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

Monday, May 28, 2012

Section 60

I wish every American could spend an hour in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. My last visit was on May 11, and like every trip, it was a profound experience.

While the entire cemetery is filled with heroes, Section 60 carries urgent relevance because so many warriors from America's post-9/11 conflicts rest there. With each visit to the hallowed sector, one will tragically find new temporary grave markers bearing the names of U.S. troops recently killed in Afghanistan.

Behind each marker and headstone is a story of sacrifice. One of the first resting spots I encountered on the warm, sunny Friday afternoon was 1st Lt. Tyler Parten, whose grave was recently moved to Arlington. The 24-year-old Marianna, Ark., soldier was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 10, 2009.

As I stared at 1st Lt. Parten's white headstone, with total silence filling the cemetery except for the occasional plane taking off from nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, all I could see was his mother's face. I met Lona Parten in a Birmingham, Ala., restaurant in January 2011, and seeing her anguish, as well as her commitment to driving forward in Tyler's honor, is a constant source of motivation.

Lona's surviving son and his wife are currently deployed overseas. Let us all hope and pray for their safe return.

The next grave I visited was Maj. Megan McClung, the highest-ranking female Marine officer to be killed during the war in Iraq. She died alongside Army Capt. Travis Patriquin, 32, and Spc. Vincent Pomante III, 22, when an enemy improvised explosive device blew up in Ramadi.

Under Maj. McClung's name and dates of birth and death — Apr. 14, 1972, and Dec. 6, 2006, respectively — is her extraordinary mantra: "Be bold. Be brief. Be gone."

Having written and spoken about Megan as well as meeting her father and brother and speaking to her mother by telephone, I feel like I knew this remarkable woman. But I didn't. I just miss her, and wish everyone — particularly young women — knew the story of this world-class athlete, scholar, and patriot.

Two days before Megan's death, America lost Spc. Ross McGinnis, whose headstone is engraved in gold. That's because the 19-year-old Pennsylvania native was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor — the nation's highest military decoration — for using his body to cover a live grenade that was thrown into his vehicle in Baghdad. He left behind his loving parents and siblings, but also saved the lives of all four soldiers riding with him.

"When Ross McGinnis was in kindergarten, a teacher asked him to draw a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up," President George W. Bush said in an emotional White House ceremony on June 2, 2008. "He drew a soldier."

As I walked quietly through the long cemetery grass, I saw a man and woman sitting on lawn chairs under the twilight sky. They were at the grave of Army Cpl. Joseph M. Hernandez.

While I didn't want to intrude on their grief, I said the only five words I could think of while passing by: "I'm sorry for your loss."

"Thank you," the grieving woman graciously replied.

Upon returning home, I learned that Cpl. Hernandez, 24, of Hammond, Ind., was killed in action alongside Maj. Brian Mescall, 33, and Sgt. Jason Parsons, 24, on Jan. 9, 2009, in Afghanistan's Zabul province. He left behind his wife, two young boys, his parents, and two brothers.

Somebody who knew this soldier thanked me for caring. Today, I want to thank Cpl. Joseph M. Hernandez and his two fellow soldiers for having the courage and bravery to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

I have never sacrificed anything. Over the past decade, thousands of brave men and women, including many buried in Section 60, have risked everything to ensure we live in a safer world than the one that seethed with hatred and fear on Sept. 11, 2001.

After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on a previous generation's day of infamy, Nov. 22, 1963, an eternal flame was lit at his Arlington National Cemetery resting place. A short walk away is Section 60, where a new "greatest generation" has ensured that freedom's candle will always flicker.


Friday, May 18, 2012

'He's Still Here'

Images courtesy: Mills family

Less than a month after Staff Sgt. Travis Mills lost his arms and legs in a southern Afghanistan terrorist attack, his wife, Kelsey, paused to reflect on an unimaginable ordeal.

"I can either curl up in a ball and cry or keep going," Kelsey told The Unknown Soldiers by phone from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., on May 8. "I choose the latter."

Amazingly, Kelsey's husband has also kept going. From the moment he woke up without his limbs after an enemy improvised explosive device detonated on Apr. 10, Staff Sgt. Mills has been preoccupied with the well-being of his fellow 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers still fighting in Afghanistan.

