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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Inside the Envelope

Images courtesy: Facebook

Ten days after losing his left arm and both legs in Afghanistan's treacherous Arghandab River valley, Sgt. Rusty Dunagan lay in a Washington, D.C., hospital bed. After being too choked up to say much to his wife by phone from his previous hospital bed in Germany, he was about to see Angie for the first time since the explosion.

"I was so drugged up," Sgt. Dunagan told The Unknown Soldiers. "But I was calm, and (my wife and mother) were calm because they didn't want to scare me."

Shortly after the emotional reunion, a soldier brought an envelope into Dunagan's room, explaining that it contained some of the wounded warrior's personal effects. Given the violent, unforgettable chaos of the explosion, the delivery was a surprise.

Suddenly without a left hand, Dunagan asked his wife to open the envelope. What happened next may have been the most important moment of his life.

Dunagan, a native of Guthrie, Okla., said he joined the Army on Sept. 21, 2006, four years and one day before the explosion. He had spent the days since 9/11 working at Walmart, where he felt a sharp pull toward serving his country.

"My job in retail was interesting," Dunagan, 31, said. "But I wanted something more."

Though Rusty was still single when he went to Iraq in March 2008, being away from his family and friends was difficult. But as bullets flew, the deployed warrior had no choice but to adjust after deploying from Texas' Fort Hood.

"I made a lot of really good friends there, especially in infantry, because it's like a band of brothers," he said. "I missed my friends and family, but when you're (deployed), you really don't have time to think about it."

Even though the sergeant returned home safely from Iraq, he thought every day about the dozen soldiers from his unit killed during the deployment. It wasn't until his brigade relocated to Colorado's Fort Carson that Dunagan had something to smile about.

"When I met my wife, she knew I was in the military," he recalled. "I told her, you know, we are leaving within a year."

Undaunted by the unknown, they got married. Still, the newlyweds spoke frankly about the challenges Rusty's unit would face during its upcoming Afghanistan mission.

"We knew it was going to be a tough deployment," the soldier said. "I always tried to stay upbeat and keep her positive."

On Sept. 22, 2010, Dunagan set out for the day's fourth combat patrol to help fellow soldiers establish a battlefield position. From his latest hospital bed in San Antonio, where the attack's other wounded survivors are also recovering, the triple-amputee recounted the horror that followed a minesweeper's signal that something was wrong.

"There was a pause," Dunagan said. "I was on one knee, and my buddy behind me, a guy I was bringing out there, was talking to me."

"As soon as he got up is when he hit the landmine," the soldier continued. "Forty-five pounds of homemade explosives went off and blew me into the creek."

Dunagan said he remembers being lifted out of the water and bleeding profusely all the way to the hospital.

"I was conscious until I got to Kandahar Air Field," he recounted. "Then I woke up a week later in Germany."

Days later, he looked into Angie's tearful eyes at Walter Reed as she opened the envelope.

"That's when my wedding ring came out," Dunagan said. "It was really surprising to me, because it was my left arm that was blown off."

Inspired by an extraordinary moment, which the wounded warrior and his wife viewed as a new beginning, Rusty is focused on being a husband, father, and soldier. But as he trains with prosthetic legs, he still has one more battle to conquer.

"At 6'3", 225 pounds, I was my kids' protector, and now I'm in a wheelchair," Dunagan said. "I want to get up and walk with both legs."

He firmly believes that momentous day is coming. Yet when shadows of doubt inevitably loom, all Sgt. Rusty Dunagan has to do is look down at his wedding ring. He wears it tightly on the only hand he has left.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thank You

Images courtesy: Cpl. Reece Lodder

Last month, The Unknown Soldiers introduced you to Cpl. Reece Lodder, a Marine who, after having an early Thanksgiving with his loved ones, was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. Cpl. Lodder, who took the picture above of a recent feast, is now deployed to the war zone, apart from his wife and family.

