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

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Those Who Serve

Image courtesy: Staff Sgt. Matthew Smith

While dining with the families of fallen U.S. Naval Academy graduates Friday night in Annapolis, Md., an honorable man stood and delivered a stirring speech.

Cmdr. Jeff Eggers is a Navy SEAL who currently serves on the national security staff at the White House. He's been to Iraq and Afghanistan, repeatedly risking his life to keep others safe. Now, he's using his academic and military expertise, coupled with his combat training and experience, to improve the lives of our men and women in uniform and civilians on the ground.

Commander Eggers wanted us to think about an oft-used word -- service -- and challenged us to think about its true meaning. The word is personal to this Navy SEAL, who has lost several dear friends in combat. He spoke of the one percent of our population that volunteers to protect us, while also rightfully pointing out an additional one percent that serves: our country's military families. Never in our country's proud history, the SEAL said, has such a small percentage of Americans shouldered the heavy burden of protecting a nation.

He also gave a stirring account of accompanying President Obama to Dover, Del., on Aug. 9, to salute the caskets of 38 brave Americans and Afghans who were killed in a tragic Afghanistan helicopter crash three days earlier. As someone who was in Dover that day, Eggers' account was both vivid and eye-opening. After the grueling, emotional series of dignified transfer ceremonies, the president turned to the SEAL, who was thanking the commander-in-chief for being in Dover to honor his fallen brothers.

"Today is all about the families," the president said.

Less than three months later, today is -- once again -- all about the families. On Saturday morning, reports out of Kabul, Afghanistan, began informing Americans of a stunning, tragic loss. More than a dozen people -- including several U.S. troops -- were reportedly killed in a terrorist attack in the southwest section of the Afghan capital, which evil Taliban spokesmen are already taking credit for. As initial reports filter out of the war zone, we must remember that the situation is fluid, and information often changes.

What will never change is what these troops were doing when they died. They were serving our country. As Eggers brilliantly articulated just hours before their deaths, service isn't just a word. It's a big idea that embodies the very best of America. In a nation that's been at war for more than ten years with an all-volunteer military, those who serve are part of a small, exclusive community of Americans who ask themselves the same question that 1st Lt. Travis Manion, who was killed in Iraq in 2007, pondered before his final deployment. "If not me, then who..."

But today is all about the families. Soon, more moms, dads, wives, and husbands will receive knocks on the door from military messengers, informing them of their loved one's ultimate sacrifice. Even during this time of incredible loss, it is crucial for these families to know that they will never grieve alone. As I witnessed last night in Annapolis, America's newest families of the fallen will join a growing community of wonderful people who did not deserve to lose a loved one. While the pain these families experience is unimaginable, their compassion and wisdom, especially for one another, is unparalleled.

Even in the wake of Saturday's horrific terrorist attack in Kabul, the fight goes on in Afghanistan, from the country's war-torn cities to remote forward operating bases in some of the world's most desolate places. As Cmdr. Jeff Eggers made clear from half a world away, these men and women in uniform define a new, profound idea of service.

Back home, their families are serving too. This weekend, and every day, is all about them. Our thoughts and prayers are with the loved ones of the warriors who fell today in Afghanistan, as well as the brave Americans who continue to risk their lives in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world. Civilians like me owe everything to humble heroes like you.

Image courtesy: Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras

An Early Thanksgiving

Image courtesy: DVIDS

At first glance, Oct. 16 was just another Sunday in Everson, Wash. Without relevant football to watch during a Seattle Seahawks bye week, many citizens enjoyed the crisp fall air swirling through the foothills of the snow-capped Cascade Mountain Range.

Still, something remarkable happened that afternoon, when a young Marine said a prayer before an early Thanksgiving dinner with his wife and relatives. Despite what lay ahead, Cpl. Reece Lodder had something to be thankful for.

"I knew that God had given me some exceptional gifts that I could put to use as a Marine," Cpl. Lodder told the Unknown Soldiers.

While most Americans stuff themselves with turkey on Nov. 24, Lodder will be risking his life in one of the world's most violent places: Afghanistan's volatile south.

"My company commander ... he's going on his sixth combat deployment," Lodder, 22, said. "This is my first combat deployment."

After just completing six grueling weeks of pre-deployment training with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment in California's Mojave Desert, Lodder believes he is physically and mentally prepared for war. The emotional part is toughest.

