Unknown Soldiers: He’ll Always Be With Us

 U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Eggleston spends time with his wife, Karen, and two daughters, Molly (left) and Avery (right) before leaving for his third combat deployment. Staff Sgt. Eggleston, 29, was killed in Afghanistan on Apr. 26, 2012. Photo courtesy of Karen Eggleston.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Eggleston spends time with his wife, Karen, and two daughters, Molly (left) and Avery (right) before leaving for his third combat deployment. Staff Sgt. Eggleston, 29, was killed in Afghanistan on Apr. 26, 2012. Photo courtesy of Karen Eggleston.

Moments after Karen Eggleston learned that her husband had been killed in Afghanistan, the couple’s oldest daughter, Molly, returned from a fun day at preschool.

“She said ‘Mommy, what’s wrong with you?'” Karen told The Unknown Soldiers. “You look like you’re going to cry.”

Karen’s casualty assistance officer knelt down and told Molly, 4, that her father, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Eggleston, wouldn’t be coming home from Afghanistan. The terrible news was too much for Karen’s little girl to process.

“I said that Daddy was in a car accident, he hit his head, and he’s in heaven,” Karen painfully recounted. “And she said, ‘but that means I’ll never see him again.'”

Years before military messengers arrived at her Raeford, N.C., doorstep on April 26, 2012, Karen was drawn to Brandon’s outgoing, unwavering personality.

“He was a person that was very determined,” she said. “He was always seeking a challenge.”

When the young couple began discussing marriage, Brandon told Karen that he was thinking about joining the military. Fearing for his safety, she was “totally against” the idea until Brandon explained his rationale.

“If I’m not willing to fight for this country, I’m not worthy of enjoying its freedoms,” he said.

The couple married in 2007. Two years later, Brandon was heading to Afghanistan as a member of the U.S. Army’s elite 4th Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), based out of North Carolina’s Fort Bragg. While she called the first deployment “very, very difficult,” Karen credited fellow Army wives for helping her young family weather the storm.

“Molly wasn’t even one year old when he deployed, so I felt like he was just missing out,” she said. “(But) we had very good communication.”

Brandon’s second overseas combat tour was even more challenging.

“I was pregnant with our second child during that deployment, so I was extra emotional,” said Karen, noting that the deployment ended happily with the birth of their youngest daughter, Avery. “He came back early in time for our child to be born.”

Just before midnight on Jan. 4, 2012, with their two little girls asleep in the back seat, Karen dropped Brandon off at Fort Bragg for his third combat tour, which the couple knew would be the riskiest deployment of all.

“Everyone knew it was going to be a very, very dangerous place where they were going,” she said. “He never really got upset too much before he deployed, but this time, he had a hard time going in.”

After hugging his precious daughters and beloved wife, Brandon vanished into the darkness. For months, he would be running perilous combat missions to find high-value targets.

“Daddy’s got to go over there and get the bad guys so they don’t come over here and hurt you,” the soldier told his daughters before he left.

Karen talked to Brandon as often as possible during what tragically wound up being the last four months of his life. After one particularly difficult phone call, during which the soldier said how much he missed home, Karen sat down and wrote him a two-page letter.

“It was just telling him exactly how I felt — how proud I was of him — about how the girls were proud of him,” she said.

On April 26, 2012, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brandon Eggleston, 29, was killed in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province alongside Navy LT Chris Mosko, 28, Army Staff Sgt. Dick Lee Jr., 31, and a military working dog, Fibi. The Pentagon said their vehicle struck an enemy improvised explosive device.

Speaking two years after Brandon left for his final deployment, Karen recalled several poignant moments during the difficult days following his death.

“I met so many people telling me stories,” Karen, 30, said. “He just touched so many peoples’ lives, and I had no idea.”

The day after her father’s death, young Molly sat alone in her family’s front yard. As relatives tended to her youngest daughter, Karen went outside and asked the 4-year-old how she was coping.

“Mommy, I’m happy,” the little girl said, prompting her surprised mother to ask why.

“I’m happy because daddy is in heaven,” Molly continued. “He can see everything that we do, and he’ll always be with us.”

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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Unknown Soldiers: Six Reasons to Pay Attention to Afghanistan

An UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter from 2nd Battalion (Assault), Task Force Knighthawk, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, makes its approach at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Logar Province, Afghanistan, Nov. 26. A second aircraft can be seen in the distance just above the mountains. Photo courtesy of Staff Sgt. Todd Pouliot.

An UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter from 2nd Battalion (Assault), Task Force Knighthawk, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, makes its approach at Forward Operating Base Fenty in Logar Province, Afghanistan, Nov. 26. A second aircraft can be seen in the distance just above the mountains. Photo courtesy of Staff Sgt. Todd Pouliot.

It’s no secret that most Americans are ignoring the war in Afghanistan. Some simply don’t care, while others aren’t even aware that thousands of U.S. troops are still serving there.

If you fall in that category, the point of this column is not to chastise you. It’s to give you six reasons to turn your attention back to a war that our brave men and women in uniform have been fighting since al-Qaida attacked our homeland on Sept. 11, 2001.

On Dec. 17, six American lives ended when a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed in southeastern Afghanistan’s rugged Zabul province. On the same tragic day, the lives of six U.S. Army families, including five based at Fort Riley, Kan., were forever altered.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Randy Billings, 34, of Heavener, Okla., served multiple overseas deployments, according to KJRH-TV in Tulsa, Okla.

“He really loved it,” CWO 2 Billings’ uncle, Hurschel Billings, told the television station. “He couldn’t wait to go back.”

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joshua Silverman, 35, of Scottsdale, Ariz., traveled to Israel as a teenager, according to the St. Louis Jewish Light. Before and during his first deployment to Afghanistan, he inspired those around him with his sense of humor and commitment to service.

“He was never concerned with what was cool,” Matthew Litwack, a friend of CWO 2 Silverman, told the newspaper’s editor, Ellen Futterman. “He did his own thing, and people gravitated around him.”

The impact of losing Sgt. Chris Bohler, 29, of Willow Spring, N.C., can be felt by reading a two-sentence Facebook post by his mother, Deborah Bohler, on Dec. 18.

“At 5:30 this morning my heart shattered into a million pieces,” she wrote. “Dear God give us strength to get through this pain.”

According to Thomasi McDonald of the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., Sgt. Bohler preserved a family legacy of military service that goes back to his great-grandfather’s European combat tour in World War I.

“News like this brings it all home,” Wake County, N.C., District Attorney Colon Willoughby told the newspaper. “Especially when it’s someone close to us.”

Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams, 30, of Elkhart, Ind., last saw his six-year-old daughter, Madison, when he deployed to Afghanistan on Father’s Day, according to WSBT-TV in Mishawaka, Ind.

“He lived for Madison,” Staff Sgt. Williams’ grieving mother, Debbie Passerallo, told the television station. “She was his little princess and she knew it.”

Spc. Terry Gordon, 22, of Shubuta, Miss., graduated from high school in 2011. According to The Meridian Star, his former school and the surrounding community are in mourning.

“He was a great kid,” Michael McDonald, principal of Quitman High School, told Brian Livingston. “His leadership and confidence was clearly evident.”

To some, these cities and towns may seem like faraway places. With the war in Iraq over and the war in Afghanistan in its 13th year, you might think the days of being impacted by a post-9/11 conflict have long since passed.

The sixth soldier to die in the Dec. 17 helicopter crash was Sgt. 1st Class Omar Forde, 28, of Marietta, Ga., where I have lived for more than seven years. The soldier, who was stationed at Fort Riley with his wife and children, went to high school less than seven miles from my house.

According to Sgt. 1st Class Forde’s high school football coach, who spoke to the Marietta Daily Journal, the future soldier was a picture of integrity, even in his teenage years.

“He had a lot of class on and off the field,” Scott Jones told the newspaper.

The harsh reality of this ongoing conflict just struck my town, and, someday soon, it could impact yours. But the real reason every American should be paying close attention to Afghanistan lies within the six stories above.

As Fort Riley’s commanding general reminded us in his statement honoring the six fallen heroes of the Dec. 17 crash, we owe our daily thoughts, prayers and appreciation not only to the warriors who bravely serve our country, but also to their courageous families.

“We stand ready to support them, and I urge our community and the nation, while remembering their sacrifices this holiday season, to do the same,” Maj. Gen. Paul Funk II said.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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Unknown Soldiers: The Sounds of War

U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Nick Johnson spends time with his wife, Julie, and son, Nathan, before deploying to Afghanistan in January 2012. He was killed in a helicopter crash on Apr. 19, 2012. Photo courtesy of Julie Johnson.

