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

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Boston Strong

Images courtesy: U.S. Air Force

U.S. Air Force Col. Robert Valin was an airline pilot on Sept. 11, 2001. He once lived in Khobar Towers, the Saudi housing complex that was bombed by terrorists on June 25, 1996. His family also lived in Newtown, Conn., just around the corner from Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"The ties to these tragedies have always kind of been there," Col. Valin told The Unknown Soldiers.

On Apr. 15, the Massachusetts airman was watching live coverage of the Boston Marathon from Afghanistan, eight and a half hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.

"I had actually watched a little bit of the marathon on TV for 20 to 30 minutes before the (attack) happened," Valin said. "The following morning, I learned more about what had happened."

Valin, who grew up in Lexington and Belmont, Mass., and plans to eventually retire in Charlestown, experienced an "ugly feeling" while seeing his beloved city under siege from thousands of miles away. But he was also filled with appreciation.

"There's the pride in Boston, Bostonians and the people of New England," he said.

Valin has been serving his country in uniform since the Reagan administration. With nearly 6,500 flying hours in F-16 and A-10 fighter jets and commercial planes, he's navigated the skies under almost every circumstance. But ever since arriving in Afghanistan, the brave men and women under his command have consistently inspired him.

"Some folks come out here and kind of expect that all the leaders will be very inspiring kinds of people and the vast majority are just that," the Colonel said. "But the opposite also happens ... the leaders are themselves inspired by the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines doing the job."

After two months in the war zone, Valin marveled at the heroism he's already witnessed.

"There's nothing more inspiring than seeing everything from an airman going outside the wire to someone manning a tower to a surgeon sewing up horrible wounds to a maintenance technician miraculously fixing an airplane that didn't look fixable," he said. "As you see more and more of these things around you, you're swamped with inspiration."

As director of staff for the Air Force's 455th Expeditionary Wing, Valin and his fellow airmen have wide-ranging, far-reaching responsibilities that tangibly impact the war and its ultimate outcome.

"We have airmen responsible for not only defending the airspace here at (our base) ... they actually get out into Afghanistan and frankly the whole area around (the base) to meet the people and get to know the local and national police and the Afghan army," Valin said.

While the Colonel admitted it's tough on everyone to be apart from their loved ones, he and his fellow service members are embracing the opportunity to make history.

"Having the chance to serve is very gratifying," he said.

As horrifying images from the Boston bombings filled television and computer screens on his base, Valin and his colleagues, especially those from New England, watched intensely as an unprecedented manhunt for two suspected terrorists unfolded before the world's eyes.

"We used to live very close to the Watertown line," Valin said of the town engulfed by police as they hunted the younger suspect. "The wing commander and I were actually walking down that exact same street a couple years ago on our way to a Red Sox game."

Like his fellow Bostonians, Valin felt a sense of relief and enormous gratitude to Boston's police, firefighters and first responders as news of the younger suspect's capture spread through his Afghanistan base.

"I lived in Khobar Towers. I was at the top of the World Trade Center with my son a month before 9/11. I was flying 757s for United Airlines at the time of the attacks," he said. "From that, I've seen and learned to see the resilience of people."

As he works to prevent further terrorist attacks and to improve the lives of Afghans, Col. Robert Valin wears his Boston Red Sox gear with patriotism and pride. While grieving for the families affected by the attacks on his city, his faith in Boston's ability to overcome tragedy is unflinching.

"I also know the people," he said. "And they're strong people."


Friday, April 19, 2013

The Marathon Runner

Image courtesy: Ossur

After Cpl. Jake Hill stepped on an improvised explosive device during a chaotic battle in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, the young Marine radioed his squad leader.

"This is Hill," he said. "I just stepped on an IED, but I'm fine."

Through a dizzying haze of dust, smoke and ongoing gunfire, the Rapid City, S.D., native looked down at his feet.

"What I saw was a really badly broken left ankle," Cpl. Hill told The Unknown Soldiers. "I was like 'OK, this is fine, people break their ankles all the time.'"

Hill was later shocked when a doctor presented him with two difficult choices: replace his shattered foot with a cadaver bone or amputate his left leg just above the knee.

"The heel bone was gone ... just pulverized," Hill said from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. "I kind of made up my mind right (there) that I wanted it cut off."

Few are forced to make such excruciating decisions, especially at age 19. But Hill, who was in elementary school on 9/11, later chose to join the Marine Corps because he believes it's noble for young Americans to serve their country.

"In the World War II days, everybody thought that was something you had to do, and it was, but nowadays it really is not," he said. "Not a lot of people do that anymore."

About two years after graduating high school and leaving South Dakota, Hill was guiding Marines through Afghanistan as a team leader.

"It's an odd thing to have to tell your friends to go get in combat and get into danger," he said.