"Preparing to say goodbye to the most important person in your life for seven months ... it hurts," the concerned husband said. "It's a struggle."

In this time of war, the Marine firmly believes that God and country are calling.

"If nobody was prepared to make that sacrifice, then we wouldn't be blessed with what we have," said Lodder, who was 12 years old on Sept. 11, 2001.

As the future Marine grew up just south of Canada, he saw two close church friends deploy to dangerous provinces of Iraq. While he didn't feel guilty for the good life his parents and four siblings built through hard work, Lodder felt he could do more.

"I was very comfortable with just being here," he said. "But I never felt like I was really giving anything up or contributing to the greater good."

After graduating from high school and then earning his associate degree, Lodder joined the Marine Corps in April 2009. In addition to his will to fight, the ambitious young patriot offered another set of skills.

"I've always enjoyed writing ... I've always had a very strong passion for it," he explained. "And photography I've always loved, but I never had the chance to do it."

As a military journalist, Lodder gets to interview heroes like Sgt. Dakota Meyer, a Medal of Honor recipient and fellow Marine. But Lodder's best training for adjusting to life as a combat correspondent may have come in the Mojave Desert's intense heat.

"It's searing; it's scorching; it dehydrates you," Lodder said. "But we take a lot of pride in knowing that we can endure this — we can laugh through it; we can sweat through it; we can bleed through it — but when we come out on the other end, we've done it successfully."

The Marine knows he cannot walk between Taliban fighters and the improvised explosive devices they plant because he's carrying a camera. As he covers sacred ground on which so many fine Americans have bled during the past decade, Lodder will be in grave danger.

"First and foremost, I'm a Marine, so I'm going there to support the Marines to my right and left," he explained. "We're all going there to support each other ... to accomplish our mission as a team."

Instead of worrying about his safety, Lodder is thinking about a rendezvous with destiny.

"I'm going to be moving around a lot, doing my utmost to tell the stories of as many Marines and Navy Corpsmen as I can," Lodder said. "I really believe in my job, not only as a Marine, but being able to tell their stories ... I can't think of anything more rewarding."

As he packs for Afghanistan, Cpl. Reece Lodder's overriding concern is his wife's well-being.

"For her, I'm going to be in danger, and that's something you think about every day," he said. "But we've got the strongest perspective that God's taking care of us."


Image courtesy: Cpl. Reece Lodder

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Story for Us

From left to right: David Simpson, Sgt. Jonathan Simpson, Cpl. Paul Simpson, Lance Cpl. Abraham Simpson

Maria Simpson vividly recalls the day her oldest son, Abraham, first met his teenage cousin, Jonathan, who was visiting from Quebec. The adults were chatting downstairs at her family's Chino, Calif., home when they heard a small commotion above them.

"They were upstairs playing with the (toy) Army men," Maria told The Unknown Soldiers. "Jonathan had hidden snipers in the dog's fur."

Even as teenagers, the mutual respect the cousins shared for the military eclipsed all communication boundaries.

"Jonathan hardly spoke English at the time," Maria explained. "But they got along great."

When Jonathan, who became a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen on July 4, 2001, graduated from boot camp shortly after 9/11, Abe was there to congratulate him.

When Abe enlisted out of high school, his parents were not surprised. Maria's Navy husband, Jim, has always encouraged their three sons to serve.

"I knew he would be going into the military since he was young," Maria said of Abe. "Everyone who knew him knew he was going to become a Marine."

As Jonathan navigated C-130 aircraft in Okinawa, Japan, Abe trained hard to make their shared dream of military service a reality. He graduated from basic training and began preparing for a deployment to Iraq.

"Abe seemed pretty focused," the Marine's mother said. "I don't think he was scared at all."

Before he left for Iraq, Lance Cpl. Abraham Simpson, 19, told his parents that if anyone in the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment had to die in battle, he wanted to be the one to make the ultimate sacrifice. As a young man of deep faith who gave a portion of every dollar he earned to his church, Abe viewed death as a new beginning.

"He knew where he was going," Maria said. "He would have taken a bullet for another Marine."

On Nov. 9, 2004, Abe, who had just switched places with another Marine in a mortar line, was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by terrorists in Iraq's Al Anbar Province. He died instantly.

