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December 19, 2007

Sky Soldiers

gabel250.jpgIt is called, with a dash of American irony, Camp Blessing: an isolated outpost teetering on the edge of what the media like to call America's forgotten war. But though the living conditions may be a bit rough and the location remote, a feature piece from October of 2005 makes it clear the odd sounding name is well deserved:

“We do our best to make ourselves parts of the community out here since we’re so far away from other bases,” said 1st Lt. Patrick E. Kinser, assault force commander, from Jonesville, Va. “We’ve established such a relationship with the local population that when we get attacked they get upset.”

The Marines and sailors attribute much of their success to the way they treat the locals with respect. When villagers come forward at other bases, they may be taken in for questioning and held under guard, and they often don’t return to give more information due to the perceived lack of respect. Many people that do have information often bypass closer bases and make a longer trip to Camp Blessing to give vital intelligence because of the respect they have of the Marines.

“We treat them with courtesy and respect. I can walk out the front gate, and the first 50 people I see know me by name, and I know them and who their families are,” said 1st Lt. Matt D. Bartels, camp officer-in-charge, from Minneapolis, Minn. “They come to us with medical problems. Farmers that injure themselves and little kids that are hurt come to us, and our (corpsmen) patch them up as best they can. We even helped fix up a donkey that fell off a cliff because it was important to them.”

Camp Blessing made the news last month when three paratroopers lost their lives. During a memorial service at the camp, Michael Gabel, an Army Staff Sergeant, struggled to find the right words to say farewell to his best friend. He could not know, as he held back the tears, that his eulogy would travel halfway around the world:

"I will not be bitter," Gabel said. "I will not shed any tears of sorrow. I'm proud to have known such a good man and a warrior to the bitter end. Until we see each other again, sky soldiers!"

Staff Sgt. Gabel could not know either, when he spoke, that the parting was to be short-lived. On December 12th he and Cpl. Joshua C. Blaney were killed when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb.

7517363_BG1.jpgIt seems strange to me, to contrast the detachment of a largely apathetic and complacent America and the dedication of men like Michael Gabel and Joshua Blaney. I tire of seeing my own countrymen blithely discuss democracy and freedom as though they were vague abstractions, easily dispensed with; as though it weren't patronizing to think other human beings should barter their autonomy (and that of their children) for an illusory security, granted to ensure their meek compliance and consequently, all too easy snatched away at a moment's notice. The phrase "not ready for democracy" strikes one as uniquely American in that obscenely arrogant way that only people who have never been un-free, who have never had to live without democracy, can dream up. Only the protected, the insulated, have time and space to second guess the choices of more resolute men:

Anyone who knew me before I joined knows that I am quite aware and at times sympathetic to the arguments against the war in Iraq. If you think the only way a person could bring themselves to volunteer for this war is through sheer desperation or blind obedience then consider me the exception (though there are countless like me).… Consider that there are 19 year old soldiers from the Midwest who have never touched a college campus or a protest who have done more to uphold the universal legitimacy of representative government and individual rights by placing themselves between Iraqi voting lines and homicidal religious fanatics.


I was having a conversation with a Kurdish man in the city of Dahok (by myself and completely safe) discussing whether or not the insurgents could be viewed as "freedom fighters" or "misguided anti-capitalists." Shaking his head as I attempted to articulate what can only be described as pathetic apologetics, he cut me off and said "the difference between insurgents and American soldiers is that they get paid to take life—to murder, and you get paid to save lives." He looked at me in such a way that made me feel like he was looking through me, into all the moral insecurity that living in a free nation will instill in you. He "oversimplified" the issue, or at least that is what college professors would accuse him of doing.

The un-free have no such luxury. But then, this is something one doesn't discover from reading secondhand articles in the New York Times. In a world where just staying alive is a victory, some things really are that simple, after all:

In his other e-mails and letters home, which the Daily family very kindly showed me, he asked for extra "care packages" to share with local Iraqis, and said, "I'm not sure if Irvine has a sister-city, but I am going to personally contact the mayor and ask him to extend his hand to Dahok, which has been more than hospitable to this native-son." (I was wrenched yet again to discover that he had got this touching idea from an old article of mine, which had made a proposal for city-twinning that went nowhere.) In the last analysis, it was quite clear, Mark had made up his mind that the United States was a force for good in the world, and that it had a duty to the freedom of others. A video clip of which he was very proud has him being "crowned" by a circle of smiling Iraqi officers. I have a photograph of him, standing bareheaded and contentedly smoking a cigar, on a rooftop in Mosul. He doesn't look like an occupier at all. He looks like a staunch friend and defender. On the photograph is written "We carry a new world in our hearts."