U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Nick Johnson spends time with his wife, Julie, and son, Nathan, before deploying to Afghanistan in January 2012. He was killed in a helicopter crash on Apr. 19, 2012. Photo courtesy of Julie Johnson.

Everything sounded different to Julie Johnson on a gray Chicago morning in April 2012. A dripping sink sounded like a waterfall, while a passing subway sounded like a freight train.

“Even though it was quiet, things around me were very loud,” Julie, 30, told The Unknown Soldiers.

The next sound was from Julie’s phone. A text message from her father-in-law was waiting.

“Have you heard from Nick?” the message said.

“Yes, I talked to him yesterday,” Julie responded.

Julie’s husband, U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Nick Johnson, had been in Afghanistan since January. In the middle of his first combat deployment, the helicopter pilot was flying medical missions in some of the war zone’s most dangerous areas.

While she initially wondered about her father-in-law’s text, Julie was confident that nothing was wrong. After all, she could still hear the sound of Nick’s voice during the previous day’s phone call.

“He told me he was safe, he told me not to worry, and I told him I’d worry anyway,” Julie recounted. “He said ‘I love you and I’ll talk to you when I can.'”

Julie had known Nick since their 6th grade class in Ontario, Calif., when she first admired her future husband’s wonderful sense of humor.

“He would make you laugh until your stomach hurt,” she said.

As their relationship blossomed through the years, Julie watched Nick become an exemplary husband, soldier and father. On that spring 2012 morning, the next sound Julie heard was the roar of the faucet as she put their 2-year-old son, Nathan, in the bathtub.

“We’re OK,” Julie would frequently tell herself while Nick was in Afghanistan. “Things will be OK.”

As she watched her son enjoy his bath, Julie heard her cell phone ring. This time, it was her dad. They talked for a few minutes while she continued tending to Nathan.

That’s when Julie heard the loudest sound of all. Someone was knocking on the front door of the house, which belonged to her sister. Julie and Nathan, who lived on a Hawaii military base, were visiting Chicago for part of Nick’s yearlong deployment.

“I didn’t feel good about it,” Julie said of the knock. “It was strange to me.”

With Nathan still in the bathtub, Julie decided to ignore whoever was at the door. Then came more knocking, which along with the barks of her sister’s dogs, prompted Julie to crack the front door open and peek outside.

“It was two men standing in their dress uniforms,” Julie said. “At that point, I just immediately knew … things weren’t OK.”

After the soldiers asked to speak to “Mrs. Julie Johnson,” the military wife initially couldn’t bear to hear anything else.

“I offered them something to drink, then got my son out of the bathtub,” Julie said. “I think I was just trying to put off hearing those words, even though I knew what they were going to tell me.”

Chief Warrant Officer Nick Johnson, 27, was killed in an Apr. 19, 2012, helicopter crash along with three fellow soldiers. Both Nick’s dad and Julie’s had seen news reports about a chopper accident in southern Afghanistan, which was they checked in that morning.

While the next few weeks were filled with unforgettable sounds, including a 21-gun salute at her husband’s funeral, Nick’s voice continued to resonate. During one conversation before Nick deployed, the soldier and his wife discussed what to do if he didn’t make it home.

“He said that he would want me to move forward in a way that would love and support Nathan,” Julie recalled.

Today, when Julie sees and hears her now 4-year-old son, she is reminded of his dad.

“It’s almost as if Nick’s still here with us, and Nathan’s still learning lessons from him,” she said. “Daily, we talk about Nick and who he was.”

Chief Warrant Officer Nick Johnson loved his family, his country and flying helicopters. He was also one of almost 7,000 Americans to be killed in Afghanistan or Iraq since 9/11.

Julie Johnson and other grieving military relatives are now the voices of our nation’s fallen heroes. As they courageously share the stories of their loved ones, it is our duty to listen.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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Unknown Soldiers: A Soldier’s Dog

U.S. Army Sgt. Jason Van Loo, who completed four combat deployments, greets his dog, Blu, after returning from Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Team Blu Van Loo.

U.S. Army Sgt. Jason Van Loo, who completed four combat deployments, greets his dog, Blu, after returning from Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Team Blu Van Loo.

During four deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, there was one constant for U.S. Army Sgt. Jason Van Loo. His loyal dog, Blu, was always at home with his wife and kids.

“He’s been a big part of our family,” said Sgt. Van Loo about his yellow Labrador retriever.

In December 2012, Jason was enduring his roughest combat tour since joining the military 13 years ago. After three deployments to Iraq, the soldier was dodging improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan with his Colorado-based unit.

