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

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Day One

Images courtesy: Senior Airman Cynthia Spalding

In 364 days, America will observe another Memorial Day. Barring a stunning turn of events, American troops will still be in harm's way in Afghanistan on May 28, 2012, meaning that once again, we will remember our dead while our nation is still at war.

Most Americans are patriotic and know the true meaning of Memorial Day. Amid barbeques and ballgames this past weekend, I think the vast majority of us paused to reflect on why we're able to enjoy quality time with our family and friends. Yet beginning on Friday, painful news steadily and relentlessly streamed out of Afghanistan as the Department of Defense identified eleven more Americans recently killed in combat.

Chief Warrant Officer Christopher Thibodeau, 28, Chesterland, Ohio
Staff Sgt. Joseph Hamski, 28, Ottumwa, Iowa
Tech. Sgt. Kristoffer Solesbee, 32, Citrus Heights, California
1st Lt. John Runkle, 27, West Salem, Ohio
Staff Sgt. Edward Mills Jr., 29, New Castle, Pennsylvania
Staff Sgt. Ergin Osman, 35, Jacksonville, North Carolina
Sgt. Thomas Bohall, 25, Bel Aire, Kansas
Sgt. Louie Ramos Velazquez, 39, Camuy, Puerto Rico
Spc. Adam Patton, 21, Port Orchard, Washington
Pfc. John Johnson, 28, Phoenix, Arizona
Spc. Adam Hamilton, 22, Kent, Ohio

Many of these soldiers and airmen were killed by improvised explosive devices planted by terrorists, including six 101st Airborne Division paratroopers killed in a Kandahar province blast on May 26. As U.S. troops around Southwest Asia observed Memorial Day, including the 386th Airlift Wing, pictured above and below honoring the dead in an undisclosed location, recent events had to be weighing heavily on their minds.

Amid the solemn news, Brig. Gen. Lewis Craparotta, commanding general of Task Force Leatherneck / 2nd Marine Division (Forward), wrote the following from Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province.

"So as we pause to celebrate this Memorial Day, we reflect on those who have gone before us. We reflect on their service and their sacrifice on behalf of our great nation. We should also remember those serving today who embody that same commitment of service and sacrifice. They are committed to something greater than themselves, and they muster the physical and moral courage to accomplish extraordinary feats in battle. They do it for one another and the country they love, asking little in return."

As a nation at war, we should treat every day like Memorial Day. Today is a good day to start.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Day He Tried To Live

Image courtesy: Donna Walker

When Spc. Jameson Lindskog desperately tried to stay alive during a chaotic firefight in eastern Afghanistan on Mar. 29, it wasn't for personal reasons. It was his job.

"When I found out he'd be a medic in the Army, I wasn't surprised," Lindskog's mother, Donna Walker, told The Unknown Soldiers. "He had endless compassion for anyone or anything that was helpless or in need."

Shot while caring for a wounded fellow 101st Airborne Division paratrooper, Lindskog simply kept going. Life was precious to this soldier of empathy, especially when it was someone else's.

"He was just incredible," his mom said. "Every time our dog had a seizure, he'd be right there to help."

While helping a sick family pet is different than caring for a wounded soldier on the battlefield, Lindskog's lifesaving instincts kicked in amid the hellish violence of Afghanistan's Konar province.

"It was his first time in combat," Walker said. "I find it even more amazing that even though he had never experienced combat, he never hesitated."

Instead of celebrating his sister Candace's 27th birthday at home in Pleasanton, Calif., Lindskog found himself covered in the blood of a brother in arms, not to mention his own. But if he was going to make the ultimate sacrifice, he wanted it to be this way. According to his mother, the medic had a recurring nightmare of stepping on an improvised explosive device, without getting the chance to care for his fellow wounded warriors in the aftermath.

"When I first heard something had happened, I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, he must have been blown up, and his own worst fear came true,'" Walker said. "I was completely shocked to later find out the circumstances."

Those circumstances are tragic, but also the stuff of legend.

"He was so weak," the soldier's mom said, breaking down in tears. "He told the other guy who was there, 'I'm sorry I can't help you anymore, but I can't continue.'"

As Lindskog succumbed to his devastating injuries, he thought of the wounded comrade in his care.

"He asked another soldier to help before he died," Walker said.

The murder of Lindskog is an outrage. Shooting at a medic on the battlefield is not only a blatant violation of international law, but a despicable act of cowardice.

In the almost 10 years since the terrorist atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, we have come to expect only the lowest from our enemies, who, until the historic events of May 1, were led by Osama bin Laden. True to form, bin Laden acted "cowardly" at the moment of his demise, according to news reports quoting senior U.S. officials.

"I imagine I feel the same way that most Americans feel: completely ecstatic and jubilant at the thought," Walker said the week bin Laden was brought to justice by U.S. Navy SEALs. "When I heard he was living in that million-dollar compound, I hoped it would demoralize the people fighting for him."

Sgt. 1st Class Ofren Arrechaga, 28, and Staff Sgt. Frank Adamski III, 26, died in the same Mar. 29 battle as Lindskog, 23. Three more "Screaming Eagles" serving with the 2nd Battalion, 327th Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat team were also killed the same day in a separate battle nearby. Many of these fallen heroes, including Lindskog, were just weeks away from coming home.

In war, men and women who would have lived even longer lives of consequence are taken from us, a possibility his mother said Lindskog acknowledged when he made his "first adult decision" to join the military.

"He had a strong sense of right and wrong and what's fair," Walker said. "But of course, the world is never fair."

As Walker embarks on a lifetime of remembrance, she worries about remarkable human beings like her son being forgotten.

"Usually, the kind-hearted people are the ones who are unappreciated," she said.

Not today.


Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/Roland Balik

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Our Joes

Images courtesy: Facebook

You may have seen 1st Lt. Joseph Theinert's name in the news this week. Sadly, at first, it was for the wrong reasons.

Instead of reflecting on this fallen hero's heroism as Memorial Day approaches, the incredibly stupid actions of a power company created a temporary, yet still shameful distraction from a very meaningful event in his hometown. Yet as our nation remembers the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, we will not let the misguided actions of a silly few prevent us from pausing to reflect on who 1st Lt. Joseph Theinert really was.

On May 19, soldiers from 1st Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), based out of New York's Fort Drum, visited 1st Lt. Theinert's hometown of Shelter Island, New York. They came to the Long Island community for one reason: to honor the man who saved their lives. Less than a year earlier, on June 4, 2010, Theinert warned his platoon that an improvised explosive device he was trying to disable was about to blow up, giving them just enough time to take cover. Theinert absorbed the brunt of the devastating Kandahar explosion, and died so his friends could live.