The combat correspondent checked in via e-mail on Nov. 15.

"I'm doing well out here," he wrote. "Busy as ever, working past 10 every night. Putting out quality stories and imagery though, which is my purpose for being here."

Lodder is too humble to mention that he's risking his life to bring stories like this one home. But to understand the dangers our troops still face in Afghanistan, one should simply read articles like the one he filed from Garmsir, a district in the volatile Helmand province.

"The threat of improvised explosive devices still looms over the district, but the pervasive insurgency of two years ago has almost completely disappeared," the Marine wrote.

Even though the Marine reporter just arrived in Afghanistan, Lodder knows what is being sacrificed there. Since Wednesday of last week, at least seven American troops have been lost in battle.

Cpl. Zachary Reiff, 22, Preston, Iowa
Pvt. Jackie Diener II, 20, Boyne City, Michigan
Lance Cpl. Joshua Corral, 19, Danville, California
Pfc. Adam Dobereiner, 21, Moline, Illinois
Spc. Sean Walsh, 21, San Jose, California
Spc. James Burnett Jr., 21, Wichita, Kansas
Pfc. Matthew Colin, 22, Navarre, Florida

None of these seven American heroes reached their 23rd birthday.

As we enjoy the company of our loved ones around the holidays, let's pause to think about the Reiff, Diener, Corral, Dobereiner, Walsh, Burnett, and Colin families. Not only are there empty spots at their dinner tables, but in just the past few days, they've been forced to confront the incomprehensible reality that their loved ones have been killed in action.

If you're looking for something to be thankful for, look no further than America's newest Gold Star families. They have sacrificed more for this country than we could every repay, and our thoughts and prayers are with them.

While exchanging e-mails with Cpl. Lodder, I asked him if he needed a care package.

"I would love to receive a care package of any kind," he responded. "We don't have any kind of store or anything out here, so anything is welcomed!"

Despite the advice of misguided Massachusetts law professor, who scolded Suffolk University students for holding a care package drive, many helpful items are already on the way to Lodder and his fellow Marines in Afghanistan. And don't worry, Prof. Michael Avery, your care package, which contains photos of fallen troops you dishonored with your despicable e-mail rant, will be on its way shortly.

Every day, I worry about the safety of brave service members like Cpl. Lodder, who put their lives on the line in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world for our freedom and security. But what I go through is nothing compared to their relatives and friends, like this Marine's wife, who spend nearly every waking moment waiting, wondering, and worrying about their loved ones.

When I mailed Cpl. Reece Lodder's care package, I also sent a Christmas card to his wife. While troops overseas need our constant support, it's critical for all of us to remember that their families fight these wars too. Mrs. Lodder, your husband is doing extremely important work, and on this Thanksgiving holiday, I know God is watching over him.

Hopefully, all of our deployed troops will have enough time, as well as enough food and utensils, to eat a nice Thanksgiving dinner. Perhaps they'll even have the luxury of calling or Skyping their loved ones back home. When dinner is over, though, it will be back to war, and all the sacrifices that go with it.

To every active duty warrior, veteran, and loved one: Happy Thanksgiving. As thousands of military families spend holidays apart in a time of war, we thank these patriots for keeping our families together in a land of relative peace.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

In the Name of Love

Image courtesy: Facebook

Anybody who has heard the song "Bad," from U2's smash-hit album "The Unforgettable Fire," instantly recognizes the rock anthem's inspiring chorus.

Bono screaming "I'm wide awake!" was in my head immediately after reading this wonderful Facebook status update from the family of badly wounded Army 2nd Lt. Nick Vogt, who lost his legs in Afghanistan ten days ago.

"What a way to start the day!!!........Great news! Through the night Nick 'fully' woke up. He looks great. Everyone is very excited. He can't speak due to the trake but he understands what is being said to him. He acknowledges commands and has even given a 'thumbs up.' He is a very popular guy this morning. We are off to Walter Reed. Give thanks to God for He is good!"

