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

Friday, August 31, 2012

Thursday Night Bowling League

Images courtesy: Christy Meador

For Christy Meador, Thursday night is bowling night. Not only is the sport a beloved hobby but her favorite Columbia, S.C., bowling alley is also where she met her future husband, Sgt. John David Meador II, known to most as "J.D."

"He also had a nickname of 'Maverick' because my favorite movie is 'Top Gun,'" Sgt. Meador's wife, Christy Meador, told "The Unknown Soldiers." "He looked a lot like Maverick."

After meeting in 2002, Christy and her Tom Cruise look-alike, who was working part-time as a bartender at the bowling alley, fell in love. But no matter where married life took the couple, they never missed league games with friends on Thursday nights.

"We would always bowl," Christy said. "He could bring a smile to everyone."

In October 2010 — the month of J.D. and Christy's birthdays — the ex-bartender stood up on a chair and announced to the entire alley that his wife was pregnant.

"He said, 'my wife just told me we got the best birthday present ever,'" Christy recalled. "He told them I was expecting."

Eight months earlier, J.D. made another huge announcement. After previously serving in the Army, he was re-joining the military as a member of the South Carolina Army National Guard.

"There was no discussion," Christy said. "It was just ... 'I'm going.'"

On June 27, 2011, Elana Meador was born.

"Now I look back, and it was just so meant to be," Christy said while starting to cry. "Because I don't know where I would be today had we not had (Elana)."

When J.D. deployed to Afghanistan, his wife knew being alone with their little girl would be a challenge. But like thousands of military spouses across America, Christy came through for her soldier.

"All I could do was support him," she said.

J.D. came home on leave in April, which gave him the chance to share unforgettable moments with loved ones, including his older daughter. The highlight was finally spending time with baby Elana.

"He got to see her, hold her and talk to her," Christy said.

When the 36-year-old soldier returned to eastern Afghanistan's Khost Province, the first thing he did was look above his bunk. Every month, his wife sent him new sets of footprints to remind J.D. how quickly their little girl was growing.

"He had gotten his Father's Day box," she said. "I already marked it 12 months because Elana's first birthday is (June) 27."

On June 19, the couple saw each other on Skype. Things had gotten "scary" over there, J.D. explained, and he needed Christy's prayers. Their conversation was interrupted by background noise from Elana, which immediately perked the soldier up.

"Go get my baby!" he said.

Before Christy could bring Elana downstairs, J.D. disappeared from the screen after his base lost power. The last text message Christy received from her husband was later that afternoon.

"Please kiss my baby for me," it read.

Christy was at work on June 20 when a strange car approached. As soon as she saw an Army officer's dress blues, she knew J.D. was dead.

"I am so sorry to tell you, but your husband was killed in action," the soldier said as Christy dropped to the floor.

The Pentagon said J.D. was killed when terrorists attacked his unit with small arms fire and an improvised explosive device. First Lt. Ryan Rawl, 30, and Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Thomas, 30, also lost their lives.

Before J.D. left for Afghanistan, his wife asked him to record two audiobooks for his little girl.

"We read them every night," Elana's tearful mom said.

Christy Meador is one of numerous military spouses to lose a loved one during the violent summer of 2012. This column exists to keep the military community's heroism in the spotlight.

"There are so many people out there, even good friends of mine, saying, 'I can't believe he left you and that baby,'" Christy said. "I say, 'You don't understand. It's something he wanted to do.'"

The Thursday night bowling league in Columbia, S.C., will always be missing a star player. But from the mountains of Afghanistan to the hearts of his loving wife and daughters, the selfless legacy of Sgt. John David Meador II rolls on.


Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Unexpected

Images courtesy: Laura Monk

When Spc. Austin Monk deployed to Iraq in August 2009, the soldier's wife expected the worst.

"When your loved one deploys to Iraq, you expect them to come home injured ... (physically or emotionally) wounded, or you expect them to come back dead," Laura Monk told "The Unknown Soldiers."

She never thought her 20-year-old husband's combat deployment would end with a shocking diagnosis of leukemia.

"You never expect them to come back with cancer," she said.

Laura met Austin on an early morning bus ride from her native Philadelphia to New York City in December 2007. After initially being too nervous to talk to the "cute soldier" from Texas as the bus made the short trip up Interstate 95, they struck up a conversation.

"Everything else that wound up happening in our lives showed we were meant to meet," Laura said.

Austin and Laura got married in March 2009, shortly after the soldier returned from Korea.

"It was awesome because we got to build our relationship through conversations, learn about each other over the phone and have an emotional connection," Laura said. "We just fell in love."