"Lieutenant Theinert was twice the volunteer, first for service as a Citizen Soldier here in his home state and again to serve with the active Army's 10th Mountain Division," Brig. Gen. Patrick Murphy, adjutant general for New York state, said shortly after Theinert's tragic death..

The Suffolk Times, Theinert's hometown paper, pointed out that his platoon made a 400-mile journey to spend four days saluting their friend, who they affectionately called "Joe." The act was met with overwhelming gratitude from the fallen warrior's surviving parents and stepparents.

“I want these guys to get just as much support as Joe,” Theinert's mother, Chrystyna Kestler, told Times/Review newspapers. “I don’t want any vet forgotten.”

Theinert's community joined his brothers in arms by stepping up to honor their hometown hero. They donated $8,000 to buy American flags for a remarkable parade of patriotism, which every American city and town should have for their fallen, wounded, and returning troops. Yet in an almost unbelievable twist, taxpayers subsequently received a bill from the Long Island Power Authority, claiming that money was owed because the American flags used to honor Theinert were hung on utility poles owned by the company.

"Getting that money out of us is going to be like getting blood from a stone," Mike Loriz, commander of the local American Legion Post, told Fox News.

Caring more about the company's dwindling image than the fallen hero's family, the Long Island Power Authority downplayed the controversy, hiding behind some obscure state law even though Fox reported that another company, Verizon, didn't try to charge anyone for flags hung on its utility poles. Finally, LIPA's president personally paid the supposed "fee." What took him so long is a mystery, and this company should be ashamed of its actions, especially this close to Memorial Day.

Hopefully, the soldiers who traveled to Shelter Island to honor Theinert either didn't hear about this controversy or didn't let it bother them. What they spent four days doing was too important to let anyone steal a hero's thunder.

"You are greatly missed and every day I am thankful to have know such a great person," Brian Linn, who served with Theinert, posted in a Facebook tribute group last June. "The memories will be with me forever."

"Thank God he was our squad leader, bro," Alex DiTringo posted in response.

Every American town has its Joe, whether they fought and died in post-9/11 wars or previous conflicts. And as we remember this Memorial Day weekend, they were far better than average. They were some of our nation's very best.

"Your sacrifice has made me much more aware of all the families, all the small communities, losing their 'Joes,'" Ellen DioGuardi wrote to her hometown hero. "It's something we should all keep in our minds."

Thanks, Joe.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

No Fear

Images courtesy: Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell

Two weeks ago, Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell, one of my favorite military journalists, wrote an article about Sgt. Misha Pemble-Belkin, who is pictured above. You may recognize this brave soldier from the acclaimed war documentary "Restrepo," directed by Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington, who recently lost his life while covering the conflict in Libya. Sgt. Pemble-Belkin recently returned to Afghanistan for his second combat tour in the country.

"I had to come back here," Pemble-Belkin said. "I had to do one more tour."

As Sgt. 1st Class Burrell explains, many soldiers serving with 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division recognized Sgt. Pemble-Belkin, including Pfc. William Swaray.

"When we watched the movie, some of us became afraid," Pfc. Swaray said. "We started to see reality from that day on."

Even though their Task Force is called "No Fear," reality is that even the toughest, most battle-tested warriors sometimes lie awake at night, troubled by the unknown events of the next day. Several troops and veterans have told me that while being killed or injured is one aspect of their worries about serving in Afghanistan, a huge concern about deploying there is the sudden lack of communication with their loved ones, as well as the frequent absence of things Americans have grown accustomed to, like running water, electricity, and even toilet paper.

But if there is one fact of war most men and women in uniform will probably admit to being afraid of, it's losing a brother or sister in arms. While this sad possibility comes with the job, it's almost impossible to prepare for seeing a friend killed in action, as an unforgettable scene in "Restrepo" showed us when Sgt. John Clinard learned that one of his finest fellow soldiers, Staff Sgt. Larry Rougle, had died in combat.

Just one month into his second deployment, Sgt. Pemble-Belkin is again living war's harshest reality. On Monday, four fellow warriors of the Army's 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division were killed by an improvised explosive device in eastern Afghanistan.

Staff Sgt. Kristofferson Lorenzo, 33, Chula Vista, California
Pfc. William Blevins, 21, Sardinia, Ohio
Pvt. Andrew Krippner, 20, Garland, Texas
Pvt. Thomas Allers, 23, Plainwell, Michigan

Where the national media is on this story is a mystery, as I cannot find one mention of these four American heroes on the CNN or Fox News websites. MSNBC re-posted a story by affiliate KITV-TV in Hawaii, where Schofield Barracks, the post where these fallen heroes were stationed, is located.

Since FNC, CNN, and MSNBC all have extensive coverage of Wednesday night's "American Idol" finale, it is reasonable to conclude that these news outlets believe a talent show is more important than American troops making the ultimate sacrifice overseas. Shame on them. On Memorial Day, when journalists annually try to fool viewers into thinking they've been closely following Afghanistan and Iraq all along, we will remember this disgraceful oversight.

In California, Ohio, Texas, and Michigan, four families couldn't care less about the media. They mourn husbands, fathers, sons, or brothers who will soon return to the country they fought for in flag-draped caskets. While the exact circumstances of this incident are unclear, many soldiers serving in the remote mountains of eastern Afghanistan are undoubtedly touched deeply by this tragedy, which will haunt them for years to come.

Terrorists planting improvised explosive devices for the Taliban and al Qaeda have likely brainwashed themselves into thinking that U.S. forces are afraid of them, which couldn't be further from reality. No American warrior fears a coward who buries a bomb and runs to hide inside a cave or behind human shields. Despite this awful tragedy, "Task Force No Fear" remains intact, with a name that's totally appropriate.

On a Monday filled with barbeques and ballgames back home, American troops like Sgt. Misha Pemble-Belkin will be stationed on remote combat outposts in primitive lands. During another Memorial Day thousands of miles from our shores, some who have lost buddies in combat will look into the war-torn skies above them, and ask a merciful God to look kindly on their departed friends. He will, and a grateful nation should join Him.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Unforgettable Fire

Image courtesy: Tech Sgt. Randy Redman

Americans have forgotten about the war in Iraq.

Almost 4,500 U.S. troops have died during more than eight years of conflict in the country, with thousands more wounded. Many service members and veterans also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which has changed the fabric of their lives. I saw hundreds of these heroes last week in Colorado Springs while attending the Warrior Games, and still marvel at their fortitude. Even while missing limbs and carrying the ghosts of war, their fighting spirits are intact.