We carry a new world in our hearts.

That is a sentiment Staff Sergeant Gabel would have understood. He wanted to return to Afghanistan. According to his brother, he felt he still had work to do there. Reading about the lives of Gabel and Blaney, one senses focus and a long tradition of service:

It came after 9 p.m. Wednesday. Dianne Massey opened her Fort Mill front door to an Army beret. She screamed, “No, not Josh!”

But it was.

Her son, Cpl. Joshua Blaney, 25, had been killed in eastern Afghanistan earlier that day. A bomb blew up the vehicle he was riding in, Army officials confirmed Friday. Blaney was in the lead truck in a convoy.

Massey learned her son was dead as she stood a few feet from his Purple Heart and Army Commendation Medal. Blaney somehow had previously survived, though with leg shrapnel and scars, a convoy bomb in Iraq on an earlier tour. He was in the lead truck that day, too.

“I immediately remembered his fifth birthday party, the GI Joe cake,” Massey said Friday. “He would pitch a tent and play Army with his uncle who was in the Special Forces. They would eat MREs (Meals Ready to Eat.) There was the time at Wal-Mart. He was 8, or 9. We walked out, and he had this bulge in his pocket. I asked him, ‘Josh, what’s in the pocket?’ Out comes the GI Joe. I marched him right inside and made him give it back.”

...e-mails described him as compassionate to his fellow soldiers and a mentor to younger men.

“A leader,” said his sister, Carley.

Blaney’s sister said her brother was a humble, gracious man who rarely talked about what he had seen or done in the wars.

Dianne Massey’s sister, Amy, whose husband is that Special Forces uncle that Blaney played “Army” with all the time, said, “Josh went in the Army a boy, and he came out a man.”

Blaney’s grandfather, Sid Belk, is an 84-year-old World War II Army Air Corps veteran.

“I know what my grandson was doing,” he said. “He was a fine soldier. Brave. I am proud of him.”

Like Corporal Blaney, SSgt. Gabel wanted to join the Army as a child. He had to overcome many obstacles to do so. They did not deter him:

Relatives, former teachers and coaches on Monday remembered a 30-year-old Baton Rouge Army sergeant killed last week in Afghanistan as a determined youngster who turned himself into a proud soldier and man.

Family members and former teachers recalled Michael Gabel’s determination, love of life and sense of calling and purpose in the military:

* He struggled to overcome dyslexia to learn to speak and read Arabic and French after graduating from high school.

* He pushed himself, an asthmatic, so hard to be a wrestler at Lee High School that teachers worried how much weight Gabel lost as a freshman to make the team and his weight class.

* He used his skills as a chef to put on parties for friends and family to spread his zest for life.

* He saw a sense of purpose in the Army and, in particular, in helping the Afghani people to understand the United States and to bring themselves up.

“He was one of those guys that just kept plugging and plugging and plugging and made himself into something,” Lee High School head wrestling coach Bill Bofinger said.

Family members noted Gabel was riding in the lead vehicle when he was killed, although as a staff sergeant he could have been in the rear.

“The danger that was in front of him was less important than the men behind him,” said Mike’s father, John Gabel, who is finance director for Livingston Parish government.

David Gabel, who also was in the military and, like Michael, is part of long family tradition of military service, said Michael struggled to get into the Army.

Michael Gabel had to train for months to make it, but his time in the Army became another test that shaped him into a man.

“It really was another crucible that made him into a self-confident individual,” David Gabel said.

"My brother believed in Afghanistan," David Gabel said. "He really wanted to see schools, jobs and opportunities brought to the country. It was his third tour in Afghanistan, and the job there was unfinished."

Contrary to the partisan portrayals of our men and women in uniform as stupid, ill-educated, or misinformed pawns forced into military careers because there are no better options, the lives of SSgt Gable and Cpl. Blaney are portraits of dignity, integrity, and courage. Corporal Blaney did not have to serve in Afghanistan after he earned his first Purple Heart in another land, Iraq, also struggling towards freedom. There are always choices in life. Yet he did, and he served with honor under circumstances that would daunt most of us.

SSgt. Michael Gabel was killed last week doing a job he believed in, his former teacher says, with all his heart. Henry David Thoreau once said, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." Corporal Blaney and Staff Sergeant Gabel gave life everything they had.

How many of us, when our time comes, will be able to say that? These were men to be proud of, and we are made poorer by their loss.

Posted by Cassandra at December 19, 2007 08:42 AM

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Thank you, Cassandra.

Posted by: MaryAnn at December 19, 2007 04:30 PM

Where do we get such men?

They have turned the page of history.

"..who more than self, their country loved

and mercy more than might"

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at December 19, 2007 04:40 PM

We wouldn't be the great nation that we are without men like these. Men who answer the call, serve and sacrifice.

Candles lit for their families and in their memory this evening with a huge lump in the throat.

Posted by: Carrie at December 19, 2007 04:44 PM

True believers in human progress are very powerful. Yet they are just as mortal as anyone else.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at December 19, 2007 05:20 PM

Eloquent as always, Cass. I, too, tire of those who take for granted that which others have paid for with their blood, sweat and tears.

And I think you are wrong, Ymar. True believers live on in the minds and souls of those they've touched.

Posted by: Sly2017 at December 19, 2007 06:46 PM

Henry David Thoreau once said, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." Corporal Blaney and Staff Sergeant Gabel gave life everything they had.

How many of us, when our time comes, will be able to say that?

I will; but much of credit for that is due to my parents, and the way in which I was raised.

These were men to be proud of, and we are made poorer by their loss.

That is most certainly true...

Posted by: camojack at December 20, 2007 01:14 AM

Thank you for your excellent tribute to our heroes. Compassion and courage. Love and loyalty. Honor and humanity.

I'm glad I clicked on VC this morning. What a nice Christmas gift.

Thank you.

Posted by: Sloan at December 20, 2007 08:27 AM

Thanks, Cass!

I've been retired from the army for over 11 years now. Although I still scan the names of those killed in action listed each month in Army magazine, I have yet to see the name of someone I know. I do still hear from friends who have been there and are back again.

I do know that each name on that list has a story and families behind them. God bless you for telling those stories. They should be the names we see and admire in the media. Sadly, not. I know each story must take a toll on you, but their quiet heroism deserves to be known.

I hope all your readers share these tales with their friends and children and they, in turn, carry them into their schools. I know I discuss them with Josh and they are a topic of discussion in his high school classes and his teachers are very positive. Would that they all were.

Your thoughts you share move us deeply and carry much farther and accomplish more than you can ever imagine.



Posted by: James at December 20, 2007 08:29 AM

Thanks, guys :)

I wish the big newspapers would cover more of these stories. Oddly, NPR does do a nice job of picking up some of them. Other than that, it is usually the local papers who do the good writeups, and they are hard to find on Google. I wish I could have found more on Corporal Blaney before writing this - I was really jammed at work and didn't have as much time as I needed, but I spent a lot of time searching. I did find one interesting tidbit late last night, after I had written this.

His original Purple heart was earned on Dec. 12th - I think 4 years to the day before he was killed.

Fate is strange. Imagine the courage it took to go back after being wounded.

I remember reading about the Civil War, that many generals were never as aggressive after they had been wounded. It took the fight out of them, and I can certainly see why it would. I admire him tremendously for doing his duty. I don't know if I would have the bravery to do as he did, but I thank God for men like him. We are blessed as a nation and I think people ought to know about it.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 20, 2007 09:04 AM

Ymar, I started to leave a reply last night to your comment. It is certainly true that our bodies are fragile, but that has always been so :) Let us hope that some of what these men have done, however, will live on long after they have gone.

I think what we're doing right now will continue to affect the rest of the world for decades to come. We (or more accurately, they) are shaping history. I also think that if we are successful, the world we leave for our children and grandchildren will be a far better - and safer - place. I think I have mentioned this before - a line from one of my favorite books: "For what may a man honorably strive?"

That seems a fit task for any man. Or even for an entire generation of men and women.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 20, 2007 09:13 AM

I would like to thank you for posting this about the soldiers in Afghanistan. My husband and myself were very good friends of Mike Gabel. He has sat at my table on many of occassions telling us what he thought about our presence in Iraq and Afghansitan. He believed in everything he was doing and was proud to do what he did. Mike lived life to the fullest! He traveled,spent time with friends, and loved his family. I danced with him many a nights while I laughed and then watched him play pool with my husband who loved Mike with all his heart. My husband has Been in the Army for 18 yrs and this death has hit our family deep in our hearts. But if I could just let you know one thing about Mike it is that he loved what he was doing and he would have died a thousand deaths if it meant saving one soldier. His life was full because he lived it and loved it.

I love and respect that man more than anyone will ever know but he is never gone because he is in our hearts forever.

Posted by: Melissa at December 20, 2007 10:58 AM

I am so sorry for your loss, Melissa.

I always get a bit nervous writing these things because I have to depend on newspaper articles (which can give you only a sense of what the person was like, even though I read 4 or 5 articles for every one I quote) and I can't know the people involved. But I do know that when you lose someone, you don't want them to be forgotten and you want to know their service was remembered and their sacrifices appreciated and honored by their country.

I try to write them in that spirit, and hope that if I get anything wrong, their loved ones will know it wasn't intentional. I hope you and your husband also know that we are grateful for your service.

Posted by: Cassandra at December 20, 2007 11:14 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 12/20/2007 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

Posted by: David M at December 20, 2007 01:13 PM

We are indeed poorer for the loss of these fine Patriots.

However, we are far richer for having them in our midst for the briefest of time. They have gone on ahead and I look forward to meeting them on Heaven's battlements!

Posted by: vet66 at December 21, 2007 12:34 PM

It is certainly true that our bodies are fragile, but that has always been so :)

Indeed. That is our human condition. To strive and to live, even with the knowledge that we can and will die. As Confucius once said, humanity's glory is not in never falling down, but in rising up after each fall.

The world would not be the way it is if Rome had given up, if the Greeks had submitted to Persian rule, or if American colonialists and their descendents had given the cause up as lost during wars of deprivation and twilight darkness.

That seems a fit task for any man. Or even for an entire generation of men and women. Posted by: Cassandra at December 20, 2007 09:13 AM

I may have said this here or at blackfive, but the ancient samurai were said to have discarded the fear for one's own life and limbs. Only then could they react as the situation demands, only then could they do what is necessary in the split seconds that they had, in order to win. To do their duty, whatever that may have been.

There could be no hesitation, and so long as people feared for their lives and what they could lose, they would hesitate and they would lose to the strong, the quick, or the numerous.

The sublimation of one's own survival instincts requires a mighty degree of willpower, discipline, and belief. It is a state few achieve. Nature did not design us to willingly give our lives away, but God gave us free will and it is by the exercise of free will that humanity has lifted itself up beyond the conditions of animals.

It can be no other way.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at December 21, 2007 08:14 PM

Each story I read of the men and women who make the ultimate sacrifice for all of us leaves me in a state of reflection and profound humility. My words are not adequate. I only wish I were once again young enough and physically able to step in to do my part...

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
Those words are as true today as the day the Bard put pen to paper.

You will not be forgotten. Rest in peace.

Posted by: bthun at December 21, 2007 08:39 PM

Thank you cassandra for writing this article. I have read all the articles on Michael's death but this is the best one by far. The other ones just don't make him sound as special as he really was. I was his girlfriend, and I've been struggling to deal with this. A lot of the time it is very hard for me to focus on the fact that he died with so much nobility for a huge purpose and not be selfish and just think about the fact that we are never going to have all the things that we wanted together. I forget a lot of the time to be proud and instead just wallow in self-pity and pain. Your article helped lift my spirits after crying just half an hour ago about his death. It made me realize how much I owed it to Michael not to be a mess, to try my hardest to be strong. Thanks, sincerely.

