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

Sunday, April 29, 2012

We Might Be Giants

Images courtesy: Travis Manion Foundation

"As a warrior, he strode like a giant across the battlefield of the eastern portion of Al Anbar Province."

That quote was uttered five years ago by Gen. John Allen, who now leads U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He was speaking about a Marine under his command in Iraq, 1st Lt. Travis Manion, who made the ultimate sacrifice on Apr. 29, 2007.

After heart-to-heart conversations with 1st Lt. Manion's mom, dad, and sister, phone calls with Marines who witnessed his many acts of courage, and visits to some of the places where Travis revealed his true character, it's clear that the general's quote was not hyperbole. This Marine was a real-life giant.

Travis spent most of his childhood in the Philadelphia suburb of Doylestown, Pa. One summer day in a pizzeria, Travis walked in to grab a slice with one of his best friends, who is African-American. The man behind the counter served the white customer, but ignored his black friend.

"My brother told the restaurant owner he'd never be back," Ryan Manion Borek, Travis' older sister and lone sibling, recently told students at Parkview High School in Lilburn, Ga.

Travis and his college roommate, future Navy SEAL Brendan Looney, were U.S. Naval Academy students when terrorists attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001. Despite knowing the risks they would face upon graduation, the popular, good looking Navy athletes never wavered from their ultimate goal: defending the United States during a time of war.

"They were focused," Travis' mother, Janet Manion, told me. "They knew how to have a good time, don't get me wrong, they could party like the best of them. But when it came time to do the serious stuff, they knew how to get serious."

On Dec. 4, 2006, with his second Iraq deployment just days away, Travis took in a Philadelphia Eagles game with his brother-in-law, Dave Borek. As they left the stadium celebrating a victory, Dave joked about tripping Travis, so the resulting injury would prevent him from going back to war.

Even though he knew Dave was kidding around, it was time to discuss "the serious stuff."

"Hey, Dave, if I don't go, they're going to send someone else who isn't ready," Travis said. "If not me, then who..."

On Apr. 29, 2007, in Fallujah, Iraq, a Marine and Navy Corpsman had already been shot by a sniper when 1st Lt. Manion, 26, displayed a quality for which Americans and Iraqis alike respected him. He put others before himself. Travis, while firing on enemy positions, helped pull his wounded brothers to safety before the sniper's bullet pierced his heart.

"His courageous and deliberate actions inspired the eventual counter attack and ultimately saved the lives of every member of his patrol," Travis' posthumous Silver Star citation reads.

When Travis' Naval Academy roommate, LT SEAL Brendan Looney, 29, died in a Sept. 21, 2010, helicopter crash, he was wearing a memorial bracelet engraved with his dear friend's name. While the fallen hero's wife, Amy Looney, told me the bracelet was never found, it is likely buried somewhere in the sands of Afghanistan.

If you visit Arlington National Cemetery, where Brendan, Travis, and many more giants of America's armed conflicts rest, you will see the extraordinary sacrifices of the valiant men and women who protect our freedom. "Never forget" isn't just a slogan, it's our solemn duty.

Despite grief, heartbreak, and later cancer, which tragically took the life of Travis' mother on Apr. 24, Janet Manion established the Travis Manion Foundation to assist troops, veterans, military families, and loved ones of fallen heroes. As the foundation carries on her resounding call to honor the fallen by challenging the living, "if not me, then who..." is at the forefront of every employee's thoughts, including mine.

At the dedication of Manion Hall, which houses newly commissioned Marine officers at the The Basic School in Quantico, Va., Travis' father spoke in awe of those who've volunteered to serve since 9/11.

"This generation of patriots and warriors are my inspiration — they are heroes," Col. Thomas E. Manion, USMCR (Ret.), said.

If we follow the selfless examples set by fallen patriots like 1st Lt. Travis Manion, Janet Manion, and LT SEAL Brendan Looney, maybe we can be giants too.


1st Lt. Travis Manion and his mother, Janet Manion

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Six Reasons

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

Why should you still care about the war in Afghanistan? Here are six powerful reasons.

