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

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Thanks for all you do

Moments after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Tuesday and passing a security check, our bus parked outside a large hangar. Most in our tour group of about two dozen USO employees and volunteers had no idea what was in store next, including myself.

When the door opened, the first thing I saw was a huge, glistening white and blue jet with "United States of America" proudly displayed on the side. I was told this was the 757 used by the Vice President Biden, known as "Air Force Two" when he is on board.

While I will always remember being led inside the plane and even sitting in the vice president's chair, there is something else that left me even more impressed. Every single airman I met was warm, genuine, and gracious. That's why whenever I shook one of their hands, the first words out of my mouth were "thanks for all you do." And the 89th Airlift Wing does a lot, as only exemplary Air Force personnel get this close to the commander-in-chief and other important officials. Simply put, the men and women on Joint Base Andrews are at the top of their game.

I have to admit, though, the planes we saw were pretty cool!

As we learned in the briefing pictured above (I apologize for the blurriness), the 757 and Gulfstream jets we saw are also used by the first lady, first daughters, and secretary of state. Adm. Mike Mullen and Gen. David Petraeus have also been on both jets.

The airmen I met answered every single question our group had and even pressed us to ask more. Even the "flight attendants" -- all highly trained, stellar airmen -- spoke with excitement about cooking Joe Biden or Michelle Obama's food in a space so small that they can barely move more than a few feet. The men and women of the 89th Airlift Wing love what they do, and to say they're good at it would be an understatement.

The next time you see the president, first lady, vice president, or secretary of state land somewhere on TV, think for a moment about all the incredible American service members who make these high-security, high-stress moments seem routine. The most powerful people in the world wouldn't have much power without the men and women who protect our nation and its leaders.

To every single man and woman serving in the United States military, we say thanks for all you do.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Top Gun

Images courtesy: Anna Sokolov

When future U.S. Navy pilot Miroslav Zilberman lost his grandfather, a Russian World War II aviator who spent almost a full year as a prisoner of war, he searched for the right words to honor his hero.

"I will always remember him as a loving and caring grandfather," Zilberman, then training to become a pilot, said at the cemetery. "The next time I come here, I will proudly be wearing my uniform, and with honor, salute my grandfather and remember his life."

Zilberman, known as "Steven" by many of his relatives and friends, worked incredibly hard to turn his dreams into reality, becoming a Navy lieutenant. He grew up in Kiev, Ukraine, but quickly became endeared to America after moving here in elementary school, eventually even referring to Columbus, Ohio, as home. Yet other than his family, including a wife and two children, there is one thing he adored above all else.

"He loved to fly," Zilberman's mother, Anna Sokolov, told The Unknown Soldiers. "One time, I remember I called him, and he was in Texas, and he was not in a good mood, which was unusual. I asked him, 'Did something happen?'"

Zilberman told his mom that bad weather conditions would prevent him from flying that day.

"I said, 'So what, you'll fly tomorrow,' and he said, 'Mom, you don't understand,'" Sokolov recalled. "He breathed aviation."

Assigned to Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW-21), Zilberman soared into the skies, earning numerous educational and training achievements as a naval aviator. But as a dear friend who once helped a young Steven learn English noted, he did not make these sacrifices at his family's expense.

"At the same time, (Zilberman) fulfilled the lofty personal goals of remaining a loving son to his devoted parents, Anna and Boris (Zilberman), a loving husband to Katrina, the love of his life since age 18, and loving father to their two beautiful children, Daniel and Sarah," Marylin Rofsky said.

Tragically, those touching remarks were made at a memorial service for Zilberman at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., on April 8, 2010. The 31-year-old pilot's E-2C Hawkeye crashed in the Arabian Gulf on March 31 while returning to the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower from a mission over Afghanistan. Despite a frantic and extensive search, his body was never recovered.

"I thought that it could not be because I only had one child and I brought him to America for a better life," an emotional Sokolov told me. "Everything was all right in our family, even though my father was in two wars before he died at 92. It was horrible."

