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

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Warrior Spirit

Images courtesy: Gentz family

Long before U.S. Air Force Capt. Joel Gentz helped save 39 lives as an elite combat rescue officer in Afghanistan, he was in love with exploring the universe.

"He was always a very active child," Capt. Gentz's father, Steve, told The Unknown Soldiers. "The outdoors was always a part of what he did."

Inspired by the crew of Space Shuttle Challenger, which perished when he was a little boy, Joel grew up wanting to become an astronaut. Years later, as he decided which path to take after graduating high school, another national tragedy — 9/11 — further strengthened his resolve to serve.

"He was already talking about enlisting in the Air Force," Steve said. "I was pulling my hair out.

"You always want to support your child," he continued. "But I also said, 'Gee, can you think about this a little bit?'"

Joel, who grew up in Chelsea, Mich., decided to enroll at Purdue University as part of the Air Force ROTC program. With his eye on becoming a pilot, he studied aeronautical engineering and excelled as both a student-athlete and ROTC cadet.

"Every year he was there, the wing voted to give him the 'warrior spirit' award," Joel's father said. "To him, all of the other (awards) didn't matter; it was the opinion of his fellow cadets."

After graduating with honors from Purdue, Joel surprised his parents.

"He was awarded a pilot's spot and actually turned it down," Steve said. "(That) had his mother and I scratching our heads."

With thousands fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan in mid-2007, the young Air Force officer decided to focus on saving U.S. and coalition troops from firefights on dangerous post-9/11 battlefields. After several years of intense training, Joel would become a pararescueman.

"At one point I called his (ROTC) commander," Joel's dad said. "He basically said 'you know, this isn't a kid who is going to be happy unless he's directly involved.'"

In 2008, Joel married his college sweetheart, Kathryn. After becoming a combat rescue officer, he was eventually stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, where he would await orders for his first overseas deployment.

"He liked his job ... he loved it," Steve said. "You could also see that he loved Kathryn deeply and wanted to spend time with her."

Joel's parents happened to be in Las Vegas for an April 2010 conference when the airman learned he would soon deploy to Afghanistan. For the next week, Joel spent time with his parents while also celebrating an early wedding anniversary with his wife.

"We were just supporting him and letting him know that we love him," Joel's father said. "We were grateful and continue to be grateful that we got to be there to do that."

For almost three months in Afghanistan, Joel and his pararescue team saved dozens of American lives during perilous helicopter missions. On June 9, 2010, Joel and six others boarded an HH-60G Pave Hawk known as "Pedro 66" for another rescue operation in the volatile Helmand province.

Pedro 66 was shot down. While two survived the crash, five airmen, including Capt. Joel Gentz, were killed. Joel, 25, died just two days before his second wedding anniversary.

"That day I was at home walking through my garage, and I saw the two men in blue and knew immediately what was up," the grieving father said.

Steve, who has two surviving children, vividly remembers telling his son in person before calling his daughter, who was in Boston.

"That haunts me, calling a kid and telling her that her older brother died," he said.

Steve became emotional when I asked him to describe the three-plus years since the crash.

"We have all struggled with withdrawal and depression," he said. "But we're also very much a group of survivors, and we know the way Joel's spirit is, he wouldn't want us to sit down and not do anything."

Joel's parents are active supporters of the Team Red, White & Blue veterans organization. They keep in close touch with their son's widow, as well as the other families affected by the crash, including both survivors.

"It's not just about me," Steve Gentz said. "It's about the sacrifices of all the families."


Monday, September 23, 2013

The Next Journey

Images courtesy: Neiberger family

"A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike," John Steinbeck wrote in "Travels with Charley: In Search of America." Indeed, when it comes to the thousands of military families impacted by 9/11 and the wars that followed, every story is unique.

On one busy 2005 day, Ami Neiberger-Miller was catching a bus when one of her three younger brothers, Christopher, called and told her he was joining the U.S. Army.

"I said to him at the time: 'It's a very honorable thing to do,'" Ami told The Unknown Soldiers. "But I was concerned that he would go to Iraq, and his response to me was, 'Of course I want to go to Iraq.'"

Despite fearing for his safety, Ami admired Chris' desire to serve his country no matter where he was needed.

"He was in high school when 9/11 happened," she said. "(It) influenced him seeing that and realizing that our country was going to war."

