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

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Other Fellow First

Images courtesy: Douglas J. Green Memorial Foundation

While working as a summer camp counselor, future U.S. Army Spc. Douglas Green discovered a motto that would guide the rest of his life.

"It was 'the other fellow first,'" Spc. Green's mother, Suni Erlanger, told The Unknown Soldiers.

As a young boy growing up in the northern Virginia suburbs, Doug played with toy Army men but also displayed a level of maturity that went far beyond his years.

"He was my hero way before he enlisted in the Army," Doug's mom said. "He was that boy in school who was against bullying, even when it was tolerated."

On Sept. 11, 2001, Doug, who was only 13, made clear that America's new war wouldn't be someone else's fight.

"He wanted to get al Qaida for what they did to us," Suni said. "I knew something changed in Doug that day."

Doug spent his high school years doing everything from playing football to singing and dancing in school musicals. He also kept in touch with an Army recruiter, even though his parents worried deeply about the risks of serving in a post-9/11 world.

"He didn't have to go in," Doug's mother said. "He had a very sheltered life."
Doug volunteered on his 18th birthday and deployed to Iraq two years later.

"When his Sergeant asked who would want to go out on special missions, Doug's hand was always going up first," Suni said.

After returning to Alaska's Fort Wainwright before an upcoming Afghanistan deployment, Doug joined the local Big Brothers Big Sisters program, where he served as a young boy's mentor.

"He could have done anything ... screwed around, hung out in bars," his mom said. "(His charity work) just amazed me, it really did."

Before deploying, Doug went back to his hometown of Sterling, Va., where he reconnected with Alicia Swanstrom, who he originally met in school. The pair became inseparable, with Doug resolving to ask for her hand in marriage once he returned from Afghanistan.

"I knew he was serious about her," Suni said.

Doug deployed to a remote southern Afghanistan outpost and spent most of 2011 on daring night patrols, which often resulted in tense firefights with Taliban and al Qaida insurgents.

"They let him (come home) for a two-week leave," his mother said. "You could see in his eyes that he'd seen a lot of bloodshed."

With just weeks remaining in his deployment, Doug, who was Jewish, asked his mom to send a Star of David that he could wear around his neck.

"He thought that was going to protect him," Suni said.

The crushing loss of a fellow soldier, Spc. Brandon Mullins, 21, reinforced Doug's belief that his own death could soon be at hand. While Suni said her son would have been allowed to stay behind from his final combat patrols, Doug went anyway.

On Aug. 28, 2011, Spc. Green, 23, was killed when terrorists attacked his unit with small arms fire and roadside bombs, according to the Pentagon.

"He would always assure his other soldiers that everybody would be OK," the fallen soldier's mother said. "He just didn't care about himself."

Two weeks before his death, Doug mailed a heartfelt letter to his loved ones.

"If I could leave you with any words of wisdom it would be two things that I have always tried to live my life by," he wrote. "Make sure you always put yourself in the position of anyone you ever have contact with. You will never truly know a man or woman until you try to see things from their perspective.

"Secondly, never pass judgment or put anger on someone too quickly or harshly," Doug continued. "Because I guarantee you that person is fighting a battle that you know nothing about."

Doug is buried in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where a toy Army figure and other mementos left by his girlfriend, Alicia, decorated his white headstone during my Dec. 25, 2012, visit.

"I will always love and cherish all of the time I was given on this earth and am thankful for this life and everyone in it," Doug wrote in his final letter.

Indeed, Spc. Douglas Green always put the other fellow first.


Note: The Douglas J. Green Memorial Foundation has been established to help U.S. troops and veterans. Please click here to learn more about the organization and its mission.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Mountain

Images courtesy: Capt. Adam Brochetti

As U.S. Marine Capt. Adam Brochetti led a New Year's Eve patrol into one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan, he thought of his uncle's last stand on a mountain in Vietnam.

"Moving up to Sangin on that evening, I thought about my uncle, his last moments, and his responsibilities," Capt. Brochetti told The Unknown Soldiers.

Pfc. Frank Brochetti, 20, was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his heroic actions on April 8, 1972, atop the Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain) in Vietnam's Tay Ninh Province.

"Although wounded, he still directed fire on the attacking enemy forces until he succeeded in reaching the fighting position," Pfc. Brochetti's award citation reads.

More than 38 years later, the young U.S. Army soldier's gallantry inspired his nervous, courageous nephew as he led Marines to battle in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.

"This could be it, but let's do it," Adam said to himself on Dec. 31, 2010, not knowing if he and his fellow Marines would live to see 2011.

The grandson of a Marine who served in World War II, Adam had grown up hearing stories of his fallen uncle's bravery.

"My whole life, it was a very big deal," Adam said. "You walk into my grandparents' house and there's a shrine with the flag, his picture and his Purple Heart."