"He worries about them constantly," Kelsey said. "He makes me message them daily to make sure they're safe."

While fellow soldiers were injured in the attack, Travis was relieved to learn they are healing. In this brave soldier's mind, if anyone was going to live out his life as a quadruple amputee, it was going to be him.

"He wouldn't have let this happen to any of his guys, and that's why it didn't happen to any of his guys," Kelsey explained. "He was always the first in line anywhere they went."

The 23-year-old Army wife had one source of comfort after the shocking news of her husband's severe wounds changed her life. Her brother, Staff Sgt. Joshua Buck, was also deployed to Afghanistan at the time of the attack and accompanied Travis home to the United States.

"I woke up in Germany, and I would have been alone," Kelsey quoted her husband as saying at Walter Reed. "I couldn't have faced it without Josh."

Through searing pain and the thick haze of medication, Travis' biggest fear wasn't death or adjusting to life as a wounded warrior. It was the panic his wife and their seven-month-old daughter, Chloe, would endure the first time they saw him without arms and legs.

Travis, 25, has spent his entire adult life putting others before himself.

"He'd give you the shirt off his back without hesitation," the soldier's wife said. "If you meet him, you'll never forget him."

Kelsey's quote is demonstrated by a national outpouring that started in the soldier's hometown of Vassar, Mich. Even though he moved away eight years ago, the community made sure the wounded warrior knew he is still their hometown hero.

"Sometimes he says, 'Oh my God, why do people care so much, I was just doing my job,'" Kelsey said. "And I say, 'You did a lot and have given a lot for all of them.'"

After Fox News aired a segment about the wounded soldier and his family, hundreds of supporters became hundreds of thousands. Contributions poured in to the Travis Mills Family Fund, and stellar charities like the Fisher House Foundation, Gary Sinise Foundation, and Travis Manion Foundation stepped up to help Travis, Kelsey, Chloe, and close relatives.

"He gets letters at the hospital daily," she said. "People write such nice things."

While grateful for the media attention her husband's ordeal has garnered, Kelsey worries that the war in Afghanistan is fading from our daily national consciousness.

"I wouldn't have known any of these stories if I wasn't here walking through the hospital," she said. "I never would have met these families or known what they're going through."

Kelsey believes the overwhelming support for Travis proves that if the national media reported more frequently about the sacrifices of our troops in Afghanistan, the country would rally around the military community.

"This shows me that people will pay attention," she said.

All of Kelsey's attention is devoted to making sure her husband knows he has a wife and baby girl who will always love him unconditionally.

"I'm looking forward to living a normal life," Kelsey said. "But right now, I don't know what normal is."

The next time life gets you down, think of Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, his remarkable wife, and their courageous loved ones. Amid some of the most daunting physical and emotional challenges that human beings can experience, they are — incredibly — staying positive.

"I'm happy that my husband is still alive," Kelsey Mills said. "He's still here."


Note: Please consider donating to the Travis Mills Family Fund by clicking here.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Our Brothers

File image courtesy: Senior Airman Neil Warner

Spc. Alex Rozanski was serving as a United States Marine in 2003 when his older brother, Nick, decided to follow in his footsteps and join the military.

"It was one of those things growing up; I knew I wanted to be a soldier or Marine," Spc. Rozanski, 32, told The Unknown Soldiers. "I thought it was just something that men did, and in a way, I think Nick was the same way."

The Rozanski brothers were a long way from playing with G.I. Joes when in 2005, military planes carrying Alex and Nick virtually passed one another in mid-flight.

"He was coming home from Kosovo while I was leaving for Iraq," Alex said.

When the Marine returned from his combat deployment, his big brother was waiting to salute him.

"Nick was the first one to greet me and the first one to give me a hug," Alex fondly recalled.

After serving honorably in Iraq, Alex decided to leave the Marine Corps and return to central Ohio, where generations of Rozanskis, including his father and grandfathers, have served our country in uniform. Nick, as a soldier in the Ohio National Guard, deployed to Iraq two years after Alex had fought there.