By moving on from a conflict that continues at this very moment, the media and politicians of every party dishonor our dead and wounded during a time of ongoing danger. On Sunday, two U.S. soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 63rd Armor, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division were killed by an improvised explosive device planted by terrorists in Baghdad.

Sgt. 1st Class Clifford Beattie, 37, Medical Lake, Washington
Pfc. Ramon Mora Jr., 19, Ontario, California

Aside from The Los Angeles Times, which has consistently defied its industry by paying close attention to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you'd have to search pretty hard to find any information about this story. But if you need intimate details about Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver's pending divorce, Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC have every angle covered.

As media executives worry about ratings and politicians posture for the 2012 campaign, more brave soldiers with the Army's 5th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Infantry Division are patrolling Baghdad with Iraqi troops. As Sunday's series of terrorist attacks showed, this area is still very dangerous, making the "Longknife" Squadron's work even more critical. At great risk to their own safety, American forces are fighting for peace.

“Since the patrols began, the Iraqi Federal Police and United States forces have found a significant amount of weaponry, which helps them identify where the attacks are originating,” 1st Lt. Michael Sprigg said.

When Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in Pakistan, America and the world got a much-needed glimpse at the unparalleled skill and dedication of our military. For about two weeks, the war in Afghanistan regained the spotlight. Then and now, the war in Iraq has languished in the abyss of our national conversation. Simply put, our country is acting like the troops have already come home.

As Americans, we're lucky our protectors don't care about who gets the credit. They care about doing their jobs, bringing evil men to justice, shielding the innocent, and keeping their loved ones safe. Regardless of what fills our TV and computer screens under the banner of "news," our challenge is to show these selfless men and women that we care too. We can start by bowing our heads, closing our eyes, and trying to picture what our troops overseas are enduring so we can have the luxury of distraction.

Image courtesy: U.S. Army

Note: This post was updated at 8:34 p.m. EDT to reflect new casualty information released by the Department of Defense.

Monday, May 23, 2011

It Still Is What It Is

On May 17, I had the honor and privilege of addressing the National Press Club about a journalism fellowship I recently completed for The Phillips Foundation, which was titled "The Unknown Soldiers: How the Media Celebrates American Idols and Ignores American Heroes."

You read the project right here on The Unknown Soldiers blog and in my weekly Creators Syndicate newspaper column, both of which continue today. While every post you read here is near and dear to my heart, one of the stories I think about most often is the emotional saga of Lance Cpl. Andrew Carpenter and his family.

From the Marine's tragic death after being shot in Afghanistan to the subsequent birth of his son, Landon, with an incredible memorial service in between, I wanted to share this story with the audience, which included former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and several troops, veterans, and military spouses.

Thank you for continuing to read this blog, the weekly newspaper column, and for supporting the USO, which I humbly joined on March 14. The work of spotlighting, honoring, and helping our troops, veterans, and their families continues every single day, until every one comes home.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Stairway to Heaven

There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold

And she's buying the stairway to heaven

The opening lyrics and chords of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" are among the most iconic in the history of rock. As a prolific amateur guitarist, Sgt. Sean Callahan loved the famous song and particularly enjoyed playing it with his dad and Cpl. Daniel Callahan, his big brother and fellow Marine.

"Their friends would come over, and we'd all have a barbecue, play the guitar and sing," proud father Patrick Callahan told The Unknown Soldiers. "(Sean) enjoyed playing music with his friends — that interaction with other people is what made it fun."

After Sean graduated from his Prince William County, Va., high school, he planned to spend a few years in northern Virginia, figuring out the best way to strum life's complicated strings. The one-year lease on his first apartment hadn't even run out when he enthusiastically joined the Marines. Four months later, Sean's brother made the decision to become his brother in arms.

"Honestly, Dan and Sean are two very different people," their dad explained. "But when Dan made the decision to join, he purposely set his entrance so he could see Sean graduate from boot camp."

Sean's first deployment with the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment was to Iraq in 2009. After about two months, Sean and his fellow Marines made an early return to North Carolina's Camp Lejeune to train for a new mission to Afghanistan. Sean's father said the two deployments were vastly different, especially as far as communication back home was concerned.

"The base he was on in Iraq had frequent Internet access, and we could connect with him on Skype," Patrick said. "As bad the connection would sometimes wind up being, seeing your kid and talking to him face to face is just wonderful.

"In Afghanistan, we got a satellite phone call maybe every three or four weeks, and they were usually short," he added.

In mid-April, Patrick's wife, Janet Callahan, spoke to her youngest child for about 45 minutes, one of their longest conversations during Sean's time in Afghanistan.

"He always sounded calm and very comfortable," Patrick said. "He basically just called to say he loved us."

Images courtesy: Facebook

About a week later, Patrick was cooking dinner for one of his two daughters, who, like Sean, loved to have friends over to the house. There was a knock, causing the family dog to rush toward the front door. Sean's dad was down on one knee tending to his pet when he saw two sets of polished black shoes in front of him. Something was wrong.

"I got up and I saw the service outfit greens," Patrick said. "It's like having your world transformed in an absolute instant."

According to the Pentagon, Sgt. Sean Callahan, 23, and Lance Cpl. Dominic Ciaramitaro, 19, were killed conducting combat operations in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province on April 23. Nine days later, just hours after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden, the Callahans laid Sean to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

"We've never felt like we're alone because there are so many other people who love Sean," Patrick said. "It's a horrible thing to bury a child, but if you look at the positive side, we've had the benefit and privilege as parents to see through other people's eyes what an impact he had on the world around him."

Molly's, an Irish pub in Warrenton, chartered a bus to bring a large group of veterans to Sean's funeral. Virginia Tire & Auto, where Sean once worked, is accepting donations in his memory to support Any Soldier, which sends care packages to American troops overseas.

"It's really amazing stuff," the grateful father said.

When I arrived at Sean's grave on May 17, one of his favorite songs echoed through my headphones. Above his grave marker, I pictured the stairway to heaven. At the top, Sean strummed his guitar while laughing and singing with his newest friends: a decade of men and women who have sacrificed everything in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And if you listen very hard

The tune will come to you at last

When all are one and one is all


Note: For information on how to make a donation to our deployed troops in honor of Sgt. Sean Callahan, please click here.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hard sun

Dark clouds loomed above Arlington National Cemetery as I arrived at the hallowed grounds on Tuesday afternoon.  Even amid heavy construction, a walk down Eisenhower Drive, with white headstones of thousands of heroes on the left and right, is one of the quietest, most reflective walks an American can ever take.

