April 06, 2014

Fair Winds and Following Seas

Guarding the Gates of Heaven.png

Gen. Carl. Mundy, the Marine Corps' 30th Commandant, has gone to his new post guarding the gates of Heaven.

"A statement from the Mundy family:

WASHINGTON – Nine months ago the Mundy family experienced the loss of our beloved mother, Linda. Last Wednesday our father, retired Gen. Carl E. Mundy, Jr, followed her. While a distinguished Marine and public figure, Gen. Mundy was first and foremost a loving father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

Sadly, several months ago he was afflicted by Merkel Cell Carcinoma, a rare and very aggressive form of cancer that proved too resistant to overcome. In his final days, he drew comfort from, and expressed heartfelt gratitude for, the hundreds who called and sent a steady stream of cards, letters, and emails. When he was no longer able to do so, we read to him these thoughts, prayers, and special anecdotes as joyous reminders of the people in his life. We would like everyone to know that in confronting death, he modeled the courage, grace, charm and effortless sense of humor that characterized his life.

His children cannot thank everyone enough for the heartfelt support they have received over the past year, especially in these last several weeks. The thoughts and prayers of so many have sustained the entire Mundy family as we faced our father’s final challenge together.

While we appreciate that there may be further media interest regarding our father, this is the Mundy family’s only public statement. We sincerely request that you respect our privacy and allow us to deal with this difficult time in solitude."

MH served under Commandant Mundy and believed him to be, "One of the 'good' ones." High praise from a man who does not say such lightly. From the Dark Side to the Mundy family go our sincerest condolences for the loss of their father, grandfather, great-grandfather and a real "Marine's" Marine.
Semper Fi.

Tip o' the Stetson: The Daily Caller

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January 12, 2014

Sgt. Peralta's Rifle

The blog princess ran across this poem by Marine Corporal William Berry III in an article about Rafael Peralta's rifle:

peraltas_rifle_wmberryIII.jpg

The story behind the poem is an interesting one:

When William Berry wrote to the National Museum of the Marine Corps asking its curators to find Sgt. Rafael Peralta’s M16 service rifle, he wasn’t terribly confident they would read it or respond.

After all, his letter was postmarked from the Virginia Beach County Jail, where he was serving a year sentence after a drunken driving bust.

But Berry wasn’t just a casual observer; he was intimately familiar with that rifle, down to its shrapnel scars and battle dust, and his instructions helped museum staff to locate the weapon at the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit armory in Okinawa, Japan, where it had been in storage for years. Where, in fact, Berry had left it in 2005 when he gave it a final cleaning after its return from Iraq.

An armorer with Battalion Landing Team 1/3, Berry’s job in Iraq in 2004 was in part to collect the remnants of rifles after their owners became war casualties. Frequently, the weapons were mangled and twisted; sometimes they were covered in blood.

Berry recalled several instances when casualties came pouring in all at once and his grim job became a blur.

“Right before we went into Fallujah, it was late October, we had an [improvised explosive device] go off on a seven-ton [truck], and it killed eight Marines,” said Berry, who was a 22-year-old lance corporal at the time. “Once we recovered all the weapons, which were blown up to bits, we would put them in a body bag. ”

Exactly 8 years ago today, we wrote about Sgt. Peralta's heroic deeds. At that time, we didn't think his story would be remembered:

Most Americans have never heard of Rafael Peralta, and they never will.

In past wars, he would have been a hero. His name would have been a household word, his deeds an inspiration to small boys, their eyes growing wide with amazement at his sacrifice. The chests of old men would have puffed out in pride. Crusty veterans would have stood a bit taller, remembering their own service. Women would have grown misty-eyed, and young girls would have laid flowers on his grave, wiping away a tear as they dreamed of handsome heroes.

We did not know then that one day he would be nominated to receive the Medal of Honor. We did not know that this honor would be refused him - wrongly, we've always thought.

And we did not know that Sgt. Peralta's battle-scarred rifle would one day become instrumental in the fight to honor this hero as he should have been honored long ago.


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October 23, 2013

Remember

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Beirut bombing. An event that spurred MH to join with Uncle Sam's Misguided Children the following April two months before graduating from high school.
Many site have memorial posts about this day to include the ever-faithful Michelle Malkin. My favorite post, however, comes from out own Angel, MaryAnn, over at Soldier's Angels.
Please, read them both and remember.

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November 11, 2010

Veterans' Day

Veterans' Day is really about honoring those who are serving or have served. I've already thanked my favorite veteran today.
How about you? Did you do something special to mark Veterans' Day?

Every year since 2004, Veterans' Day has had a second meaning for me.
The second battle of Fallujah was raging and one of our 1st LAR companies, Charlie, was in the thick of it.
And on that day six years ago, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion lost SSgt. Theodore "Sam" Holder and LCPL Kyle Burns.
They died within minutes of each other.

Marine brothers in life, they were both buried at Ft. Logan cememtery within hours of each other.

James Sheeler remembers a tale of two tombstones. For those that don't know, James Sheeler wrote a book called "Final Salute" about his experiences with Lt. Col. Steve Beck as he went about his duties caring for the families of fallen Marines. It is an amazing book and I highly recommend it. You want to understand the cost of war?
There you go.

As I've done for several years now, I went back today to Crash Fistfight's blog to reread his post called "What Veterans' Day Means to Me".
He knew these men and he wanted to make sure that we knew them a little too. He wanted to make sure we didn't forget.

We should never forget to thank our veterans for all they do on our behalf. We should never forget men like SSgt. Holder and LCPL. Burns.
Either would be a sin.

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May 31, 2010

Dear Jorge, I still remember.

This post was written 2 years ago at Spousebuzz and republished here last year. Today, I discovered that SSgt. Molina Bautista's son, Jorge, had left a comment last November. I think it's so important to let our Gold Star families know that their loved ones' sacrifice isn't forgotten. I remember, Jorge.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
(I wrote this at Spousebuzz last Memorial Day. I wanted to post it again here because if family or friends of any of these Marines should google their names, they will know that we remembered.)

I don't think it's escaped anyone's notice that tomorrow is Memorial Day.
It is a solemn day. One where we honor the ultimate sacrifices made on our behalf by brave men and women. It is right that we do this. We should do no less.
As I was searching the Internet this weekend for articles, I came across one titled "Silent Eulogies" from the Rocky Mountain News. The article talks about Fort Logan Cemetery in Colorado. One of the tombstones there is inscribed "Remember Me And Not My Fate".