"He was more or less doing convoy escort, which means he saw the entire nation of Iraq," Alex said. "That was supposed to be the hazardous deployment, as he was dodging IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on the roadways."

In 2008, Capt. Nick Rozanski came home from Iraq to his loving wife, Jennifer. As the couple raised two daughters, the Ohio State University graduate immersed himself in family and work life, while resolving that if his country called again, he would be ready.

Alex, meanwhile, was hearing the call himself. Like his older brother, he joined the Ohio National Guard.

"I still had that draw to the military," he explained. "You don't remember the bad times, you remember the good times...the camaraderie."

Not long after the two brothers once again became brothers in arms, Nick was presented with the difficult proposition of being thousands of miles from his family while serving overseas for the third time.

"My brother didn't necessarily have to go to Afghanistan, he chose to because he felt an obligation," the younger Rozanski warrior said. "If not you, it's somebody else's husband, son, or father."

Even as an active duty soldier, Alex never thought his brother, who left for Afghanistan in January, could possibly return home in a wheelchair or flag-draped casket.

"You don't think lightning's going to strike," he said. "But it does."

On April 4, Alex got a late night phone call from his mother.

"The Army officers just left," a sobbing Pamela Mitchell told her son. "Nick is dead."

Earlier that day in northern Afghanistan, Capt. Rozanski, 36, Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Rieck, 45, and Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Hannon, 44, were killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device, according to the Pentagon.

"You always hear the term weak in the knees," Alex said. "I have never been weak in the knees before, but I fell to my knees."

Two weeks after his brother's funeral in Dublin, Ohio, which was packed to capacity, Alex's thoughts are with his sister-in-law and nieces. But in his brother's honor, he also plans to press forward.

"One thing I learned from my Iraq deployment is that no matter how bad something is, the sun still comes up the next day," he said. "Life does go on."

The family quickly established the Nick Rozanski Memorial Fund, which they want to spread awareness about the sacrifices of not only their loved one, but the entire military community.

"It goes back to that sense of obligation," Alex said. "If I don't do it, it will be somebody else's son or daughter."

Weeks after losing his big brother in combat, the soldier said something that was both surprising and poignant. He hopes that one day, his own children will consider military service.

"If they don't, I would certainly understand," Alex said. "But if they do, I would be proud."

Spc. Alex Rozanski and Capt. Nick Rozanski are brothers. With our nation still at war, they're our brothers too.


Image courtesy: Spc. Alex Rozanski (left)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Through Their Words

Image courtesy: Melissa Jarboe

While having a cup of coffee with the father of a fallen Marine on Monday, he said something that reminded me why our nation's Gold Star families -- the loved ones of departed American warriors -- are national treasures.

"It's hard to keep going," he said. "But it's what you've got to do."

While authoring this blog and syndicated newspaper column, I have had the honor of speaking with numerous loved ones of fallen heroes, all of whom have deeply inspired me with their courage. While there is no blueprint for grief, I believe the words of these Gold Star family members, including the 15 quoted below, can help all of us to remember how lucky we are to be Americans.

"Before this, I never knew there was a Walter Reed and I never knew what a wounded warrior was," Melissa Jarboe, wife of Sgt. Jamie Jarboe (pictured above), said two months before her husband died of his wounds. "And now I know too much."

"I get choked up when I see the flag," Dante Acosta, father of Spc. Rudy Acosta, said. "I know — and now I really know — the sacrifice that has went on."

"You wake up in the morning, and it's the first thing you think about," Bob Sandri, father of Sgt. Matthew Sandri, said. "At night, it's the last thing you think about before you go to bed."

"We're taking things one day at a time," said LaShana Douville, wife of Tech Sgt. Daniel Douville.

"Every day is a constant reminder of what I had, what I was going to have, and what is no more," said Nikki Altmann, wife of Staff Sgt. Joseph Altmann.

"I was mad for a long time, but I don't feel angry anymore," Cindy Pyeatt, mother of Cpl. Lucas Pyeatt, explained. "I know Luke isn't gone."

"It's made me a stronger human being, and I survived," Kathleen Shannon, sister of Cpl. Stephen Shannon, declared. "I overcame death — his death."