This was my fourth visit to Section 60, where many honorable patriots of America's post-9/11 battlefields rest for eternity.  Tragically, the sacred section continues to expand, as more valiant men and women make the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.

One of those selfless patriots is Sgt. Sean Callahan, who you can read more about in this week's Creators Syndicate newspaper column, which is posted here on Saturday mornings.  The 23-year-old Marine was killed April 23 in Afghanistan's Helmand province, and I wanted to pay my respects to Sgt. Callahan and his fallen brothers and sisters in arms before the column's release.

At almost the exact same moment that I bowed my head at Sgt. Callahan's place of rest, hard rain began to fall, giving the two sets of flowers left beside the hero's temporary grave marker a much-needed drink.  As raindrops mixed with the tears welling up in my eyes, I saw two people, perhaps a mother and son, standing nearby in the steady showers.  Someone they cared about had given everything in a war zone so we could experience a peaceful day in the nation's capital which, as documents seized from Osama bin Laden's hideout reinforce, remains firmly in the crosshairs of terrorists.

Even after bin Laden's capture, his followers and enablers are still relentlessly targeted by the most highly-trained fighting force in the world.  While there are more victories for the United States in Southwest Asia than defeats, these missions come with extraordinary risk.  In the past four days, the deaths of nine American troops in Afghanistan have been announced by the Department of Defense.  

Spc. Brandon Kirton, 25, Centennial, Colorado
Staff Sgt. David Self, 29, Pearl, Mississippi
Spc. Bradley Melton, 29, Rolla, Missouri
Pvt. Lamarol Tucker, 26, Gainesville, Florida
Pvt. Cheizray Pressley, 21, N. Charleston, South Carolina
Spc. Brian Riley Jr., 24, Longwood, Florida
Sgt. Kevin Balduf, 27, Nashville, Tennessee
Lt. Col. Benjamin Palmer, 43, Modesto, California
Sgt. Robert Schlote, 26, Norfolk, Nebraska

While families of the fallen decide where their loved ones are buried, it is possible that some or all of these men could join Sgt. Callahan in Section 60 in the coming weeks.  I urge every reader of The Unknown Soldiers to visit Arlington National Cemetery, and specifically the heroes of the past decade, during your next visit to the Washington, D.C. area.  I especially believe that school-aged children should be led through Section 60, so they begin to understand why they say the pledge of allegiance as the morning bell tolls.

During my walk back down Eisenhower Drive, I saw a group of Marines getting on a bus after presumably assisting with a funeral.  At that moment, the clouds began to break.  Despite the terrible tragedies thousands of military families have experienced since September 11, 2001, there are still brave men and women willing to honor the memories of our fallen by continuing their work.

Sunlight began warming Arlington National Cemetery just before my departure.  As I left its grounds, I pivoted on the wet grass, turned around, and soaked in the patriotism one last time.  There is a reason we are free.

Note: This post was updated on May 20 at 8:26 a.m. EDT.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Red Bulls

Images courtesy: 1st Lt. Joel Sage

Shortly after recovering a large number of weapons that could have killed him and his friends, Sgt. Michael Jenkins reflected on the hard work of Task Force Red Bulls in Afghanistan.

"A lot of it has to do with what we did over the winter," Sgt. Jenkins, an intelligence analyst, said. "We went out and made friends with the locals."

An article by Combined Joint Task Force 101 focuses on Company C, 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment, Task Force Lethal, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Task Force Red Bulls. In a mission conducted May 5-9 in the Zormat District of Afghanistan's Paktya province, these warriors recovered 1,000 rounds, eleven rocket-propelled grenades, and two improvised explosive devices.

While getting these weapons out of Taliban hands undoubtedly saved lives, soldiers involved in the mission seem most pleased by how it happened. In several cases, U.S. and Afghan troops received tips from local villagers.

"This happens quite a bit," rifleman Spc. Tyler Malom said. "We’ll be out on patrol and somebody will come and tip us off about something in the road."

It's been a long road for the Iowa-based Red Bulls serving in Afghanistan, with numerous tragedies along the way. The recent deaths of Spc. Donald Nichols, 21, Sgt. Brent Maher, 31, and Staff Sgt. James Justice, 32, weigh heavily on the minds of the approximately 2,800 Red Bulls serving in Afghanistan, as do their fellow warriors wounded in battle.

Charlie Sherpa of Red Bull Rising, a fine military blog, recently noted the following quote from Col. Greg Hapgood, spokesman for the Iowa National Guard, after Spc. Nichols was tragically killed.

"One thing that we stress with our soldiers during a deployment is that, regardless of how much time you have left, you can never get complacent. This [IED attack] certainly crystallizes that," Col. Hapgood said. "You have to constantly maintain awareness of your surroundings, and use every tool at your disposal. Every day over there is dangerous."

Their latest successful mission, which started four days after Osama bin Laden's death, shows us that until they are sent home from Afghanistan, the Red Bulls will always be charging ahead. By serving with honor and bravery to save American and Afghan lives, these brave soldiers also honor their dead.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Promise

Images courtesy: Facebook

Shortly after the death of Moses, God made a vow to his successor, Joshua.

"I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee," the King James Bible translation of Joshua 1:5 reads.

Capt. Joshua McClimans made a similar vow to his son, Max, before leaving for Afghanistan. Even while the Army nurse was caring for patients in a volatile war zone, his duties as a father would continue, even from thousands of miles away.

"Josh and Max were inseparable," the soldier's girlfriend, Melissa Bulebush, told The Unknown Soldiers.

Despite frequent bombings and a poor Internet connection on Forward Operating Base Salerno in eastern Afghanistan, McClimans made weekly Skype video calls to his son's first-grade class in Ohio, which he had spoken to before deploying. The 30-year-old soldier, who had previously deployed to Iraq, thought it was important for Max and his classmates to understand that our nation is at war.

"They looked up to him as a hero," Ally Wehmann, Max's teacher, told The Akron Beacon Journal.

McClimans did not think of himself as a heroic figure. In his mind, he was simply a nurse who, on occasion, had to do his job in the world's most dangerous places. When McClimans chose to re-enlist in the Army Reserve, he understood the risks.

"He knew he was going to get deployed at some point in time, and he was OK with it," Bulebush, 35, said. "He had a little bit of PTSD from the first time over there, but working with (the) company that he was with in Iraq, he actually enjoyed it. He helped a lot of soldiers."

Those who served with McClimans were in awe of his genuine bravery and medical ingenuity.

"He was such a dedicated nurse and officer who impacted so many lives," Chris Weidlich, McClimans' company commander in Iraq from 2004 to 2005, posted on Facebook. "He always brought a smile to his friends' faces."

