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

Friday, June 27, 2014

This Journey

Image courtesy: Facebook/"In Memory of CPL Brandon Garabrant"

On April 4, U.S. Marine Cpl. Brandon Garabrant updated his Facebook page as the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion left North Carolina's Camp Lejeune for Afghanistan.

"Going to do what we do best. Fighting for our country, (our) brothers to the left and right, our friends and families back home," the Marine wrote. "So that you can have the right for freedom and to live the American dream without fear of anything."

Corporal Garabrant was proud to be a Marine. Less than a year before going to war, the New Hampshire native made headlines when he told his Peterborough high school that he would wear his military uniform to graduation. Brandon eventually agreed to wear the standard cap and gown after the school denied his request, but even so, the young Marine's point had been made.

"The United States Marine Corps is proud to have him amongst our ranks, but support the school's decision to have (then-) Pfc. Garabrant walk across the stage in a cap and gown, as this is recognition of his accomplishments at ConVal (Regional High School) and the final chapter of his high school career," a June 2013 statement said.

Ten months later, in the same April 4 Facebook post, Brandon was anxious to fulfill his duty as a Marine, even if it meant spending many months away from home.

"This is what I signed up for," he wrote. "Here comes a long journey into the unknown."

Twelve days later, Brandon posted an update from Afghanistan. Despite enduring a "pretty bad sinus headache," he ended his post with a smiley face.

"I'm doing well and still going strong," he wrote.

After another 12 days in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, where so many have made the ultimate sacrifice since 9/11 (when Brandon was in elementary school), the Marine's spirits seemed high.

"Thank you all for your support and helping me out with this deployment!" he wrote after asking friends if they could send some powdered coffee, Slim Jims and other care package items. "It means a lot and I thank you very much!"

On June 7, Brandon posted from Afghanistan's Camp Leatherneck, where temperatures had reached 95 degrees. Five days later, highs were well above 100 degrees.

"The breeze makes it hotter," he wrote while explaining brutal conditions inside the war zone. "As if your face was in front of the oven."

Many Americans take air conditioning for granted, but for Brandon and his fellow Marines, it was a luxury.

"Thank God for A/C in our rooms," he also wrote on June 12.

Eight days later, on June 20, Cpl. Brandon Garabrant, 19, was conducting combat operations in Helmand Province when he was killed alongside two fellow Marines, according to the Pentagon. Staff Sgt. David Stewart, 34, was from Stafford County, Va. Lance Cpl. Adam Wolff, 25, hailed from Ottumwa, Iowa.

In New Hampshire, where Brandon grew to pursue his dream of Marine Corps service, reaction to the tragic news came swiftly and from the very top.

"As a volunteer firefighter and dedicated Marine, (then-) Lance Cpl. Garabrant was committed to serving his fellow citizens, and he was tragically taken from us far too soon," New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan said in a statement posted on her website. "It is our responsibility as Granite Staters and Americans to come together to support his family and his community."

I will be reaching out to this fallen hero's family at an appropriate time to hopefully learn more about Brandon's extraordinary life. Now is a time for grief, and as the governor expressed, unity and support.

How is our nation so blessed with young warriors like Cpl. Garabrant and the two Marines who made the ultimate sacrifice alongside him? Are we doing enough to make sure the incredible stories of these heroes live on in the hearts of our children and grandchildren?

When I look at my young daughter, I am enormously grateful to the troops, veterans and military families who've given her the privilege of growing up in a land of freedom and opportunity. At the same time, my heart aches for those enduring war's incalculable sacrifices.

"May God be with us on this journey," Cpl. Brandon Garabrant wrote on April 4.


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and co-author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER is available now. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Longest Year

Images courtesy: Ellis family

In November 2012, Joelle Ellis watched her son deploy to Afghanistan before he was old enough to buy a beer.

"You have to remember that a lot of these young men and women serving were in elementary school on 9/11," the military mom said. "(U.S. troops) have a strong patriotic heart to defend our country, and that's definitely what we instilled in our children."

Since he was a young boy playing cops and robbers in his Kennewick, Washington neighborhood, future U.S. Army Spc. Robby Ellis wanted to ensure that good defeated evil.

"He had a strong faith," Robby's mother said. "He had a strong sense of justice."

Ten years after the World Trade Center collapsed as smoke rose from the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, Robby swore an oath to defend his country. To Joelle and her husband, John, seeing their son enlist was no surprise.

"He just went from our little boy to a man," Joelle said. "He was so mature."

Buoyed by his unshakeable belief in God and country, Spc. Ellis deployed to Afghanistan while determined to make a difference. As politicians at home assured Americans that the conflict was "winding down," Robby celebrated his 21st birthday in a war zone that — to this day — is still difficult and dangerous.

"His lieutenant himself said they could count on (Robby) to lighten the load a little bit for them," the soldier's mother said. "He had a love and a care for his brothers in arms."

Whenever there was a tough job or task, Robby would immediately raise his hand.

"He volunteered for every mission that they went out on," said Joelle, citing her son's commanding officer. "I used to tell Robby that I was so impressed about his courage."

On June 17, 2013, Robby and Joelle were chatting on Facebook when the deployed soldier assured his mom that staying in close contact was not distracting him from the mission at hand.

"That's OK, mom, that's OK," Robby wrote.

Even after a nice Facebook conversation with her son, who was serving thousands of miles away from Washington state, Joelle felt strange the next morning.

"All that day, I just didn't feel right," she said. "I guess that's maybe the mother's instinct ... I don't know."

While at work, Joelle got an earth-shattering call from her husband.

"I'm about 20 minutes away from my home when I get the phone call from John saying that Robby's gone," the grieving mother recounted.

According to the Department of Defense, Spc. Robby Ellis, 21, was killed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on June 18, 2013, alongside Sgt. Justin Johnson, 25, Spc. Ember Alt, 21, and Sgt. William Moody, 30, with whom Robby was particularly close.

Joelle, who said an enemy rocket attack took Robby's life, was emotional when we spoke less than a year after she lost her oldest of two sons.

"We've just kind of been existing since," she said. "Trying to find the new normal, trying to lighten the load for his younger brother, and trying to fill a void."

Joelle's paramount concern is for her surviving son, Jimmy, 18.

"His younger brother is going to live the rest of his life without his brother," she said through tears.

After thanking her family's casualty assistance officer and the surrounding community for their support in the days and weeks after Robby's death, the Gold Star mother reflected on what the worst year of her life had taught her.

"Now that I've got a son that is now passed away because of this war, now I'm thinking outside of that bubble more," Joelle said. "It's a scary thought that we have more people who are dying because of this."

While the rest of America enjoyed this year's Super Bowl, the fallen soldier's parents were thinking of Robby, who didn't get to see his beloved Seattle Seahawks win their first championship.

"That was the most heartbreaking Super Bowl I've ever been through," Joelle said.

As Joelle Ellis prepared to mark one year since Spc. Robby Ellis' passing, she was comforted by the traits of selflessness, heroism and faith that will be forever be associated with her son's name.

"It wasn't just us who raised him," she said. "It was God."


Tom Sileo is a nationally syndicated columnist and co-author of BROTHERS FOREVER: The Enduring Bond Between a Marine and a Navy SEAL that Transcended Their Ultimate Sacrifice. Written with Col. Tom Manion (Ret.) and published by Da Capo Press, BROTHERS FOREVER is available now. To find out more about Tom Sileo, or to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website.