Zilberman's selfless actions in the moments before the crash earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. According to numerous accounts, the pilot urged his three crewmembers to bail out as he battled a mechanical failure, keeping the plane steady just long enough to save their lives.

"Without his courageous actions, the entire crew would have perished," a Navy citation reads.

Zilberman's parents were unaware of many of their son's accomplishments until his memorial service.

"He was a top pilot, but we didn't know," his proud mother explained. "He was very modest and would never brag about his own accomplishments. To him, it didn't matter."

When we think of American military pilots, many of us still recall Maverick and Goose gliding around the skies in the classic '80s film "Top Gun," with roaring engines and rock music in the background. Yet as we are reminded by Zilberman's call sign of "Abrek," which means "valiant man" in Russian, the real protectors of the sky are in danger at this very hour, flying perilous missions over combat zones in Afghanistan and Libya.

Today, we find ourselves set where Lt. Miroslav "Steven" Zilberman once stood, searching for the right way to honor our heroes. Maybe we can start by living a little bit more like them: making our country better and following our dreams, while at the same time always putting our loved ones first.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Because my daddy fought for me

Images courtesy: Crissie Carpenter

In the wee morning hours of March 18, Landon Paul Carpenter entered a world that his father left as a hero.

Baby Landon's proud mother is Crissie Carpenter, who I interviewed shortly after the tragic February 19 death of Landon's father, Lance Cpl. Andrew Carpenter, who was shot on Valentine's Day in Afghanistan.

Mommy and that wonderful 8 lb., 4 oz. baby are said to be doing well, with a proud daddy smiling so brightly from the heavens that I would be willing to bet the sun was shining just a little bit brighter last Friday in Columbia, Tennessee. Crissie posted a caption on Facebook to the above photo, which I wanted everyone to see:

"Andy picked out this Teddy as his first toy," the new mom wrote. "He is also wearing a onesie his daddy bought him! I will post a pic of it later. We love you, daddy!"

Another onesie was made for baby Landon by a nurse at the hospital where he was born.

"Born free," it reads. "'Cause my daddy fought for me."

Congratulations to Andrew and Crissie Carpenter on the birth of their beautiful son.

Note: Contributions to "Landon's Fund" can be made at any Regions Bank in middle Tennessee.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Holding His Hand

Images courtesy: Susan Porter

One fall day in Guthrie, Okla., Glenda Porter was preparing to call her younger sister to wish her a happy birthday. But before she could dial the number, her phone rang. It was Angie, the wife of her son, Sgt. Rusty Dunagan, who was deployed to an undisclosed location in southwest Asia.

"She asked me if I was sitting down, and I just started crying," Glenda, 55, tells The Unknown Soldiers. "I said, 'Just tell me he's alive."

This is the call that she, and every military mom with a son or daughter overseas, dreads beyond imagination.

"She said he was alive, but he lost both his legs," Glenda says. "I started to lose it, and then she said, 'He also lost his arm.'"

Glenda hung up, cried and began frantically contacting relatives. Her sister, Susan Porter, who had recently moved to Pennsylvania, was expecting some 48th birthday shenanigans from her sibling, until picking up the phone and hearing a sound she'll never forget.

"She was screaming," Susan says of Glenda. "She wasn't making any sense to me, and I thought something happened to our father, but it was about Rusty."

After realizing that there had been an explosion on Sept. 22, 2010 and that her nephew was fighting for his life in Germany, Susan asked Glenda how she could help.

"I told her that we need as many people to pray for Rusty as possible," Glenda says. "I told her to get on Facebook and put it on there, and she did."

What happened next has reinforced Glenda's unshakeable belief in God and the nation her son fought for. Thousands upon thousands of compassionate citizens began joining the page, "Hold My Hand," to send prayers to Rusty and his family.

"People have just been so kind," Glenda says about the Facebook page, which now has almost 20,000 supporters. "It really shows you how great America is."

Susan thinks her nephew's resolve caused the massive outpouring on the Facebook page she created.