On April 22, McClimans was killed in Khost province when terrorists attacked his unit with indirect fire, according to the Pentagon. The dedicated nurse, who served with the 848th Forward Surgical Team, died just six days before Max's 7th birthday.

"I'm not sure how much he's truly understanding," Bulebush said of young Max. "I think seeing Josh's family has really helped him, though."

In addition to his parents and a 13-year-old stepdaughter, McClimans also leaves behind two sisters.

"The best brother in the world," is how Crystal McClimans described Joshua in a Facebook post. "(We) miss you and love you."

When McClimans returned to his hometown of Jamestown, Pa., on May 3 in a flag-draped casket, everyone was his brother and sister. Word was spreading that the hateful Westboro Baptist Church was planning to protest the fallen hero's funeral. Amid their grief, friends, family members and fellow troops quickly banded together to protect their fallen hero.

"I stand guard now ... for three days," Doug Knieriem, who served with McClimans and brought him home, wrote in a dramatic Facebook post. "I will sleep beside him so he is not alone, and he will comfort me, for he loved me as I did him."

In the end, Westboro didn't dare step foot in Jamestown, where Esther McClimans, the fallen soldier's grandmother, is mayor. And despite cold, rainy conditions, hundreds turned out in full force to wave flags, shed tears and comfort a devastated family.

"People have been just unbelievably supportive," Bulebush said. "It's almost like everyone knows everyone."

As is true with thousands of families who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, a firm support structure will continue be critical for young Max in the years to come. To truly show our gratitude to the relatives of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, we must make the same promise that God made to Joshua. We will not fail them, nor forsake them.

"Josh's Dad, Mike, just keeps giving Max big hugs," Bulebush said. "I think he knows everything will be OK."

In America, everything will be OK, and it's not just because Osama bin Laden can no longer harm us. It's because since a terrible September morning almost 10 years ago, heroes like Capt. Joshua McClimans have fought, and will continue to fight.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Better Days

Image courtesy: U.S. Marines

About two hours before his wedding, Lance Cpl. Joshua Jones realized that one of his best buddies in the Marines, Lance Cpl. Dominic Ciaramitaro, wasn't in the audience. Lance Cpl. Jones worried that something had gone wrong until his phone rang.

“It turned out that a few of his friends from home who had traveled to Canada had called him and said they needed his help,” Jones explained. “Without questioning them, he [drove from North Carolina] to help them. That was who he was. It didn’t matter what the problem was; he would always be there to help his friends.”

Missing a friend's wedding was tough for Lance Cpl. Ciaramitaro, whose biggest problem in life seemed to be that he couldn't be several places at once. Most teens don't have that many people depending on them, but as an article by Sgt. Jesse Stence explains, Ciaramitaro wasn't your average 19-year-old.

“Despite his being one the platoon’s most junior Marines, he operated as if he were much more senior in terms of his initiative and judgment,” said 1st. Lt. Gerard Van Amerongen, Ciaramitaro’s platoon commander.

Ciaramitaro was barely ten years old on September 11, 2001, yet decided to leave South Lyon, Michigan, where the recent high school graduate worked at a local hotel and tavern, to risk his life in an age of terror. He joined the Marine Corps and trained hard to become an anti-tank missileman, eventually deploying to Afghanistan's Helmand province, one of the most dangerous areas in the world.

After distinguishing himself during the first half of his deployment, tragedy befell the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force on April 23. Ciaramitaro and Sgt. Sean Callahan, 23, were killed on April 23 while conducting combat operations in the volatile region. The Unknown Soldiers will have more about Sgt. Callahan's life soon.

As Marines memorialized their fallen brother at Afghanistan's Camp Dwyer, the state of Michigan sprung into action to honor its fallen hero. Flags were lowered across the state on May 6, as hundreds lined the streets of South Lyon to salute a young man who loved being everyone's friend.

"I didn't know about this," the fallen Marine's father, John Ciaramitaro, told WXYZ-TV. "This is such a wonderful community. I can't tell you how wonderful they have been to my family."

Ciaramitaro also leaves behind his mother, Deborah Beaupre, four sisters, a brother, and his grandparents.

“He would make the worst day for anyone a better day,” Lance Cpl. Joshua Jones said of his friend.

For Lance Cpl. Dominic Ciaramitaro's loved ones, friends, and fellow Marines, April 23 was probably the worst day of their lives. But as this volunteer warrior's legacy of uncommon selflessness and unbreakable friendship grows, hopefully, as the hit Goo Goo Dolls song goes, the days to come will only get better.

So take these words
And sing out loud
'Cause everyone is forgiven now
'Cause tonight's the night the world begins again

Note: For information on how to contribute to the Dominic Ciaramitaro Memorial Scholarship Fund, please click here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Second hand news

Image courtesy: Luigi Novi

"New Account Says bin Laden Was Unarmed During Raid," a New York Times headline read on May 3. "The killing of bin Laden: Was it legal?" asked CNN on May 4. "Should the Navy SEALs Have Kept bin Laden Alive?" asked a Fox News blog post on May 6.

Should journalists and pundits inside air-conditioned newsrooms learn to carefully measure their words about our men and women in uniform during a time of war? The answer, for many years, has been yes. But we have a right to know almost everything about a top-secret wartime operation in which dozens of Americans risked their lives, argues New York Times contributor Timothy Egan.

"But they owe us a complete story, an honest story, one for the record," Egan wrote on May 5. "After debriefing the Navy Seals, the White House should give as full an account as they can without compromising future missions."

Unless I misinterpreted public celebrations in the late night hours following bin Laden's death, along with a continuing burst of patriotism and military appreciation, the vast majority of Americans don't feel like they are "owed" anything after this historic raid. In fact, after dozens of people I've never met put everything on the line to kill a terrorist who would have killed my entire family if he had the chance, I feel nothing but gratitude.

Throughout America's post-9/11 conflicts, some journalists, many of whom stopped covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the years leading up to bin Laden's death, have put what they call a "right to know" above the safety of our men and women in uniform. From spreading misleading or incomplete reports of civilian casualties or wrongfully convicting U.S. troops of atrocities before their day in court, the American press has shown little interest in victory and a disturbing lack of appreciation for the sacrifices of our troops.

During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt had the power to decide what information about the conflict was given to the media. If any story was deemed to help the enemy, it was barred from publication. While Presidents Bush and Obama have not imposed similar restrictions on the press since September 11, 2001, it is instructive for journalists to remember a time when nothing was deemed of greater importance than the safety and security of our troops. Judging by what I saw inside local and national newsrooms from the fall of 2001 to the winter of 2009, journalism and patriotism rarely mix in these trouble times.