Even in the harrowing moments after 2nd Lt. Vogt reportedly stepped on an improvised explosive device, when his heart momentarily stopped before doctors revived the brave soldier, the Vogt family never lost faith.

"We are hearing about all of the wonderful things that people are doing for Nick and our family," the family posted in an earlier update. "We love you all!"

While the national media has continued its neverending focus on political bickering and celebrity fluff, the tenacity of Vogt and his family has captivated much of the military community. And as the words of the West Point graduate's family prove, the thoughts and prayers are making a huge difference.

"Please just keep praying for more miracles, folks," the family wrote. "He's had so many aleady, but please continue to ask God to send more for Nick's healing and comfort and to guide the hands of the doctors and medical staff that are caring for him."

When this soldier returns to the country he fought for, he will begin a new journey. Adjusting to life as an amputee will be unimaginably difficult for this tough, proud patriot, but today and every day moving forward, let us all continue to surround him with love.

As another classic song on the same U2 album goes, Pride (In The Name of Love), love is the most powerful human emotion. It's something that evil men, like those who waste their lives fighting for the Taliban and al Qaeda, can never conquer.

With our love and support, 2nd Lt. Nick Vogt will win this battle.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

All Down the Line

On a gray, windy fall afternoon just south of Atlanta, 16 American soldiers lined up to tell ordinary people about an extraordinary man.

Pfc. Jeremy Faulkner, 23, and five fellow 101st Airborne Division heroes were killed in Afghanistan's rugged Kunar Province during a chaotic Mar. 29 firefight. Despite heavy casualties, American forces ultimately won the battle, and this long line of proud "Screaming Eagles" served as living proof.

"We survived it," Pfc. Faulkner's company commander said, emphasizing the heroism of all his soldiers. "When it's all said and done, Jeremy's actions speak louder than (anything) we can do here."

Many of these soldiers returned from Afghanistan just weeks after the bloody battle. Nearly eight months later, as they check up on wounded buddies and miss their fallen friends, the Fort Campbell-based paratroopers flew by helicopter to Griffin, Ga., to present Pfc. Faulkner's family with the soldier's posthumous Bronze Star for Valor.

During the emotional ceremony, their minds must have wandered back to eastern Afghanistan's hellish mountains, where explosions and gunfire filled dark, treacherous valleys.

"I try not to think about that day so much," one soldier said, as Faulkner's family sat just a few feet in front of him. "I just think of the days before that."

While saluting Faulkner's bravery on the battlefield, remembering the good times is important to this tight-knit group.

"I miss Faulkner a lot ... he was a good friend of mine," another soldier said. "There was never a dull moment with him."

While laughing isn't easy, especially after seeing close friends killed and wounded, several Task Force No Slack troops, who spoke despite enormous grief and pressure, tried to lighten the mood.

"Jeremy was one of the smartest soldiers I met," a fellow paratrooper said. "He was always trying to learn and know his job.

"But he was always the first to get yelled at," the soldier added, prompting laughter.

Still, tears began to flow when one tall, strong warrior, who looked like he could singlehandedly destroy a terror cell, could barely speak through his grief.

"I really can't say too much or I'm going to get choked up," he said.

One Army specialist, who appeared older than the troops standing to his left and right, touched the audience with his candor.

"I miss him," the soldier said before a painful pause. "And I loved him very much."

Nobody loved Jeremy more than his mother, Judy Berry. We spoke two days after the Nov. 10 ceremony.

"It made me real proud," Berry said. "But no matter how many medals or stripes — whatever your soldier gets — you'd much rather have him."

Jeremy's mom feels a close bond to her son's brothers in arms, who approached telling his story with the same fearless dedication they showed on the battlefield.

"I didn't realize how many lives he had saved until I got a call from Afghanistan," she said. "Those boys are like my boys now."