The next morning, Maria, who knew Abe was in grave danger, was getting in her car when she saw a military van driving slowly down the street. The Marine mom knew the war had hit home.

"I thought, Oh my Gosh, Abe's in the battle of Fallujah," she said.

The van drove past her house, prompting Maria to worry that another family had lost a son or daughter. She had almost backed out of the driveway when the van turned around.

It was then that she knew Abe was in heaven.

"The Marines were very respectful," Maria said.

Upon learning of his cousin's death, Sgt. Jonathan Simpson boarded a flight in Japan.

"Jonathan was a pallbearer at the funeral," Maria said. "At that time, he told me he would make the switch to infantry in order to honor Abe's service."

On Oct. 16, 2006, Jonathan, who once hid toy snipers in the fur of Abe's dog, died in the same Iraqi province as his cousin. He was killed by an enemy sniper's bullet.

"We had already done this and never wanted to do it again," Maria said while describing her 25-year-old nephew's Quebec funeral. "He was such a polite young man and very respectful."

Incredibly, Maria watched another son, Cpl. Paul Simpson, deploy to Afghanistan last year.

"We hadn't had a Simpson come back from combat alive," she said. "I was always looking at the door to see if someone was knocking."

The knock never came. Paul, 23, who served in the same Marine unit as his big brother, made it home safely. Maria's youngest son plans to join the military as well.

The loved ones Abe left behind aren't intimidated by death.

"Our protection is placing our situation in God's hands," Maria said. "Nobody wants it to happen to them, but on the other hand, why should it happen to other people and not me?"

Seven years after losing Abe, Maria shares his story, as well as Jonathan's, so fellow Americans know what's been sacrificed for their freedom.

"He was our son, but at the moment he died, he became an American son," she said. "I think his story belongs to all of us."


Images courtesy: Maria Simpson

Friday, October 21, 2011

'If Not Me, Then Who...'

Images courtesy: Travis Manion Foundation

When 1st Lt. Travis Manion was asked why he had to repeatedly risk his life in faraway lands, his response was simple, but direct:

"If not me, then who..."

That stirring quote sits on my desk every single day, engraved on a silver plaque. Along with "be bold, be brief, be gone" -- the unforgettable mantra of Marine Maj. Megan McClung -- 1st Lt. Manion's words have guided this humble chapter of my career.

Manion, 26, was killed in Iraq's Al Anbar province on Apr. 29, 2007, while attacking the enemy, saving the wounded, and diverting sniper fire away from his fellow Marines. In awarding the Silver Star to this fallen American hero, Gen. John R. Allen, who now commands U.S. forces in Afghanistan, referred to Manion as one of America's greatest post-9/11 heroes.

"Travis strode like a giant wherever he went," the general said. "He had a personal role in the liberation of Fallujah...and the shining example Fallujah has now become."

The son of Col. Tom Manion and Janet Manion, the example set by this Marine is one for an entire generation of Americans to follow. Among the first to take his lead was one of Manion's closest friends, Lt. Brendan Looney, the Marine's Naval Academy roommate who dedicated the rest of his Navy SEAL training to Travis. "If not me, then who..." wasn't just a quote to Lt. Looney, it was how he would live the rest of his life.

I first spoke to Ryan Manion Borek, Travis' older sister, about three weeks after Looney, 29, was killed in a tragic Sept. 21, 2010, helicopter crash that killed nine American troops in Afghanistan's Zabul province. Her brother's grave had just been moved from Pennsylvania to Arlington National Cemetery so he could rest in eternity next to Brendan.

While interviewing Ryan for what would later become my first syndicated newspaper column, she mentioned the Travis Manion Foundation, which was spearheaded by her mother's tireless dedication to honoring Travis and all fallen heroes. The foundation was doing wonderful things for Gold Star families and the entire nation.

"We have to continue their mission of service," Travis' big sister said. "We will carry on the foundation in Travis' name and Brendan's name as well. They left this world with so much to give."

About a year later, Ryan, who is the Travis Manion Foundation's Executive Director, asked me to become the organization's Community Manager. As I told her on Monday, to help this fine organization, in the spirit of Travis and Brendan's enduring legacies, is the honor of a lifetime. Without hesitation, I accepted the offer.

The Travis Manion Foundation honors the fallen while challenging the living. The Unknown Soldiers blog fully embraces this cause, and is humbled to join forces and learn from the foundation's leadership team, distinguished board of directors, and expert advisory board.