For the pundits anguished over bin Laden being unarmed at the time of his death, I ask you to think about whether men, women, and children inside the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and four hijacked planes had guns in their hands when they were murdered. For journalists questioning decisions made by American sailors during an unimaginably frantic situation, I ask how many years of rigorous SEAL training you have endured. And for columnists demanding every detail about a raid that may have saved our lives, I ask you to get real.

We don't need the names of a single SEAL involved in the historic May 1 mission in order to thank them. Their privacy and security, and that of their families, far outweigh our curiosity. For decades to come, The Boys of Abbottabad will be our superheroes in silence, whether or not details of their individual actions are released.

According to a new Gallup poll, 89% of Americans give the military a "great deal of credit for finding and killing Osama bin Laden," with an additional 9% giving a moderate amount of credit. In Gallup's last yearly poll measuring trust in the media, a record high 57% of Americans said they have "little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly."

I wonder why.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Standing their ground

Images courtesy: Senior Airman Jessica Lockoski

Terrorists set off six bombs in the crucial southern Afghan city of Kandahar over the weekend, in a series of attacks that killed two and injured 23, according to the BBC. While we mourn the dead and pray for the wounded, U.S. military leaders say the strikes against Afghan government officials and civilians were clearly intended to cause far more death and destruction. Simply put, the attacks were a miserable failure.

 “This clearly was intended to be a spring offensive spectacular attack which was thwarted by Afghan National Security Forces,” U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James Laster said. “Initial reports indicate that between three and six suicide bombers were stopped – either detonating prematurely or being killed before they could detonate.”

One of the reasons it is more difficult for the Taliban and al Qaeda to attack Kandahar is because of the skill and bravery displayed by our valiant troops all around southern Afghanistan. As a recent report by Senior Airman Jessica Lockoski explains, U.S. troops have been busy seizing enemy weapons from treacherous areas like the Mazgarey Mountains. During Operation Gryphon Hold, which was conducted brilliantly by soldiers with 1st Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment, 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, tools of terror like suicide vests and pressure plates used to build improvised explosive devices were taken from the enemy.

“I think the mission was definitely a big success,” Charlie Company platoon leader Capt. Jon Cochran said. “Those suicide vests would have most likely been used in Spin Boldak and on joint forces as we patrolled through Nawa or even Kandahar City. Whether Afghan or our own, we saved lives.”

The accomplishments of these volunteer warriors, based out of North Carolina's Fort Bragg, are breathtaking. I wish I could have seen the looks on their faces a few days after they climbed those steep mountains and searched those dark caves, when news of bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. troops began to spread like wildfire through platoons around Afghanistan.

There haven't been any American casualties reported since Cpl. Kevin White, the first U.S. service member killed in action since bin Laden's demise. While I pray every night that our men and women in uniform no longer face danger, those prayers have not yet been answered, and there are more hard times to come for our forces.

Someday, our troops will come home, and get the ticker tape parade they so richly deserve. The jubilation in Times Square and outside the White House after bin Laden's death, as well as a new Gallup poll showing that 89% of Americans give our troops a "great deal of credit" for bringing the terrorist to justice, show how much our country continues to revere its military.

While I can't imagine how lonely it must feel in those mountains and remote forward operating bases, every man and woman volunteering to spend time apart from their families should know how much we appreciate their selfless sacrifices. To find winners, there is no need for Americans to look any further than the mountains of Afghanistan and sands of Iraq.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Making History

Image courtesy: Vazquez family/Facebook

William Semon was sitting in his first history class at New Jersey's Mercer County Community College when a classmate offered his hand in friendship.

"Hey, my name's Omar," future Army 1st Lt. Omar Vazquez said.

Since meeting in 2003, the year the United States removed Saddam Hussein from power, Semon and Vazquez were inseparable, frequently meeting for lunch and having spirited discussions about their favorite subject: history.

"He was just that type of guy: fun to be around and always looking for a debate," Semon told The Unknown Soldiers. "He could convince you that the grass was blue, even though you knew it was green."

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for which Osama bin Laden was brought to justice on May 1, Vazquez had convinced himself that serving his country would be a crucial part of his life journey. But first, he drove himself down a path of academic achievement.

"He didn't need to go into the military," Semon, who once tried to sway Vazquez from a military career out of concern for his safety, says. "It was something he wanted to do."

After earning his associate degree, Vazquez entered the ROTC program at Rider University, where he majored in history. He went on to earn a master's degree in liberal studies on the Camden campus of Rutgers University. After a rigorous period of mental and physical training, Vazquez was ready to lead.

"He took his role as a leader very seriously," his buddy says. "But he took his role as a friend very seriously, too."

Even while deployed overseas, the platoon leader would constantly call home to check on his mom, dad, three siblings and friends. Semon remembers getting a call from Iraq while going through a difficult personal matter.

"He's in the middle of a war, but he wants to make sure everyone else is OK," Semon says. "I think that's why his men really respected him as a leader."

Semon did whatever he could to help his friend's platoon during their deployment. After Vazquez mentioned that it was hard to keep clean while deployed, Semon hurried over to the local Costco.

"I got a huge package of about 1,000 baby wipes," Semon says with a chuckle. "He contacted me and said, 'Thanks, but please don't send any more baby wipes!'"

It would be one of the last times Semon would talk to his dear friend. According to the Pentagon, Vazquez, 25, was killed on April 22 in Numaniyah, Iraq, when terrorists attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device. Also killed was Pfc. Antonio Stiggins, 25, who also served with the Army's 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

"I figured he was injured," Semon says of first receiving word that something had gone wrong. "I hadn't heard anything on the news ... I hadn't heard about any deaths in Iraq that day."

In tragedy's wake, Semon is picking himself up by reflecting on the privilege of knowing such an accomplished, selfless individual.

"He was a guy that had a lot of plans ... a lot of plans and a lot of potential," says Semon as his voice softens. "It's a shame to see someone that great not here anymore."

Semon, while noting how deeply 9/11 affected Vazquez, says the daring U.S. military operation to kill bin Laden would have made his friend, who died just nine days prior, enormously proud, particularly because there were no American casualties.

Omar's father, speaking to CBS 3 Philadelphia from the Vazquez family's Hamilton Township, N.J., home, agreed.

"I feel sorry for my son's death, but I don't feel sorry for him," Pablo Vazquez said of the defeated terrorist.