On Sept. 16, 2010, Hill could have been at the movies, playing video games or hanging out with friends. Instead, he was on patrol in the rugged district of Sangin, one of Afghanistan's most dangerous places. Hill said nearly half the American and Afghan troops battling the Taliban were struck by bombs or bullets during the day's patrol.

"There were two (Afghan soldiers) who died and everyone else was wounded and taken back," Hill said. "We couldn't land (helicopters) because the fighting was so heavy out there in the combat zone."

As soon as members of his patrol were hit, Hill, who was serving with Company L of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, took it upon himself to tend to the wounded.

"With one of his team members injured by a rocket-propelled grenade, (Hill) exposed himself to enemy fire a second time and ran to aid his Marine brother," a Marine Corps citation said. "He applied first-aid and led the rest of his team through 200 meters of fire-swept terrain to extract the casualty."

Like so many combat veterans I've spoken with, Hill skipped over his gallantry during our interview. He is too humble to take credit for his courageous, life-saving actions.

"Three or four days after my injury, my platoon commander told me that he was going to be putting me up for an award," Hill, now 22, said. "I said 'no, I don't want it.'"

In October 2011, Hill showed the world that no matter the challenge, Marines will never quit. On that chilly Washington, D.C., morning just before Halloween, the wounded hero ran the Marine Corps Marathon.

"It was awesome ... it made me realize that I really, really wanted to be a Marine again," Hill said. "I was always a Marine, but I wanted to do Marine things again."

Even though his lower left leg is now metal instead of flesh, Hill ran 26.2 miles in less than four hours.

"I was ecstatic," he said.

On June 14, 2012, Lt. Col. Clay Tipton, Hill's former commanding officer, presented him with the Silver Star for his heroic actions in Afghanistan.

"Everybody did things equally as brave," Hill said. "It's an award for the whole unit."

Cpl. Jake Hill's award should also serve as an example for young Americans, especially after the horrific terrorist atrocity in Boston. The next time you're presented with a seemingly impossible challenge, think of what a 19-year-old Marine said after stepping on a powerful roadside bomb.

"This is Hill," he said. "I just stepped on an IED, but I'm fine."


Friday, April 12, 2013

Tree of Life

Image courtesy: Wreaths for Warriors Walk

Just before leaving for Afghanistan in November, Sgt. Aaron Wittman pointed toward a majestic, tree-lined walkway at Georgia's Fort Stewart.

"Do you know what that is?" Sgt. Wittman asked his father, retired U.S. Army officer Duane Wittman, and his mother, Carol Wittman, who also served. "That's the Warriors Walk, and that's one place I don't ever want my name."

The Warriors Walk honors fallen post-9/11 heroes of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, as well as departed warriors from attached units. According to Fort Stewart's website, each soldier is honored with an Eastern Redbud tree as a symbol of life.

Not only did Aaron's parents serve in uniform, his brother and sister both volunteered for the Armed Forces and deployed to Iraq.

"We're a military family," Duane told The Unknown Soldiers. "Everyone in the family is either serving in the military or ex-military."

Aaron, who used to dress up in his dad's fatigues as a young boy while playing flashlight tag with his friends, grew up near military bases around the globe. After seeing some of world's most luxurious and less fortunate places, Aaron decided to pursue a difficult, selfless path.

"He never really had any desire to go anywhere other than The Citadel," Duane, a 1975 Citadel graduate, said. "He just loved it and loved Charleston."

Images courtesy: Aaron Wittman Foundation

As freshmen, Aaron and four fellow Citadel cadets joined the South Carolina National Guard. As seniors, they were presented with a difficult choice: go to war or stay in school and graduate on time.

"All five seniors went to Afghanistan," Aaron's father said. "That's what the citizen-soldier concept is all about."

In 2007, all three of Duane and Carol's children, as well as their daughter-in-law, served in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

"In three and a half months we deployed all of them," Duane said. "I always had target dates for when the kids were going to come home."

About two weeks after Aaron arrived in Afghanistan's mountainous border region with Pakistan, a terrorist blew himself up between two U.S. Army vehicles. After helping his wounded comrades, the young soldier realized how lucky he was to be alive.

"It was a hard awakening — real quick — into the IED (improvised explosive device) world," Duane said. "It wasn't but a couple months later that his Citadel buddy, Sam, was very severely injured from shrapnel in the chest."

Upon his return, Aaron fulfilled a promise to his mom by graduating from The Citadel. He fell even deeper in love with his girlfriend, Sarah. Then, just before his 28th birthday on Nov. 6, 2012, Aaron once again deployed to Afghanistan, with big plans for when he came home.

"He was looking for, sooner or later, a U.S. Army Commission and a family life," Duane said.

Just over two months after sitting with her son outside the Warriors Walk, Aaron's mother heard a voice inside her head.