Chief Warrant Officer Nicholas Johnson, 27, San Diego, California
Chief Warrant Officer Don Viray, 25, Waipahu, Hawaii
Sgt. Chris Workman, 33, Boise, Idaho
Sgt. Dean Shaffer, 23, Pekin, Illinois
1st Lt. Jonathan Walsh, 28, Cobb, Georgia
Pfc. Michael Metcalf, 22, Boynton Beach, Florida

The first four fallen heroes listed above died on Apr. 19 in Afghanistan's Helmand province when their Black Hawk (UH-60) helicopter crashed. The tragic incident is being investigated by the military.

First Lt. Walsh and Pfc. Metcalf, according to the Pentagon, were killed Apr. 22 in Paktia, Afghanistan, by an improvised explosive device planted by terrorists. Like their four fallen brothers in arms, they were soldiers in the U.S. Army.

Of course, these brave souls were more than just reasons. They were people with families, friends, and dreams. And while the country as a whole may not be paying enough attention to their ultimate sacrifices, their loved ones, local communities, and the Army family most certainly are.

I get angry when journalists or politicians throw up their hands and say "nobody cares about Afghanistan anymore," as if it's just some unfortunate societal trend. The national media, which polls consistently show is one of America's least-trusted institutions, moved on from America's post-9/11 conflicts long ago, as many news executives determined it's no longer a ratings winner. Politicians rarely speak about day-to-day events in the war either, as volatile public opinion polls have an interesting way of sealing their lips.

These six fallen heroes likely weren't worried about these trivialities. They trained, said goodbye to their families, and honorably carried out their orders in a strange, primitive country so some at home could have the luxury of not caring about Afghanistan any longer. Still, they performed with brilliance, and left the world with valor and courage.

Many Americans are missing out on a story that should define our generation. Since 9/11, brave volunteer warriors have signed up to fight an enemy that is indisputably evil. This brave one percent of our population deserves attention, compassion, loyalty, and praise. Most of all, their families deserve a hug.

File image courtesy: Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

From the Front

Image courtesy: Cpl. Reece Lodder

On Monday afternoon, I received an e-mail from Cpl. Reece Lodder, a deployed Marine who has kindly kept in touch since our interview for this newspaper column just before he left for Afghanistan.

The Marine combat correspondent asked me to relay a powerful story he just filed from southern Afghanistan in the aftermath of an Apr. 19 terrorist attack in the Garmsir district of Helmand province. The attack wounded eight Afghan national police officers when a suicide bomber targeted their precinct headquarters.

Soon after the explosion, a team of U.S. Navy corpsmen stepped up to provide critical medical care to the wounded Afghans.

"Seeing the corpsmen work like they did under intense pressure was remarkable," Cpl. Lodder, 22, wrote in his e-mail to The Unknown Soldiers. "It gave me a whole new understanding of and respect for their role."

You can read Cpl. Lodder's full report by clicking here.

"We prepare for this type of situation in training, but you can’t fully prepare for how it actually feels," Seaman Robert Ortiz, 22, told Cpl. Lodder. "I had to fight my adrenaline from taking over ... to slow down, take a breath and depend on my training."

As this phenomenal story from the war zone demonstrates, U.S. Navy corpsmen are doing amazing things on the battlefield as they care for Americans and Afghans. Cpl. Reece Lodder and his fellow Marines are also doing incredible things, and we all hope and pray that they come home from Afghanistan safely.

"I'm thankful for and humbled by the opportunity to tell their stories," the military journalist wrote.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Walking the Walk

Image courtesy: American Military Family

As Michelle Benavidez prepared to walk more than 1,000 miles, her mind flashed back to Sept. 8, 2008.

That day, Staff Sgt. Kenneth Mayne asked his mom to send some homemade Beef Jerky over to his unit in Iraq. He wasn't surprised when she said a care package was already on its way.

Not long after their conversation, Michelle's son was dead.

"I had spoken to him on the phone just hours before," Staff Sgt. Mayne's mother told The Unknown Soldiers.

Despite an incredible turnout by northern Colorado communities to honor the fallen soldier, which Michelle and her husband Dan deeply appreciate to this day, the grief-stricken mother felt like she missed her own son's funeral.

"I don't remember most of it," she said. "I think you spend the first year in a fog."