Less than five months after their wedding, Spc. Monk deployed to Iraq's Al Anbar Province with an 82nd Airborne Division personal security detachment.

"This is what I signed up to do," Austin said to his wife. Austin first complained about a terrible headache during one of the couple's Skype conversations. Then, on Halloween 2009, Austin wrote Laura a MySpace message saying he had a 104-degree fever.

"Don't worry about me," Austin added.

A few weeks later, fellow soldiers found Austin lying on the floor of his barracks. The ordeal that followed, which took the soldier from hospitals in Iraq to Germany, left Laura feeling helpless as she agonized over her husband's condition from thousands of miles away.

"They initially thought he had mono or tuberculosis and that the headache could have been from his wisdom teeth," Austin's wife said.

When Laura was informed her husband was suffering from leukemia, all she wanted was to be by his side.

"I'll be there soon," she said.

After the Army flew Laura to Germany, she would rarely be separated from Austin again, except for one special week.

"He told me to go to Paris," Laura said. "Even though he was stuck in the hospital, he wanted to make it enjoyable for me."

Austin and Laura eventually ended up at a top cancer hospital in Houston. With Austin's cancer in remission after a May 2011 bone marrow transplant, the Monks were preparing to head home to North Carolina, where the soldier was stationed, with a renewed sense of optimism.

"We thought we were good," Laura said. "It was normalcy ... normalcy for us."

Austin collapsed just hours before the couple's flight. A few hours later, the soldier learned his cancer had returned.

"That was the last time he was ever outside a hospital," Laura said.

The Monks eventually returned to North Carolina, where Austin, 22, would spent his last days in a hospice facility. In the early morning hours of Oct. 5, 2011, Laura, who met the love of her life by chance on a bus, told her husband it was time for his next trip.

"It's okay for you to go," she whispered in Austin's ear. "I love you."

Even after three years of pain, Laura feels deeply inspired by the courage displayed by her husband, both as an American soldier and young cancer patient.

"I want him to be remembered as the smiling Austin, the guy who loved the Dallas Cowboys, the guy that no matter what the consequences, signed up and joined the Army," she said.

Spc. Austin Monk will always be with his wife. And due to the wonders of medical technology, Laura still hopes to bear his children.

"He would have been a great dad," she said. "But he'll be looking down on us."

Laura Monk expected the worst when her husband went to Iraq. But even after the unimaginable ordeal that followed, her outlook has changed for the better.

"I have to make the best of it because it's all I've got," she said.


Friday, August 17, 2012

The Chosen Few

Image courtesy: Susan Coti

When Lance Cpl. Niall Coti-Sears decided to join the United States Marine Corps, he was emulating a hero.

"He wanted to follow in his grandfather's footsteps," Lance Cpl. Coti-Sears' mother, Susan Coti, told The Unknown Soldiers.

Niall's grandfather, Col. William Coti (Ret.), served in the Marines for more than 30 years. Before two tours in Vietnam, he fought in the bloody 1950 Battle of Chosin Reservoir — one of the Korean War's defining struggles. The heroes who clashed with Communist Chinese forces for 17 days in freezing conditions are known as "The Chosin Few."

Niall, who was home-schooled by his grandparents for two years, spent many hours learning in their basement, which his parents said resembles a Marine Corps museum. While Col. Coti never told his grandson to join the military, young Niall would often put on old uniforms and pretend he was in combat.

"One time I said, 'Niall, the gun jammed and the enemy is getting close, what are you going to do?'" Col. Coti recalled. "He picked up a grenade and threw it."

One day, Niall decided to become a Marine.

"Poppy, I want to be like you," he said.

When the teenager told his parents, both feared for his safety.

"My initial reaction was that I was completely against it," Niall's father, Paul Sears, said. "Not because of the Marines Corps or the military, but because of the way the world is today."

But when the aspiring Arlington, Va., warrior paid a visit to his father in Baltimore, Paul could see the focus in his son's eyes.

"I was 100 percent behind him," the Marine's father, who now lives in Arizona, said.

Image courtesy: Paul Sears

Still, both parents hoped Niall could avoid Afghanistan or Iraq's front lines.

"We begged him not to choose infantry," Niall's mother said. "We said, you could do anything; why would you want to go to Afghanistan as an infantryman?"

But that's exactly the path Niall, who grew up hearing his grandfather's war stories, chose.

"He was just ... a really fearless guy," Susan said.

"I believe that he needed to be part of something that was a lot larger than he was," Paul said.

Before leaving for Afghanistan, Niall spoke to 4th graders at the Washington, D.C., school where his mom teaches.