"Carol, you need to go home," the voice whispered.

After returning to her Virginia residence, Carol saw two Army officers approach the front door. They told Duane and Carol that their youngest child was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade on Jan. 10, 2013.

"We want Aaron to be remembered for his life, not his final moments," Carol said.

The roller coaster of emotions that followed, which included seeing their oldest son bring his fallen brother home, was filled with pride and pain.

"I always thought I would be the first one in this family buried in Arlington," Duane said.

Nine days after Aaron's death, his sister gave birth to a healthy baby girl. It was a proud, bittersweet moment, similar to the emotions the Wittmans expected to experience when Tree 445 of the Warriors Walk was named after their son.

"It gives us strength to know we aren't alone," Carol, who thanked the community for their support, said.

"Aaron was all about life," Duane added.

Before our phone call ended, Aaron's mother spoke of a letter she received from a soldier who witnessed her son's final act of heroism.

"His quick reaction and reflexes saved many lives that day," Carol said. "He felt he needed to be in that position to ensure his men were safe."

Indeed, Sgt. Aaron Wittman was all about life.


Note: Sgt. Aaron Wittman's family and friends have partnered with The Citadel Foundation to honor his memory by creating a memorial scholarship fund.  Please click here to support the Aaron Wittman Foundation.

Friday, April 5, 2013

JAG 28

Images courtesy: Mark Forester Foundation

Thad Forester always knew his brother as Mark, even after he joined the U.S. Air Force. Pilots flying dangerous missions in Afghanistan, however, knew the 29-year-old Air Force combat controller as "JAG 28."

"Mark developed a great relationship with the pilots," Thad, 36, told The Unknown Soldiers. "They tell me that he had such a great sense of humor, but he also commanded respect and knew what he was doing."

Senior Airman Mark Forester didn't become a special operations warrior with a cool-sounding call sign overnight. His journey to a remote forward operating base in Afghanistan, where he directed airstrikes and confronted some of America's worst enemies, was as long as it was improbable.

"He was serving a mission for our church at the time of September 11th," Thad, one of Mark's three older brothers, said."He was angered, he was outraged, and he felt like he needed to do something."

It would be almost six years before Mark volunteered for the armed forces. Before he could serve his country at the highest level, the Haleyville, Ala., native, wanted to strengthen his mind, body and relationship with God.

"Mark was pudgy and baby-faced with narrow shoulders," his big brother said. "He got up to 230 lbs. on the (church) mission."

As soon as Mark returned to Alabama, he hit the gym with a brand of intensity that surprised even those who knew him best.

"He was fully committed," Thad said. "It was a drive I'd never seen in Mark before."

After enlisting in 2007 and completing a grueling Air Force and special operations training regimen, Mark was hand-picked by senior officers for a crucial assignment at Afghanistan's Forward Operating Base Tinsley.

"When he told us where he was going it didn't really mean anything to us," Thad said. "All we knew was it was Afghanistan."

The humble warrior didn't tell his family that being tapped to help defend the Uruzgan Province base, located in the heart of a dangerous, Taliban-infested combat zone, was a remarkable assignment for a senior airman going on his first deployment.

"He said 'Thad, don't tell anyone where I'm going right now, but it's a very active area and I'll have a lot of action,'" Thad said. "It didn't really sink in ... at least to me ... I feel like I was so oblivious to everything."

Mark never shared the details of an Aug. 6, 2010, battle that earned him the Bronze Star with Valor or other instances where his actions saved American and Afghan lives. Like so many of this generation's volunteer warriors, JAG 28 instead chose to lead by example.

"He had full awareness on the battlefield," Thad, who is researching his brother's deployment for an upcoming book, said. "One of Mark's teammates told me he got them what they needed -- not just bombs, but food."

On Sept. 29, 2010, Mark was on the second day of a combat mission when his unit's medic was shot by an enemy sniper. Without hesitating, JAG 28 ran toward his wounded comrade.

That same day in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Thad woke up with no premonition of his brother's final act of heroism.

"When they confirmed we were both home, they knocked on my parents' door first," Thad said. "Then they knocked on my door and delivered the news to me and my wife."

Senior Airman Mark Forester, the church missionary who transformed himself into a warrior, was killed while trying to save another man's life. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. The community sprung into action to support the Foresters, which deeply moved Mark's grieving parents and siblings.

"There were signs all over town like 'thank you Mark Forester and your family' and 'God Bless America,'" Thad said.

Seven months before Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, Mark devoted his last full measure to a cause he believed in. While mourning, reflecting, and writing about his youngest sibling, Thad marvels at Mark's metamorphosis from little brother to JAG 28.

"We all have missions on this earth and some of them are different for each person," Thad said. "One of Mark's was to help defeat terrorism, and he did it."