While Berry had spoken with several soldiers by phone, the mom was overwhelmed by seeing them recount her son's final moments.

"(I have to) forget about myself and try to lift them up," Berry said. "I didn't really understand that a lot of them were hurting the way they were."

She wants Jeremy's friends to know that her son's death was not their fault.

"It's very emotional for all of them," she said. "I know a lot of them feel like they should have been out there instead of him."

While Nov. 11 was Veterans Day, the raw, dignified emotion inside the Georgia National Guard Armory showed that for some, every day is Veterans Day. Combat veterans live with emotions that few can comprehend, and concern for their well-being must be paramount.

After the last soldier spoke, the audience paused to admire this remarkable line of heroes, who stood together in silence before the moving ceremony's conclusion. It was then that I reached a conclusion of my own.

While survivors of the Mar. 29 firefight are still being challenged, they have already won another battle since returning home. They have succeeded in keeping Pfc. Jeremy Faulkner's spirit alive.

"We know where you are," a brother in arms said. "And we'll see you again."


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Why We Pray

Images courtesy: Facebook

When a Gold Star mother sends me an e-mail or gives me a call, I drop everything to read or listen. Tuesday afternoon, the proud mom of both a fallen hero and an active duty soldier sent me a story that I am compelled to share.

Second Lt. Nicholas Vogt, pictured to the left, reportedly suffered catastrophic wounds on Saturday when the soldier stepped on an improvised explosive device. According to The Mansfield News Journal, 2nd Lt. Vogt, while still Army strong at this hour, lost both of his legs in the tragic terrorist attack.

This news is both incomprehensible and heartbreaking. However, when reading the Facebook page of the soldier's mother, who is politely asking everyone to pray for her son, it's impossible not to come away inspired.

"The phone call finally came this morning at 5:30. It was our German Angel, (name removed for family's privacy)," the Army mom wrote on Wednesday. "He said, 'Mr & Mrs. Vogt, I'm here with Nicholas right now. I'm going to put the phone up to his ear so you can talk to him.' It was the most amazing minute of our lives."

There had been some uncertainty over whether the 24-year-old wounded warrior could survive a flight from Afghanistan to the hospital in Germany. Considering that the soldier's heart briefly stopped after the explosion, according to the aforementioned article, Wednesday's development is being viewed by many as nothing short of miraculous.

The newspaper reported that on Monday night, hundreds of concerned citizens poured into a Shelby, Ohio, church to pray for the soldier and his family, who hail from nearby Crestline. The community came together for the service despite heavy rain.

Less than 48 hours later, it's clear that the prayers of these good people are being heard.

As an American soldier fights for his life, let the prayers of northern Ohio stretch across the entire nation, and echo so loudly that they are heard not only in heaven, but inside a hospital in Germany and inside the unit where this warrior so bravely served in Afghanistan. Even though he's left the war zone, this soldier is still fighting, and we should all be fighting for him.

"Nick is still the same good lookin son we all know and love," his mom posted. "Keep praying, people. Nick still has such a long way to go for recovery that we can't stop yet. Our prayers (and his strong will) have gotten him this far and they will carry him even further, we know it."

Later this afternoon, by coincidence, I will be speaking on the phone with a combat veteran who lost both legs and an arm while fighting in southwest Asia. I plan to tell him about 2nd Lt. Vogt and the soldier's family, who shine brightly even during one of their family's darkest hours. I won't need to ask this valiant veteran to pray, because he already knows how many people prayed for him after he was badly injured.

Despite dozens of surgeries, the wounded warrior I will speak with later today survived. Through the strength of 2nd Lt. Nicholas Vogt, the skill of his doctors, the devotion of his family and caregivers, and the graciousness of God, we all pray that this selfless patriot will too.

Brave soldier: as you heal thousands of miles from our gentle shores of freedom, America is with you.