That is what this post is about: remembering the lives of some who have made the ultimate sacrifice. The first fifteen Marines are all fallen Highlanders from 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. The next is the son of an old friend of ours. After that is the son of someone I got to know through fishing events for folks at Walter Reed. She and her husband have made a point to attend every event. Major Crocker served with my husband in Iraq as did LCPL. Gadsden.
For each name, if possible, there is a link to something written about how they LIVED their lives.
LCpl Jesus A. Suarezdelsolar 27 Mar, 2003 Ad Diwaniyah, Iraq
Cpl Nicholas J Dieruf 8 Apr, 2004 Al Bu Hardin, Iraq
Cpl Rudy Salas 20 May, 2004 Route TIN, Iraq
SSgt Jorge A. Molina-Bautista 23 May, 2004 Al Fallujah, Iraq
LCpl Jeremy L. Bohlman 7 Jun, 2004 Ar Ramadi, Iraq
Sgt Jason C. Cook 21 Aug, 2004 Al Jaramil, Iraq
Pvt Nachez L. Washalanta 21 Aug, 2004 Al Jaramil, Iraq
SSgt Theodore S. Holder II 11 Nov, 2004 Al Fallujah, Iraq
LCpl Kyle W. Burns 11 Nov, 2004 Al Fallujah, Iraq
LCpl Blake A. Magaoay 29 Nov, 2004 Al Fallujah, Iraq
LCpl Jason E. Smith 31 Dec, 2004 Al Fallujah, Iraq
LCpl Daniel S Bubb 17 Oct, 2005 Ar Rutbah, Iraq
LCpl Chad R. Hildebrandt 17 Oct, 2005 Ar Rutbah, Iraq
LCpl Jeremy P. Tamburello 8 Nov, 2005 Ar Rutbah, Iraq
LCPL Jonathon Gadsden Wounded 21 August, 2004 in al Anbar Province, Iraq and succumbed to those injuries 22 October 2004 He was attached to 1st LAR at the time of his injuries but was with 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, 1 Marine Division..
Cpl. Brett Lee Lundstrom Jan. 7, 2006 Al Fallujah, Iraq 2nd Battalion/6th Marines
Capt. Brian Scott Letendre May 3, 2006 Al Anbar province, Iraq I and I staff, 1/25th
Major Ricardo Crocker May 27, 2005 Al Anbar province, Iraq 3rd CAG
In all honesty, the only one of these Marines that I ever met was Cpl. Brett Lundstrom. When I found out that he had been killed, I pictured the sweet, shy, dark eyed boy I had known years ago. For the others, I "know" them because I have gotten to know the families they left behind.
For example, I know that Jason Cook liked "expensive coffee" and always put his uniform together the night before work because he never wanted to let his Marine Corps down. His beautiful wife, Yovana, told Lancelot and I these things with such a proud smile on her face.
I know that Daniel Bubb asked his aunt Jules to physically purchase a pair of boots and mail them to a friend who didn't get any mail so that he would get something at mail call in one of his last phone calls home. He was an incredibly caring young man.
I know that Nick Dieruf liked to take things apart to see if he could put them back together...and sometimes, he couldn't.
I know that PFC. Washalanta worked in a circus before joining the Marine Corps. The judge who put him in foster care, who recommended that he consider joining the military and who gave the eulogy at his funeral remarked that Wash had completely turned his life around and was so proud of being a Marine.
I know that SSgt. Molina-Bautista was such a good father that his oldest son, Jorge, is going to bootcamp soon.
Thanks to Crash Fistfight, I know this about Kyle Burns
"Kyle was my gunner - We lived inside a turret no bigger than the front two seats in a Hyundai...let's just say we got to know each other. I would describe him as a Carhartt wearing, Copenhagen swilling, country music loving cowboy who could cuss with the best of them, from Laramie Wyoming. Kyle was a veteran of OIF I and this was his second trip to the sandbox. I hand picked him to be my gunner because as a platoon commander you need the best with you because your time is so precious that you have to have someone that can control a 14 ton vehicle while you are busy controlling the fight and your platoon over a radio."
And also thanks to Crash Fistfight, I know that Sam Holder was "a mountain of a man from Littleton Colorado. When you think of a Marine - you are thinking of Sam Holder. He was my right hand - my hammer."
I know that Major Ricardo Crocker was held in such high regard by the Marine Corps and the Santa Monica Police Department that his funeral was standing room only and the ceremonies of both the USMC and the Santa Monica PD were both complete and in synchronicity with each other. I was there. I couldn't believe the love and the care by both organizations to honor his memory and put him to rest.
I am the lesser for not having known these fine Marines and the world is a poorer place without them. I still thank God that they lived.
They are gone but not forgotten. They live on in our memories.
Semper Fidelis

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April 30, 2010

Supper with a Hero

In my Inbox:

As an Army wife, you quickly learn that living in on post military housing is always an opportunity to learn. My 8 year old neighbor and military child Katherine Birdsong was at our house admiring our Christmas Tree with our son John Jr. I was busy in the kitchen preparing supper when I heard her say, “and tonight we will be eating supper with a hero.” I smiled as I thought about her Dad, LTC Birdsong with Task Force Lightening, returning today along with the rest of his unit. Then I realized that due to a delay the soldiers would not be home til after midnight. What hero I thought to myself? I hadn’t heard on the news or paper about any hero’s coming to our post.

So I popped my head in the living room and asked her, “so I hear your eating with a hero tonight. Who is it?”

Katherine stood up with the twinkling of Christmas Tree lights behind her, clasped her hands together and then asked “Ms Murray do you know SPC Harris?”

Before I could answer she looked down and said in a solemn voice, “he was a soldier with my Dad. But he won’t be coming home tonight. He died in Afghanistan.” Silence filled the air. Katherine said, “tonight after midnight my Dad comes home and all the other soldiers come home but SPC Harris isn’t.” I could feel the tears began to fill my eyes and the large lump in my throat.

Yeah. Me too.

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November 11, 2009

Those Who Serve

Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings.

- description of Eowyn, JRR Tolkein

I've spent a lot of time gazing at her photograph; trying to see beneath the thin veneer we present to the outside world: a one dimensional carapace that only hints at the private self known to those we cherish and trust. I see strength in that face mingled with great compassion. Fragility and steel. I see both the stern warrior and the ministering angel. And it is perhaps fitting that on this day of all days, I was finally able to write about her life and works.

LtColWarman1.jpg It is easy to romanticize someone you have never met, but Juanita Warman's life requires no window dressing. The bare outlines to be found in newspaper accounts stand on their own with no need for embellishment. Her death reverberated not only here in the United States, but halfway around the world where the people she touched united in solemn silence to honor her memory:

The American and German flags are flying at half staff at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany in honor of the 12 Soldiers and one civilian killed at Ft. Hood last week.

Among those killed was a former Landstuhl staff member, Lt. Col. Juanita Warman, 55 of Pittsburgh.

Lt. Col. Warman served a year at Landstuhl as a certified psychiatric nurse practitioner, where she regularly volunteered for round-trip flights between downrange and Germany, as well as between Germany and the US in order to care for her patients during transition. An expert in post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, Lt. Col. Warman's military career spanned 25 years in active duty and Army reserves. In 2006, she was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for her meritorious service at Landstuhl.

...On Oct. 29, Lt. Col. Warman made her final Facebook posting:

"I am so excited to be leaving the country again soon. Just now got a few minutes. So much to do, so many lives to touch. Just wish it didn't take me away from home so much."

That last sentence ought to be on a billboard somewhere to remind us of the person behind every crisply starched and creased uniform. It seems odd, in some ways, to be writing about a female warrior. It seems, at first, a contradiction in terms. But though we try to paper over the very real differences between men and women, our denials have little effect on the underlying reality. Men and women call on disparate strengths when they take on a life of military service. I can't help but think that's a good thing, for just as a marriage blends the talents and perspectives of men and women, so the presence of women in the armed forces brings new skills to the field of battle: a mother's love and healing grace; a wife's feminine intuition, a grandmother's wisdom and time tested endurance. And nowhere were these qualities more desperately needed than in Juanita's chosen profession:

Warman specialized in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, a statement released by her family said.

