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

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Last Stop

Images courtesy: Bob Bagosy

Bob Bagosy will always remember the day his 19-year-old son, Tommy, told him he was joining the United States Marine Corps.

"I said okay, let's talk about this," Bob, who was living in Delaware, recalled.

When Bob said he wanted to talk, he meant it. Not only would he drive down to Florida, where Tommy was living, but the father and son would also make two key stops during a subsequent drive up the east coast.

The first was South Carolina's Parris Island, where thousands of Marine recruits endure boot camp each year.

"I dropped him off and left for an hour," Bob said. "He got back in the car and said 'I can do this.'"

Before endorsing Tommy's decision, Bob had something else to show him.

"The second stop was Arlington National Cemetery, because I wanted him to see the other half of the military," Bob said.

After seeing the majestic white headstones that mark the hallowed resting spots of so many American heroes, Tommy turned to his father.

"If I die, I want to have the biggest tombstone available," the teenager said.

"Tommy, you won't get any bigger than Arlington," his dad replied.

In 2006, Sgt. Tommy Bagosy deployed to Iraq, where he helped find enemy improvised explosive devices (IEDs) outside the besieged city of Fallujah. It was a tough deployment.

"A best friend took his patrol one night," Bob said. "The guy hit an IED and died.

"Tommy blamed himself and said it should have been him."

During their first visit after Sgt. Bagosy's return, the Marine's parents realized why their son's wife, Katie, was insisting that Iraq's horrors had changed her husband.

"He turned to me in a restaurant and said 'you know dad, I killed people over there,'" Bob said.

Tommy was suffering from headaches, flashbacks, and insomnia. According to his father, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress (PTS) from his Iraq deployment caused the symptoms. The Marine was prescribed medication and tried to live a normal life with his wife and two children.

In 2009, Tommy deployed to Afghanistan after renewing his military contract. While admiring his son's bravery, Bob was also concerned about the lingering effects of TBI and PTS. But Tommy served honorably in Afghanistan, particularly while taking enemy fire during an ambush.

"He got his second combat action ribbon for that," Bob said. "He never mentioned a word about it."

Not long after Tommy's November 2009 return, Bob learned his son was again overwhelmed by violent headaches and nightmares, prompting more psychological treatment. When Tommy called home on May 9, 2010, the Marine was at a tragic crossroads.

"He was in absolute tears and told his mother he didn't know what was going on," Bob said. "He was all jumbled up in his head."

The next day, Sgt. Bagosy, 25, fled a hospital at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune, where he was being held for treatment. After a brief pursuit by military police, Tommy shot himself in the head.

"We don't know if he felt like he was being chased by the Taliban," Bob said. "But in that one moment of insanity, he just pulled the trigger."

For Tommy's loved ones, the last two-plus years have been filled with painful questions.

"I know the who, what, where, when, and how," Bob said. "But the why has been eluding me."

Bob, who served in the Marine Corps Reserve, doesn't blame the military for his son's suicide. While searching for answers about Tommy's death, the grieving father is proud of his son's life, and particularly his service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On Memorial Day, Bob visited Tommy's grave in Section 59 of Arlington National Cemetery, one section over from many of America's most celebrated post-9/11 heroes.

"I looked over (at Section 60) and there were people on lawn chairs ... it was like a community there," Bob said. "Tommy's buried with a lot of honored people, but there's nobody there from Iraq and Afghanistan."

While Bob supports his daughter-in-law's efforts to move Tommy's grave to Section 60, he also remembers the wisdom he once imparted to his son. When it comes to a final place of rest, it doesn't get any bigger than Arlington.

"He wanted a big tombstone," Bob said. "And he got one."


Monday, October 22, 2012

No Regrets

Images courtesy: Nick Vogt Family

If you lost both your legs, would you be smiling less than a year later?

For me, the answer to that question is no. That's why meeting a seriously wounded U.S. Army soldier named 1st Lt. Nick Vogt is an experience I will always cherish.

What struck me most during my Oct. 12 visit with the 24-year-old Afghanistan war veteran at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center wasn't seeing a handsome young man with no legs. It was 1st Lt. Vogt's bright, optimistic smile.

When the soldier's mother, Sheila Vogt, introduced me to her son, Nick was lying on his couch beneath an American flag decoration and photos of his little niece and nephew. While a beautiful fall day shined outside his window, stark reminders of our military's continuing sacrifices filled his apartment.

"Thank you for your service, Lieutenant," I said while shaking Nick's hand.

"No problem," the wounded warrior replied with a warm grin.

While the Army Ranger's mom and I sat comfortably, Nick spent most of the hour-long visit on his back. Even though it's been eleven months since an enemy improvised explosive device took his legs, one stubbornly healing wound forces Nick to avoid the sitting position. The quicker the wound heals, the faster the Crestline, Ohio, soldier can finally be fitted with prosthetics.

Nick's left hand is missing its pinky finger, and a large scar engulfs his arm. Both legs are missing entirely. The soldier has no memory of the Nov. 12, 2011, terrorist attack that nearly killed him, and said that in the weeks after the explosion, his mind underwent a full "reboot."

Still, as his mom described before we went upstairs to see Nick, there is no bitterness inside her son's heart. There is only the desire to live, heal and serve.

"I'm staying in," Nick said about his military future. "And mom, someday, I'm going back."

As Nick looked up at his mother, all she could do is smile back, look in my direction and crack a joke.

"Do you see what I have to deal with?" Sheila said with an affectionate smirk.

Before spending time with the Vogts, it was impossible to comprehend the sacrifices made by a wounded warrior's loved ones.

In the eleven months since their son was wounded, Sheila said she and Nick's father have been simultaneously inside in their Ohio home just three times. They alternate weeks at Walter Reed to help Nick, who nearly died in January after a crisis with his lung.

The morning after our visit, Sheila was scheduled to fly home and spend an evening with her husband, Steve. The couple was so excited that they both accidentally made reservations at the same restaurant. Still, before arranging the special trip, Nick's mom and dad had to make sure their son was ready to be alone until Steve arrived in Bethesda, Md., the next day.

"Cleaning a wound is not easy, especially when you can't see it," Sheila said. "He had to prove to me that he could do it."

Looking into Sheila's eyes, I could see the same optimism her son projects. But I could also see exhaustion. Few parents could imagine what Sheila and Steve have endured, yet through faith and unconditional love, they are still smiling.

As we sat with Nick, I asked the wounded warrior what it meant to recently travel to Fort Wainwright to see his fellow soldiers return from Afghanistan.

"It meant everything," he said.

Nick's mom said it took a grueling 12-hour flight from the nation's capital to Alaska in order for the platoon leader to see his fellow troops. He was in pain during the flight, and his parents worried one of his wounds would become infected. But nothing could stop Nick from greeting his brothers in arms.

First lieutenant Vogt is a young man with no regrets. He chose to attend West Point despite knowing he was joining the Army during a time of war. He was accepted to medical school upon graduation, yet chose to deploy to Afghanistan with an infantry platoon. Even though it cost him his legs, Nick would undoubtedly choose the same path all over again.

When I asked the wounded soldier how he was doing, he responded with his trademark smile.

"I'm doing great," he said.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Women of Courage

Image courtesy: Nick Rozanski Memorial Foundation

As I drove Jenny Rozanski to the airport in September, she said something that underscores the courage of a young generation of war widows.

"I want something good to come out of this," said the wife of fallen Ohio National Guard Capt. Nick Rozanski, who was killed on Apr. 4.

Like every grieving spouse I have spoken with, Jenny's pain is very real. Once a happily married "part-time military wife," as she jokingly called herself, she suddenly and tragically became a widowed mother of two young girls.

After losing her loved one to war, every day in Dublin, Ohio, is now a struggle for Jenny. Still, despite all the challenges she's faced since April, Jenny has spearheaded the creation of the Nick Rozanski Memorial Foundation, which will provide scholarships for children in the Buckeye State.

"I feel like it's my duty to continue on with his legacy," Capt. Rozanski's wife said.

Since the war in Afghanistan commenced after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, women all around America have made enormous sacrifices, both on and off the battlefield. Some are U.S. troops; some are military moms, sisters or wives.

The story of Christy Meador, with whom I recently spoke, tragically reminds us that America is still at war. Christy's husband, South Carolina National Guard Sgt. John David Meador II, was killed in Afghanistan on June 20. Christy, who lives in Columbia, S.C., has since gone back to work while raising the couple's little girl, Elana.

"Now I look back, and it was just so meant to be," Sgt. Meador's tearful widow said. "I don't know where I would be today had we not had (Elana)."

Image courtesy: Christy Meador

Linda Mills' story is different. I spoke to this energetic, enthusiastic U.S. Army wife shortly after her husband, Staff Sgt. Andrew Mills, deployed to Afghanistan in February. But in June, she received the worst phone call of her life.

"Your husband has been seriously wounded in Afghanistan," Linda was told.

Thankfully, Staff Sgt. Mills is recovering in Bethesda, Md., from the wounds he sustained to his legs and abdomen. But several others were injured on June 7, and one soldier, Pfc. Brandon Goodine, 20, was killed. Linda and Andrew, who regard themselves as lucky, still pray for the Goodine family.

Image courtesy: Linda Mills

Kelsey Mills (no relation to Linda or Andrew Mills) also considers herself fortunate. Her husband made it home from Afghanistan, even though he lost both arms and legs in an Apr. 10 terrorist attack.

"I can either curl up in a ball and cry or keep going," Kelsey said. "I choose the latter."

Kelsey's husband, Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, served in Afghanistan with Linda's husband, Staff Sgt. Andrew Mills, in the same unit. Today, Travis and Andrew are wounded Afghanistan war veterans who inspire us with their valor, as do their wives.