Michelle never expected to be the mother of a fallen hero. After what she described as Kenneth's troubled teenage years, Michelle said her son may have saved his own life by joining the Army.

"Some people look at me like I'm crazy when I say that because it got him killed," she explained. "But because of the choices he was making (in high school), he would have gotten killed sooner."

The 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division soldier served honorably during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and his Army career was distinguished. Kenneth's fellow troops, whom Michelle and Dan keep in very close contact with, still praise him to this day.

"All my best leaders at the time were associated with Mayne," Capt. Geoffrey Shraga recently said in a U.S. Army story written by Sgt. Breanne Pye. "He was the kind of leader that people looked up to and learned from."

Most Americans had lost focus on the war in Iraq by the time an improvised explosive device took the lives of Michelle's 29-year-old son and Pfc. Bryan Thomas, 22, of Battle Creek, Mich. As is the case almost four years later with our country still at war in Afghanistan, the national media is caught up with every minute detail of an upcoming presidential election, which often leaves the sacrifices of our troops languishing in the darkness.

"America needs to wake up and be aware of what's going on," Michelle said. "We still have people in harm's way — there's still a war going on — and we need to be supportive."

Michelle and Dan's passion for our military has led them on a journey they never could have anticipated. On April 13, the Arvada, Colo., couple started walking from Fort Carson, home of the 4th Infantry Division, to Marseilles, Ill., home of the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial. In all, Michelle and Dan will walk over 1,000 miles.

"I am so proud of our military, the people who voluntarily join to defend my rights," Michelle said. "I want my son to be as proud of his family now as we are of him."

Michelle and Dan have gotten involved with a Colorado-based charity called American Military Family, which supports troops and veterans with particular emphasis on assisting the spouses, children, parents, and siblings who shoulder the burdens of multiple deployments at home.

"It was my husband's idea for us to do this walk," Michelle said. "He wanted to do something bigger than himself."

"The awareness toward the military is very important," Dan added. "I will feel (the walk) is a success if when anyone sees a veteran, they give them a hug and say thank you."

For Staff Sgt. Kenneth Mayne's mother, being a Gold Star mom carries a profound sense of obligation.

"I can't change what happened to my son; I would give my life if I could, but I can't," she said. "But what I can do is help the people who served, and help the people who've chosen not to serve realize that this is all going on out there."

As Michelle Benavidez walks through the Great Plains, inching closer to a memorial wall on which her son's name is etched, she is asking her country to honor its protectors.

"Our biggest fear is that you'll forget them," she said. "I don't mean just my boy; I mean all of them."


Image courtesy: U.S. Army

Thursday, April 19, 2012

How He Lived

Image courtesy: Phyllis McGeath

Lance Cpl. Kenneth McGeath, left, and Pfc. Allen McGeath, right, are United States Marines. They are also the younger brothers of Cpl. Philip McGeath, who was killed in action in Afghanistan on Jan. 18.

Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/Steve Kotecki

Lance Cpl. Kenneth McGeath recently wrote a poem about the emotions he's experienced in the three months since his big brother made the ultimate sacrifice. It is being shared on this blog with the Marine's permission.

Inner Turmoil
by Lance Cpl. Kenneth McGeath

No pain in his body.
No emotion on his face.
Feeling lost without somebody.
A man who is is out of place.
Anger and frustration yet,
tears of joy.
Not to be forgotten,
the life of that boy.
He still watches us everyday.
We still want him here with us,
but we know its not that way.

I ask you all not to think of how he died but instead of how he lived.

To learn more about the life and legacy of Cpl. Philip McGeath, please click here.

Image courtesy: Phyllis McGeath

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dual Inspiration

Images courtesy: Facebook

While working on a newspaper column about wounded Army 1st Lt. Nick Vogt in January, his sister, Olivia Hoffman, asked me to pause while her family dealt with another serious crisis. After losing his legs in a Nov. 12 terrorist attack in Afghanistan, 1st Lt. Vogt, 24, was still fighting for his life on Jan. 13 after surgery on one of his lungs.

Two days later, I was relieved to receive this message from Olivia about her big brother:

"Nick has been very stable these last two days and doctors are optimistic the surgery was a success in repairing the lung," she wrote. "Thank you for your prayers and you may send your story whenever you would like."