“Everybody hears about Afghanistan and all the IEDs and stuff, and it pretty much lives up to that,” Jason said. “It’s the real deal over there.”

On the deployment’s first mission, Jason sensed something strange during a joint combat patrol.

“I thought I heard something and felt vibrations in the truck,” he said. “Eventually, we figured out that no one could get a hold of the rear truck … that’s when we found out my buddy’s truck had been hit.”

Jason’s buddy was Staff Sgt. Mark Schoonhoven, 38, of Plainwell, Mich. He suffered devastating injuries in the Dec. 15, 2012, enemy IED attack, and succumbed to his wounds on Jan. 20. Before Jason’s deployment was over, four more teammates were killed in action, with another four wounded.

“We tried to get over our losses and keep our mission going,” Jason, who was deeply affected by the tragedies, said.

In the early morning hours of July 3, Jason was the assistant gunner in his Army vehicle when his convoy encountered a road blocked by burning fuel tankers. As fellow soldiers tried to clear a path, there was a huge explosion.

“I don’t recall a lot of it, but I do recall seeing black smoke and red and orange,” Jason said.

His vehicle had been struck by an enemy rocket-propelled grenade, but miraculously, Jason and his entire patrol survived.

“I would say I had angels looking out for me and everyone else in the truck that day,” he said.

As he dealt with the daily dangers of wartime service, Jason was shocked when his wife, Kari, informed him that their beloved dog, Blu, had been diagnosed with bone cancer. While some may have put the dog down, Kari was determined to ease Blu’s pain and make sure the pet was reunited with her husband.

“It meant the world to me that my wife wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Jason said. “(Blu) was the one taking my spot while I was gone.”

Blu’s leg was amputated. The dog then started chemotherapy at Colorado State University, which Kari said “went above and beyond” to treat her sick pet. The community also rallied around the deployed soldier’s wife and three kids to form “Team Blu Van Loo” and raise funds for the dog’s expensive surgery and treatments.

“She just never gave up,” Jason said about his wife. “She wanted to make sure Blu was there when I came home.”

Sure enough, when Jason returned from his harrowing fourth deployment, Blu was waiting.

“I was so happy to see him,” the soldier said. “I was so tired and exhausted, and he just knocked me over with his three legs and started licking me. It was awesome.”

On Oct. 29 — Jason’s 41st birthday — the medical staff at Colorado State University gave a hero’s welcome to the soldier and his dog.

“That’s what I wanted for my birthday,” Jason said. “He had to get some blood tests and they had a big party for him.”

Blu died just before Thanksgiving. While the soldier, his wife and their children are saddened by their pet’s passing, Jason is forever grateful for the weeks he got to spend with the dog after coming home from Afghanistan.

“We donated all his organs to CSU so they can study and research (cancer),” Jason said. “Somebody paid it forward for me, so I want to pay it forward as well.”

Sergeant Jason Van Loo has suffered great loss over the past year, but as he continues his Army career, he is determined to carry on with the memory of the fallen, including Blu, in his heart.

“He’s still with us in spirit,” Jason said.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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Unknown Soldiers: Hico’s Hero

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Shawn Hefner, 22, was killed by an enemy improvised explosive device in Afghanistan's Helmand province on Nov. 13, 2009. Photo courtesy of Hico's Hero.

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Shawn Hefner, 22, was killed by an enemy improvised explosive device in Afghanistan’s Helmand province on Nov. 13, 2009. Photo courtesy of Hico’s Hero.

You probably haven’t heard of Hico, Texas. With a population of well under 2,000, the city’s motto, “Where everybody is somebody,” captures its all-American charm.

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Shawn Hefner may have lived in a small town, but his dreams were larger than life.

“He was always talking about being a Marine because his dad was a Marine,” Shawn’s mother, Robin Hefner, told The Unknown Soldiers. She added that her husband, Patrick, retired from the Marine Corps before Shawn was born.

For days at a time, young Shawn would camp alone on a mountain to develop survival skills. He also displayed the toughness needed to become a warrior.

At age 12, Shawn jumped on a wild mustang and rode bareback before falling and breaking his arm. That night, determined not to complain about his injury, he waited several agonizing hours before finally asking his parents for a ride to the hospital.

“He didn’t want to ruin our evening,” Robin said.