Most of all, I am honored to work for Janet Manion, Travis' mother and the Foundation's Chairman. For beginning this noble effort during a period of such overwhelming grief, and for seeing it through, you are a true visionary for all Americans to admire, Mrs. Manion. I didn't have the privilege of knowing your son, but I know he would be proud of you, Col. Manion, and your daughter.

I urge everyone to read about The Travis Manion Foundation's innovative programs. The foundation awards Challenge Grants to survivors of fallen heroes who challenge themselves in a creative way to honor their loved one. It also partners with The Mission Continues to help wounded and disabled post-9/11 veterans serve their communities in honor of fallen heroes.

The Character Does Matter program brings "If not me, then who..." to children, some of whom may not realize that America is still at war. Through heartfelt, informative school presentations, students are challenged to adopt a fallen hero and perform meaningful service projects in his or her memory. Students then write essays about their work, with the chance of being awarded scholarships for the most moving examples of character-driven service.

The 9/11 Heroes Run started with a single event in the Manions' Philadelphia-area hometown of Doylestown, Pa., where the foundation is based. By Sept. 11, 2011, more than 15,000 people were participating in 29 U.S. cities and 8 international locations, including Afghanistan, Guam, England, and Italy. The incredible success of this unifying event, which brings Americans together on each 9/11 anniversary, is a shining light in a nation at war.

Soon, the silver "If not me, then who..." plaque sitting on my desk will arrive at its rightful destination: 1st Lt. Travis Manion's hometown.

While I am nothing compared to a man who a general called a giant, I hope that my writing about our warriors and their families can, in some small measure, live up to this legacy of great significance.

As I am learning more and more each day, 1st Lt. Manion didn't go to Iraq to become a hero. He wanted to do his duty as a Marine and protect the people around him. That's why there are only five words that can adequately sum up how we should challenge ourselves to honor the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.

"If not me, then who..."

Note: Please consider supporting the Travis Manion Foundation's worthy cause by making a financial contribution or volunteering your valuable time.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

In Their Shoes

Image courtesy: Dequenne family

Capt. Jason Dequenne was sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner with his wife and son in Stafford, Va., when he got the stunning news. His friend and fellow Marine, Sgt. Jason Smith, had been killed in Afghanistan.

"I remember collapsing into the chair I was standing closest to," Capt. Dequenne told The Unknown Soldiers. "You're just in disbelief."

As excruciating pain sunk in, hundreds of memories raced through Dequenne's mind, with one in particular sticking out.

"I remember him asking me if EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) was the right thing to do," the Marine recounted. "I didn't plan the years after he joined EOD, but you can't help but second guess."

Dequenne knows his friend's death, which occurred half a world away on Nov. 19, 2010, wasn't the fault of anyone other than terrorists who plant bombs to murder our troops and innocent civilians.

"He went off and did something he was very proud of," Dequenne said. "He saved lives."

In the weeks that followed, Dequenne, the grandson of a heroic Marine who survived the historic World War II battle of Iwo Jima, scanned news outlets for stories about his fallen friend. In addition to reading about other troops making the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan, Dequenne also hoped to read more about Iraq, where he once served.

The results were disappointing.

"As an EOD guy, (Sgt. Smith) saved so many lives, and as I looked in the media, I saw almost nothing about it," Dequenne said. "The real tragedy is for (service members) to pass and to have nobody know who they are or what they did."

Like the day he started basic training 16 years ago, Dequenne, who became a Marine Corps officer in 2005 and was promoted to captain two years ago, resolved to hit the ground running and never leave a Marine behind.

Image courtesy: Pfc. Tabitha Bartley

Starting Oct. 15 at the Marine Corps' Philadelphia birthplace, Dequenne will run 236 miles to raise money for the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation, which gives higher education scholarships to children of the fallen.

"I can't think of a charity that better makes sure that these kids have the best chance to be successful," the Marine said. "They've (lost) a mom or dad, but at least they'll have an education."

While the 236 miles signify the upcoming 236th birthday of the Marine Corps, Dequenne wants to go an even greater distance. For each mile of his run, which will culminate Oct. 30 at the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, Dequenne will honor a different Marine or Navy Corpsman who made the ultimate sacrifice. He calls it "running a mile in their shoes."