"We get so busy and caught up with life, we're used to conveniences and certain things," Susan, who is planning an Aug. 6 benefit for her nephew in their hometown of Guthrie, says. "But when we hear about tragedy, and you can really put a face and name to it ... it becomes a resource for people to be encouraged and for people to do something."

In the first days following the explosion, Glenda would wait for 4:30 a.m. phone calls from a friend at the hospital in Germany. News was sometimes encouraging and sometimes grim. When I ask the soldier's mom how many surgeries Rusty has underwent since September, Glenda says she's "lost track."

"He almost bled to death during his first surgery, and it seemed like he was having surgeries and blood transfusions almost every other day," Glenda painfully recalls. "But he's really strong — Rusty is so strong."

Today, Dunagan, 30, is continuing his long recovery in San Antonio. There have been bad days, but also some good ones, like when the wounded hero got to see his three stepchildren for the first time since the explosion.

"I was concerned about how that would go," Glenda admits. "But they didn't act like anything was wrong; they went straight up to him and started hugging."

Dunagan, who has a nine-month-old baby with his wife, has gone through more uncertainty than most of us will in a lifetime. But through faith and genuine appreciation of his remaining blessings, this soldier is still fighting.

"Someone asked him why he's so positive," his mom says. "He said it's because he didn't pass out — he remembers the explosion — he looked down and saw his legs and an arm gone, and yelled for the medic."

"He thought he would die then, and thought he would die after it happened," Glenda continues. "But he didn't, and he believes it's a gift. That's his attitude."

When Glenda got that heartbreaking phone call from her daughter-in-law, she wanted to be told that Dunagan was alive. He is, with a grateful nation holding the hand he has left.


Former Senate Majority Leader and World War II veteran Bob Dole meets with Sgt. Rusty Dunagan, who was wounded in southwest Asia.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

It Is What It Is

Images courtesy: Courtney Helton Photography & Video

Moments after making the most difficult decision of her life, Crissie Carpenter thought she heard her husband's voice, softly whispering in her ear.

"It is what it is," he said.

A simple saying, it was also Lance Cpl. Andrew Carpenter's favorite. And it gave comfort to his wife, eight months pregnant, as she made the crushing choice to remove him from life support from roughly 4,500 miles away, unable to fly to Germany with her due date so near.

"I told his mom to hold his hand and that I didn't want to be on the phone when it happened," the Marine's widow told The Unknown Soldiers. "I spoke to him three different times — they put the phone up to his ear for me."

Five days earlier, on Valentine's Day 2011, the love of Crissie's life was shot through the neck by an enemy sniper in Afghanistan. It was a tragic moment that her husband knew was coming, as evidenced by their final conscious phone call, which occurred three weeks before he was shot.

"We said 'I love you' 20 times before hanging up on that last phone call because I wouldn't say goodbye," Crissie said. "I have a feeling that he knew."

Andrew, 27, told his wife that he was often at the front of combat patrols while serving in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. He fought valiantly, but was also deeply worried about what would happen to his wife and unborn son, Landon, after he was killed.

I hope the events of Feb. 28 in Columbia, Tenn., put the fallen hero's fears to rest. On that gray, somber Monday, I witnessed a city of 38,000 stand shoulder to shoulder with the Carpenters in a seminal display of genuine compassion and resounding patriotism. The funeral home's chapel and overflow room were packed beyond capacity. Thousands of citizens, including children and the elderly, stood in the cold mist to salute the hometown Marine's funeral procession.

"It means so much to me," Crissie wants her fellow Tennesseans to know. "Andy was a hero — he is a hero. Having everyone's support, even people I don't know, it makes you stronger. It's indescribable."

In a memorial service full of touching moments, I learned about how Andrew, himself a child at heart, adored kids. He still collected action figures, even keeping the harmless secret from his wife. He loved to play soccer with his nephew, Caleb, an activity he missed deeply in Afghanistan, where millions of children still suffer in the shadows of terrorism.

"He loved kids, and I really liked that about him," Crissie said. "He had a great, awesome personality — a very nice, genuine person. I never heard him say anything mean about anyone."