"One of the boys asked him if he was afraid," Susan said. "He said no ... he really believed it was something he needed to do."

Niall deployed to southern Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in March. He was in frequent communication with his family until around Father's Day, when he went behind Taliban lines for a dangerous mission.

"That's when I got worried," his father said. "And when his birthday came, I got really worried."

On June 21 — Niall's 23rd birthday — his mother got a box of flowers.

"Just because you're always here for me, mom," Niall's card read.

Two days later, Niall was killed in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. His mom, dad, and grandfather said he stepped on an enemy improvised explosive device.

Commanders informed the Marine's parents that not long before his death, Niall was in a ferocious firefight. Just like the pretend battle in his grandpa's basement, Niall picked up grenades and fearlessly hurled them toward the enemy.

"Everyone who knew Niall knew his greatness," Niall's platoon commander, 2nd Lt. Kenneth Conover, wrote to the family.

Col. Coti is immensely proud of his grandson. But pride doesn't erase the pain he and other members of Niall's family are experiencing.

Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/Adrian Rowan

"It's been a complete blur," Niall's dad said six weeks after his son was killed. "To me, it just happened yesterday."

"It's hard to believe he's gone," the Marine's mother said.

Niall was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, where he is surrounded by heroes of the battles in which his grandfather once fought.

"He was always looking out for other people's welfare," Col. Coti said.

While delivering Niall's eulogy, Paul read a Buddhist quotation that inspired his son.

"The greatest achievement is selflessness," it begins.

Like Col. William Coti in Korea and Vietnam, Lance Cpl. Niall Coti-Sears selflessly stepped forward to serve in Afghanistan. In choosing to his risk his life for others, a proud grandson didn't just emulate a hero. He became one.


Image courtesy: Cpl. Mark Garcia

Friday, August 10, 2012

Into the Light

Image courtesy: Jon White Photography

As Amy Looney dove into cold, choppy English Channel waters in the dark of night, the faces of three people filled her thoughts during a grueling, hour-long July 14 swim. The first image she saw was her husband, LT SEAL Brendan Looney, who was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 21, 2010.

Amy met Brendan, a stoic, driven varsity athlete at the United States Naval Academy, on Memorial Day weekend in 2003. The future Navy SEAL was so nervous that friends had to coax him into talking to the pretty girl by the bar.

"He was the shyest person I'd ever met," Amy said. "But by the end of the night, he asked for my number."

Images courtesy: Amy Looney

Brendan had just become a SEAL when he married Amy on July 12, 2008, just 48 hours before a combat deployment to Iraq. While memorable, the Annapolis, Md., ceremony also had a backdrop of profound sadness due to a groomsman's absence. Brendan's Naval Academy roommate, Marine 1st. Lt. Travis Manion, had been killed in Iraq just 14 months earlier.

Amy's thoughts shifted to Travis as the 50-degree water felt like a straitjacket around her arms, which were trying to navigate the Channel.

"I thought about Brendan a lot, but I thought about Travis too," Amy said. "I know they're probably up there laughing."

Brendan and Travis became close friends while learning how to become leaders after 9/11. It was in the Navy where both Midshipmen showed early signs of the everlasting brotherhood that makes the military America's most revered institution.

"One night when we went out, someone bumped into me so hard that I almost fell over," Amy said. "Travis went over to the guy and was like 'you need to apologize ... you don't bump into my friend's girlfriend.'

"It showed how quickly Travis was there to back Brendan up," she continued. "Brendan would have done the exact same thing for him."

Travis' Apr. 29, 2007, death at the hands of an enemy sniper in Fallujah, Iraq, devastated Brendan, who was about to start Navy SEAL training. But Travis' mom, Janet Manion, encouraged him to soldier on.

"Think about what Travis would want," the grieving mother told Brendan.

On his wedding night, Brendan, who graduated as "Honor Man" of his BUD/S class, presented his SEAL Trident to Janet.

"I need you to have this," Brendan said. "I wouldn't have gotten through it without Travis."

With the sky even darker and seasickness filling her stomach, Amy saw Janet's face. She also thought of Brendan's parents, Kevin and Maureen Looney, and her husband's five siblings. Their courage motivated Amy to keep swimming.

After Brendan's shocking death in a tragic Afghanistan helicopter crash, which killed nine American service members, Amy frequently clutched Janet's arm and told her she wanted Brendan and Travis buried side-by-side. The Manions bravely moved their son from Pennsylvania to Arlington National Cemetery, where he rests for eternity beside Brendan.

Bonded by immeasurable loss, Amy grew close with Janet, her husband, Col. Tom Manion (Ret.), and their daughter, Ryan, especially as Travis' mom suffered from cancer.