Shawn was 14 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. Like so many of this generation’s volunteer warriors, he was deeply impacted by 9/11 and refused to let the terrorist attacks go unanswered.

“He kept saying that he had to go over there and take care of it … that they had come onto our territory,” Robin said. “He always wanted to be a Marine, but he had to be after that.”

After graduating high school, one bad decision nearly put Shawn’s dream out of reach. During a drunken night with friends, Shawn, who planned to spend a year at home in central Texas before enlisting, broke into a country club and stole several cases of beer. As Shawn initially hid from authorities seeking to arrest him, his mom told him it was time to “own” the mistake.

“He turned himself in, went straight to the judge, and told him he wanted to be a Marine,” Robin said.

After working three jobs to pay restitution, Shawn, who was placed on one year’s probation, was allowed to sign up for the Marine Corps. Less than a year later, Robin was shocked by the transformation of a boy whose immaturity had nearly taken his life off track.

“I was utterly amazed when we went to California for his graduation,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Oh, my God. He’s a man.'”

In May 2009, Robin got another surprise when Shawn called to tell her he was deploying to Afghanistan.

“That’s when I jumped on a plane because I had this overpowering urge to see him before he left,” the Marine’s mother said. “I had to go.”

Five weeks later, the worried mom was gripped by panic and hysteria when she received a phone call saying her son had been injured on the battlefield. After six excruciating hours, Shawn was able to call home. While he suffered a concussion in an improvised explosive device attack, Shawn said, he felt fine.

“I broke down for three days,” Robin said. “I just kept thinking, ‘Oh, my God … it could have been over.'”

On Nov. 13, 2009, the military mom was opening her front door to receive what she thought was a package with materials for a scrapbook she was making for Shawn.

“Then I saw three uniforms,” Robin said. “I went running to the other side of the house.”

Moments later, she was informed that Lance Cpl. Shawn Hefner, 22, died after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. The next day, the Marine and his unit had been scheduled to leave the war zone.

While the pain was unbearable for Robin, Patrick, and their two surviving children, Hico and other patriotic communities across Texas rallied around their hometown hero.

“It was extremely overwhelming and honoring, and just amazing, to see the impact he had,” Robin said four years to the day after her son was buried.

Today, Shawn’s mom runs a non-profit organization called “Hico’s Hero,” which creates special pins so mothers who’ve lost a child to war can proudly display photos of their son or daughter.

“I’ve never left my house without my pin,” Robin Hefner said.

In this small Texas community, everybody is indeed somebody. But Lance Cpl. Shawn Hefner will always be Hico’s hero.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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Unknown Soldiers: You Know It’s My Destiny

South Carolina Army National Guard Sgt. April Trent, left, embraces her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Nelson Trent, before the married couple deployed to Afghanistan last year. Sgt. 1st Class Nelson Trent was killed in action on Dec. 13, 2012. Photo courtesy of Sgt. April Trent.

South Carolina Army National Guard Sgt. April Trent, left, embraces her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Nelson Trent, before the married couple deployed to Afghanistan last year. Sgt. 1st Class Nelson Trent was killed in action on Dec. 13, 2012. Photo courtesy of Sgt. April Trent.

A heavy snowstorm blanketed much of eastern Afghanistan on Dec. 13, 2012. While conditions were miserable, Sgt. April Trent and her South Carolina Army National Guard unit tried to make the best of it.

“We had a huge snowball fight,” Sgt. Trent told The Unknown Soldiers. “We were having so much fun … more fun than you’d think you could ever have in a combat zone.”

For April, it was a welcome break from missing her two children and worrying about her husband, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Nelson Trent, who was serving to her south in Kandahar. Since November, the husband and wife were both deployed to Afghanistan.

That night on the frigid Forward Operating Base, April awoke to someone banging on her door. It was her commanding officer.

As Sgt. Trent put down her weapon and followed her superior to his office, she wondered if life was about to change. Since the first of her husband’s two Iraq deployments began in 2003, Nelson believed that his military career could only end one way.

“He would tell me ‘it is my destiny to die in war,'” April said.

Since 1999, when Nelson and April met while stationed at Georgia’s Fort Gordon, she admired the Texas soldier’s sense of humor.

“(Nelson) was just funny … all the time,” she said. “There was never a dull moment when he was around.”

Nelson and April got married on Nov. 21, 2000. On Mar. 19, 2003 — the day U.S. forces invaded Iraq — April found out she was pregnant with the couple’s first child. Her husband deployed the next day.

“He was on the phone with me when my son was born and got to hear his first cry,” April said. “During his second deployment in ’05-’06, he got to come home for his son’s 2nd birthday.”

April took a break in service to care for their son and later gave birth to a daughter. But even while sacrificing as a military spouse, April decided it was time to resume her career in uniform.

Before the Texas couple knew it, both April and Trent faced deployments to Afghanistan. With two Iraq tours under his belt, young children at home, and a wife headed overseas, Nelson was in agony.

“He said ‘you know it’s my destiny,'” April recalled. “And I said ‘I’ll see you when we get back.'”

When April stepped inside her commander’s office in the early morning hours of Dec. 14, 2012, her heart sank when she saw an Army Chaplain.

“We regret to inform you that your husband, Nelson Trent, has been killed in action … ” April’s commander began. Those words are the last she remembers from that terrible night.

After several agonizing days on her snowed-in base, April was flown out of Afghanistan. She arrived in Germany just in time to meet her husband’s flag-draped casket.

“I was able to fly home with Nelson,” she said.

April would soon learn that her 37-year-old husband was killed in a bombing carried out by terrorists near a military base that was just visited by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

“You can’t be scared,” April said Nelson told his fellow soldiers just hours before his death. “You have to put your faith in God.”

Sergeant 1st Class Nelson Trent was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Jan. 8. Just ten days later, his wife was back in Afghanistan. But as her children struggled to understand their father’s death, especially with their mom still in harm’s way, the Army let April return to South Carolina, where she and her kids would eventually move.

On Valentine’s Day 2013 — April’s 32nd birthday — the tearful soldier surprised her children at school.

“It was like winning the lottery,” she said. “It felt so good to feel my kids’ arms around my neck.”

As they grow up, the Trent children will always know that their father was an American hero.

“Everyone has their calling — whatever it is they’re supposed to do — and Nelson was supposed to be a soldier,” April said. “He died doing what he loved.”

Shortly before our phone call concluded, Sgt. April Trent, who was shopping for groceries, paused to thank a passing soldier for his service. Hopefully, both of April’s kids already know that their remarkable mother is an American hero, too.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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Unknown Soldiers: War Fatigue

U.S. Marines with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Oct. 12, 2013.The patrol was conducted to disrupt enemy activity in the area. Photo courtesy of Lance Cpl. Zachery Martin.

U.S. Marines with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Oct. 12, 2013.The patrol was conducted to disrupt enemy activity in the area. Photo courtesy of Lance Cpl. Zachery Martin.

One of the biggest myths about the conflict in Afghanistan is that we’re “tired” of it. Given that 99 percent of Americans have never fought in the war-torn land, the pundits have once again succeeded in getting the story wrong.

I haven’t served in uniform. The closest I’ve been to war are in places like the hospital room of a courageous soldier who lost both legs in Afghanistan or in front of a brave young Marine’s open casket.

Conducting an interview with a family member of a fallen hero is often heartbreaking. But whenever I start to feel emotionally drained, I think of America’s real “one percent” — the valiant men and women who serve and sacrifice.

If anyone is suffering from “war fatigue,” it is our nation’s military community. None of us — particularly politicians and journalists — have any business claiming otherwise.

When it comes to those propagating the myth of a country that’s “exhausted” from the military’s post-9/11 battles, many of the same talking heads assure us that the war in Afghanistan is also winding down. If that’s the case, someone forgot to tell Beth Strickland Funk, who lost her son there on Sept. 21.

“I fell to the ground and started crying before they started saying anything,” Beth said of the moment she realized that her 23-year-old son, U.S. Army Sgt. Joshua “Jay” Strickland, was dead.

Like so many other members of America’s community of protectors, Beth refuses to complain.

“This has just brought home to so many people that we still need to be praying and paying attention … and praying for our soldiers and their families,” she said.

Eight years ago, the war in Iraq saturated most television and computer screens. Those responsible for setting war policy were under siege, and to this day, there are still heated debates about the conflict’s merits.

There is little debate about Afghanistan because so few are paying attention. Whenever I attend a sporting event or concert, I often wonder how many in the stadium — including those on the playing field or stage — even know a war is still being fought. My guess is that if I polled the audience, less than half would answer correctly.

Only a tiny fraction of our population has to deal with the possibility of being killed or maimed in battle. Unlike World War II or Vietnam, millions have no personal connection to the war being fought by their fellow citizens.

One young American making sacrifices on our behalf is Cpl. Geoffrey Scarborough. When I spoke to the Marine in August, he was documenting perilous U.S. combat patrols in southern Afghanistan, where so many coalition forces have fought and bled since 9/11.

“It’s awesome,” Cpl. Scarborough said about his dangerous job.

I wish every American could speak with 23-year-olds like Cpl. Scarborough. If more of us got to know the troops, veterans and military families in our own neighborhoods, it would be impossible for so many to turn away as a war unfolds.

If there’s anything I’m tired of, it’s asking people to care about a conflict that started after terrorists based in Afghanistan planned an attack on our country. While there is nothing wrong with a healthy debate about whether tens of thousands should still be in harm’s way, there is no excuse for looking the other way.

When I spoke to Sonja Stoeckli six weeks after her son, U.S. Army Spc. Kyle Stoeckli, was killed by an enemy improvised explosive device, she said there was nothing more difficult than feeling isolated.

“Once all the crowds and events are over, that’s when the real awareness and the real pain sets in,” said Sonja, who lost her 21-year-old son on June 1.

No family member of a fallen hero should ever feel alone. Being an American is not about waving a flag or paying taxes; it is about standing shoulder-to-shoulder with those who keep our nation free.

Instead of nodding our heads when others assure us that we’re tired, let’s devote ourselves to honoring and remembering our country’s true heroes and patriots. If there’s one thing I’ll never be tired of, it’s learning more about their remarkable lives.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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Unknown Soldiers: A Soldier’s Heart

U.S. Army Spc. Robert "RJ" Volker, 21, was killed by an enemy improvised explosive device on Dec. 20, 2006, in Baghdad, Iraq. Photo courtesy of the Volker family.

U.S. Army Spc. Robert “RJ” Volker, 21, was killed by an enemy improvised explosive device on Dec. 20, 2006, in Baghdad, Iraq. Photo courtesy of the Volker family.

Ever since he was a boy growing up in West Texas, U.S. Army Spc. Robert “RJ” Volker wore his heart on his sleeve.

“He had a smile that was true from his heart,” the soldier’s mother, Melissa Volker, told The Unknown Soldiers via email. “You could tell how he felt by the size of his smile.”

From a young age, it was obvious that RJ would one day put his heart and soul into serving his country.

“As far back as I can remember, he wanted to be an ‘Army man,'” Melissa wrote. “He was doing that Army crawl thing (at) about 2 years old.”

Throughout his freshman year in high school, RJ hounded his mom to sign a permission form that would grant him access to Army recruiters.

“I was afraid to sign because I thought if I did, the Army would take him as soon as he graduated,” Melissa wrote about RJ, who would turn 18 in August 2003.

One Tuesday morning before school, Melissa gave in and signed the form. The date was Sept. 11, 2001. Hours later, RJ watched in silence as the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon burned.

“He never said any more about joining up after that day,” she wrote. “He got scared … or so I thought.”

In September 2005, RJ’s younger brother, Johnathan, joined the U.S. Navy. As the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approached, RJ told his parents that he, too, would be volunteering to serve.

“Why now?” Melissa asked.

RJ explained that after 9/11, he felt an obligation to stay home and protect his family during uncertain times.

“I needed to stay,” he said. “But if you’re strong enough for (Johnathan) to go, I know I can go, and you and Dad will be fine.”

Two weeks later, RJ left for boot camp. During the next year, he would get married and accomplish his lifelong dream of becoming a soldier. Then, in October 2006, Spc. Volker deployed to Iraq.

Almost every day, the young soldier would call his wife, Martha — who’d moved in with RJ’s parents while he was away — and tell his family how much he loved them.

“As the days went by, I talked to him less and less (because) it was just so hard to think about the ‘what ifs’,” the soldier’s mom wrote.

During one video call, RJ’s camera began to shake as lights flickered in the background. When Melissa heard yelling, she realized her son’s base was under attack.

“I sat there, glued to the computer, not sure what was happening and fearing the worst,” she wrote. “He popped back up from under his table and said ‘that was close … you still with me, (Mom)?”

A few days before Christmas 2006, RJ’s wife and mother were going through boxes of decorations when someone knocked on the door. Screams filled the house when they realized that two uniformed soldiers were waiting outside. The family’s worst fears had come true.

“An IED exploded under the truck (RJ) was driving,” Melissa wrote. “He took the (brunt of) the explosion by turning the truck away from it and saved the other men in his truck.”