A native of Pittsburgh and the eldest of seven children, Warman attended nursing school at Ohio Valley General Hospital and later earned a master's of science in nursing from the University of Pittsburgh, Harper said.

She spent more than 20 years in the military in active duty and in the Army Reserves in the United States and Europe. She received the Army Commendation Medal in 2006 for meritorious service as a psychiatric nurse deployed to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

She and her husband, Philip Warman, a lawyer, lived in the Pittsburgh area until 2005. They moved that year to Havre de Grace so she could take a job with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Harper described a big sister with an unshakable can-do attitude, no matter if the challenge was her next deployment or keeping her house looking good enough for a House Beautiful photo shoot. She would pair Army fatigues with lipstick, Harper, a hair stylist, recalled approvingly.

"She was a woman to look up to because of what she's done with her life," Harper said. "We all, as younger siblings, admired her because she just kept pressing forward. The woman never complained about anything. ... She always had a smile and if there was anything stressful, she just worked through it."

Of all the wounds inflicted by war, the mental ones are the most poorly understood. How do we separate the influence of innate personality from that imposed by life changing experiences? How do we heal wounds we cannot even see; ones that require us to delve into the murky waters of the soul? How can we listen and empathize without losing ourselves in the pain of a fellow human being? To face such trials, both steel and velvet are required.

But there's another aspect of her life that is worth reflecting upon, for just as her military career drew from Juanita strengths she may not even have known she possessed, so the demands of military life drew from her husband Philip qualities we seldom consider. We hear a lot about those who stand and wait. Mostly when this phrase is uttered, we imagine a wife and mother supporting her military husband. We don't think as much about the strength and devotion it must take for a man to set aside his natural urge to protect and shelter his wife. We don't think about the courage it takes, even in today's society, for a man to love a woman who is strong and determined and has an identity in her own right; for him not to take her success as an implicit challenge to his masculinity: to summon up another side of his nature. The one as capable of gentleness and understanding as it is of strength and competitiveness.

We don't think about the thousand ways in which forces older than time push us in a direction contrary to the dictates of patriotism, of rationality, or of societal expectations. It is hard for women to support their military men when they go off to war. I think in many ways it is even harder for men to take what (from the military's point of view, at least) is a subordinate and supporting role: that of the "dependent spouse". And I think the fact that so many American men and women are reaching down into the deepest recesses of their beings and finding the strength to carry on magnificently is an enduring testament to the greatness of the human spirit; to our ability to adapt and overcome.

LtColWarman2.jpg On Veteran's Day, though it is a day set aside to honor all those who wear the uniform and not just those taken from us, I think it is appropriate to think about the life of this officer, soldier, healer, lover, mother, grandmother, daughter and sister. Looking beyond the uniform for a moment reminds us of all that continues to be right about America:

... what's striking to me this Veterans Day is how healthy the military is, given all the weight it has been carrying for the country these past eight years.

Facing a new and disorienting kind of warfare, the military has learned and adapted. Rather than complain about their problems, soldiers have figured out ways to solve them.

In truth, the U.S. military may be the most resilient part of American society right now. The soldiers are clearly in better shape than the political class that sent them to war and the economic leadership that has mismanaged the economy. (I'd give the same high marks to young civilians who are serving and sacrificing in hard places -- the Peace Corps and medical volunteers I've met abroad and the teachers in tough inner-city schools.)

Through all its difficulties, the military has kept its stride. That sense of balance comes partly from the fact that soldiers are anchored to the American bedrock. This includes the stereotypical small towns in the South and Midwest that have military service in their DNA. But it also counts plenty of hardworking, upwardly mobile Hispanic and African American families in urban America that produce some of the best soldiers I know.

America's armed forces are a rough and colorful patchwork composed of urban sophisticates and down home country boys and girls, cynics and romantics. Perhaps nowhere in America do men and women, blacks, whites, hispanics, Jews, gentiles, native born Americans and those with the ink still wet on their citizenship papers so successfully live, work, and bond together. This is, I think, the result of a resounding call to be part of something greater than ourselves. Though it took her away from those she loved so deeply, Juanita Warman heard and responded to that distant trumpet. She stepped up. When her country called, she was right there where America needed her to be.

And so, behind the scenes, was her family. We the protected owe America's military and their loved ones a great debt. On this Veteran's Day, it is my hope that stopping to reflect on Juanita's life will remind us how very lucky we are; of the values that unite us instead of those that divide us; of the very best that we can be when we put our shoulders to mastering great challenges and overcoming daunting odds.

There is great good in America still, and it is embodied by the men and women of our armed forces. And it is embodied by their wives, husbands, parents and children; by the brothers and sisters who lovingly wait for their return. On this Veterans Day it is my prayer that this healer's spirit will continue to console and guide those who are missing her so very much today.

When I am down and, oh my soul, so weary;
When troubles come and my heart burdened be;
Then, I am still and wait here in the silence,
Until you come and sit awhile with me.

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up...
To more than I can be.

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September 04, 2009

No.

By now, everyone has read about the AP embed who took a picture of a dying Marine and then it was published over the objections of both his family and Secretary Gates.

Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard was 21 years old. He had family who loved him and mourn his loss. This family who should have had their wishes honored. This family felt that the picture did not honor Joshua Bernard's memory.

I haven't seen the picture and I won't. I won't link to it either. I am sure it's up at plenty of sites and those who wish to view a young man in pain dying in Afghanistan, somebody else can be your huckleberry. It just won't be me.

There are lots of emotions swirling around in me right now about this situation. Sadness for this family. Sadness for his Marine brothers.
Disgust at what the AP views as it's journalistic responsibility. Mostly, though, it's anger.

Anger that a young man's life is being reduced by the AP to a photograph at his most vulnerable. Anger at the ghoulishness of AP editors. Anger at the argument that it shows "the cost of war".
Lord, how I loathe that phrase "the cost of war". It's a bumpersticker, at best, and shallow, superficial and politically motivated at it's most honest.

I sincerely hope that Secretary Gates takes this opportunity to ban every damned AP reporter and photographer from embedding in Afghanistan and Iraq.
They can't be trusted to behave like decent human beings and shouldn't be allowed anywhere near military units.

Others are doing a much better job of using their words than I am right now so check out Mrs. Greyhawk's roundup of reactions and links.


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May 25, 2009

Honor Roll

Go tell the Spartans, strangers passing by
That here obedient to their laws we lie.

For a long time, I've wanted to pull together the tributes to the fallen here at VC. Many of these were erased when I deleted the old site. There is no rhyme or reason to this list; for every story I've been privileged to tell, hundreds more passed without a formal remembrance.

Today it is fitting that we remember not only those whose stories we've stopped to remember over the years, but the many who served, fought, and died for us.

And we never knew their names. May light perpetual shine upon them, and may we never forget the tremendous debt we owe.

This list will be updated throughout the day.

Captain Rob Yllescas

• 1st Lt. Jonathan P. Brostrom, 24, of Aiea, Hawaii.
• Sgt. Israel Garcia, 24, of Long Beach, California.
• Cpl. Jonathan R. Ayers, 24, of Snellville, Georgia.
• Cpl. Jason M. Bogar, 25, of Seattle, Washington.
• Cpl. Jason D. Hovater, 24, of Clinton, Tennessee.
• Cpl. Matthew B. Phillips, 27, of Jasper, Georgia.
• Cpl. Pruitt A. Rainey, 22, of Haw River, North Carolina.
• Cpl. Gunnar W. Zwilling, 20, of Florissant, Missouri.
• Pfc. Sergio S. Abad, 21, of Morganfield, Kentucky.

More on these men here.

Staff Sergeant Michael Gabel

1st Lt. Matthew C. Ferrara, 24, of Torrance, Calif.
Sgt. Jeffery S. Mersman, 23, of Parker, Kan
Spc. Sean K.A. Langevin, 23, of Walnut Creek, Calif.
Spc. Lester G. Roque, 23, of Torrance, Calif.
Pfc. Joseph M. Lancour, 21, of Swartz Creek, Mich.
Marine Sgt. Phillip A. Bocks, 28, of Troy, Mich.

Captain Brian Chontosh
1st Sergeant Justin D. Lehew
Corporal Jason Dunham
Staff Sgt. Robert Whisenant
.

Sgt. Peralta: A Marine's Marine. More on Sgt. Peralta here.

Lieutenant Nathan Krissoff

Corporal Jason Dunham

Sergeant Jason Cook

PFC Natchez "Little Fawn" Washalanta

PFC Eric Paul Woods

Capt. Jeremy Fresques, 26, Florida
Maj. William Downs, 40, of Winchester, Va.
Capt. Derek Argel, 28, of Lompoc, Calif.
Staff Sgt. Casey Crate, 26, of Spanaway, Wash
Pfc. Eric Paul Woods, 26, Omaha, Nebraska

The Last Man

Lance Corporal Eddie Garvin

Major Doug Zembiec. More here.

First Lieutenant Andrew J. Bacevich

Corporal Nicholas J. Dieruf

Sergeant Major Joseph J. Ellis. More here.

Staff Sergeant Hector Leija

Captain Justin Peterson.

Staff Sergeant Chad Simon

Lieutenant James Cathey. More here and here.

Cpl. Benny “GRAY” Cockerham III


Staff Sergeant Rick Pummill, United States Marine Corps
Lance Cpl. Andrew David Russoli , United States Marine Corps
Lance Cpl. Steven W. Szwydek, United States Marine Corps
Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher W. Thompson, United States Navy
Lance Cpl. Kenneth J. Butler
Cpl. Seamus M. Davey, United States Marine Corps

Lance Corporal Timothy E. Foshay

Sergeant Eddie Jeffers

Sergeant Terry Michael Lisk

Lance Corporal Joshua Butler
PFC Charles Young
Corporal Anthony Fink

A Memorial Day prayer

Captain Brian Letendre on the meaning of Memorial Day. Brian was killed

Brian was killed in May of 2006 in Ramadi.

Colonel William "Rich" Higgins, USMC

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May 18, 2009

They Were My Brothers

I received an email today about a medically retired young Marine running a 100 mile marathon down in the Keys over the weekend.
He ran it for the Marines who won't ever run again.
He ran it for the special ops guys from all branches who won't either.
His youtube is found here.
By the way, he finished the marathon in 31 hours, 03 minutes and 21 seconds. 0321 is the MOS for Recon.

On a VERY related note, the boys at Blackfive and many others have joined together in a new venture.
Introducing the Warrior Legacy Foundation.

Urrahh to all of you!!!


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December 02, 2008

Captain Rob Yllescas

Yesterday, while you and I went about the mundane business of every day living, a good man - a warrior - finally put down his burdens and walked into the light.

For his good lady that final parting cannot yet seem quite real. It never does at first, especially when there have been so many goodbyes over the years. Captain Rob Yllescas, 31, spent the first 18 years of his life in Guatemala. His father Otto still lives there. His mother, Barbara Yllescas-Brodsky, now lives in Treynor, Iowa. Rob graduated from the University of Nebraska. He met and married Dena in her home town of Osceola. Their marriage produced two lovely daughters, Julia and Eva:

"He was my hero and my daughters' hero," said Dena... "They absolutely adored him, and they didn't care that he was a soldier or not. He was their daddy."

But Rob is not the only hero in the Yllescas family. Dena's tremendous strength and resolve inspired everyone who followed his fight to recover from grievous injuries suffered October 28th while in command of B Troop, 6/4 Cavalry in Nuristan province. This film was taken in late October of this year. In it, 6/4 soldiers on patrol discuss their work in Afghanistan. As Dena explains in this video, Captain Yllescas was wounded while performing a job he believed in deeply:

"He felt very strongly about why he was there, and that he was making a difference."

On Veterans' Day, the President visited Rob and Dena in the hospital:

“It was bittersweet because my husband and I have wanted to meet him for long,” Yllescas’ wife Dena said.

President Bush awarded the Purple Heart at Yllescas’ bed side. Unfortunately, the captain was unconscious from his injuries and could not experience the moment.

His wife said that the moment affected the president.

“He was tearing up and he was hugging me and he told me he was sorry and that he would meet Rob when he was awake,” Yllescas said.

The Ranger had to have his legs amputated due to his injuries. Doctors also had to wire his jaw shut and put a bolt in his lead.

“He was so close dying so many times. My husband is very stubborn and I really appreciate that trait right now. By all accounts he should not be alive,” Dena Yllescas said.

Rob fought back against his injuries, but in the end they proved too severe for him. On December 1st, after more than a month of fierce battling to hold onto the life they had built together, Dena was forced to say that final goodbye every soldier's wife fears:

Well, today Rob went to be with the Lord. Last night his ICP's went really high and they took him for another CT scan. The scan results were devastating. So, we decided to let him go Home. He went very painlessly and quickly. I don't know when his funeral will be but it will be in Nebraska in my hometown. I will let you all know the details when I get them. Thank so all so much for the thousands of prayers you sent for my husband. We now have an angel looking over us.

I don't know what is harder to bear: the tension and strife of battle or the empty silence that falls over the field when the last trumpet has sounded its final retreat; when the silent mists creep slowly over each hill and dale, tenderly brushing each slumbering face, each pale cheek with a gentle kiss?

That is a romanticized notion, I know. And yet it is never the outward seeming that we love; that is just dross, an impurity to be burned away by the heat of violence until what lies beneath - the pure gold - is revealed. That is why bonds forged in wartime seem more true.

Because when it counts, everything nonessential is stripped away and men must depend upon each other for their very survival. People rarely waste time arguing about philosophy or the existential meaning of life when there is a knife at their throats:

Late March, 2003. I’m travelling within Germany on business and get into a taxi. I notice by his accent the driver isn’t a German national. Because there’s kind of a bond between ex-pats, we start talking. I ask him where he’s from.

“Iraq. What about you?”

“I’m an American.”

The anti-war sentiment in Germany is high during this time, so we start slowly. But soon the words come tumbling out as he tells me his story.

He spent many years in Saddam’s Army and fought in the never-ending and bloody war with Iran. But when the order came to invade Kuwait, he’d had enough. He left the country and made his way to Germany, hoping to send for his wife and two children once he was settled.

His wife and children were “disappeared”.

He becomes increasingly emotional, gesturing and saying if he could only find Saddam, he’d kill him with his bare hands.

I ask him about his children; their names, how old they’d be now. He tells me.

Then, suddenly, he pulls the taxi over, puts his head on the steering wheel, and starts sobbing uncontrollably.

“Nobody cared”, he says with tears running down his face. “Nobody cared about us – except George Bush and America."

Rob cared too, so much so that he risked his life repeatedly to free people he had no obligation to; people many in the sophisticated set believe are 'not ready for freedom'.

I often wonder what would have become of this great experiment we call the United States of America, had the French and the Dutch refused their help to a tiny nation formed from fledgling colonies who rebelled against Great Britain. What would have become of us had they concluded we were "not ready for freedom"? For over two hundred years America has been a beacon of liberty and opportunity to a world in which, for many, those commodities remain tragically out of reach.

In the coming days, Dena Yllescas will have time to ponder the life of her husband. She may even ask herself, "Was it all worth it?" Her children may ask her that question, one day.

This is a question that, despite my strong support for what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, I never stop asking myself. In a free society it is right and proper to question ourselves from time to time. But to allow doubts and uncertainties to cloud our vision or paralyze us into inaction is not an act of discernment. War will never be easy. It will always be tragic, it will never be clean in the way academicians seem to want it to be and the cost will always seem far too high. What I keep coming back to is that America is a nation whose freedoms were conceived amid conflict and bitter dissent; strained to their utmost in the fires of battle, and tested time and time again in places near and far. Their names are now a part of history: Valley Forge, Chosin, Tarawa, Inchon, Belleau Woods, Falluja.

Nuristan province. Law and our civil rights, for all our too precious moral insecurities, are worth little without someone willing to secure them at the risk of losing life and limb. We decide, in the end, where the frontiers of liberty and security intersect and that decision cannot ever be cost free. In a borderless world those frontiers are becoming increasingly harder to detect and defend. And yet defend them we must if we are to preserve our way of life: this experiment called America. The cost we pay for daring to be free is our own lifeblood: that of our own sons, daughters, husbands, wives. It is a price that will always be too high. And it is a price that we will never get used to paying: one we should never get used to paying.

But which of our precious freedoms would we willingly yield, now, to be relieved of that debt? Which of them is not worth the price paid in blood all those many years ago?

Patrick Henry once said, famously, "Give me liberty, or give me death". We like to quote those words now. They have a nice ring to them, but how many of us are willing, when push comes to shove, to back them up with the appropriate action? Too many of us, it seems, would cavil and whine and say, "But is it worth it?"

We have a Republic, as the Founders once said, if we can keep it. Thanks to men like Rob Yllescas, we have kept it so far. May it ever be so. And may light eternal shine upon him, and may each of us strive to be worthy of the great sacrifices made daily in our names.

We owe much.


Is Rome worth one good man's life?
We believed it once. Make us believe it again.

He was a soldier of Rome.
Honor him.

- Lucilla, Gladiator

Posted by Cassandra at 08:41 AM | Comments (21) | TrackBack

September 18, 2008

Slipping Away

It's funny how certain songs come to be tied to memories in our minds.

Though the first two stanzas don't really apply, this song will always remind me of JHD and that sick, empty feeling I got when I heard that little 'plink' in my Inbox on dark winter mornings before everyone else was awake and knew before I even looked that the message was from JHD and it meant we had lost another one:

I threw the phone against the wall
Falling apart when I got the call
I went out walkin' with the weight of it all
That's when it hit me like a waterfall
I'm playin' the blues, payin' my dues
Speedin' my young life away
I never will get over what I heard about you
The first thing New Year's Day

Ooooo hoooooo
Slippin' away
Ooooo hoooooo
New Year's Day

Yellow Rose
Waco Moon
Quit too late,
You died too soon
To the bitter end
Tried and true

Goodbye old friend
I'll be missing you

I'm so sorry. It never gets easier.

I love the twist at the end. That is JHD to the life. The world just keeps knocking that man down but it will never kill his spirit.

That is a man.

Either that or all the hi-test in his blood.

Posted by Cassandra at 05:06 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 30, 2008

More 173rd Airborne

McQ, with the able assistance of Jeff Emmanuel, penned a fine tribute to the 9 soldiers of the 173rd Airborne I wrote about recently.

It is well worth your time. He does good work.

Posted by Cassandra at 08:01 AM | Comments (17) | TrackBack

July 25, 2008

Lost

Last weekend I traveled back in time.

Back then the world was different. Younger, more innocent; and not just because I was younger too. Spring, Summer, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas: the seasons of the year moved at a majestic and unhurried pace. None of them rudely jostling each other for position on the calendar, none impatiently leap frogging or butting in line.

We were not so insanely preoccupied that we bought live Douglas Fir wreaths the last week in October only to watch them turn brown and sere in the Southern sun by Thanksgiving. As yet unspoiled by an endless array of cable TV choices and the Internet, we were content to wait until December to begin putting up our Christmas lights and making our holiday preparations.

On Saturday morning I woke up in Atlanta and drove through the countryside for a few hours. As it had a little over six months ago, I felt the heavy red clay and gently rolling hills begin to work their magic upon my battered soul:

God seems closer out here. That can be jarring for those with a more modern, urban sensibility. There is something primitive about strong faith, something that stretches back beyond our earliest memories, our most basic human programming, something we can't quite put our collective fingers on. Something that doesn't quite seem rational, logical, empirical.

At the end of the road, I stepped from the car up onto the porch and the memories rushed up to greet me like sweet, slightly sticky kisses:

My darling son,

Where you are, it's your birthday and you've turned 22. I don't know where the time went. When did you get so "adult"?

I remember the night before you were born. I knew you were coming and had your dad come home from TBS. We had BBQ. I threw it up. Gross, right? Funny the things that you remember.

I won't bore you with the details of labor. One day, you'll be in your Dad's shoes and you'll know. We'll share a beer, you and I, and talk about it as we celebrate the arrival of your first child and my first (gulp) grandchild.

My oldest son. The light of my life.

Standing on the porch, with my grandson in his arms. Does he know? Can he ever know how dear he is to me?

I remember the day they first laid him in my arms. The love, it hits you with the force of a small hurricane. You don't expect it.

I was that way with both my boys. They had rooming in at the hospitals. It was new, daring. You had to insist upon it, but it was the 70's and I was, like, totally organic. Nursing. LaMaze. Natural childbirth. I wanted to do everything the right way. I was so young. We drove to a hospital that was over an hour away from where we lived because they were the only ones who would do natural childbirth and I was convinced they would hurt my baby if they used forceps.

I had nightmares about it.

They let you keep the baby in the room with you after the delivery. The nurses put him in the incubator, looking for all the world like a funny little caterpillar wrapped in his little blanket and hat. I kept taking him out and laying him over my heart.

I wanted him near me. The nurses fussed. "You'll fall asleep. You'll roll over and crush him.", they said. As if I wasn't smart enough to put him back before I went to sleep.

My mind drifts back to the present. I am watching my grandson Army-crawl across the living room floor. He is intent upon chasing a stuffed giraffe. Every now and then, he stops what he is doing, looks over one shoulder and flashes a big, goofy grin. He is enjoying the fact that the adults in the room are watching his every move.

Little boys are so amazing. I never had a daughter, but boys suited me just fine. They are tiny engines of business, stopping only to get their batteries recharged with mountains of hugs and kisses which they find delightful only until some shiny thing catches their eye, and then suddenly they're off without a word or a backward glance in your direction.

And if you're a wise parent, you let them go: cheerfully, happily, proudly; even knowing that within the next few hours they'll likely as not come tearing back with a knot on their forehead or a big bruise or a bloody knee and a flood of pent-up tears they're trying manfully to hold back because big boys don't make a fuss when they go flying over the handlebars of their bicycles.... again. And you hug them (but not too much!) and put a band-aid or an ice cube over the boo-boo, and let them go.

Again. Sometimes I think most of raising a boy is the tension between holding onto them when they need you, and letting go when they need that, too. The holding on is important, because without a little direction all that energy can get him into a lot of trouble. A boy needs a lot of love and guidance. He needs discipline, so he learns to channel his energies wisely, and compassion so he uses his strength to protect and serve rather than to harm those weaker than himself. But the letting go matters too, because a boy's fighting spirit is what makes him into a man, and you don't want to break that, or make him ashamed of his own nature.

In the end, that's what I thought of when I heard that we'd lost nine good men in Kunar province:

• 1st Lt. Jonathan P. Brostrom, 24, of Aiea, Hawaii. • Sgt. Israel Garcia, 24, of Long Beach, California. • Cpl. Jonathan R. Ayers, 24, of Snellville, Georgia. • Cpl. Jason M. Bogar, 25, of Seattle, Washington. • Cpl. Jason D. Hovater, 24, of Clinton, Tennessee. • Cpl. Matthew B. Phillips, 27, of Jasper, Georgia. • Cpl. Pruitt A. Rainey, 22, of Haw River, North Carolina. • Cpl. Gunnar W. Zwilling, 20, of Florissant, Missouri. • Pfc. Sergio S. Abad, 21, of Morganfield, Kentucky.

Each of those nine men had a mother and a father who loved him.

I wish I had the words to do each of these men honor. I can't do that in a single post. What I can do is to ask each of you to read about them, and remember them.

They went down fighting hard:

Outnumbered but not outgunned, a platoon-plus element of soldiers with 2nd Platoon, Company C, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team accompanied by Afghan soldiers engaged in a fistfight of a firefight.

After maybe two hours of intense combat, some of the soldiers’ guns seized up because they expelled so many rounds so quickly. Insurgent bullets and dozens of rocket-propelled grenades filled the air. So many RPGs were fired at the soldiers that they wondered how the insurgents had so many.

That was July 13. That was when Stafford was blown out of a fighting position by an RPG, survived a grenade blast and had the tail of an RPG strike his helmet.

That was the day nine Chosen Company soldiers died.

The first RPG and machine gun fire came at dawn, strategically striking the forward operating base’s mortar pit. The insurgents next sighted their RPGs on the tow truck inside the combat outpost, taking it out. That was around 4:30 a.m.

This was not a haphazard attack. The reportedly 200 insurgents fought from several positions. They aimed to overrun the new base. The U.S. soldiers knew it and fought like hell. They knew their lives were on the line.

"I just hope these guys’ wives and their children understand how courageous their husbands and dads were," said Sgt. Jacob Walker. "They fought like warriors."

The next target was the FOB’s observation post, where nine soldiers were positioned on a tiny hill about 50 to 75 meters from the base. Of those nine, five died, and at least three others — Stafford among them — were wounded.

When the attack began, Stafford grabbed his M-240 machine gun off a north-facing sandbag wall and moved it to an east-facing sandbag wall. Moments later, RPGs struck the north-facing wall, knocking Stafford out of the fighting position and wounding another soldier.

Stafford thought he was on fire so he rolled around, regaining his senses. Nearby, Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling, who later died in the fight, had a stunned look on his face.

Immediately, a grenade exploded by Stafford, blowing him down to a lower terrace at the observation post and knocking his helmet off. Stafford put his helmet back on and noticed how badly he was bleeding.

Cpl. Matthew Phillips was close by, so Stafford called to him for help. Phillips was preparing to throw a grenade and shot a look at Stafford that said, "Give me a second. I gotta go kill these guys first."

This was only about 30 to 60 seconds into the attack.

Kneeling behind a sandbag wall, Phillips pulled the grenade pin, but just after he threw it an RPG exploded at his position. The tail of the RPG smacked Stafford’s helmet. The dust cleared. Phillips was slumped over, his chest on his knees and his hands by his side. Stafford called out to his buddy three or four times, but Phillips never answered or moved.

"When I saw Phillips die, I looked down and was bleeding pretty good, that’s probably the most scared I was at any point," Stafford said. "Then I kinda had to calm myself down and be like, ‘All right, I gotta go try to do my job.’ "

The soldier from Parker, Colo., loaded his 9 mm handgun, crawled up to their fighting position, stuck the pistol over the sandbags and fired.

Stafford saw Zwilling’s M-4 rifle nearby so he loaded it, put it on top of the sandbag and fired. Another couple RPGs struck the sandbag wall Stafford used as cover. Shrapnel pierced his hands.

Stafford low-crawled to another fighting position where Cpl. Jason Bogar, Sgt. Matthew Gobble and Sgt. Ryan Pitts were located. Stafford told Pitts that the insurgents were within grenade-tossing range. That got Pitts’ attention.

With blood running down his face, Pitts threw a grenade and then crawled to the position from where Stafford had just come. Pitts started hucking more grenades.

The firefight intensified. Bullets cut down tree limbs that fell on the soldiers. RPGs constantly exploded.

Back at Stafford’s position, so many bullets were coming in that the soldiers could not poke their heads over their sandbag wall. Bogar stuck an M-249 machine gun above the wall and squeezed off rounds to keep fire on the insurgents. In about five minutes, Bogar fired about 600 rounds, causing the M-249 to seize up from heat.

At another spot on the observation post, Cpl. Jonathan Ayers laid down continuous fire from an M-240 machine gun, despite drawing small-arms and RPG fire from the enemy. Ayers kept firing until he was shot and killed. Cpl. Pruitt Rainey radioed the FOB with a casualty report, calling for help. Of the nine soldiers at the observation post, Ayers and Phillips were dead, Zwilling was unaccounted for, and three were wounded. Additionally, several of the soldiers’ machine guns couldn’t fire because of damage. And they needed more ammo.

Rainey, Bogar and another soldier jumped out of their fighting position with the third soldier of the group launching a shoulder-fired missile.

All this happened within the first 20 minutes of the fight.

Platoon leader 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom and Cpl. Jason Hovater arrived at the observation post to reinforce the soldiers. By that time, the insurgents had breached the perimeter of the observation post. Gunfire rang out, and Rainey shouted, "He’s right behind the sandbag."

Brostrom could be heard shouting about the insurgent as well.

More gunfire and grenade explosions ensued. Back in the fighting position, Gobble fired a few quick rounds. Gobble then looked to where the soldiers were fighting and told Stafford the soldiers were dead. Of the nine soldiers who died in the battle, at least seven fell in fighting at the observation post.

These words have been far too long in coming because, to be honest, I have struggled to find the right words - any words at all. I don't have them. Sometimes, you reach way down and there is just nothing left except grief that you can't find a way to express. I keep waiting for this to get easier and it never does.

I suppose I would just like the families of these men to know how very sorry I am, and how proud that America produces sons of this caliber. No matter what one thinks about the war, no one can ask any more of any man but that he do his duty.

I remember when my son decided to become a police officer. After a while I lost track of the number of people who said to me, "You must not very happy about his decision."

I was always puzzled by that remark, and a bit hurt. No one ever wants to lose a child. I think that must be the most awful thing in the world. But on the day my first son was born, I knew that some day I would have to let him go. For eighteen years, I poured everything I had into my children.