The only comforting aspect of the last three weeks' devastating events is that Andrew got a head start on meeting his little boy.

"He isn't here yet," Crissie poignantly wrote of baby Landon in his father's funeral program. "Right now he's still in heaven with Andrew."

I asked Crissie what she would tell Landon about his dad.

"I want him to know how excited (Andrew) was about him, what happened in Afghanistan and why his father is a hero," she responded. "When he writes a school paper about who his hero is, I want him to write 'my dad.'

"The simple fact of knowing what type of person Andy was, I think, will make Landon a better person, too," Crissie continued.

The last song played at the celebration of Andrew's life was Sarah McLachlan's 'Angel,' which brought about 500 people, from battle-tested Marines to funeral home employees, to an authentic moment of reflection.

"You are pulled from the wreckage
Of your silent reverie
You're in the arms of the angel
May you find some comfort here."

"Prayer and God are the main things getting me through this," Crissie said. "I feel at peace with the way it was supposed to be."

To sum up this overwhelming post-9/11 ordeal of tragedy, selflessness, bravery and sacrifice, Crissie Carpenter returned to her husband's motto.

"It is what it is."


Note: Contributions to "Landon's Fund" can be made at any Regions Bank in middle Tennessee.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Cutting Edge

Image courtesy: Lance Cpl. Cindy Alejandrez

"A nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten," actor Gary Sinise, quoting President Calvin Coolidge, recently wrote to U.S. troops in a poignant letter. "I hope these 'Letters from Hollywood' will help to let you know that your nation has not forgotten."

Sinise, of course, is instantly recognizable around the world for his unforgettable portrayal of Lt. Dan in "Forrest Gump." He is also one of America's most determined supporters of our armed forces, as his fine work with the USO demonstrates.

Sinise wrote the letter because a fellow actor, D.B. Sweeney, asked for his help after noticing a glaring void of enthusiasm for the military in Tinseltown. It led Sweeney to launch "Letters from Hollywood," which gives celebrities a unique chance to reach out to men and women in uniform.

Sweeney, who starred in films such as "Eight Men Out," "Memphis Belle" and "The Cutting Edge," told The Unknown Soldiers that he believes a substantial number of Hollywood actors are oblivious to the daily sacrifices being made by thousands of fellow Americans in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the world.

"I don't think the majority really have views except what they've been handed," the actor said.

The Feb. 27 Academy Awards broadcast reinforced Sweeney's point of view. During the marathon 185-minute telecast, our men and women in harm's way received no substantial recognition.

In addition to keeping the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in our national consciousness, without letting politics cloud the extraordinary accomplishments of troops ordered to carry out dangerous missions, Sweeney thinks the film community has a responsibility, especially in wartime, to portray the military fairly.

"There have been some movies in Hollywood that denigrate our troops with the cliche that they're poor, stupid or have no options," Sweeney, who held a special 2008 screening of the movie "Two Tickets to Paradise" for troops in Iraq, said. "I find the opposite to be true; in fact, I know high-ranking officers who have turned down higher salaries in the private sector."

Since launching the website in partnership with the U.S. Army, Sweeney has received heartfelt letters for the troops from celebrities like Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr., "Rudy" star Sean Astin, Tom Wilson of "Back to the Future" fame, vampire slayer Kristy Swanson, rocker Ted Nugent and "Sopranos" tough guy Tony Sirico.

"I've been involved with WWP (Wounded Warrior Project) since 2004 after going to Iraq with Jim Gandolfini and witnessing what you proud patriots do for God and your country," Sirico, who played Paulie on the hit HBO show, wrote to the troops. "And I thought I was a tough guy?!?! Fughedaboutit!"

A particularly moving letter was written by Gina Elise, who I had the pleasure of meeting at a 2010 gathering of military bloggers. Elise tirelessly travels the globe visiting injured service members and veterans, and poses for pin-up calendars to benefit the wounded.