While he spent years looking at photos, studying maps and reading letters, it wasn't until he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and deployed to Afghanistan that he began to truly understand the sacrifices of people like his uncle.

"Once I became a Marine, it hit me, knowing the kind of Marines I've led," Adam said.

Adam first deployed to Afghanistan in November 2008 with an infantry unit, and after getting a unique opportunity to attend U.S. Army Ranger School upon his return, went back to war in November 2010 with the 2nd Marine Reconnaissance Battalion. As a platoon commander, nothing was more important to Adam than keeping his Marines safe.

"Every decision I made, I made it thinking 'this young Marine, he'll be somebody's uncle someday,'" Adam said. "It's a huge burden of responsibility."

As New Year's Day 2011 dawned over southern Afghanistan's treacherous terrain, Adam and his fellow Marines had survived yet another tense encounter with the enemy. When the entire platoon came home that summer, Adam knew he would have made his uncle proud.

"My biggest accomplishment to date was that I brought them all back," he said. "The biggest compliment was coming back and having my Marines thank me."

Now 29, married and raising a family, Adam is focused on guiding Marines who've made extraordinary sacrifices since 9/11. As Company Commander for wounded, ill and injured Marines at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Adam spends his days helping heroes who've endured immense pain and suffering.

"These were young, strapping studs who commanded respect from the Marines around them," Adam said from Bethesda, Md. "Now some are missing limbs and their entire lives have changed."

Citing post-traumatic stress and suicide as serious problems that continue to grip the military community, Adam is calling on cities and towns across America to embrace wounded warriors and all veterans returning from difficult assignments overseas.

"(Local leaders) need to understand who their vets are and welcome them back with open arms," the Marine said. "Make an attempt to meet their families and help them transition back to society."

Later this year, thanks to his grandparents and a Challenge Grant from the Travis Manion Foundation, Adam will travel with relatives to Vietnam to honor Pfc. Frank Brochetti.

"I want to pay respects to my uncle and give (my grandparents) some closure by walking around that hallowed ground," Adam said.

As he stands atop the mountain where his uncle and many more American heroes made the ultimate sacrifice, Capt. Adam Brochetti will give thanks for the valor of a previous generation, as well as his own.

"They're brave, they're courageous, and they'll go to hell and back for you," he said. "That inspired me not only to be a Marine and serve our country, but because when I look at my guys, I see my uncle."


Note: To see the weekly "Unknown Soldiers" column in your local newspaper, please click here.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Closer to Home

Images courtesy: Jennifer Clarke

Jennifer Clarke was busy managing a Michigan grocery store when she got a phone call from her husband. He told her she needed to come home from work.

"I said 'I can't leave, I'm in charge of the store,'" Jennifer told The Unknown Soldiers. "Then I remember plain as day, my husband said 'Jennifer, there are two men here in military uniforms.'"

Jennifer's heart dropped as she let go of the phone and ran out the door. Her son, Pfc. Shane Cantu, was in Afghanistan, and all that the military mom wanted was for him to come home alive.

"Please, let my son only be injured," the tearful mother said as she drove home in a panic.

When she walked into her Corunna, Mich., home, a young soldier tried to maintain his composure while delivering an official casualty notification from the U.S. Army.

"Not my boy," Jennifer replied. "He's coming home, right?"

"No ma'am," the solemn soldier replied. "He was killed in action in Afghanistan on Aug. 28, 2012."

Jennifer, hoping she would soon wake from a nightmare, collapsed on the floor.

"You just don't think things like this will hit close to your community," she said.

According to the Department of Defense, Pfc. Cantu, 20, died after he was wounded by shrapnel in eastern Afghanistan. He was serving with the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, based in Vicenza, Italy.

As the grieving mother reflected less than five months after her only son's death, Jennifer spoke of the last time she corresponded with Shane, who knew his young life was in peril.
"It's getting crazy over here, mom," the soldier said. "I can't promise you I'll be home."

Those difficult words will always be with Jennifer, who knows her son's last days were filled with anguish. On Aug. 15, less than two weeks before Shane's death, his close friend and fellow soldier, Pfc. Andrew Keller, 22, was killed by enemy small arms fire, according to the Pentagon. Shane, who wrote a stirring eulogy in Afghanistan that his mom would later deliver to Pfc. Keller's family, blamed himself.

"I told him you have to stay strong," Jennifer said.

Shane, a former high school football star, joined the Army to better his country. But as he told his mother after boot camp, he also wanted to better himself.

"He hugged me, told me he loved me, and said 'mom, this was the best thing I ever could have done for myself,'" Jennifer said.

The soldier's mother said that Shane, who was known for his smile and sense of humor, wanted to serve in Afghanistan so badly that he broke down and cried after a prior deployment was cancelled.

"I didn't join the Army to sit back and watch," Shane said. "I joined to be a leader."

Instead of waiting for a future opportunity, Shane pleaded his case to an Army officer. The First Lieutenant, who immediately saw the young soldier's potential, would later tell Jennifer how much Shane impressed him.

"It's men like him that make our country strong," the officer said.

When Shane eventually left for Afghanistan in July 2012, Jennifer, like any caring mother, was deeply concerned.

"I was heartbroken, but I knew that's where he needed to be," she said. "As his mother, I stood behind him and I stood proud."

Jennifer will always stand behind her son, who hoped to become a U.S. marshal when his military career concluded. To honor Shane's memory, Jennifer has set up a scholarship fund through the Shiawassee Community Foundation to assist students pursuing law enforcement careers.

Pfc. Shane Cantu was nine years old when America was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Yet while growing from boy to man, he developed a devotion to family and freedom that's inspired Americans across all walks of life.

"I get notes saying, 'Thank you for your sacrifices,'" the fallen hero's mom said. "I walk into stores and people hug me and say 'God bless your family.'"

On Sept. 6, Jennifer Clarke watched in awe as hundreds lined Michigan streets to honor the arrival of Shane's flag-draped casket. While her son didn't come home alive, Shane's proud mother realized that his selfless spirit most certainly did.

"This is for my boy," she said.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Youngest Soldier

Images courtesy: Sgt. 1st Class Mark Bell

Khalil Quarles loves the U.S. military. Not only does the 10-year-old boy idolize those who serve, but has dreamt for years about putting on his country's uniform.

"He has Army figurines and talks about the Army all the time," U.S. Army Maj. Norland James told The Unknown Soldiers from Kuwait on Dec. 21. "He would love it if he could have a picture from an Army soldier or become an Army soldier himself."

Tragically, a terrible disease stands between Khalil and his dreams. The young boy, who lives in Baltimore, is suffering from terminal cancer. So when Maj. James heard about Khalil through a friend who works as a hospice nurse, the deployed soldier decided to act.

"We wanted to make his dreams come true," James said.

The 37-year-old soldier, who is serving in Kuwait as chief of medical logistics operations, has devoted the last 13 years of his life to the Army. The Albany, Ga., native, who has also been to Afghanistan twice, just spent another holiday season apart from his family and friends.

Amid the continuing sacrifices of military service, James remains intensely appreciative of civilians who support the men and women of the armed forces. When presented with a chance to brighten what could be Khalil's last holiday season, the soldier knew it was his opportunity to give back.

"It's one thing to say 'thank you' with words, but it's another thing to say 'thank you' with actions coming behind it," James said.

Six days before Christmas, a nurse told Khalil that someone special was waiting to talk to him on Skype.

"He was like 'wow, I can't believe it, I'm talking to an Army soldier in Kuwait who's deployed,'" James said.

The soldier will never forget the boy's reaction.

"Just seeing the look in his eyes ... you can't describe it," James said. "It was amazing and it made me smile."

As the soldier and young boy spoke face-to-face while separated by thousands of miles, Khalil could temporarily forget about his dreadful illness. For about ten minutes, Khalil's wish of speaking to a real-life soldier was finally realized. Unbeknownst to the elated child, though, an even bigger dream was about to be fulfilled.

"When I told him I have a couple of my friends waiting outside for (him), he had a look of amazement," James said.

As Khalil, who walks with crutches, made his way to the front of his family's home to see what James was talking about, the soldier sat at a computer station in Kuwait, eagerly awaiting what he knew was coming next. About 40 U.S. Army Reserve soldiers from Maryland's Fort Meade, along with neighbors and camera crews, were waiting to greet Khalil.

"To see him step out on the front stairs ... all those people," James said. "It gave me joy to see the happiness on his face."

As soldiers and supporters clapped and cried, Khalil was asked to raise his right hand after the singing of the National Anthem. The young boy, who never thought he'd have the chance to meet a soldier, let alone become one, then took the U.S. Armed Forces Oath of Enlistment. Khalil is now an honorary soldier in the U.S. Army Reserve.

"It meant a lot to us and definitely other people who had a part in making this happen," James said.

Early this year, James will come home after completing another overseas deployment. Given the soldier's extraordinary efforts to bring happiness to a sick boy and his loved ones, it wasn't surprising to hear what he plans to do upon returning to American soil.

"I'm hoping to actually meet Khalil and his family," the soldier said.

Every day, the men and women of the U.S. military and their families serve, sacrifice, and sometimes suffer while defending our freedom and security. Maj. Norland James has spent 13 years protecting those ideals. Thanks to this compassionate soldier and his fellow troops, it is an honor to introduce you to the newest member of America's remarkable military community.

His name is Khalil Quarles.