Friday, November 11, 2011

'Last Kiss'

Images courtesy: Monica Velez

In the middle of a grueling 26.2-mile Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 30, Monica Velez felt her calves tighten, prompting her to gasp amid the uncharacteristically frigid fall air.

"I just kept reminding myself of something," Velez told The Unknown Soldiers. "This isn't really pain."

Real pain, she said, is losing both your brothers on post-9/11 battlefields in less than two years.

"When my body hurt, I reminded myself that they didn't get to slow down," she said. "There was no time-out."

While time has often stood still for Monica, 32, over the past seven years, rarely does a day go by when she doesn't remember the good times she had with Cpl. Jose "Freddy" Velez and Spc. Andrew Velez while the siblings were being raised by a hard-working single father in Lubbock, Texas.

"My fondest memory was that we had a band when we were kids," Monica said. "I would be the singer because I'm the oldest. Andrew was the drummer and Freddy would play guitar."

Their favorite song to perform was Wayne Cochran's "Last Kiss," which was memorably covered by Pearl Jam in 1998.

"That song will always have a lot of meaning," Monica said.

Freddy joined the Army first.

"It was a peaceful time," Monica said of the year 2000. "But I'm old enough to remember Iraq the first time."

Freddy was in boot camp on Sept. 11, 2001. As America went to war, the soldier wanted to fight.

"He said, 'I'll be fine. I'm an American soldier, and nobody's going to hurt me,'" Monica recalled.

Andrew decided to join the Army in 2002, following in his brother's footsteps and helping provide for his family. Monica was worried.

Freddy deployed to Iraq in February 2004. Andrew left for Iraq about a month later. All of a sudden, both of Monica's brothers were at war.

"I spent more than half my days on my knees, crying," she recalled. "I would see the casualties coming home, and I prayed and prayed that God wouldn't do that to me because I don't know who I am without Freddy and Andrew."

On Nov. 11, 2004 — Veterans Day — Cpl. Jose "Freddy" Velez, 23, was killed while clearing an enemy stronghold in Fallujah. While his date of death is listed as Nov. 13, Monica said her family later learned Freddy died two days earlier.

Amid the chaotic confusion of war, a hysterical Andrew called home.

"He started screaming," she said. "It was non-stop and it felt like forever."

The screaming wouldn't stop until July 25, 2006, in Sharona, Afghanistan. Overwhelmed by the unrelenting hurt of his brother's death and a crumbling marriage, Spc. Andrew Velez, 22, killed himself.

Monica, who said she had raised concerns about her deployed brother's emotional state just before his suicide, broke down while discussing her family's second crushing loss.

"There's nothing I can do to change it," she said, in tears. "But maybe I can change it for somebody else."

While Freddy and Andrew's deaths divided Monica's family, the bond with her father, a retired police officer who spent his entire adult life providing for his kids, grew stronger.

"(He) tries to increase awareness," she said. "He also advocates for Andrew's death to be recognized by our community."

When Monica Velez crossed the marathon's finish line, Roy Velez was there to greet her, thanks to a grant from the Travis Manion Foundation.

"I ran back through all of our memories throughout the course," she said. "My dad always instilled a great sense of pride for our country."

While the pain in her legs would subside, the ache in this grieving sister's heart remains. But like "Last Kiss," she knows that someday, she'll sing with her brothers again. Monica Velez also believes her family's pain can help heal a nation at war.

"I tried to enjoy every moment of my run, because at the same moment, someone is fighting for me," she said. "And they wear the same uniform my brothers wore."


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Happy Birthday

Image courtesy: Sgt. Ray Lewis

For several months, Marine Sgt. Ray Lewis, 29, has been known as the guy who asked "Golden Girls" actress Betty White to the Marine Corps Ball, only to be turned down because of a scheduling conflict and asked instead by "Terminator" star Linda Hamilton.