"I thought about the challenges she went through and how motivated she was by the impact she had on others," Amy said. "Janet's words echoed through my mind."

Janet Manion died on Apr. 24. Yet as Amy finally saw a boat's light in the English Channel's darkness, she heard Janet speak.

"Brendan would be so proud of you," she said.

Amy swam the English Channel relay to honor the fallen with six fellow Americans deeply impacted by war, including military widows and combat veterans. Five swimmers received funding from the Travis Manion Foundation, the organization Janet founded and Amy later joined, to complete their journeys. Each has a compelling story.

When Janet Manion was laid to rest, a silver bracelet with Travis and Brendan's names was on her wrist.

"Warriors for freedom," it reads. "Brothers forever."

In less than five years, Amy Looney, 31, saw the darkness of losing her husband and two close friends. Yet every single day, she keeps swimming toward the light.

"It's not about the goal," Amy said. "It's about the journey and the people you meet to get there."


Friday, August 3, 2012

A Reluctant Star

Images courtesy: U.S. Marine Corps

Lance Cpl. Jeffrey Cole received the Silver Star for his gallant response to an enemy ambush in Marjah, Afghanistan. Yet even while describing the battle's harrowing events, the 22-year-old Georgia native insisted that his fellow Marines are more deserving of recognition.

"I didn't do anything comparative to what they did," Lance Cpl. Cole told The Unknown Soldiers. "I was shot, but I was not wounded, which allowed me to do what I did, and then in the process of me doing that, I got wounded."

While genuine humility is common amongst the roughly 1 percent of Americans who volunteer for military service, Cole's modesty, even after recently receiving the nation's third-highest military honor, is nevertheless striking.

"They deserve the award and not me," he said. "What I saw that day was the most impressive thing I've ever seen in my life."

Cole, eight fellow Marines, and a Navy Hospital Corpsman were on an Aug. 17, 2010, reconnaissance mission in southern Afghanistan's searing heat when the Taliban staged a sneak attack.

"It just erupted," Cole said. "It came out of nowhere."

Cole was hit by rapid fire at virtually the same moment as five fellow Marines. The difference was that Cole's body armor stopped the enemy rounds while the other men were bleeding.

"I got back up after being shot and I was mad, obviously, because I was shot and everyone else was shot," the Marine said. "I just started shooting in the tree line 100 yards away at all the Taliban that were there."

Over the next 30 minutes, the Marines, including Cole and all five others who'd been hit, took the fight to the enemy using only a ditch as cover. As a machine gunner lay bleeding, Cole volunteered to fill his role and confront the enemy head on.

"I was like 'hey, you're wounded and I'm not,'" Cole said. "So I'm gonna take the (machine) gun and I'll give you my rifle."

Cole unleashed a hail of bullets as the terrorists, who were moving closer to the ditch, scrambled for cover. Standing up and exposing himself to the enemy, the Marine continued firing until he was struck by three more bullets. And this time, body armor couldn't protect him.

"I had two go through my arm," Cole said. "It threw me back into the ditch and they put a tourniquet on me."

As the sweaty Marine lay in the ditch with blood spraying from his left arm, which was almost completely numb after one of the bullets severed a nerve, Cole knew his patrol had to move to a safer position, and fast.

"At that point I was the sixth wounded Marine out of only ten," he said. "So it was like, 'all right, we gotta get out of here now.'"

After making it into a nearby compound, the Marines frantically fixed a broken radio to call in air support while securing a perimeter to prevent further attacks. Finally, with the Taliban approximately 30 yards away, U.S. helicopters arrived to evacuate the outnumbered, decimated patrol. All six wounded Marines survived.

Almost two years after bravely grabbing a machine gun and temporarily halting the enemy advance, Cole has endured seven surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy, leaving him with about 40 percent usage of his left arm. Instead of taking any credit for his heroic actions, though, the Marine is focused on regaining his strength.

"I can curl a 15-pound weight now, whereas...almost two years ago I couldn't even lift my arm...I couldn't even lift a finger on my arm, literally," Cole said. "It's taken me a long time and a lot of hard work, but I'm doing a lot better now."

With a Silver Star medal to his name, Cole is recovering at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune while occasionally visiting his family in Woodstock, Ga. He hasn't decided how long he'll stay in the military, although he's committed to always helping other wounded warriors, no matter where his career path ultimately leads.

While reluctant to embrace the term "hero," warriors like Lance Cpl. Jeffrey Cole and his fellow troops deserve adulation. During uncertain times, they are shining stars that every American can be proud of.