After graduating high school in Gainesville, Fla., Chris enrolled at Florida State University instead of the University of Florida, which several family members attended. Even though the Seminoles and Gators are archrivals, the Neiberger family remained as tight as ever.

"The idea of brotherhood and camaraderie in the military really appealed to him ... being part of a team," Chris' sister said. "Growing up, he was always part of a team."

After training at Georgia's Fort Benning and first deploying to Germany, Spc. Christopher Neiberger left for Iraq in September 2006. Even as the young soldier battled insurgents and terrorists on Baghdad's war-torn streets, he would always make time to let his family know that he was safe.

"He would call us pretty regularly," Ami said. "I didn't realize until later the lengths he went to call us."

When Ami asked her brother what a typical day in Iraq entailed, his responses were often jarring.

"Well, we'd basically patrol and wait for someone to shoot at us," Chris said.

Even as the combat deployment stretched into its eleventh month, Chris was upbeat about his job and spoke of studying to become a teacher, like his father, after returning home.

"I would mail him history books to Iraq," Ami said. "He very much loved philosophy and ideas, and I think even in Iraq, he still tried to keep that part of his life."

On Aug. 7, 2007 — four days after Chris' 22nd birthday — Ami received a troubling voicemail from her mother. After being unable to get through, she made a frantic call to her aunt.

"(My aunt) told me that (Chris) had been killed in action and wouldn't be coming home," she said. "I dropped my phone, started screaming and ran out of the house."

According to the Pentagon, Chris was killed in Baghdad on Aug. 6, 2007, by an enemy improvised explosive device. His death was a pulverizing blow to Ami, her family and their northern Florida city.

"When a death happens in service to your country, it's not just your loved one," Ami said. "It's also the holding up by the community of your loved one as a hero."

After using her public relations background to handle a flood of media requests following her brother's death, Ami went on to become a public affairs officer at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), which comforts and cares for loved ones of fallen U.S. troops.

"I want to be identified as part of this community of people who have paid this price for their country," Ami, now 42, said. "The experience of loss for families now in the military is very different than previous wars."

Even though Spc. Christopher Neiberger died more than six years ago, his spirit endures through the work of his only sister.

"He could have been a writer, a playwright, a teacher or anything, but we'll never know because his journey stopped," she said. "It stopped in Section 60."

When Ami Neiberger-Miller visits her brother in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, she is heartbroken, proud, and deeply inspired.

"I want to share what my brother gave this country," she said. "Because he gave something amazing."


Friday, September 13, 2013

Remember Afghanistan

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

On Aug. 31, Staff Sgt. Joshua Bowden was busy doing what thousands of American troops are still doing in Afghanistan. He was risking his life in a dangerous, faraway place.

According to the Pentagon, Staff Sgt. Bowden, 28, was killed that same day when enemy forces attacked his U.S. Army patrol. The fallen Villa Rica, Ga., soldier will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery by his grieving family and friends.

While the debate over taking military action in Syria continues to unfold, I feel like we are trapped in the twilight zone. As the speeches, punditry and protests get louder and lengthier, do most Americans even realize that our countrymen are still fighting and dying in Afghanistan?

During heavy Syria coverage on cable news, there has been scant mention of daily events in Afghanistan, including the deaths of unselfish patriots like Bowden. This is no surprise, as the national media, for the most part, long ago dismissed its obligation to vigorously report on America's lengthiest post-9/11 conflict.

Even more troubling is the almost complete lack of recognition by many of our nation's public representatives, which along with the media's dereliction of duty, has trickled into our national psyche. If our leaders aren't talking about Afghanistan, some might ask, why should we?

Just four days after the combat death of an American soldier in Afghanistan, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to testify about the Obama administration's Syria policy.

"Now, I remember Iraq," the former U.S. Senator and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee said on Sept. 3. "Secretary (Chuck) Hagel remembers Iraq. General (Martin) Dempsey remembers Iraq. But Secretary Hagel and I and many of you sitting on the dais remember Iraq in a special way because we were here for that vote."

I'm glad the Secretary of State remembers Iraq. But when I searched Kerry's 2,724-word prepared remarks for any mention of the war still involving thousands of brave men and women and their families, "Afghanistan" was nowhere to be found.

The purpose of this week's column is not to attack one politician or political party. It's to highlight the fallacy of a vociferous debate about using military force in Syria while virtually ignoring the war in Afghanistan, where our nation's military community continues to serve with awe-inspiring selflessness.