As I'm sure Hamilton, who is instantly recognizable for her legendary film portrayals of "Sarah Connor," would agree, Sgt. Lewis is much more than a man asking a lady to dance. He's a brave United States Marine.

Sgt. Lewis was working his way through college when he first heard about the United States Marine Corps. One of his instructors had served in the Marines, and Lewis never forgot the values he espoused.

"His attention to detail and his's always going to stay with me," Sgt. Lewis told The Unknown Soldiers. "It's something I'm always going to remember."

After graduation, Lewis struggled to find a new job in his hometown of Oceanside, California, even with a college degree. The Taco Bell employee made several visits to the local Marine Corps recruiting office, asking how he could serve his country while also pursuing a career related to the spoken word. As an aspiring rapper, Lewis loved telling a story, and he hoped he put that to use as a Marine.

"I didn't go because of 9/11," he explained, "But I thought, 'hey I'm definitely going to war.'"

That's exactly where he went. After heavy training, Lewis deployed to Iraq in 2005 as a combat correspondent. While travelling Iraq's dangerous roads and photographing the war, he said one particular incident, involving children he encountered during a patrol, changed his life.

"This time, instead of asking for candy or pencils, the Iraqi kids, they asked for water," the Marine said. "It was around holiday time, and I have little brothers and they have friends...and they're asking for X-Boxes and toys.

"On the flip side, on the other side of the world, in Iraq, they're asking for water," Lewis continued. "Just drinkable water, because the river was contaminated."

When the Marine later deployed to Afghanistan, his life-altering experience was still in the front of his mind. To the combat correspondent, who took his responsibility to tell the story of war very seriously, the conflicts were about people.

"A lot of (Americans) go by what they see in the media and on the news, and they don't realize that there are people out there that need help," the Marine said. "A lot of them live out in tents in the desert, very primitively, but they're people like you and me."

With a new perspective on life after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Lewis, now stationed in Fort Worth, Texas, with the 8th Marine District, decided to have some fun. After Marine Sgt. Scott Moore invited actress Mila Kunis to a Marine Corps Ball from Afghanistan -- an invitation she accepted -- Lewis decided to have some fun and invite actress Betty White.

The video quickly went viral:

White responded with regret, saying a scheduling conflict made attending the Ball impossible. Lewis said he actually breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that the media blitz that accompanied his viral video would finally calm down. Then, out of nowhere, Hamilton posted this YouTube video:

The next thing the Marine knew, he was picking up Hamilton from the airport. He didn't know what to expect. Was she the tough, hard-nosed woman she portrayed in "T2?"

"A lot of our conversations after she got to Texas were just like a regular person, real down to earth," Lewis said.

One of the most fun aspects of a "surreal" experience was seeing the reactions of his fellow Marines at the Oct. 29 Westlake, Texas, Marine Corps Ball.

"A lot of them were like ' that Sarah Connor?'" he said. "Or some people would come up to me, and say 'hey...Linda Hamilton's right there, she's in the hotel!"

For Sgt. Lewis, though, the Marine Corps Ball was not about him, nor the Hollywood celebrity who accompanied him there. It was about celebrating the 236th birthday of the Marine Corps, which falls on Nov. 10, and thinking about Marines who are risking their lives, as he once did.

"While we speak right now, there are Marines out there patrolling, just to make sure...we set an example and set a standard so (enemies) don't come over here and attack us," the Marine said. "When I start to take things for granted, I think about them."

Too often, Hollywood and the national media unfairly brand Marines on the battlefield as soulless killing machines. Lewis, who served soft drinks to thousands of Americans at Taco Bell before a desperate Iraqi child pleaded with him for water, proves that ugly stereotype false. Like thousands and thousands of fellow Marines, Sgt. Ray Lewis serves his country because he cares about people.

In the final scene of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," Linda Hamilton's solemn voice closed a blockbuster film that almost every American remembers.

"The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it for the first time with a sense of hope," she said. "Because if a machine -- a terminator -- can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too."