What the Vogt family has been through since November is more than most human beings could emotionally endure. But given the devastating Apr. 10 injuries sustained by Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, who lost his arms and legs in a terrorist attack that also wounded three fellow soldiers, spotlighting the Vogt family can hopefully provide some further inspiration to the Mills family and their thousands of supporters.

The above photo was taken on Easter Sunday in Richmond, Virginia, where 1st Lt. Vogt is currently hospitalized after being moved from Bethesda, Maryland. A day earlier, the wounded warrior's mom, Sheila Vogt, posted some incredibly moving words on her family's Facebook page.

"We were talking about different things (mostly about his future), and another individual came up in our conversation who has more severe injuries than Nick," Mrs. Vogt wrote. "Nick looked [at] me and said, 'Mom, I am so thankful for what I have. All I'm missing are my legs . . . it could have been so much worse.'

"Well, folks, I had to look away because I knew I would start to cry," the hero's mother continued.

From the beginning, thousands have rallied around 1st Lt. Vogt and his family because this West Point graduate is truly selfless. Everyone who has contacted me about this Army Ranger, from his sister to people who've only heard stories about him from others, have said he has always been one of the most gracious individuals on the planet, before and after his injury.

"For those of you who don't know, Nick's amputations are very high. He is missing the entire leg and his right leg is only 4 - 5"," Mrs. Vogt explained. "His rehab will be very difficult and he has a lot of pain, but it amazes me that he can look past all that and only focus on the good."

Imagine if every American approached life this way. It would make an already great country even greater.

"He still has no idea why people tell him he's inspirational, and why people thank him for his sacrifice," Mrs. Vogt wrote. "He simply says, 'I was just doing my job. No different than any other soldier.'"

First Lt. Vogt, 24, is inspiring us for the same reason that Staff Sgt. Mills, 25, is provoking a similar outpouring of emotion. Both men genuinely care about others more than themselves. Kelsey Mills, Staff Sgt. Mills' wife, has repeatedly wrote in updates that her husband -- even in the hazy aftermath of an attack that permanently altered his life -- repeatedly asks about the conditions of his three fellow wounded soldiers.

Clearly, Staff Sgt. Mills and 1st Lt. Vogt share a key trait: character.

"There is one thing that Nick's TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) did not change and that is his courage, perseverance, and love for life," 1st Lt. Vogt's mom said. "For that we are soooooo thankful."

As are we. While too many Americans would give anything to have dinner with Snooki and "The Situation," I hope to one day have the honor of breaking bread with 1st Lt. Nick Vogt and Staff Sgt. Travis Mills. Staring into the face of grave danger, these true American celebrities have kept on smiling.

Image courtesy: Mark Budro

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Big Mills

Images courtesy: Facebook

As we went about our daily routines last week, a soldier named Staff Sgt. Travis Mills was patrolling southern Afghanistan just a few days before his 25th birthday. Tragically, when his birthday arrived on Apr. 14, Staff Sgt. Mills was without his arms and legs after stepping on an improvised explosive device four days earlier.

I was deeply saddened to learn of this incident last week when I received an e-mail from the wife of a soldier who deployed with the wounded 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper. Her husband, Staff Sgt. Andrew Mills (no relation to Staff Sgt. Travis Mills) is on his second deployment to Afghanistan after also serving in Iraq.

As Linda Mills explained in her e-mail, the explosion that left her husband's fellow soldier with devastating wounds, while also injuring three more troops, has rocked her community at North Carolina's Fort Bragg.

"People don't realize that families not only mourn deaths, but we mourn any tragedy such as the above mentioned incident," Linda Mills explained to The Unknown Soldiers. "And even if it isn't our spouse or family member, we still grieve. And we grieve hard."

Her chief concern is for the wounded soldier's wife, young daughter, parents, and additional loved ones.

"The journey for this family has only just begun," she wrote.

Linda, 28, is doing everything in her power to help this wounded hero's loved ones, and so is her husband. On Saturday, Staff Sgt. Andrew Mills, 27, posed along with fellow soldiers in Afghanistan for a special photo wishing their injured Army brother, who Linda said is nicknamed "Big Mills" since he has the same last name as her husband, a happy birthday. The moving photo is included below.

This story of sacrifice is getting well-deserved national media attention. Fox News, in particular, should be applauded for leading its website with the story for part of Monday afternoon, which is generating an even higher level of awareness and support for Staff Sgt. Travis Mills and his family during this unimaginably difficult time.

Sadly, however, the national media often fails to stay focused on important news from Afghanistan. To stay informed on the condition of Staff Sgt. Travis Mills and show support for his family, you can join the "Support for Travis Mills and Family" Facebook group and follow a special website set up by his loved ones, where donations are also being accepted. This blog will also continue to provide updates on this wounded soldier's condition.

Most importantly, let's all join together and wish Staff Sgt. Travis Mills a happy belated birthday. While we can never adequately thank "Big Mills," his family, and his fellow troops for their sacrifices, we can continue to support him, the soldiers who were wounded along with him, and the brave men and women in Afghanistan who carry on the fight in his honor.

"Thank you for all your continued support and love for my husband," Kelsey Mills, wife of Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, wrote on Sunday. "He deserves it all and more."

Happy birthday, brave warrior, and thank you for protecting us.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Marine Named Fancy

Images courtesy: Cpl. Reece Lodder

Lance Cpl. Stuart Ferreri is just old enough to legally buy a beer in the United States. Yet the Marine, 21, is already on his second deployment to Afghanistan.

"It's a little easier this time around," Lance Cpl. Ferreri, speaking by phone from the war zone, told The Unknown Soldiers. "Last year, you didn't really know what to'd go out every day not knowing what you'd see."

As our conversation began, Ferreri was quick to point out that his combat experience doesn't quite match that of Fancy, the improvised explosive device detection dog that's always by his side.

"This is her third deployment now to Afghanistan," the Marine dog handler said.

Fancy isn't just wandering around wagging her tail in the sands of Helmand province. Along with the Marine holding her leash, the black Lab is saving lives.

"One of the things that she and I were able to find was four pressure plates; I guess they were built within an explosive compound," Ferreri explained. "The residue from the explosive material tracked onto the pressure plates themselves and she was able to find that and we were able to stop that."

While the picture painted of Afghanistan by some media pundits is one of complete chaos, the Marine said the district he's deployed in is showing major signs of improvement after years of sacrifices by American, Afghan, and coalition troops.

"We've been on pretty much every patrol," he said. "There've been a few hits here and there, but nothing too serious."

The Guard Force Platoon of the 3rd Marine Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment often provides guidance to Afghan security forces during combat patrols in southern Afghanistan. As the Marines walk carefully through villages, Ferreri and Fancy can almost always be found up front.

"(We're) just clearing the way for the guys behind us to make sure everything's safe," the Marine explained. "They don't have to watch their step; they can keep their eyes open for any other insurgents out there."

War is unpredictable by nature, forcing Ferreri to be very cautious with Fancy, especially in unfamiliar places.

"I've had people throw rocks and whatnot at my dog, so I've had to become real protective over her during a lot of different patrols," he said.

When there are a few moments to relax, the Marine's first priority is spending some quality time with Fancy that doesn't involve searching for bombs.

"I've had dogs growing up and whatnot, and pretty much just learned to treat them the same way," he said. "Although they are military working dogs, at the same time they are dogs too, and you have to have fun with them now and then...throw the ball around."

To the handler and every other Marine in the squad, Fancy is one of them.

"I work with her pretty much 24/7," he said. "With her, I know when she needs to go to the bathroom, when she's hungry, when she needs things. There's definitely been a bond built."

The Marine also shares a close bond with his family. As he saves lives with Fancy in southern Afghanistan, they are anxiously awaiting his return to Northglenn, Colo., which is about 15 miles north of Denver.

"They're just as worried as they were last year," Ferreri said. "But I think they kind of have a better grasp around it — the fact that this is their second time dealing with it too. My mom struggles a lot with it, though," the Marine continued.