"For some of these folks, it's been years since someone outside of their local communities where they grew up showed interest," he said. "What I hope to do is let the families of these fallen Marines and Corpsmen know that their lost loved one's sacrifice hasn't been forgotten."

While training for the long run has been exceptionally intense, filling most of the Marine's personal time, the hardest part may have been asking for a father's permission to honor his daughter. Dequenne described his phone call with Michael McClung, a retired Marine who lost his 34-year-old daughter, Maj. Megan McClung, in Iraq on Dec. 6, 2006.

Image courtesy: McClung family

"It's like when you're nervous, as a teenager, about asking a girl to dance," Dequenne said, adding that Megan's dad was kind and supportive. "Like any good father, he's very protective of her."

Major McClung's enduring mantra — "be bold, be brief, be gone" — has inspired thousands around the world, including this writer. What moves me equally is the service and dedication of Capt. Dequenne, who is ensuring that his fallen brothers and sisters in arms are always remembered.

"I would say it has probably been the most enriching experience of my entire life," the 38-year-old Marine said.

Early in his 236-mile run, Capt. Jason Dequenne will spend a mile in the shoes of Sgt. Jason Smith. He'll remember the good times, as well as Thanksgiving, when he learned of his 28-year-old friend's passing. But first and foremost, he'll remember one enduring truth about a warrior and his legacy.

"Once a Marine, always a Marine," he said.


Image courtesy: Smith family

Note: You can learn more about Capt. Jason Dequenne's 236-mile run, the kind individuals making his journey possible, and the Marines and Navy Corpsmen he's honoring by visiting the Freedom Through Sacrifice website.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Images courtesy: Kristi Pearson

Christmas will never be the same for Kristi Pearson. Instead of a day to rejoice and relax, the holiday is a time to remember and reflect.

During the 2006 holiday season, Kristi, at the insistence of her husband, Pfc. Andrew H. Nelson, flew home to central Michigan from Germany, where the soldier trained for his first combat tour. As the 19-year-old warrior spent Christmas fighting during the height of the Iraq war, he wanted his bride surrounded by loved ones.

After a Christmas-morning video chat with her husband and a nice afternoon with her family, the 19-year-old Army wife suddenly panicked.

"I looked at my brother and said, 'Something doesn't feel right ... I feel like something has been taken away, and I don't know what it is,'" Kristi told The Unknown Soldiers.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 26, military messengers knocked on the door of her family's home in St. Johns, where Kristi and Andrew met in 4th grade. At almost the precise moment that a sense of dread began to consume her, Kristi's husband lost his life on the battlefield.

According to the Pentagon, Pfc. Nelson died when an improvised explosive device blew up near his Army vehicle. The Baghdad terrorist attack also killed Sgt. John Bubeck, 25, and Spc. Aaron Preston, 29.

"All of this was a giant blur to me," Kristi bravely recounted four and a half years later, while admitting that the tragedy still spurs panic attacks. "I don't know how to explain it."

Kristi grew up in a military family. But when Andrew decided to join the Army after high school, she couldn't help but worry.

"It's different when it's your husband instead of a parent," she explained, while emphasizing Andrew's love for the Armed Forces.

Kristi and Andrew married on Nov. 5, 2005, just before the soldier left for Germany. She joined him there in the spring, when they would finally be able to take a honeymoon to London and Paris.

"I am really thankful we were in Germany together," Kristi said. "Whenever I think of our marriage, I think of all the amazing things we got to see and all the places we got to go."

Andrew was a "jokester," but as a soldier, he was intensely prepared. Fellow troops told Kristi that her late husband brought an almost ridiculous variety of tools with him on every mission, earning him the affectionate nickname "Ranger Rick."

"He was a soldier who had everything," Kristi said. "Everyone always joked about that and gave him a tough time."

After Andrew's sudden death, communities throughout central Michigan and the U.S. military embraced the soldier's widow, his loving parents, Alan and Tami, and Andrew's loyal siblings, Jessica and Stephanie. For Kristi, picking up the jagged pieces of her shattered life after the worst Christmas imaginable would not be easy.

In the years to come, Kristi fell in love with another brave American soldier, Staff Sgt. Aaron Pearson.

"I want people to know that it's okay to move on and be happy again," she said.

Sadly, Kristi's grandfather passed away last fall. With the horror of Christmas 2006 still looming, Kristi again flew to Michigan with a husband in a war zone; this time it was Afghanistan.