Marines, while trained to kill on the battlefield if necessary, are not terminators. They are among the very best people to populate and protect the greatest country on earth.

Happy birthday, United States Marine Corps.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Earn It

Image courtesy: U.S. Marine Corps

I became an Ultimate Fighting Championship fan when I had the privilege of meeting a fighter named Brian Stann during the 2011 Marine Corps Marathon weekend in Washington.

Unlike many professional athletes who revel in gargantuan paychecks and being dubbed "warriors" by television announcers, Stann is the real deal. From his days as a child in the hard-working city of Scranton, Pa., this combat veteran has earned everything he has, including a Silver Star from President George W. Bush.

During a hellish week of fighting in early May 2005, Capt. Brian Stann, then a second lieutenant, spent several days battling terrorists while trying to seize a critically important bridge with fellow U.S. Marines near Karabilah, Iraq.

"At one point, the enemy massed on his platoon and fired over 30 rocket propelled grenades, machineguns, detonated two improvised explosive devices and attacked the unit with three suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive devices," Stann's Silver Star citation reads.

The incredible story doesn't end there.

"Inspired by his leadership and endurance, 2nd Lt. Stann's platoon held the battle position on the Euphrates River for six days, protecting the Task Force flank and isolating foreign fighters and insurgents north of the river," the citation continues.

Since receiving the prestigious military award, Stann, 31, has displayed a genuine brand of humility that's mostly absent from my generation.

"I just wanted the award that said 42 out of 42 men came home safely," the Marine veteran said on his website. "We all came home, so mission accomplished."

Two of Stann's best friends at the U.S. Naval Academy, Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion, 26, and Navy SEAL Lt. Brendan Looney, 29, did not come home safely from final deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. Losing two buddies, as well as several other friends killed in combat, weighs heavily on the shoulders of this fierce competitor.

"I had some great times with Brendan and Travis," Stann told me at the Marine Corps Marathon Health and Fitness Expo, where he was promoting the honorable missions of Hire Heroes USA and the Travis Manion Foundation.

Stann, who wrote a book called "Heart for the Fight," revealed his warrior spirit while speaking at the Team Travis and Brendan pre-marathon dinner. The event honored the fallen and rallied a team of almost 250 runners before the Oct. 30 race.

"We need men like Brendan and Travis more than ever," Stann told a packed ballroom in Arlington, Va.

Two things struck me about the warrior's remarks. First, he didn't say a word about himself. Second, he didn't just memorialize his friends; he challenged a room full of service members, veterans, military families, and civilians to honor their sacrifices.

"It's like the scene in 'Saving Private Ryan'," the Marine said. "We need to earn it."

As Stann spoke, several families of fallen heroes, including a Gold Star father and sister sitting at my table, jumped up to applaud.

Very few of us have fought to take a bridge, charged toward the enemy or saved a child's life by disabling a roadside bomb. But in order to earn our freedom, Stann doesn't think all of us have to go to Afghanistan or Iraq. Instead, we can start by taking small steps to change our lives.

"We need to remember that we have families and we have these experiences because of men like Brendan and Travis," Stann said. "So we have to reflect upon and ask ourselves: Would these relationships make men like Brendan and Travis proud? Would we be earning it?"

On a frigid Sunday morning, 21,250 Marine Corps Marathon participants, including hundreds of wounded veterans, took those steps as the sun rose above the Iwo Jima Memorial. First Lt. Travis Manion and Lt. (SEAL) Brendan Looney would have been proud, especially as their loved ones crossed the finish line.

Are we earning the extraordinary freedoms given to us by valiant Americans who fought for our country? As our brothers and sisters continue to be killed, wounded, and emotionally devastated on post-9/11 battlefields, it's a question we are compelled to ask ourselves.

I am proud to be Brian Stann's newest fan. Now, it's time to embrace his challenge.


Image courtesy: