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

Monday, December 31, 2012

Christmas at Arlington

There's no place like Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, especially on Christmas morning.

Visiting the hallowed ground, where many heroes of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are laid to rest, is an experience filled with heartbreak. But because of the enormous accomplishments of the brave men and women buried there, Section 60 is also one of the most authentic, inspiring places that any American could visit.

After a Christmas Eve mixture of light snow, sleet and rain, Dec. 25 was a glorious morning in the nation's capital. The winter sun, more forgiving than the brutal desert heat many of our heroes have endured in Afghanistan and Iraq, glistened off the magnificent white headstones that mark this young generation's devotion to freedom.

Amid the majestic setting, however, is the aforementioned sadness. Soon after arriving at Section 60, I saw a little boy standing with a woman, presumably his mother, at the grave of a fallen hero.

"Hi, papa," the child said.

While paying my respects to warriors who made the ultimate sacrifice, including several whose stories have appeared in this column, I looked over again at the young boy and his mom.

Before they left the cemetery, the boy threw his arms around the headstone in front of him. He then unleashed a bear hug that would have undoubtedly made his papa smile.

"Goodbye," the child said before he and his mom slowly walked away.

Whenever I visit Section 60, there are always more graves than my previous trip. It's a tragic, pointed reminder that the conflict launched after Sept. 11, 2001, continues to this very day.

Not far from the last row of the newest temporary grave markers was a young woman, probably in her 20s, sitting in silence on a blanket. She was staring at the name of someone she clearly cared about, probably thinking about what was and what could have been. In her hand was a letter, which she clutched and held close to heart.

When I walked by, I put my hand on her shoulder and told her I was sorry for her loss. She looked up at me and acknowledged my presence, albeit without a spoken word. This was Christmas morning, and she was spending a precious moment with someone she loved. It was time for me to go, but like the little boy and his mom, it was impossible to forget her face.

A few minutes later, I encountered the grave of U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Vincent Bell. Affixed to the fallen hero's headstone were three pictures: two of the Marine in uniform and one showing him dressed up in a nice suit. Atop his headstone were three rocks, along with a coin, bracelet and gold cross.

On Christmas night, I typed Staff Sgt. Bell's name into my search bar and learned that the 28-year-old Marine served four tours of duty in Iraq before being killed in southern Afghanistan on Nov. 30, 2011, while conducting combat operations. A tough, seasoned warrior from Detroit, Bell repeatedly risked his life for his country and did so with bravery and honor.

How could these young men and women be so extraordinary? How could they volunteer, over and over again, for such dangerous duty? How could their loved ones cope with such profound, overwhelming grief? These are questions that every American, not just those who visit Arlington National Cemetery, should still be pondering.

The American heroes buried in Section 60, and throughout Arlington, are not fictional characters from books and movies. They are husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. They sacrifice lifetimes alongside loved ones like the young woman on the blanket and the little boy who hugged his papa's headstone. And they do it to protect us.

Just as I was leaving Arlington to spend the rest of Christmas Day with my family, a privilege I no longer take for granted, I almost stepped on a gold star. Visitors had hung several decorations on a nearby tree, and the ornament probably blew off during the previous day's bad weather.

Written on the gold star was a simple, perfect message to the heroes of Section 60 and their families: "Thank you."


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Life As We Know It

Image courtesy: U.S. Air Force/Greg Davis

It's easy to forget that thousands of Americans are still at war.

Whether we're immersed in our families, jobs, hobbies, televisions, computers or smart phones, there are plenty of ways to avoid thinking about a faraway place called Afghanistan. The one percent of our population that volunteers to protect us, however, doesn't have that luxury.

Two North Dakota families are experiencing incomprehensible devastation after a Dec. 3 terrorist attack in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. According to the Department of Defense, two North Dakota National Guardsmen died that day when "enemy forces attacked their unit with an improvised explosive device."

The fallen soldiers' names are Sgt. 1st Class Darren Linde, 41, of Devils Lake, N.D., and Spc. Tyler Orgaard, 20, of Bismarck, N.D.

As I read the casualty notice on my iPhone, I thought about the agony that has been described to me by moms, dads, wives, husbands and siblings who've lost loved ones in Afghanistan or Iraq. To this day, casualty assistance officers are still knocking on the doors of military families that will never be the same.

Instead of hugging and kissing their families at a homecoming ceremony, Sgt. 1st Class Linde and Spc. Orgaard returned to American soil inside flag-draped caskets. Fellow soldiers saluted and bowed their heads during the Dec. 5 dignified transfer ceremony at Delaware's Dover Air Force Base.

During the holiday season, the Linde and Orgaard families are forced to endure the first painful weeks of an unimaginably difficult journey. As we grieve alongside the loved ones of the brave adults and precious children murdered in the tragic Connecticut elementary school massacre, let's also keep these military families, as well as loved ones of all our nation's fallen heroes, in our thoughts and prayers.

According to the North Dakota National Guard, a third soldier, Spc. Ian Placek, 23, was wounded in the Dec. 3 attack. Like thousands of fellow wounded warriors, Spc. Placek, his family and his caregivers have earned our utmost respect, appreciation, and gratitude. As Americans, we have no greater obligation than caring for the valiant men and women who fought for us.

The war in Afghanistan is happening right now. It didn't end when Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden or after any of the last three presidential elections. Every day, brave troops like Linde, Orgaard and Placek are patrolling through rugged, dangerous terrain, constantly threatened by enemy snipers and roadside bombs.

I recently went to see the movie "Lincoln" at a local theater. During the film, I was struck most by a scene in which the 16th president, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, rides on horseback through a Civil War battlefield while looking in anguish at countless fallen warriors. Then, to pay tribute, Lincoln removes his iconic hat.

The 19th century was obviously a much different time. But I believe 21st century America would be a better place if we all followed President Abraham Lincoln's example. We must do more to honor the extraordinary men and women who volunteer to risk their lives on post-9/11 battlefields.

Perhaps some of Lincoln's most famous words, uttered on the bloody Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg, can help reawaken our nation to the sacrifices of its heroes.

"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion," Lincoln said on Nov. 19, 1863. "That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

As Lincoln's words inspire us, so should the words of Adrienne Linde, wife of fallen Sgt. 1st Class Darren Linde and mother of their four children.

"Darren gave his life so that others could pass through safely," a statement from the grieving widow said.

As the war in Afghanistan enters its 12th year, let's renew our commitment to honoring America's brave men and women in uniform. Without them, life as we know it would perish.


Images courtesy: North Dakota National Guard

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Seek On

Images courtesy: Sgt. Jason Cartwright

Five months into a second stint searching for deadly roadside bombs in Afghanistan, Sgt. Jason Cartwright knows every step he takes with his trusted military working dog, Isaac, could be their last.

"There's no time to be afraid now," Sgt. Cartwright wrote to The Unknown Soldiers from Afghanistan on Dec. 8. "I pat Isaac on the chest and say 'seek on.'"

Since initially making contact with the senior Army dog handler and trainer in 2011, I have marveled at the selfless courage displayed by this married father from Alabama. Based at Missouri's Fort Leonard Wood, Cartwright willingly spends months at a time hunting for improvised explosive devices that kill and maim U.S. troops and Afghan civilians.

"As Isaac and I come to almost half of our tour, we'll still have done our job with finding three caches consisting of six jugs of homemade explosives, three jars of explosive material and two directional charges with eight pressure plates," the soldier wrote.

Isaac is a brave black Lab that looks like he's smiling in every picture the dog's handler sends me from the war zone. The fearless 4-year-old dog, which helped find 28 roadside bombs during a previous deployment that ended in 2011, has found lethal devices buried by terrorists near roads, hospitals and schools.
"Isaac and I search for over 18 hours — 800 meters of routes and compounds to only get everybody back on that chopper to leave once the mission is complete," Cartwright wrote. "That is exactly what we have done together out front taking point with all the troops behind us."

Serving with the Engineer Canine Company of the Army's 5th Engineer Battalion, Jason and Isaac have endured countless missions, including many that have came close to resulting in serious injury or death. But as soon as the inseparable pair returns to base, the two soldiers sit together to enjoy temporary moments of solitude and peace.

"Once the mission was complete, Isaac and I waited out in the open land of Afghanistan under the stars and half-lit moon," Cartwright wrote about a recent assignment.

Given his two tours in Afghanistan and previous deployment to Iraq, fellow soldiers in the war zone rely on Sgt. Cartwright's experience and leadership.

"I understand that I must teach them the way," the soldier wrote. "I train these handlers day and night so that they will be ready to face anything that gets put in their way."
Cartwright has already missed his wife and young son's birthdays, not to mention Thanksgiving, during this deployment. With frigid air and relentless assaults by American troops forcing al-Qaida and the Taliban into hiding during the winter months, Cartwright hopes to have a relatively nice, quiet Christmas on base with his beloved dog.

"The missions have slowed down since winter has come and fighting season is over," he wrote. "Yet Isaac and I are still out and away from our family and friends during the holidays."

It is a privilege to live in a free country. But as we enjoy the company of friends and family during this special time of year, I hope we'll keep in mind that brave men, women and dogs are still scouring the post-9/11 battlefields of a primitive land. I think about Jason and Isaac often, wondering what they are doing and praying they are safe.

"It is a serious and dangerous job that we do, but I've got full confidence in Isaac and the troops who have my back," Cartwright wrote.

When the air grows warmer and the enemy returns to the battlefield, Jason and Isaac will be ready once again.

"As I hear the chopper from the distance, I know it's time to begin," he wrote.

Sgt. Jason Cartwright can't wait to see his wife and child again. But unlike the 99 percent of us who don't serve in uniform, this 28-year-old American soldier ranks his personal wishes second. Whenever danger lurks beneath the dirt road ahead, Jason and Isaac always seek on. To them, nothing is more important than uncovering the next bomb.

"If I one day I shall fall, I won't regret it," the soldier wrote. "(That's) because we try to find them all."


Monday, December 10, 2012

Defender of Justice

Images courtesy: Manoukian family

Capt. Matt Manoukian could have done anything he wanted in life. Not only was he the son of two California judges, he was tough, good-looking and brilliant.

"He took care of business," his father, Judge Socrates Peter Manoukian of the Santa Clara County Superior Court, told The Unknown Soldiers.

Ever since age 7, Matt dreamed of becoming a United States Marine. He believed the Marine Corps gave him a unique chance to help protect equality and justice, which he watched his parents preserve throughout his childhood.

Matt's plans took on a sense of urgency on Sept. 11, 2001. While the high school football standout was ready to enlist the next day, an injury and a major health scare forced Matt to put his dreams on hold.

"He had two surgeries ... the first was for a knee injury," his dad said. "Then, that summer he found out he had a tumor in his spinal cord."

Matt pursued his bachelor's degree at the University of Arizona while recovering from both operations. He studied political science and rebuilt his strength, but never wavered from his ultimate goal.

"He was a good example of 'if you work hard enough, you'll get what you want,'" Matt's father said.

Matt joined the Marine Corps in 2006, and after more than a year of training, deployed to Iraq's Al Anbar Province. But even as a young Lieutenant, Matt understood that physical preparation was only one aspect of a combat deployment.

"I told him a big part of being a Marine was understanding the culture," Matt's dad said. "But he already knew that."

Matt treated Iraqi civilians with respect and began studying their language while leading his platoon on dangerous missions. He was compassionate, but also fierce and genuinely heroic.

"He had an IED (improvised explosive device) go off near him and knock him out ... it knocked everybody out," his father said.

As a fellow Marine lay bleeding, Matt refused to leave him behind.

"He put a tourniquet on this guy's leg and saved his life," Matt's dad said.

While Matt earned medals throughout his military career, he was reluctant to discuss any personal achievements. What did fill him with pride, however, was seeing clear signs of progress when he returned to Iraq a second time. Just like during his first deployment, Matt immersed himself in the local culture.

"He did that in Iraq ... he learned how to speak Arabic," Matt's dad said. "And then when he went to Afghanistan, he started doing the same thing."

Matt didn't tell his parents much about his first combat tour in Afghanistan. But when he got the opportunity to return there in 2012, he was grateful. As it would be Matt's last deployment before he traded military life for law school, the Marine wanted to use his good relationship with Afghans to help them develop a strong legal system.

"He said he wanted to finish the business, just like he did in Iraq," Matt's father said.

On Aug. 4, Matt spoke enthusiastically to the San Diego Union-Tribune about his Special Operations unit's progress in building the Afghan police force.

"You see kids running around now trying to play ALP (Afghan Local Police)," Matt told the newspaper. "So it's catching on."

Six days later, Capt. Manoukian, 29, and two fellow Marines were shot and killed by an Afghan police officer who attacked their compound.

"You always worry, and one night the Marines came to the door and told us," Matt's father said. "We miss him, and the Marines who got killed with him were also tough guys."

Matt's murder is an outrage, but his legacy endures. For the first time in the Judicial Branch of California's history, someone outside the legal profession is being honored with the Stanley Mosk Defender of Justice Award. Matt is being recognized "for his sacrifice to the cause of justice."

Almost every father is proud of his son, but it's difficult to find a prouder dad than Judge Socrates Peter Manoukian.

"He was kind to people and took care of strangers he didn't know," Matt's father said. "It was a grace and honor to have him in the family, and we miss him terribly."