"Your sacrifices have shown me that life is about giving to and helping others. You are my role models," Elise, whose charitable calendars can be purchased at, said. "Please know that we on the home front are thinking of you and wish every service member a safe return home."

Elise got an overwhelming response to her letter from warriors fighting on America's post-9/11 battlefields.

"It is such a morale booster when great Americans like you stand behind and support us," a U.S. service member serving his third overseas tour wrote to Elise from Afghanistan.

Sweeney is hoping more Americans, especially celebrities earning exorbitant salaries, will reach out to the men and women protecting our way of life.

"They don't join the Army for any other reason than to serve the country," Sweeney said of America's all-volunteer force. "We live in the greatest country in the world, and we're lucky to be born here."

There was a time when supporting our military was a top priority in Hollywood, which included actors like Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, who selflessly volunteered to risk their lives after Pearl Harbor. As the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks approaches, a new generation of stars, led by genuine patriots like Gary Sinise and D.B. Sweeney, are ahead of their time.


Image courtesy: Spc. Samuel Phillips

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Through and through

Chilly winds rippled through the hundreds of American flags held and planted around Columbia on February 28, a few hours after severe weather had blown through middle Tennessee. Yet despite the blustery air, gray sky, and cold drizzle, thousands of citizens lined the streets, with their hands on their hearts and their minds on a grieving family struck by the storm of war.

To write a few hundred words about what I witnessed in this city does not do justice to the outpouring of love, patriotism, mourning, and support that thousands of fine folks showed to the relatives, friends, and fellow Marines of Lance Cpl. Andrew Carpenter on Monday. The fallen hero, who I will profile in an upcoming Creators Syndicate column, suffered catastrophic wounds on Valentine's Day in Afghanistan's Helmand province, and passed away on February 19.

The Heritage Funeral Home memorial service for Lance Cpl. Carpenter concluded with a beautiful, emotionally devastating moment. Sarah McLachlan's 'Angel' softly played over the chapel's speakers as mourners sat in silence, cried, and prayed. When I walked up front to pay my respects at the Marine's open casket, I said a prayer for his widow, Crissie Carpenter, and the unborn son, Landon, who will soon bring her joyous light in a time of darkness. As Mrs. Carpenter poignantly said in her husband's obituary, Landon "isn't here yet, right now he's still in heaven with Andrew."

As soon as cars began slowly leaving the funeral home for the drive to Polk Memorial Gardens, everyone in the procession saw a city's collective arms wrapped around Crissie and Landon Carpenter. Folks of every age and background stood on streets and highways to honor Lance Cpl. Carpenter and his loved ones. Businesses, places of worship, and schools shut down in the middle of a Monday afternoon to catch a glimpse of the passing hero and wave their flags.

One of the most touching moments I witnessed during the procession was in front of a school, where children stayed several hours after the afternoon bell to learn the meaning of sacrifice.

One of many businesses to shut down was Regions Bank. Employees stood quietly outside their workplace, in front of flags at half-staff, to show their support for the Carpenter family. During my drive home on Tuesday, I stopped at a Regions branch to make a memorial contribution to "Landon's Fund," which will go toward the child's future. To contribute, you can visit any Regions Bank in middle Tennessee or ask its Columbia, Tenn., branch for information on how to donate.

Elderly people stood in the cold outside a nursing home, with one veteran, perhaps of World War II, saluting a fellow warrior. A few more miles down the rural highway, an active duty service member stood alone in the wind, saluting his brother in arms. Police officers and firemen were everywhere, going well beyond their duty to make sure the day's events went exactly as planned.

During a troubled time when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are mostly off the national radar, it's easy to get frustrated or even cynical about our country. But as it paid homage to a fallen volunteer warrior, the Volunteer State reminded us why our nation is still the greatest on earth.

Lance Cpl. Andrew Carpenter kissed his soulmate goodbye, served in Afghanistan, met his son in heaven, and was greeted by thousands of guardian angels in his hometown. As Columbia, Tenn., showed the world on February 28, the loved ones this Marine left behind will never be alone.