"I was terrified to go home because I was so scared that if I went there while my husband was deployed, something would happen again," Kristi recalled.

Staff Sgt. Pearson was injured in Afghanistan a few months later, within days of Christmas 2010.

"He called me later and said 'I was medevaced, but I am fine,'" Kristi said, her voice trembling. "There were a lot of coincidences, and it was really scary."

With her second husband home, Kristi feels a fragile sense of ease. But with her first husband departed, a sense of loss still remains.

"It's always there, and I always think about it," she said.

On Dec. 25, Kristi Pearson will observe the five-year anniversary of Pfc. Andrew H. Nelson's tragic passing in Iraq while also reflecting on how fortunate Staff Sgt. Aaron Pearson was to survive Afghanistan. Indeed, Christmas will never be the same.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

'Radio Ga Ga'

Image courtesy: U.S. Army

In much of the western world, the days of children gathering around radios, as Roger Taylor wrote in the hit Queen song "Radio Ga Ga," are long gone. In an age of iPods, iPhones and SiriusXM, antenna radio's once strong signal is fading rapidly.

In Iraq, which has been in a perpetual state of war for three decades, many children still congregate around radios. It is in Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein's iron fist was left on the ash heap of history, that Staff Sgt. Brad Ruffin has served since December.

Staff Sgt. Ruffin, 42, served in the Marines before joining the Army. This soldier is ready for battle. Yet while deployed to the Iraqi capital, one of his most important jobs has been entertaining U.S. troops and Iraqi citizens on American Forces Network-Iraq's Freedom Radio.

With the number of American boots on the ground shrinking by the day in the midst of a continuing U.S. withdrawal, AFN-Iraq is shutting down. While speaking with the Unknown Soldiers from Baghdad just hours before its final broadcast, Ruffin reflected on the station's legacy.

"I guess for me, being on the radio during this deployment is the one thing I'm going to reflect on most," the soldier said. "Hopefully someone out there — maybe a little kid — it inspired them to become a musician or get into TV."

The first song ever played on Freedom Radio, as the Iraq war took shape in 2003, was Paul McCartney's "Freedom." The last was Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" on Sept. 23, 2011.

Ruffin is proud of what the radio station meant to war-ravaged Iraq.

"The locals are appreciative," he said. "I've been talking about this to other troops who I come in contact with."

Still, the Plano, Texas, soldier desperately misses his wife and child. They are waiting near Charlotte, N.C., for his return, which is expected sometime this fall.

"Sometimes it's frustrating to be away from home," Ruffin admitted. "But it's great to be helping others out."

As soldiers with the Army's 206th Broadcast Operations Detachment spent months taking phone, email and Facebook song requests from around the world, Ruffin realized the continuing power of music, which connected troops and their families through the spirit of radio.

"People in the United States are asleep, and they wake up in the middle of the night to get a message to their son or daughter," he explained. "Or even a soldier that's returned home — they'll call or email to request a song."

Ruffin, who knows first-hand about the stress of deployments, was deeply moved by the burst of patriotic enthusiasm.

"That stuff blows me away," Ruffin said. "These people are obviously either staying up or waking up just to let us know how much they appreciate what we're doing here."

Hours before Freedom Radio's swan song in Iraq, requests were still pouring in on Facebook from the home of the brave.

"I'm sending a shout-out to my son stationed in Iraq, Spc. Justin Buderer," Lynn Buderer posted on Sept. 23. "Play 'Rocky Top' for him and all of the other Tennessee Volunteers deployed there!"

"I would like to send a shout-out to my husband, Sgt. Micheal Picon, serving there in Iraq," Christina Vara-Picon wrote the same day. "Be safe and hurry home. Godspeed!"

Iraqis were also emotional about the end of Freedom Radio in their country.

"Thank you AFN-Iraq for all the great songs and the beautiful memories," Hassan Timimy wrote. "We will miss you, and you will always be in our heart and soul for all the good times that we spent with you."

Freedom Radio has signed off in Iraq. But in Afghanistan, one of the world's most dangerous, impoverished countries, Afghan children and American troops still sit alone, watching a radio's light flicker during the abundant darkness of war. On Freedom Radio Afghanistan, the hard work of soldiers like Staff Sgt. Brad Ruffin endures.