Image courtesy: Cpl. Paul Peterson

Almost every day I speak to families of the fallen Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans and active duty U.S. service members. In early September, I received a Facebook message from a grieving mother on the anniversary of her son's death in Afghanistan.

"Today is very difficult," she wrote. "It's one year today. And it's becoming reality."

Every military family's reality is different. Some have lost loved ones. Some have seen their loved ones wounded, physically and/or emotionally. Some anxiously await their loved one's return from Afghanistan or an overseas base. Some worry that their 18-year-old son or daughter, who was in kindergarten or first grade on 9/11, will soon end up fighting and bleeding in a war-torn land like Syria.

Approximately 99 percent of us, including myself, do not serve in uniform. Some of us live our lives without any connection to what's been happening for the last 12 years in Afghanistan or what happened for almost nine years in Iraq.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, who I met last year at the Walter Reed military hospital in Bethesda, Md., has no such luxury after losing his arms and legs during an Apr. 10, 2012 roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan. Staff Sgt. Mills, his wife and their young daughter have shown incredible courage during the 26-year-old soldier's difficult rehabilitation.

Ursula Ebbert lost her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class (SEAL) Kevin Ebbert, 32, in Afghanistan on Nov. 24, 2012. One year later, Ursula will spend Thanksgiving mourning an incomprehensible loss.

"These things happen," the fallen Navy SEAL's wife said. "You just think it won't happen to you."

No matter what happens in Syria, we cannot overlook the impact another conflict would have on a military community that is still fighting a war in Afghanistan. Ebbert, Mills and Bowden are not names on a list, but American heroes that our politicians, journalists and citizens should remember every single day.


Image courtesy: Spc. Ryan Scott

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Real World

Images courtesy: Cpl. Geoffrey Scarborough

Five years ago, Cpl. Geoffrey Scarborough was in the same position as millions of young Americans. He was deciding which path to take after graduating high school.

"I knew I wasn't ready for college, so I wanted some discipline," Cpl. Scarborough said.

Today, Scarborough is a U.S. Marine patrolling some of the world's most perilous terrain. He's deployed to Afghanistan as a military journalist documenting some of the war's final months.

"I took a photography class in high school, and I was actually going to go to college for photography," Scarborough told The Unknown Soldiers from Afghanistan in August. "When I told my recruiter that, he told me I could do it in the Marine Corps."

Scarborough, 23, is a long way from his hometown of Currituck, N.C. During his second deployment to Afghanistan, he's accompanied Marine units that are hunting terrorists, finding improvised explosive devices and seizing weapons in areas like Helmand Province, where so many Americans have served and sacrificed since 9/11.

"The hardest part of doing this job is getting in and earning the trust of the unit that you're going out with," the military journalist said. "It's hard to work around with them and get them to let you do certain things if they don't trust you."

One set of photos sent back home by Scarborough on July 23 shows U.S. Marines and military working dogs patrolling a southern Afghan village with troops from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. From the language barrier to the ongoing Taliban and al-Qaida threat, one can only imagine the challenges U.S. and coalition forces still face in Afghanistan.

Fortunately, Scarborough said the seven months he's spent traveling around the war zone have been mostly quiet.

"It's calmed down a lot out here," he said. "It's been pretty good and calm, and everything's been going smoothly."

Like thousands of fellow Americans still serving in Afghanistan, relative tranquility could be shattered at any moment by an IED blast or Taliban sniper attack. But during our conversation, I heard no fear in the young Marine's voice.

"It's awesome," Scarborough said of his duties in Afghanistan.

Instead of hanging out in the small beach community he calls home, Scarborough communicates with family and friends by satellite phone, email and Facebook. Instead of hugging his mom on Mother's Day, he had to send her a video greeting from the U.S. Marine base at Camp Leatherneck.

Despite the hardships, the young Marine is not complaining about spending another year away from home.

"I love doing what I do," Scarborough said. "It's probably one of the cooler jobs out there to do in the Marine Corps because you can see every aspect of the Marine Corps."

Another set of Scarborough's photos shows American troops and military working dogs clearing huts of enemy weapons. After Marines kicked in a makeshift doorway of one empty mud hut, one dog can be seen climbing into the tiny building to search for IEDs.

"Being out here with these guys ... it's good," Scarborough said. "I'm glad to see that the young guys, even though it may be the last deployment for a lot of these guys ... that they get to see what it's like and get the real-world training."