Posted by: amy at January 8, 2008 11:42 AM

Oh Amy.

It is so hard to lose someone you love. My mother in law used to grow impatient with herself at times and I used to tell her, it is not as though you lost a puppy or something. This was the love of your life. He is worth the tears. But also I understood.

What comes through in reading the lives of so many of these men and women is how extraordinarily blessed we are as a nation. Also, frankly, how very much we have lost.

However, I try to look at that as a hopeful sign in a way in that America was capable of such greatness in the first place. I am sure your love and support were a source of strength and happiness to Michael during his life. Men are very different from us in that no matter how much they love their girlfriends, wives, and children they also absolutely need to go out into the world and do great things. That is an essential part of their being and it is part of what I admire about them. It takes a special courage to do what they do, but it also takes a unique strength and grace to understand and support them in their endeavors. Many women walk away from that.

I suspect Michael was a very lucky man indeed. God bless you.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 8, 2008 12:12 PM

Amy...thank you.

You will never forget him. You are not supposed to forget him. You are, however, expected to LIVE. And that will come in time. You are a special lady to have been loved by him now, and forever.

Posted by: Cricket at January 8, 2008 03:44 PM

On November 12, 2009, the SSG Mike Gabel was inducted in the LA. Veterans Hall of Honor.

Posted by: John P. Gabel III at December 1, 2009 02:41 PM

SSG Gabel was the best NCO i ever encountered in my time of service. He always did what a good NCO would do. He took the lead, and never asked anything of us that he would not first do himself.
I was there that day, and I remember it in great detail. He was a great man, and should always be remembered as such.
As far as his cooking abilities... I have never had the chance to eat such fine food prepared out of nothing ever. He placed the welfare of his men in such high regard. SSG Gabel and CPL Blaney, where both great men and American heroes. God bless the both of them. Sky Soldiers, Airborne.

Posted by: Jon Dale at February 9, 2010 03:00 AM


Posted by: CAPT Mike at June 4, 2014 10:34 PM

I am Joshua Blaneys mom. I asked Andy, the driver of the humble that fatal day if he ever felt he could talk about what happened that day to contact me. Last year he contacted Josh's sister, Carley. He said right after they started off that Josh told him to understand buckle his seat belt. He didn't do it immediately so Josh told him again. No sooner had he unbundled they hit the bomb,they flipped several times and landed upside down. There was a small hole in the window and he had only a few seconds yo climb out before the whole thing exploded. If he had had his seat belt on he would not be a live today. Josh saved his life! After over 7 years it still amazes me how many lives Josh touch and continues to touch. I have a boutique called Gold Star Boutique in Indian Land, SC. I have his picture in there and sell military items and memorial items. Thru the shop I have meet so many wonderful people who touch y life with stories of their children who have passed and lots of military families who have children serving. It has truly been a blessing and Josh still continues to bless me even after his death. Thank you so much for writing such a wonderful article about my son and Mike Gabe who were more alike than not. I have a picture of them standing beside a humble and every time I look at it I see two brave young men who proudly and courageously served there country -not because they had to but because they want Ted to. We all should be very proud of our military which is ALL voluntary!! How PRO should we all be--So proud these young men and women risk EVERYTHING for us. Some of these spoiled brats out there that think they know everything should be made to serve 2 years of there lives, then MAYBE they would SHUT UP! Thanks for letting me vent. Dianne Massey Proud Gold Star Mom of Sgt Josh Blaney. Fort Mill, SC

Posted by: Dianne Massey at July 8, 2015 09:18 PM

Sorry for the typos. I don't know how humvee got typed as humble. Anyway sorry!

Posted by: Dianne Massey at July 8, 2015 09:22 PM


Thank you for commenting - reading your comment made me cry, but in the very best way.

Don't think I'll ever be able to think of men like your son without feeling deeply humbled, and so proud to live in a country that produces such men.

I hope we never stop feeling gratitude for their service (and for people like you, who have suffered heartbreaking losses, but who still stand taller than most of the rest of us can hope to).

Posted by: Cassandra at July 10, 2015 11:44 AM