"I'm happy that my husband is still alive," Kelsey, who is raising a precious little girl with Travis, said. "He's still here."
Image courtesy: Travis Mills Fund

When Melissa Jarboe's husband, Sgt. Jamie Jarboe, was paralyzed by enemy sniper fire on Apr. 10, 2011, the Army wife was devastated. But like Linda and Kelsey, she was grateful her husband survived his Afghanistan deployment.

"I have an acceptance of a path that we're all chosen for," Melissa told me on Jan. 12.

Even as her husband lay in a hospital bed, Melissa did not think she was headed down the path of becoming an Afghanistan war widow. But tragically, on Mar. 21, Sgt. Jarboe died, leaving behind Melissa and her two daughters.

While Melissa surely grieves, her commitment to honoring her husband, as well as helping veterans through the Jamie Jarboe Foundation, is unflappable.

"By the grace of God we were given 11 more months to live life, and for that I can't be selfish or greedy," Melissa wrote shortly after Jamie's passing.
Image courtesy: Jamie Jarboe Foundation

As the war in Afghanistan enters its 12th year, every American has a choice. Citizens can either keep going about their daily lives while forgetting — or ignoring — military families that sacrifice so we can live in relative comfort. Or, we can heed the call of courageous women like Jenny Rozanski, who lost the love of her life and father of her children.

"I want something good to come out of this," she said.


Monday, October 8, 2012

The Game of Their Lives

File image courtesy: Sgt. Ruth Pagan

Dust filled the air as a group of U.S. soldiers kicked off a Jan. 8 pickup football game in southern Afghanistan. But unbeknownst to the deployed American troops, terror was on the horizon. 

Soldiers from the Army's 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, including Sgt. Stephen Stoops, 23, were tossing around the football during some downtime on their isolated base when loud noises brought the game to an abrupt halt.

"We didn't know what it was at first," Sgt. Stoops told "The Unknown Soldiers." "It sounded just like a bunch of fireworks going off."

As the Americans quickly realized, a man wearing an Afghan National Army uniform was shooting in their direction. With their weapons out of reach, all the stunned group could do was frantically take cover.

"Run away, get away ... they're shooting at us," Stoops remembers a fellow soldier yelling.

As chaos ensued, Stoops, a married father of one from Port Orchard, Wash., realized two fellow soldiers had been wounded. It then became horribly apparent that their attacker, who hadn't stopped firing, was still out for blood.

"The guy started walking over (the wounded U.S. troops) and shooting them while they were lying on the ground," Stoops said. "Then he saw me yelling at him, and he started (shooting) at me."

Stoops ran to the base's fortified entry control point, where he encountered Sgt. Jacob Lewis, who was handed a weapon by one of the guards. After Stoops managed to find a weapon of his own, he darted back toward the site of their football game, which was now a blood-soaked battlefield.

"Sgt. Lewis and I decided we were going to flank him," Stoops said.

The brave soldiers shot the gunman, who was still trying to get back up when Stoops, who said he was out of ammunition, repeatedly hit the killer with a machine gun and kicked his weapon away. Finally, the attacker lay motionless, not far from the football the soldiers dropped in the dust when they were startled by the first shots.

With the threat eliminated, Lewis and Stoops frantically turned to their wounded comrades. Lewis tended to Spc. John Bolan, while Stoops tried to stop the bleeding of Pfc. Dustin Napier, who was shot in his leg, neck, and chin.

"I couldn't find a pulse," Stoops said. "So I kind of ... just put my hands on his neck to try and keep some sort of pressure on it."

"I was screaming 'I need a medic' the whole time," he added.

Pfc. Napier, 20, of London, Ky., died from his wounds. The tragic loss of the popular, caring soldier, who was enjoying a game of football with his brothers in arms moments before he was shot, devastated the unit.

"It was really hard on the platoon when we were down there," Stoops said, while adding that a memorial service held after the soldiers returned from Afghanistan honored Napier and his family.

The other soldier initially struck by the gunman, Spc. Bolan, survived the attack.

"After the incident, when he was awake ... we got to talk to him a little bit," Stoops said. "He just wanted to come back to us."

A third soldier, who was shot in the leg, also survived. But if not for the gallantry displayed by Lewis and Stoops, more brave Americans would almost certainly have been killed.

When I asked Stoops how he mustered the courage to fight back, his answer was short and simple.

"You just treat everyone like they're your enemy," he said.

According to the Army, Sgt. Jacob Lewis will receive the Silver Star for his selfless actions on Jan. 8. Sgt. Stoops was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor.

"His heroic actions and complete disregard for his own safety during an enemy attack on Forward Operating Base Apache in Afghanistan saved the lives of his fellow soldiers," Stoops' award citation reads.

Millions of Americans play football in backyards, streets and parks. Millions more watch the sport on television.

The harrowing story told by Sgt. Stephen Stoops should remind us that our nation's real heroes aren't the men playing games in football stadiums. They are the men and women still fighting a war in Afghanistan.

Image courtesy: Sgt. Michael Blalack