Very few Americans live in the world that Scarborough has been documenting for the better part of two Afghanistan deployments. While some are still paying attention to the war, many don't even realize there is still an active conflict involving thousands of U.S. boots on the ground.

The same day I spoke to Cpl. Geoffrey Scarborough, the Pentagon sent out a news release about U.S. Army 1st Lt. Jason Togi, who was killed in an Aug. 26 IED attack in eastern Afghanistan. From his fellow troops in Afghanistan to his family and friends in American Samoa, 1st Lt. Togi is being saluted and mourned.

Between now and the scheduled conclusion of America's combat mission in Afghanistan next year, I hope more Americans will choose to live in the real world. It's the very least we can do to honor the brave men and women who give us the luxury of choosing whether or not to care about the war they are still fighting.


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Take Notice

Image courtesy: Sgt. Margaret Taylor

The war in Afghanistan is far from over. While too many at home have moved on, thousands of brave men and women from our cities and towns are still in harm's way.

"The United States is incredibly blessed with generations of uniformed service men and women, inextricably linked to a legacy born in the Declaration of Independence by our forefathers," U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mike Wehr wrote to The Unknown Soldiers from Afghanistan in August.

Every day, Brig. Gen. Wehr, who has been serving in uniform since the Reagan administration, sees the hard work of U.S. troops up close. He also has great admiration for the Afghan people, who have spent decades living in a war-torn land.

"Today our nation's sons and daughters set the example of selfless service for a generation of Afghans who are also dying for their country," the general wrote.

After more than a decade of war, enemy improvised explosive devices are the biggest threat to U.S. and coalition troops, as well as Afghan men, women and children. On Aug. 6, another American soldier — Spc. Nick Welch, 26, of Mill City, Ore. — died from wounds suffered in an IED attack.

"Our hearts go out to the victims — each came to Afghanistan to make a difference and we are deeply indebted for their sacrifice," Wehr wrote. "As military leaders, we take every casualty seriously, and the IED, in its countless forms, proves to be a challenge."

The general, who also served in both Iraq wars, is determined to make further progress against the IED threat before the conclusion of the U.S.-led combat mission in Afghanistan.

Image courtesy: Ryan McClymony

"We continue to improve our technology, our tactics and our institutional training to leverage information gained from the enemy," Wehr wrote. "We have made vast improvements in all aspects of IED mitigation to include our armored vehicles, our hand-held tools and detection methods, as well as integrating a wide arsenal of electronic tools and counter measures."

Wehr, who grew up in a military family and now calls California home, is closely monitoring and supervising the effort to rid Afghanistan of the IED threat and its horrific consequences.

"Specific for counter-IED, we have over 200 trainers, military and civilian, across the country, teaching everything from basic counter-IED awareness to advanced IED defeat techniques," the general wrote. "Currently, the Afghan forces integrate counter-IED training into all of their basic military and police training courses."

While there have been major issues working with Afghan forces — the most serious being "insider" attacks on U.S. troops — military leaders like Wehr are confident that the country's military will soon be ready to battle the Taliban and al Qaeda on its own.

"The Afghan National Security Forces are already in the lead for 93 percent of all operations, including (counter-IED missions) such as route clearance," Wehr wrote. "I am confident that through continued support from the coalition and international community, through advising and funding beyond 2014, that Afghan forces will increasingly counter the threat."

Wehr cites economic growth, road construction, the establishment of communication networks and education advancement as evidence of progress made by U.S., Afghan and coalition forces.

"Access to education has improved, with more than eight million children in school, of which over three million are girls," he wrote.

Military leaders like Wehr understand how much American blood and treasure have been sacrificed in Afghanistan since the 9/11 attacks.

"The United States is a leader within NATO and will not walk away from Afghanistan upon the completion of our combat mission at the end of 2014," the general wrote. "We have invested greatly in Afghanistan over the past decade, and we are determined to build upon our hard-fought gains."

Almost twelve years after the war began and long since much of the public stopped paying attention, Wehr is amazed by the heroism and sacrifice of the courageous American sons, daughters, husbands, wives, fathers and mothers who spend many months away from their families to serve during wartime.

"Trust me, you're walking among heroes daily," Brig. Gen. Mike Wehr wrote.

As selfless patriots from our communities continue serving in Afghanistan, it's up to us to notice.


Image courtesy: Sgt. Robert Yarbrough