After he gets home, Lance Cpl. Stuart Ferreri plans to exit the Marine Corps, finish school, and enter the work force as a two-time Afghanistan combat veteran. He's also looking forward to seeing Peyton Manning quarterback his beloved Denver Broncos after hearing about the stunning off-season development while stationed overseas.

"Hopefully we'll be good," he said.

Before this American warrior is able to kick back and watch some football, there will be more patrols through Afghanistan's Helmand province. But as the risk-filled days go by, the Marine knows Fancy will be by his side.

"As far as my squad goes, they've really bonded around the dog," the Marine said. "After (several) months together, you become like a family."


Thursday, April 12, 2012

For Future Generations

Image courtesy: Nick Rozanski Memorial Fund

Capt. Nicholas Rozanski, 36, was one of three Ohio National Guard soldiers killed on Apr. 4 in Afghanistan's Faryab province.

Along with Master Sgt. Jeffrey Rieck, 45, of Columbus, and Master Sgt. Shawn Hannon, 44, of Grove City, Capt. Rozanski, who is from Dublin, made the ultimate sacrifice when terrorists attacked his unit with a suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive device.

As the state of Ohio mourns these devastating tragedies, including the death of Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Brown, 26, of Columbus, who was killed in action the previous day in Kunar province, the family of Capt. Rozanski has quickly and selflessly set up a memorial fund that will be used to fund scholarships for children in the Dublin community.

"The scholarship will enable future generations of young, courageous men and women like Nick Rozanski to follow their dreams," the website says.

Please consider contributing to this memorial fund while keeping the Rozanski, Rieck, Hannon, Brown, and families of all our fallen heroes in your thoughts and prayers. Because after all, the brave men and women of our military are all part of one big family to which we also belong: the United States of America.

"Nick, a graduate of Dublin Coffman High School and The Ohio State University, was an amazing father, husband, son, brother & friend to all who knew him," the website says.

You can contribute to the Nick Rozanski Memorial Fund by donating here or by sending a check to this address:

Nick Rozanski Memorial Fund
2095 Kentwell Rd
Columbus, OH 43221

Image courtesy: Ohio National Guard

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Real War

Image courtesy: Staff Sgt. Charles Crail

According to some Democratic politicians, there is a Republican-led "war on women." According to some Republican politicians, there is a Democratic-led "war on religion." The inflammatory rhetoric is being largely embraced by a national media that's desperate for ratings during the 2012 presidential election cycle.

Here is a news flash for pundits and politicians. There is a real war affecting millions of Americans, and it's not being fought here at home. It's being fought thousands of miles from our shores in Afghanistan, where our country's volunteer warriors make sacrifices every day while separated from their families.

In a time of war, one would think some of our culture's most influential voices would be more responsible with their language. But as politicians see polls labeling Afghanistan as a non-factor in the upcoming election, the war one percent of our population is fighting becomes less and less of a factor in their daily decision-making process.

As for the press, we now live in a country where a Mega Millions jackpot receives far more media attention than the deaths of at least 9 U.S. troops so far in April as a result of fighting in Afghanistan. While all of us should take pride in being Americans, it is getting harder and harder to respect the once-proud profession of journalism.

As politicians scream about the "war on women" and "war on religion," let's remember that our troops are still fighting an enemy that once made those slogans a reality in Afghanistan. Before the U.S.-led invasion commenced on Oct. 7, 2001, as remnants of the World Trade Center and Pentagon still smoldered, women were being beaten, raped, and enslaved by the Taliban regime that harbored Osama bin Laden and his fellow terrorists. Additionally, any Afghan who did not display strict allegiance to the Taliban's hateful interpretation of religion risked execution.

The men and women of the U.S. military did a selfless, heroic thing by forcing these radicals and terrorists from power. While all Americans are free to debate whether U.S. forces should still be in Afghanistan ten and a half years later, that is the beauty of living in a free country with strong ideals protected every day by brave men and women willing to die for a cause bigger than themselves.

How quickly some forget the sacrifices of our troops and their families, which allow certain politicians and journalists to waste time trying to create wars at home. Yet every time frustration builds, we should think about our injured troops and veterans, including those battling invisible wounds, as well as families of our fallen heroes. For them, this country's real post-9/11 wars will never end.