And then I opened the door, and let them step through it with my blessing. I never presumed that it was my place to decide for them what they should do with their lives, and if my son takes what I gave him and uses it to protect others, that makes me proud.

I hope the families of these men take some small comfort in knowing how very much they are honored for their bravery and their service.

We will not forget. We should never forget.

Posted by Cassandra at 06:12 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

February 17, 2008

Prayers Needed

Below the fold is a repost of something I wrote on March 1st, 2007 and have since deleted. I have resurrected it because one of the subjects, Sergeant DJ (David) Emery is once again in need of your prayers.

Over the past year, this young man has been engaged in an extraordinary struggle to hold on to the gift of life that Sergeant Major Joseph Ellis unselfishly gave his life to ensure:

Corporal Emery spent days in a combat hospital in Baghdad before he was stable enough to move to Landstuhl.

DJ's mother, Connie, and his young wife, Leslie, were told initially that he just had shrapnel wounds to the legs. They waited for more than 2 days before they got the call -- come to Germany immediately, DJ may not make it. Today, Connie and Leslie both just shake their heads when asked to describe how DJ looked when they arrived in Germany. "He was swelled up bigger than all of us together," Connie said, adding, "his eyes were swelled open."

Over the next few weeks, DJ died on the operating table 6 times, and he received more than 300 units of blood. He had so many blood transfusions that his blood type actually changed to O positive. The doctors in Germany and Bethesda completely re-built DJ's legs, but the infection became too strong. Nearly 2 months after the attack, doctors amputated one of his legs. Two days later, they amputated the second leg.

Then, as DJ lay unconscious on the 6th floor of Bethesda Naval Medical Center, his wife Leslie was admitted to the 3rd floor -- the maternity ward. And on April 21, 2007, Carlee was born. DJ was still in and out of consciousness when his mother came in to tell him that his daughter had been born. He opened his eyes and said, "OK." Two days later, DJ really awoke for the first time, and he realized that his legs were gone. He says that he cried for a while when he found out. "It sucked," he says now.

DJ Emery, his wife, their new baby, and his mother Connie are all living together in a cramped room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center now. But DJ says that he does not regret joining the Marine Corps, or serving in Iraq. And when asked what gets him through this difficult time, he choked up and said softly, "family."

That article was written in July of last year.

I don't write about it much, I should write about it more; but the most severely wounded of our soldiers and Marines undergo a battle to recover some semblance of normal life - in some cases, just to stay alive - that makes a combat tour look like child's play.

These men and women are, in every sense of the word, heroes. The courage, honor, and integrity required for them and their families not to give in to self-pity or despair, to keep fighting, to remain strong and self-reliant in the face of overwhelming odds is truly inspiring. And they deserve our support, encouragement, and thanks; not only for their service, but for the magnificent example they provide to future generations.

You know I am not one to ask this sort of thing lightly, but please spread the word. Email this to everyone you know who might be inclined to help.

We do not always get everything we ask for, but I would ask that you lift DJ and his family up in prayer. They have beaten the odds so many times. You can send Sergeant Emery a card at:

Sgt. David Emery c/o National Naval Medical Center 3rd West 8901 Wisconsin Avenue Bethesda, Md 20889

A Distant Trumpet

Dawn.

Once again too many cups of coffee have flooded my veins with a heart-pounding rush of caffeine, the writer's heroin. Maybe this time, I'll be able to push past the bleakness. Somehow I can't manage to get the sneering words out of my brain:

...yawning hulk, combat-addled, lumbering, blue-eyed, big ox baby...

There is no dignity there, no grace for someone whose service should have incurred gratitude or at least some minimal respect in token of the debt we all owe him. Instead there is only a stunning disregard for someone who seems no longer useful; who can, therefore, be safely treated with casual contempt. I suppose the words were deliberately chosen to provoke anger. They succeeded, though perhaps not in the intended manner.

Interesting that in several days' worth of torrid exposes, the Post can't manage to find anything positive to say. Anything, as usual, that makes our men in uniform look like determined fighters instead of drug-addled losers. We don't want to minimize their pain, or the severity of their wounds, or the horrors of war.

We'd just like people to see how utterly magnificent they are, still, these men we call Marines. How worthy of admiration.

To do that does not glorify war. It merely recognizes the greatness of the human spirit:

Marines wounded by what the military calls improvised explosive devices often have a hard time telling a coherent story about their injuries. They remember driving away from a dusty combat outpost in Fallujah or Baghdad, then recall waking up in a hospital bed in Maryland or California or Texas.

That was the case for Lance Cpls. Josh Bleill and Eric Frazier, who last month sat beneath a scarlet Marine Corps flag at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and described their injuries.

But Cpl. Chad Watson, who sat with them, is an exception. He remembers exactly what happened about 9 a.m. Nov. 29 as he led a team of Marines in the streets of Fallujah. The team from the 1st Battalion of the 24th Marines had just searched the car and were starting to roll again.

"We didn't get more than 100 meters, and it was like I got punched in the face like 10,000 times," Watson said.

What pummeled Watson was a bomb, not a fist. The moment he looked down, he knew his life had changed forever.

"I looked at my right leg, and it was gone - completely gone," said Watson, 24, a college student from Mt. Zion, Ill. "There was a big hole under the driver's side; that's where it hit."

Watson's training took over. Despite his missing leg, the smashed bones in his left heel and ankle, a fractured vertebra, burns and shrapnel wounds to his face, arm and eye, he grabbed his weapon and struggled to get out of the Humvee to defend himself and his comrades. But he couldn't free his twisted left leg from what remained of the Humvee's floor. Marines from other vehicles came running to help.

"I remember them yelling, `Is anybody still alive?'" said Watson.

Finally, after his fellow Marines dragged him into a nearby courtyard, a Navy corpsman tied off his bleeding right leg with a tourniquet. The corpsman gently informed Watson that most of his right leg was gone.

"I was kind of like, `Yeah, no kidding, I saw that.'"

Through it all Watson - still the team leader, despite his grievous wounds - was shouting orders.

"I was actually yelling at the guys to get out of the courtyard ... because there were too many of them," and a large group was liable to draw the insurgents' fire, said Watson. "I was glad how I reacted. I acted good under pressure, and I was happy to hear that they told my parents that."

But then Marines take care of each other. And the three are still taking care of each other now:

Generally, Marines like to organize things by threes. Three Marines make a fire team, three fire teams make a squad, three squads make a company, and three line companies make a battalion.

So Watson, Frazier and Bleill have formed their own sort of rehabilitative fire team during their stay at Walter Reed. "We joke with each other, or say, `Hey, we gotta catch up with him,'" Watson said. "It makes us work that much harder."

When they're working painfully to build their upper body strength, they push each other to work even harder. When one is working on his balance on the parallel bars, the others are watching.

Marines have always taken a perverse pride in their grueling daily doses of group PT, or physical training. It binds them together. And the equation hasn't changed much just because they're wounded. Now, the initials "PT" stand for "physical therapy."

"It's the same thing, just a different setting," Watson said. "It's just a different group of guys you're with now."

Even for Marines like Schuring, who is getting rehabilitation through Beaumont Hospital near his home in Farmington Hills, Mich., thoughts of his fellow Marines in Iraq are never far away while he's sweating and groaning through painful physical therapy. Teamwork is something the former center on the Hope College football team in west Michigan has understood for a long time.

