths to polling places.

Of course, the road has not been easy. U.S. troops helped Afghans fend off the enemy while delivering ballots, and even recovered voting materials from a vehicle damaged by a roadside bomb attack. While it is not clear what this election will ultimately mean for the future of Afghanistan, it is undeniable that blood has been shed to achieve this goal. As an American, that makes me extraordinarily proud of our troops.

2010 has been the most difficult year of the war in Afghanistan for U.S. service members. Hopefully, Saturday will be remembered as a turning point. Instead of listening to the usual media pundits bloviate over the weekend, I will be listening to our commanders on the ground, like Col. James Johnson.

"We can't fix the problems of 30 years, or more than that, in seven or eight years," he said. "We have to be patient. We are making progress."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Image courtesy: Lance Cpl. Benjamin Crilly

Over the past week, the Department of Defense has released the names of eight Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The news is not only a painful reminder of the sacrifices being made overseas as we go about our daily lives, but also a call to action. If you live near any of the towns listed below, perhaps you could attend a public memorial event or search your local newspapers to see if the departed warrior's family is asking for assistance. As always, The Unknown Soldiers will also relay this information, when available, in individual profiles of fallen heroes.

Among the names are the first two casualties of Operation New Dawn in Iraq. As reported last week, both soldiers were killed in a shooting incident on an Iraqi army commando base about 130 miles north of Baghdad, which also wounded nine other U.S. service members. Clearly, a new dawn in Iraq, made possible by the blood, sweat, and tears of the United States military and its allies, does not mean danger has faded for our troops.

Sgt. Philip Jenkins, 26, Decatur, Indiana
Pvt. James McClamrock, 22, Huntersville, North Carolina

In Afghanistan, the capture of a key Taliban terrorist was one of many accomplishments by our armed forces in recent days. Yet tragedy has also struck several units on the war on terror's battlefields, as well as six families in different states.

1st Lt. Todd Weaver, 26, Hampton, Virginia
Cpl. John Bishop, 25, Columbus, Indiana
Sgt. Jesse Balthaser, 23, Columbus, Ohio
Cpl. Philip Charte, 22, Goffstown, New Hampshire
Lance Cpl. Ross Carver, 21, Rocky Point, North Carolina
Capt. Jason McMahon, 35, Mulvane, Kansas

On Saturday, September 11, America paused to reflect on the terrorist attacks that forced us to confront al Qaeda's violence, hatred, and intolerance. For every family member and close acquaintance of these eight fallen heroes, those reflections will continue in the days, months, and years ahead. To support these fellow Americans, let's join together and show them they do not grieve alone.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Born Free

During 2007 and 2008 USO tours to Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Kyrgyzstan, Italy, Spain, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, Kid Rock was contemplating the true meaning of freedom. Whether performing in the freezing cold at Camp Phoenix in Afghanistan or singing during a sandstorm at Contingency Operating Base Speicher in Iraq, the performer saw the toughness of our men and women in uniform first-hand.

On September 11, 2010, Kid Rock held a special concert at South Carolina's Fort Jackson to honor the American military. Joined by southern rockers Blackberry Smoke, the Jim Beam and Operation Homefront-sponsored event was free to anyone with a military ID. Before launching into the title track off his forthcoming album, 'Born Free,' Kid Rock reflected on what it means to be an American.

"When I was in Iraq and Afghanistan, I really thought about how lucky we are to be born -- by the grace of God -- free," he told the audience.

Fort Jackson's massive Hilton Field, where graduation ceremonies are often held, was divided into separate sections for troops and civilians. As I enjoyed the show from the civilian area, I kept looking over at the neverending stream of men and women in uniform. As folks in my section had a few beers and got a bit rowdy as the night progressed, the intensity and enthusiam on the civilian side never came close to matching the troops. The soldiers, especially in the front, were jumping up and down, chanting, and waving their hands in the air for Kid Rock's entire two hours on stage.

While Kid Rock belted out hard rocking tunes like 'American Bad Ass,' 'Bawitaba,' 'All Summer Long,' 'So Hott,' and 'Lowlife,' the show took a particularly thoughtful turn during 'Amen,' which contains a passage that undoubtedly hit home for many in the audience.

"And as we sit free and well another soldier has to yell 'tell my wife and children I love them' with his last breath."

During the song, Kid Rock encouraged members of the audience to shake hands or slap five with people around them who they may not know. From my vantage point, I could see hundreds of civilians waving at the troops, mouthing the words 'thank you' and 'we love you' while waving their flags. There were many other poignant moments during the evening, especially when Kid Rock and Blackberry Smoke asked concertgoers to pause and remember the innocent victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The only musical challenge Kid Rock had to overcome during the evening was making sure his voice was loud enough to eclipse the chants from the military side and the constant "U-S-A" refrain from the civilian area. Hilton Field erupted in cheers when Kid Rock said he has no patience for those who dismiss all the good America does in the world.

"To go around and fight for not only our freedoms -- but for other people's freedoms -- our country has done that unselfishly," he said.

After a raucous encore which included his National Guard theme song 'Warrior,' civilians began filing out of Hilton Field into the parking lot. Yet as I walked toward my car, I noticed the thousands of troops who attended the show all standing in formation. They were chanting into the dark sky, clearly overjoyed after getting a much-deserved break from their duties.