First Lt. Omar Vazquez learned to speak Arabic and was teaching himself Russian while deployed to Iraq. The intellectually curious warrior desired another master's degree before pursuing his doctorate.

"He was one hell of a guy. I don't know any other way to say it," Semon says. "A true scholar, a gentleman and a soldier."

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not over because Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are dead. American troops are still making history, as the story of one of its most brilliant students teaches us.


Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/Roland Balik

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The boys of Abbottabad

"Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war. Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender's poem. You are men who in your 'lives fought for life and left the vivid air signed with your honor.'"

On the fortieth anniversary of D-Day, the fortieth President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, looked directly into the eyes of surviving soldiers who climbed Pointe du Hoc's treacherous cliffs.

"Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief. It was loyalty and love."

While thinking about what our nation has experienced over the past several days, after one of the greatest wartime triumphs since World War II, the words spoken in France almost 27 years ago still resonate, with dramatic parallels. Like the American heroes in Normandy, the Navy SEALs in Afghanistan who helicoptered to Pakistan on May 1 undoubtedly knew that the most important moment of their lives had come. Like the brave men who confronted Adolf Hitler, they took it upon themselves to make sure Osama bin Laden could never kill again.

"The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next. It was the deep knowledge -- and pray God we have not lost it -- that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt."

While this site is always hesitant to quote politicians and does not endorse any viewpoint other than supporting our troops, veterans, and their families, Reagan's June 6, 1984 address is regarded as one of the finest military-themed speeches ever delivered by an American president. Historian Douglas Brinkley, who wrote an entire book about the speech, finds 'The Boys of Pointe du Hoc' unusually personal for a commander-in-chief, and thus even more powerful.

"You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One's country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you."

Upon hearing their orders to storm the Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound where the world's most wanted terrorist was believed to be hiding, Navy SEALs who would carry out the dangerous mission reportedly cheered. Think about that for a moment. When told that they must conduct a perilous mission, and possibly die, they cheered. That says so much about the fighting spirit of a SEAL, and our entire volunteer force. Even while fighting in the desolation of anonymity, they never gave up, and never will. These warriors of all races, religions, and backgrounds know their country is behind them. They might not always see it, but they feel it.

"The Americans who fought here that morning knew word of the invasion was spreading through the darkness back home. They fought -- or felt in their hearts, though they couldn't know in fact, that in Georgia they were filling the churches at 4:00 a.m. In Kansas they were kneeling on their porches and praying. And in Philadelphia they were ringing the Liberty Bell."

This time in Philadelphia, they were chanting 'U-S-A' during a nationally-televised baseball game. The images and sounds of that patriotic outburst will endure for many years to come.

The SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden trained exhaustively to earn the opportunity of a lifetime, and they did not waste it. Many will risk their lives again in combat, and perhaps some already have. As they know better than any of us, danger has not passed, and true evil still exists.

"We will pray forever that someday that changing will come. But for now, particularly today, it is good and fitting to renew our commitment to each other, to our freedom, and to the alliance that protects it."

There is a long, deadly struggle ahead for our military in Afghanistan, and danger for our troops still in Iraq. As someone who hasn't served in the military, all I can do is pray for the safety of our men and women in harm's way. I will also pray for families of the the fallen, and especially loved ones of so many American heroes killed and wounded in April, who are suffering at this very moment.

"Here, in this place where the West held together, let us make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for. Let our actions say to them the words for which Matthew Ridgway listened: 'I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.'"

We do not know the names of the Navy SEALs who rid the world of Osama bin Laden. For grave, serious security reasons, I hope those names are not revealed anytime soon. Should any journalist uncover even one name before the military is ready to identify these heroes, they must do the patriotic thing. Wait.

Perhaps on May 1, 2051, an American president will be able to look these fine men in the eye, just like the commander-in-chief who addressed the boys of Pointe du Hoc 40 years after their date with destiny. He or she can thank them for an achievement that helped define a generation, and make sure that all of us, even children, always remember why we are living in freedom. But to me, it seems fitting that these Navy SEALs, who take pride in owning the night, are superheroes in silence.

"Strengthened by their courage and heartened by their valor and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died."

Somewhere in the moonlight, the men who changed the world are together, bound forever by an extraordinary mission that will always be inside them. As part of a legendary brotherhood of selflessness, these volunteer warriors personify the call of another commander-in-chief, John F. Kennedy. The SEALs asked not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country.

These are the boys of Abbottabad.

Image courtesy: Central Intelligence Agency

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How you remind us

Image courtesy: White family/The Buffalo News

Much of the nation is still busy celebrating the demise of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. That is no longer the case in a hard-working suburb about an hour from Buffalo, New York.

Just hours after bin Laden's death, military messengers knocked on the door of Paul and Pat White in Westfield. Their son, Cpl. Kevin White, had been killed in action.

According to a Pentagon release that I received at 11:29 a.m. eastern, Cpl. White died May 2 in Kunar Province when terrorists attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device. The 22-year-old soldier, who also served a 15-month deployment to Iraq, was assigned to the Army's 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.

News outlets in Buffalo are doing an excellent job covering this story, and for now, I will specifically defer to the fine reporting of Dave Emke at The Post-Journal, who has already spoken to the fallen hero's grieving mother.

''He knew things would get real hot after bin Laden was taken out,'' Mrs. White said. ''He said, tongue in cheek, 'Good thing I'm not right next to Pakistan, and the spring fighting season started yesterday.'''

I also want to point to the website of WGRZ-TV, which is collecting messages of support for the White family. To tell the family you are thinking of them, please click here and scroll to the bottom of Michael Wooten's article, where a link appears. The station is pledging to send every single message of support to the family of their local hero.

The vast majority of Americans realize that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue, and that our troops still face grave danger. While the life of Cpl. Kevin White served a far greater purpose than simply being a reminder, this brave soldier's sacrifice sets an enduring example for the grieving nation he leaves behind.

It's not over.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

In bloom

Image courtesy: Staff Sgt. Jeremy Ross

As history books are written, few will leave out the death of Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011. Yet I hope historians will also remember April, not as the month of a royal wedding, but as a month of powerful, deadly storms.

In the United States, the storms were in the form of violent weather, which devastated southern cities and towns that many U.S. troops serving overseas hail from. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the storms were in the form of an unbearable number of deaths and injuries to our men and women in uniform.

Considering that 14 American service members and an Army veteran were killed in two attacks allegedly carried out by men wearing Afghan military uniforms, I anticipate that when the final statistics are compiled, April 2011 will have been one of the deadliest months of the nine and a half year war. In the last five days of April, five more April casualties of the war in Afghanistan were identified by the Pentagon.