"I want people to know that it's okay to move on and be happy again," Kristi Pearson, widow of Pfc. Andrew H. Nelson, said.

"Prayer and God are the main things getting me through this," said Crissie Carpenter, wife of Lance Cpl. Andrew Carpenter and mother of Landon Carpenter, who was born less than a month after his father's death. "I feel at peace with the way it was supposed to be."

Image courtesy: Marcia Truitt/Inara Studios

"He made me a better person...a person that I will strive to continue to be for him," said Staff Sgt. Kim Pate, wife of Gunnery Sgt. EJ Pate.

"It's a horrible thing to bury a child, but if you look at the positive side, we've had the benefit and privilege as parents to see through other people's eyes what an impact he had on the world around him." Patrick Callahan, father of Sgt. Sean Callahan, explained.

"He was our son, but at the moment he died, he became an American son," said Maria Simpson, mother of Lance Cpl. Abraham Simpson. "I think his story belongs to all of us."

"Megan used to collect quotes, and she'd write them on scraps of paper and stick them in a book," Re McClung, mother of Maj. Megan McClung, said. "One of them says, 'To give anything but your best is to waste the gift.'"

"I just want people to understand that there is still a war going on," said Phyllis McGeath, mother of Cpl. Philip McGeath.

"This generation of patriots and warriors are my inspiration," Col. Thomas E. Manion (Ret.), father of 1st Lt. Travis Manion, said. "They are heroes."

I've learned more about America from talking to these remarkable people than all the countless hours of television I've watched in my lifetime. Even after more than a decade of war, our nation is still strong because of its backbone: a valiant group of men and women who devote every measure of life to their country.

Through the words of those who have endured so much darkness, perhaps we can find new light.

Image courtesy: Staff Sgt. Charles Crail

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The One Percent

Images courtesy: Linda Mills

In February, Linda Mills watched her husband deploy to Afghanistan for the second time. Today, even though Staff Sgt. Andrew Mills is thousands of miles away, he still occupies every moment of his wife's thoughts.

"Sometimes he says, 'I'll talk to you tomorrow,' but then I won't hear from him and that's when I get really worried," Linda Mills, 29, told The Unknown Soldiers. "Now I tell him to please not tell me when he'll talk to me next."

When I spoke to Staff Sgt. Mills' wife on April 13, it was in the immediate aftermath of a shocking tragedy that shook Linda and her husband to the core. Three days earlier, one of Andrew's fellow 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers, Staff Sgt. Travis Mills (no relation), lost his arms and legs in southern Afghanistan after stepping on an improvised explosive device.

"It seems to be some sort of miracle that he's survived," Linda said. "Thank God that's the case."

While praying for Staff Sgt. Travis Mills' family and reaching out to see if she can help, Linda is forced to confront the reality that her husband's life is in danger.

"I used to say I live my life one day at a time, but I can't anymore," she said. "I take it one hour at a time."

Even on their wedding day, life wasn't simple for Andrew and Linda Mills. They married on Feb. 27, 2010, while the soldier was home on leave from a previous Afghanistan deployment. The young couple exchanged vows with full awareness that Andrew would return to a war zone just six days later.

"I always envisioned some big, lavish wedding with 18 months to plan, and my priorities changed," Linda said. "That's why I take pride in being part of the one percent...your perception on life is different."

"The one percent" this Army wife references is not the slogan of a political movement. It's the approximate percentage of men and women who serve our country, either in uniform or as a member of a military family.

"In a week's time, there is a wide specter of emotions, from anger to elation," Linda said. "It's hard to be a productive citizen and work when we have the weight of the world on our backs."

Linda is not speaking out or authoring a blog called "One Percent" because she is seeking sympathy. She wants to promote a renewed sense of awareness about a war that too many have forgotten.

"They're not toy soldiers," she said. "They're real people, and they're not just numbers."

As one of her husband's fellow soldiers endures multiple surgeries and the painful reality of life without his arms and legs, Linda, a University of Georgia graduate, is trying to make a difference at North Carolina's Fort Bragg. In addition to closely coordinating with fellow military spouses, she is active in her Family Readiness Group and Casualty Response Team.

"I get angry, emotional, and empathetic for these families, because that (next casualty) could be Drew," she candidly explained.