In closing, I want to repeat a quote by Nikki Altmann, who lost her husband, Staff Sgt. Joseph Altmann, in Afghanistan on Christmas Day.

"Six months from now, people won’t be calling to see how I’m doing," the fallen hero's wife said. "At one point, it will all stop."

Mrs. Altmann's words, uttered less than four months after her husband was killed in action, are heartbreaking. But they should also inspire us to rise up and demand that this country reunite around the heroes who volunteer to protect us. As one percent puts everything on the line so 99 percent can live in relative peace and security, all of us should be playing a role in displaying a national outpouring of support and gratitude.

To our country's esteemed politicians and journalists: this includes you.

Image courtesy: Cpl. Reece Lodder

Monday, April 9, 2012

One Minute

Images courtesy: Nikki Altmann

Our lives can change in a single minute. For Nikki Altmann, that minute arrived this past Christmas Day when her husband was killed in Afghanistan.

"Everything we were planning was gone in a moment's notice," Nikki, 24, told The Unknown Soldiers.

The last time she spoke to Staff Sgt. Joseph Altmann, 27, was on Christmas Eve from her hotel room in Ireland. Separated by thousands of miles, the traveling flight attendant and deployed Army combat medic — bound by an unusually strong Skype connection — planned their lives from afar.

"We talked about everything...all of our dreams," Nikki recalled. "He said that February or March was when he hoped to be home."

After getting married the previous February, the young couple spent the first months of their marriage mired in a long-distance relationship before Staff Sgt. Altmann deployed in April 2011.

"I just think the fact that we both knew what we ultimately wanted out of life really attracted us to each other," she said.

Joe was caring for wounded troops and civilians in Afghanistan's eastern mountains when his wife decided to leave her job and move to Hawaii, where a vacationing Nikki had first met the soldier near his base. She wanted to "start being a family" when he returned.

"I love my job, but I love you more," Nikki told her elated husband.

After Hawaii, the Altmanns were planning a move to Colorado's Fort Carson because of a brave decision the soldier made in Afghanistan. Amid the chaos of war, the Army medic re-enlisted for another four years.

"I like being with my guys out there," Joe told his wife. "If someone gets hurt, I know what I need to do. I don't hesitate."

The only time the soldier hesitated on Christmas Eve was when he had to disconnect from Skype to receive some important orders. He called Nikki back and said he was heading out on a two-day combat mission.

"I said, 'I love you, be safe, and I'll be here waiting,'" Nikki recounted through tears. "He said, 'I'll talk to you soon.'"

Christmas had come and gone in Ireland when the hotel manager asked Nikki to join him in the conference room, where two uniformed guests were waiting. The minute it took to get there felt like forever.

"It was the longest walk of my life," she said.

On foreign soil, Nikki learned that the American soldier she loved so dearly was killed by enemy small arms fire in Afghanistan's Kunar province. Amid numbness and confusion, her first instinct was sympathy for her husband's parents, who live in Marshfield, Wis.

"I looked at my watch, and I said, please don't call them just yet," Nikki told the military messengers who gave her the news. "It's still Christmas there."

After the soldiers gently explained the notification process, Nikki realized the holidays would never be the same.

"This is a possibility you talk about before a deployment, but you pray it never actually happens because there is nothing you can do to prepare yourself," the native Texan said. "That day I'll never forget."

Along with Joe's love of the outdoors and prowess for cooking great meals during the precious evenings they spent together, Nikki won't forget the way supporters rallied around her family. Still, with the war in Afghanistan fading from the national spotlight, she is preparing for a long road ahead.

"Six months from now, people won't be calling to see how I'm doing," she said with striking candor.

Nikki is sharing her husband's story in the hopes that more Americans will recognize the sacrifices of men and women who risk everything for something bigger than themselves.

"That is the man I loved," she said. "I am very proud of him."

Her pride in being Staff Sgt. Joseph Altmann's wife comes with an acceptance that grief will always be a part of her life.

"Every day is a constant reminder of what I had, what I was going to have, and what is no more," she said.

As the clock ticks toward eternity, Nikki Altmann has decided how she'll approach the many days before she is ultimately reunited with her husband.

"I take it one minute at a time," she said.