Spc. Preston Dennis, 23, Redding, California
Pfc. Jonathan Villanueva, 19, Jacksonville, Florida
Sgt. Matthew Hermanson, 22, Appleton, Wisconsin
Cpl. Adam Jones, 29, Germantown, Ohio
Lance Cpl. Joe Jackson, 22, White Swan, Washington

The soldiers and Marines listed above are not just statistics to be listed on page A27 of a newspaper. Over the weekend, I spoke to several grieving relatives and friends of April's fallen heroes, and will have more soon on this blog and in my weekly Creators Syndicate column.

April 2011 was also one of the deadliest months in recent memory during a conflict that has been almost completely forgotten by the national press: the war in Iraq. The following two names were released over the weekend, with the first categorized as a combat-related death.

Pfc. Robert Friese, 21, Chesterfield, Michigan
Spc. Andrew Lara, 25, Albany, Oregon

Through all of April's storms, I believe there is reason for hope as May's flowers bloom, even beyond the death of Osama bin Laden on the month's first day. Maj. Gen. John Campbell, who carries around index cards of troops killed in Afghanistan to constantly remind him of their extraordinary sacrifices, sees concrete examples of progress on the battlefield.

"The insurgents are going to try to attack those things which are working," the general said. "We think we've really made a difference and changed the battlefield geometry."

Without having been to Afghanistan, I am in no position to offer an opinion on how the overall war is going, nor does this website exist for that purpose. But I do know that nobody has dealt with the loss of more troops in Afghanistan during the last five weeks than Maj. Gen. Campbell, who commands the Army's storied 101st Airborne Division. I do not believe this highly-respected general, who clearly understands the sacrifices being made by his troops and their families, would dishonor his fallen heroes by being anything but genuine in his public statements.

For the families of fallen and wounded troops, as well as those who will suffer for many years to come due to the post-traumatic stress of April's heavy battles, flowers will not bloom in May, even after valiant Navy SEALs killed the world's most wanted terrorist. We can only hope that our prayers and support will bring brightness back into their lives in the months and years to come.

For the troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq at this very moment, this blog has a message. Every single responsible American supports you as you follow orders with the most admirable bravery known to mankind. For you, we plant flowers in the gardens of our souls, and eagerly await your triumphant return.

Note: As pictured in this U.S. Army photo, more than 600 Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division returned to Fort Campbell over the weekend. Welcome home and thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, for your service!

Monday, May 2, 2011

We will not tire

Images courtesy: Sgt. Randall Clinton

Many of us, including me, are exhausted from the raw emotion of Sunday night's momentous events. Yet imagine if you were sitting on a remote Forward Operating Base in the desolate wilderness of Afghanistan. For our troops in harm's way, who are coming off one of the deadliest months of the entire war in Afghanistan and an increased month of violence in Iraq, there is no champagne. There is only constant danger, camaraderie, and focus.

Mostly, though, our heroes in faraway lands simply miss their families and friends. They wish they could share this moment with them without having to make a phone call, send an e-mail, or contact them over Facebook or Skype. Yet our brave warriors need to know that they are still here with us at this hour. No patriotic American would dare forget all the sacrifices that were made, and will continue to be made, to make the elimination of the world's most wanted terrorists a reality.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not over. As Americans, it is our duty to ensure that a reawakened public does not forget the nearly 200,000 U.S. troops still facing serious danger overseas. In the perilous days to come, we must also lend a hand to military families at home, as well as our troops and veterans who have returned from battle.

Just 24 hours before a group of heroic special operations warriors brought the mastermind of 9/11 and countless other terrorist attacks to justice, Americans were being inundated with non-stop media coverage about a royal wedding in London. We cannot afford to return to that mindset, especially as the fear of reprisal attacks grip the spouses, children, and relatives of U.S. service members still deployed overseas.

In the days to come, you can depend on The Unknown Soldiers to bring you the personal stories of brave volunteer warriors who never quit. As I said in Sunday night's post, they've lived every day of the past nine and a half years like its September 12, 2001. Our challenge as a nation, which is finally displaying the same sense of unity we all took part in after we were attacked, will be to live every day of the next decade like it's May 2, 2011.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


At 11:35 p.m. eastern time, an announcement by the President of the United States allowed us all to say five words that we have yearned to shout into the sky since September 11, 2001.


Tonight is for every American murdered in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania on that horrific September day. Tonight is for their families. Tonight is for all the innocent people around the world that al Qaeda has butchered and enslaved.

But tonight is also for every man and woman who, before and after that terrible September day, volunteered to defend this nation from evil, which Osama bin Laden personified during his despicable life. You, the brave soldiers, sailors, coast guardsmen, airmen, and Marines of the United States Armed Forces, are our heroes.

I am particularly emotional thinking about the families of so many fallen heroes you have read about on this blog. When I've asked family members and friends of our departed warriors why their loved ones volunteered to serve, I can't tell you how many times I've gotten a simple response: September 11, 2001. The sacrifices of those brave brothers and sisters in arms were undoubtedly on the minds of the valiant Americans who stormed the terrorist compound in Pakistan, and ultimately brought Osama bin Laden to justice.

Through nine and a half years of victory, defeat, struggle, and sacrifice, the men and women of our military never quit. Often with little fanfare, they stayed focused on the mission to make this world safer for our children. While the mission isn't over, tonight is as close to V-E Day and V-J Day as our generation will likely ever experience.

On September 11, 2001, New York firefighters heard screams for help as ashes and bodies fell from the gigantic twin towers looming above them. Rather than run for cover as fires burned and the buildings buckled, they ran inside, trying to save as many lives as possible, regardless of the consequences to their own.

On September 11, 2001, service members and civilians at the Pentagon were just getting into work when a plane slammed into the headquarters of our nation's defense. So many people who dedicated their lives to service were murdered at the Pentagon that day, robbing their spouses and children of precious time that they would have cherished.

On September 11, 2001, the passengers of United Flight 93 stormed the plane's cockpit and gave America its first victory of the war on terrorism. With no regard for their own lives, they spared the lives of even more Americans on the ground in our nation's capital.

The men and women of the United States military refused to let their fellow Americans down. To these brave volunteer warriors, as well as their friends in the intelligence and homeland security communities, every day of the past nine and a half years has been September 12, 2001.

Inspired to serve, hundreds of thousands of American heroes boarded planes and ships and went wherever they were ordered to fight. Thank you to every single American service member, veteran, and military family member for your selfless dedication during this epic struggle against the darkness of evil. Because of you, there is light, and we are free.

Image courtesy: Spc. Anthony Jones