The ceramic plate in his body armor saved him from the shot to his back. His Kevlar helmet helped dissipate the shot to his head, which didn't penetrate his skull. And the bullet that hit his right thigh missed the bone.

But the one that hit his left thigh almost cost him his leg, shattering his thighbone in three up near his hip. An infection nearly did the rest until it was brought under control by antibiotics.

His doctors expect he'll make a full recovery - thanks to physical therapy sessions it would take a Marine to love.

None of the wounded men is willing to let his injuries define him. None expressed bitterness. All said they would rejoin their units tomorrow, if they could.

Schuring, whose mission was training Iraqi soldiers, was especially emphatic.

"We were doing good things there in Ramadi - I mean phenomenal things," Schuring said. "The Iraqi army, the soldiers, they're the Iraqi heroes. They're not the best soldiers in the world, but they're trying."

The wounded men have had time while convalescing to process their experiences. They've met cabinet members and generals and members of Congress. Some have gone to the Super Bowl, and Watson was personally introduced to his baseball heroes, the St. Louis Cardinals, by the president of the United States.

But that's all gravy. It's everyday life that's a gift to these survivors.

"This puts everything into perspective," Lockwood said. "You get blown up, and all of a sudden the type of rims you have on your car, that doesn't mean anything. Your family, your friends, that's the stuff that's important. That's what keeps you going."

Perspective can be difficult, on the other hand, when you get news like this:

Marine Corporal David Emery Jr. of the Battalion Landing Team of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit was serving in Iraq. David, aka "DJ", graduated high school in 2003. He is married to the beautiful lass in the above photo, Leslie, and she is pregnant. DJ's unit was extended past their rotation date of January 1st and he was hoping to make it home in time for his child's birth.

On February 7th, 2007, DJ was at a checkpoint near a crowded place when a terrorist walked up to the Marines. DJ's Battalion Sergeant Major, Joseph Ellis (a recon Marine of 23 years), suspected that a bomber was approaching and put himself between the bomber and his Marines.

The bomber quickly detonated himself, instantly killing Sergeant Major Ellis. The Sergeant Major's sacrifice absorbed enough of the blast to barely keep DJ from being killed. DJ was hit hard in his abdomen - an artery was cut causing kidney failure - both legs and one arm were shattered, and, in fact, his wounds were so severe that doctors didn't think that he'd make it. They had him on a respirator, fighting infection, fever, kidney failure and other problems for a time before he stabilized enough (just barely) to make the flight to Germany where his parents and wife met him. While still unconscious, his family kept telling him to fight. Then, on the 18th, DJ was strong enough to make the trip from Germany to the US (Bethesda).

DJ had a tough surgery yesterday. His prognosis is hour to hour so prayers at anytime are needed.

As always, the military family is rallying around their own. Matt has more on how you can help Leslie and DJ. MaryAnn has lots more information on DJ and Sgt. Major Ellis, and Fuzzybear Lioness also has a beautiful post on the Sergeant Major:

[He] was always "healthy and alive," a perfectionist in what he did and who made anything seem possible. "I always thought he wouldn't be one of those people who wouldn't come home," Rachael Ellis, 20, said Monday. "In my eyes, he was superman."

...With additional education, Ellis could have moved up even further, Rachael said, but as an officer, he wouldn't have been as hands-on. She said all three of his tours of duty to Iraq weren't mandatory; he volunteered.

"He just wanted to make a difference," she said. "Anytime he was asked to go somewhere, even times when he didn't have to, he would. He wanted to be there for his troops."

DJ's father has the last word:

"I think of him as a hero," David Emery said of Ellis, a 40-year-old Marine from Ashland, Ohio. "He saw [the suicide bomber] pushing his way through the crowd. He moved to get this guy and probably saved my son's life."

As they handed that folded flag to Joe Ellis' wife, I wonder what was going through her mind?

There are so many things we fear, we who remain behind. Mostly, we manage to put those thoughts out of our minds and go on with our daily lives. But they are never far from us.

They hover in the back of our minds, circling slowly like fireflies on a summer evening until, unbidden, one alights every now and then in an unguarded moment in our consciousness. Perhaps when we're driving the car at sunset and our minds wander aimlessly, or when that sappy country song comes on the radio. Why do they continue to fight when so many in this country appear willing to have given up on everything we believe in?

What kind of nation plays foolish games with the lives of its soldiers, calling for war one moment and the next claiming they were deceived? One moment calling for troop withdrawals and the next saying we need to attack?

Where do these men, these Marines, get the strength to continue to defend such a people?

There are so many things I do not understand. But in the end, it does not matter that I understand them. It only matters to me that my husband understands them, and as long as he does that is enough for me. All I know is that, like so many others, he hears a distant trumpet calling him to faraway places.

And all I know is what I hear echoing in my ears. I imagine every Marine wife hears something quite similar in the silent hours of the night. I imagine Joe Ellis' wife hears it still, and Leslie Emery.

How can we help but love such men?

I'll be yours until the sun doesn't shine
Till time stands still
Until the winds don't blow
When today is just a memory to me
I know
I'll still be loving
I'll still be loving you

I'll still be loving you...

Update: I should have known! HF6 is all over this :p

You have to get up very early in the morning to beat those Army broads.

Posted by Cassandra at 12:45 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

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.


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December 15, 2007

Remembrance

wreaths.jpg

The rows of gravestones stretched out before him like time itself. But when John Lechler saw the date on one particular tombstone, he knew where to lay his wreath. And for a moment, Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. Gordon H. Sterling Jr., who died on Dec. 7, 1941, lived again.

The balsam fir wreath was from Maine — made by hand, decorated by hand, wrapped, boxed and loaded on a truck by hand, then driven 750 miles to Arlington National Cemetery.

This is the miracle of Arlington. "When you first look at that sea of stones, you don't get the impression of individuality," says Tom Sherlock, the cemetery historian. "But if you stop for just a moment and look at the name on the stone, in that moment they're thought of again, and they live again."

Lechler was one of about 600 volunteers at the cemetery Thursday for what has become a new holiday tradition: placing Christmas wreaths — supplied by a Maine businessman who never got over his first sight of the cemetery — on more than 5,000 veterans' graves.

"It's great that we came together to show our gratitude, considering how tough it is for everybody with this war going on," says Lechler, 42, an Ashburn, Va., resident who runs a sports training business and who never served in the military.

Every December for the past 15 years, Morrill Worcester, owner of one of the world's largest holiday wreath companies, has taken time in the midst of his busiest season to haul a truckload of wreaths to Arlington from his small Downeast Maine town of Harrington.

For years, he and a small band of volunteers laid the wreaths in virtual obscurity. But in the last 12 months that has changed, thanks to a dusting of snow last year at the cemetery, an evocative photograph, a sentimental poem and a chain e-mail. And this year, Worcester went national. A new program, "Wreaths Across America," shipped a total of about 1,300 wreaths to more than 200 national cemeteries and vets' memorials in all 50 states.

Worcester, 56, says he wants to help Americans remember and honor deceased military veterans, particularly at Christmas, when they're missed most. On the Wreaths Across America website, he makes this comment: "When people hear about what we're doing, they want to know if I'm a veteran. I'm not. But I make it my business never to forget."

On Thursday he looked at the crowd of volunteers — five times as many as last year's — and said, "I didn't realize there were this many people that felt like I do."



May it always be so.

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