Specialist RJ Volker, who made the ultimate sacrifice in Baghdad on Dec. 20, 2006, at age 21, was escorted home to Texas and saluted by his 19-year-old brother. Melissa and her husband were in a fog as the heartbreaking scene unfolded.

“You just nod your heard and keep going,” she wrote about the days after RJ’s death.

After receiving letters from the president and governor, support from organizations like the Patriot Guard Riders and compassion from countless mourners, the fog began to lift.

“To know that our son’s death was not in vain — that most of our nation appreciated the life he gave for them — is awesome,” Melissa wrote.

Like all of our nation’s Gold Star families, Spc. Robert “RJ” Volker’s loved ones will never stop grieving. But whenever the past begins to haunt Melissa Volker, she thinks of her son’s defining characteristic.

“RJ was just a good-hearted, hard-headed boy who heard a sound not too many people hear … a call of duty,” the soldier’s mom wrote. “He had a soldier’s heart.”

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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Unknown Soldiers: Pay Attention

jay-strickland

U.S. Army Sgt. Joshua “Jay” Strickland, 23, was killed in Afghanistan on Sept. 21 along with two fellow soldiers. He leaves behind his wife, three children, parents and four siblings. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.

Ten days after losing her son in Afghanistan, Beth Strickland Funk was trying to make sense of an unthinkable tragedy.

“We’re all in shock,” the grieving mother told The Unknown Soldiers on Oct. 1. “We’re all just kind of walking around dazed and confused.”

The last time Beth spoke to her son, “he was fine.” Sgt. Joshua Strickland, who was called “Jay” by family and friends, seemed to be coping well with the strains of a tough combat deployment.

“He would talk about his family and getting the job done,” Beth said. “He didn’t sound stressed.”

Then, without even the slightest hint of foreshadowing, everything changed.

Sergeant Strickland was born with a twin brother. From that day forward, he seemed to form a close bond with almost everyone who crossed his path.

“Everyone loved Jay,” his mom said.

Jay went to high school in Georgia before his parents moved to Texas in 2008. He joined the U.S. Army that June, and after extensive training, became a Special Forces warrior stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State.

“He was just an amazing young man,” Beth said.

Before leaving for Afghanistan in April, Jay got married and was helping raise three children.

“This was his first full deployment being in Special Forces,” the soldier’s mother said.

With another son serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, Beth embraced life as a military mom.

“I knew from the moment our boys were born that they would do something big,” she said of her four sons.

In late September, Beth’s husband, Jim, was mowing the lawn when he suddenly came inside with tears in his eyes. After opening the door, Beth saw two fully uniformed soldiers.

“I fell to the ground and started crying before they even said anything,” she said.

According to the Pentagon, Sgt. Strickland, 23, was conducting range training on Sept. 21 in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktia Province when his unit was attacked with small arms fire. He was killed alongside Staff Sgt. Liam Nevins, 32, and Staff Sgt. Timothy McGill, 30.

While numerous media outlets have reported that the attack was carried out by a man wearing an Afghan National Army uniform, a NATO news release said the incident is under investigation.

“We’re all going back and forth between the anger and the grieving,” Jay’s mom said.

When we spoke, Beth was still preparing for the funeral of her son, whose flag-draped casket returned to American soil on Sept. 23. But she was already thanking supporters in Texas, Georgia, Washington state and around the country for showing so much love to her family.

“I’m just amazed by how many people have come out,” she said. “Just last night, I came outside and saw two (American) flags in my yard.”

In addition to the devastating impact on Jay’s wife and children, one of the hardest aspects of the tragedy for Beth has been explaining the soldier’s passing to his little sister. As Beth struggled to share the terrible news, her youngest child said that she’d just had a dream about Jay.

“I think that was God’s way of letting me know that she understands,” Beth said.

Still, it’s hard to make sense of another wartime tragedy that robbed three American families of such selfless, heroic young men. But as Beth mourns the loss of her son and his brothers in arms, she is also thinking about the thousands of men and women still serving in harm’s way.

“This has just brought home to so many people that we still need to be praying and paying attention … and praying for our soldiers and their families,” she said.

As the conflict in Afghanistan enters its 13th year, Beth Strickland Funk’s words should inspire the nation for which her son sacrificed everything to defend. While thinking about war is difficult, we must honor Sgt. Joshua “Jay” Strickland and his courageous family by paying more attention

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

More Posts - Website