While his wife stays busy on the home front, Drew, as family and friends call Staff Sgt. Mills, is spending most nights on a combat outpost in Afghanistan's volatile south.

"Communication is better than we thought it would be," Linda said. "There are telephones, but no showers."

During phone calls, Skype sessions, and Facebook chats, the couple tries to stay focused on the future.

"I don't ask him specifics about his deployment and he doesn't tell me any specifics," the Army wife said. "We talk as if he's a town away."

When Staff Sgt. Andrew Mills is hopefully just a hug away after returning from his third combat deployment, the couple plans to take a vacation and talk about starting a family.

"We're going to go to Mexico and drink lots of margaritas," she joked.

Still, as this Army wife speaks out, blogs, and spreads awareness about the sacrifices of the men and women who volunteer to serve their country, she hopes to foster a greater connection between the military community and the rest of the population.

"It's not just about the deployment," Linda Mills said. "It's about the one percent."


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

More Than One Day

Image courtesy: Sgt. Logan Pierce

Most Americans realize that today marks the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of courageous Navy SEALs. Yet many of the same citizens, conditioned by a national media that pays scant attention to the military's daily sacrifices, probably don't realize that 2012's bloodiest month of fighting in Afghanistan has just concluded.

As this blog and others discussed all month, April was difficult for our troops in Afghanistan and their families at home. According to an unofficial count by, at least 35 U.S. service members were killed in Afghanistan during the month of April. This number doesn't include seriously wounded heroes like Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, who lost his arms and legs in an Apr. 10 terrorist attack.

During the year Osama bin Laden was killed, the war in Afghanistan made up just two percent of American news media coverage, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. If you add in coverage of bin Laden's death in Pakistan, the number is four percent. Based on the media's behavior so far this year, I would not be surprised if the death of Whitney Houston wound up generating just as much news coverage as the Afghanistan conflict in 2012.

On Monday -- the last day of a month in which at least 35 American troops were killed -- I saw a lengthy segment on Fox News about the one-year anniversary of Prince William's marriage to Kate Middleton. Since trivialities like a couple's anniversary are now deemed newsworthy by Fox and its competitors, one should not be surprised at the amount of stories we're seeing today about bin Laden. Today is simply another anniversary for the media to talk about.

Today is not just another day in the mountains of Afghanistan, where thousands of Americans who volunteered to fight for our country are separated from their loved ones. Some of these units have held memorial services for their friends over the past month, while others are thinking about their wounded brothers and sisters hospitalized in Bethesda, Md., and elsewhere.

War is the most serious, sobering reality for a country to face, and the national media, as well as many of us, are turning away.

Since Apr. 24, the following American service members have died as a result of continuing operations in Afghanistan.

Spc. Manuel Vasquez, 22, West Sacramento, California
Spc. Benjamin Neal, 21, Orfordville, Wisconsin
Spc. Jason Edens, 22, Franklin, Tennessee
Lt. Christopher Mosko, 28, Pittsford, New York
Spc. Moises Gonzalez, 29, Huntington, California
Staff Sgt. Brandon Eggleston, 29, Candler, North Carolina
Sgt. Dick Lee Jr., 31, Orange Park, Florida
Staff Sgt. Andrew Brittonmihalo, 25, Simi Valley, California
Master Sgt. Scott Pruitt, 38, Gautier, Mississippi
Pfc. Christian Sannicolas, 20, Anaheim, California
Sgt. Nicholas Dickhut, 23, Rochester, Minnesota

For the families of these fallen heroes, every subsequent day of their lives will be filled with tragic dreams of what could have been. Our thoughts, prayers, and gratitude go out to America's newest Gold Star families, as well as our country's wounded warriors and their loved ones.

The extraordinary sacrifices of the post-9/11 generation are far bigger than the death of one terrorist, and certainly span more than one day. To truly honor this patriotic group of volunteer warriors, we must challenge ourselves to always remember that somewhere, at every moment, a fellow American is fighting for us.

Image courtesy: Cpl. Kenneth Jasik

Note: This post was updated on May 15 at 11:48 a.m. EDT to reflect new casualty information released by the Department of Defense.