Right in front of me, a young group of men and women in uniform, perhaps in basic training, listened to instructions from their superior. As dozens of concertgoers paused to honor our military, a woman yelled "thank you" to the group. A volunteer warrior turned his head and said, with a smile, "you're welcome."

I have nothing but gratitude for Kid Rock, Blackberry Smoke, Jim Beam, Operation Homefront, and Fort Jackson for giving these troops a fun, free, safe night to relax. Like Spc. Trampus Miller, the wounded soldier who received an all-expense VIP trip to South Carolina for the event, these service members got a chance to enjoy a unique, first-rate concert experience in familiar surroundings. As Americans, we are extraordinarily fortunate to be born free. Let's always take time to appreciate the men and women who sacrifice to give us that privilege.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dawn of war

Image courtesy: Senior Airman Perry Aston

As the sun rose on the second week of Operation New Dawn, reports from the ground indicated what many military experts said last week after President Obama's speech. U.S. troops have made incredible progress in Iraq, which should be recognized and celebrated by all Americans. But no slogans offered by Washington politicians, regardless of political party, should ever trump realities on the ground. Clearly, Iraq is a much safer place than it was in early 2007 for U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. But as we saw on Tuesday, almost 50,000 Americans are still serving in an unpredictable, hazardous environment.

The Wall Street Journal reports that two U.S. troops were killed and nine wounded in Tuz Khurmato, Iraq, when an assailant wearing an Iraqi army outfit began shooting at a group of Americans. Maj. Lee Peters told the newspaper that the gunman was eventually shot and killed by a valiant U.S. soldier. It is hard to imagine what this brave American went through on the Iraqi army commando base 130 miles north of Baghdad, but it is also clear that he or she is a hero. Even as fellow troops were being tragically killed and wounded during Tuesday's chaos, this volunteer warrior acted quickly and bravely to stop the killer's rampage.

The two U.S. soldiers killed on Tuesday mark the first American deaths in Iraq since the end of major combat operations was declared. As we pray for these two families, the nine service members injured in the attack, along with their relatives, will also be in our thoughts. The continuing war in Iraq's perils are very real to our nation's military families, which shoulder difficult emotional burdens. While a loved one is in harm's way, nothing is certain except for uncertainty.

Also on Tuesday, CNN reported that a grenade was thrown at a convoy in Salaheddin province, injuring an American soldier and several Iraqis. The U.S. military said that the terrorist who threw the grenade was killed by American forces during an ensuing battle. In western Baghdad, an al-Iraqiya TV reporter was shot to death outside her home, and a police officer and at least one other Iraqi were killed in a roadside bomb attack. To the north, a husband, wife, and relative were found murdered inside a house in Samarra.

Terrorists will not stop burying bombs, attacking convoys, kidnapping contractors, or using innocent civilians as human shields because of a calendar's date or a mission's new name. Even during intense combat in Afghanistan and economic difficulties on the home front, Americans cannot afford to dismiss events on the ground in Iraq. While our men and women in uniform have accomplished amazing things on the country's numerous battlefields, the sun has not set on the war in Iraq.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Across the nation

Image courtesy: U.S. Army

Moreland, Georgia, and Westlake Village, California, are more than 2,200 miles apart. At this hour, these communities, along with 16 other American neighborhoods, are joined together in grief. Since Sunday, August 29, the Pentagon has identified 18 fallen heroes from the post-9/11 struggle against terrorism in Afghanistan.

Petty Officer 3rd Class James Swink, 20, Yucca Valley, California
Master Sgt. Daniel Fedder, 34, Pine City, Minnesota
Staff Sgt. James Ide, 32, Festus, Missouri
Spc. James Robinson, 27, Lebanon, Ohio
Spc. Chad Coleman, 20, Moreland, Georgia
Pvt. Adam Novak, 20, Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin
Capt. Ellery Wallace, 33, Salt Lake City, Utah
Pfc. Bryn Raver, 20, Harrison, Arkansas
Gunnery Sgt. Floyd Holley, 36, Casselberry, Florida
Sgt. Patrick Durham, 24, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Spc. Andrew Castro, 20, Westlake Village, California
Capt. Dale Goetz, 43, White, South Dakota
Staff Sgt. Jesse Infante, 30, Cypress, Texas
Staff Sgt. Kevin Kessler, 32, Canton, Ohio
Staff Sgt. Matthew West, 36, Conover, Wisconsin
Pfc. Chad Clements, 26, Huntington, Indiana
Sgt. Joseph Bovia, 24, Kenner, Louisiana
Lance Cpl. Cody Roberts, 22, Boise, Idaho

These departed warriors hail from 15 different states and span in age from 20 to 43. As their flag-draped caskets arrive in Dover, Delaware, and are led home with great care by family and military escorts, let's pause for a moment and reflect on what is being done for us in Afghanistan and Iraq on a daily basis. As we adjust our air conditioning, use our smartphones, and go to the movies, thousands of men and women are fighting hard and hoping to see their families again. By making their service an integral part of our national consciousness, we can show America's volunteer warriors that we are worth fighting for.