One look at their pin curls, painted red lips and A-line dresses in patriotic hues, and you’re instantly transported back to the 1940s.
But then you hear the Blue Anchor Belles sing. Just a few notes, and you can’t help but tap your toes.
The “Belles,” as they’re known, is a 1940s-style female singing trio in the Pensacola, Florida area. The group is made up of Naval aviator spouses.
The group takes inspiration from The Andrews Sisters, the best-selling harmony group of the early 20th century, famous for their song “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
“We’re bringing boogie-woogie back,” Goldie Lahr, who started the singing trio in 2016 while stationed in Oklahoma City, said.
Lauren Martin, a member of the group, notes that the song is a crowd favorite.
“I missed singing, so I decided to start [the group],” Lahr said.
Lahr began arranging unique, three-part harmonies for beloved songs from the World War II era. She held auditions to find additional singers for the group, inviting fellow military spouses to be a part of her vision. Before she knew it, the Blue Anchor Belles was born.
Like for many military families, new orders eventually came. So rather than leave it behind, the Blue Anchor Belles PCS’d to Pensacola in 2018, a move that’s been a great fit.
“Coming to Pensacola has been like coming home for us. Not only is the rich history of Naval aviation here close to our hearts, but the military, veteran and civilian communities have welcomed us with open arms. Not to mention, people in Pensacola love live music,” Lahr said.
The Belles perform at military functions, community events and minor league sporting events. Still, their passion is singing for aging veterans and their families at assisted living centers and memory care facilities.
“This is music from their generation, and you can see how much joy it brings them. Plus, it brings us joy to keep this vintage music relevant,” Lahr added.
Since its beginning, nearly a dozen talented female singers have been a part of the Blue Anchor Belles.
“Once a Belle, always a Belle,” Lahr said.
But as most military stories go, their spouses eventually move on to new assignments in new duty stations. Each member takes a piece of the Belles along with them when they move.
“We’ve gotten pretty used to members coming and going,” Lahr said.
For that reason, auditions are held semi-regularly.
“The member that’s about to leave teaches the new member her parts.”
Lahr admits there’s a downside to having members move so frequently.
“But there’s an upside too,” she added. “We have this community of Belles all over the country. We’re in Washington state, San Diego, Virginia, and that community is constantly growing!”
Martin joined the group in 2019 when she moved to the Pensacola area with her husband for primary flight training at NAS Whiting Field.
“I saw a call for auditions and decided to give it a go. I did theater and music growing up and had really missed it,” Martin said.
She says she appreciated the opportunity to pursue her passion.
“Moving down here, I had a hard time finding a job. There weren’t many opportunities in the field I work in, and when employers realize you’re a military spouse and are going to move sooner rather than later, it just adds to the difficulty. It was disheartening. Then I found the Blue Anchor Belles, and it was so nice to have something for me. I feel so lucky to be able to do what I love, which is singing and performing, and so lucky to be a part of this,” Martin said.
The Belles love being a part of a community of military spouse performers, which is exactly what Lahr was hoping to build in the first place.
“It’s a special thing in that it gives military spouses the opportunity to use their talents and a family to belong to,” Lahr said.
The new year will bring another PCS for Lahr, and she plans to bring the group with her, opening up the opportunity for new military spouses to join the Belles’ ranks.
“We brought the boogie-woogie to the gulf coast, and soon we’ll look to bring it to the west coast. And who knows where we’ll take the Belles after that,” said Lahr.
“You can’t spell ‘lost’ without ‘Lt'” is such an old joke in the military that Lieutenant George Washington probably had to halfheartedly chuckle at it to get his salty platoon sergeant off his ass. Yet, no matter how many times it’s repeated, we have to admit, it’s still kind of funny.
It stems from the idea that all lieutenants are inept at land navigation and, when the platoon goes off rucking in the woods, the platoon leader is going to get everyone lost — so they should follow the platoon sergeant instead. It doesn’t matter if the lieutenant actually knows their way around a land nav course, the stigma is still there.
Like all sweeping generalizations, it’s not entirely true. Maybe the lieutenant was prior enlisted and has retained that particular skill. Maybe they were in the Scouts as a teen and picked up a few things. Kudos to you, resourceful lieutenant! Prove that stereotype wrong for the betterment of your peers.
But as it stands, there are a few systemic reasons why lieutenants get lost, perpetuating the joke.
Knowing what the book says about crossing tricky terrain is much different than the NCO approach finding a way across.
(U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Michel Sauret)
The difference between lieutenants and sergeants is basically the same as the difference between intelligence and wisdom. Now, we’re not saying that sergeants aren’t smart or that lieutenants aren’t wise, but they’re groomed with different emphases.
Lieutenants are trained to value institutional knowledge. Ask any officer a question and they’ll recite the book answer, verbatim — intelligence. Sergeants, on the other hand, are born from street smarts. They probably couldn’t tell you the exact, obscure regulation about God-knows-what, but they can tell you if it’s right or not based on context clues — wisdom.
They make a fine team together. It’s what keeps the military functioning. It’s that special balance of yin and yang in the unit. But land navigation is almost entirely based on wisdom, not intelligence. It’s a skill you learn over time and develop a gut feeling about.
The secret to land nav is to not think about it too hard.
(U.S. Army photo by Armando R. Limon)
Knowing the book answer (and only the book answer) to land navigation is where lieutenants shoot themselves in the foot. As odd as it sounds to enlisted, officers do conduct land nav training while at the academy, OCS, or ROTC. They probably tell you what the book says about putting a compass to your cheek to shoot a proper azimuth, they probably tell you about each topographical feature on a map, but that doesn’t always translate to the real world.
In practice, memorizing what the book says about land nav actually hurts you. Leading a platoon through the field requires you to juggle a few things — where you’re coming from, where you’re going, the direction in which to travel, and about how far between those points you should be at a given time.
All of the jokes can easily be avoided if the lieutenant keeps their pride in check and trusts in their NCOs.
(U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. William Jones)
An NCO could look at the map and say, “I’m currently in this valley and I need to be at the second hill to the west. Seems to be about a quarter of a kilometer away. Compass says west is that way… Cool” and be on their way.
Officers would likely over-analyze the situation. They’ll stare at the compass until it reads precisely the right direction according to their starting point (and not readjust it as they move). They’ll measure the distance they’ve traveled based on step count, knowing that each stride is roughly one meter (and not account for terrain). They’ll follow what the book says to perfection — and it’ll put them way off course.
Land nav is not something you can learn in a book. Every location is different. Sure, mastering land nav requires a good dosage of the book stuff — but you also need to know when to toss it to the side in favor of following your wise, experienced gut.
Nearly 4 million veterans and caregivers who were granted privileges to shop at commissaries and exchanges Jan. 1 can finally enjoy access to online features, a Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) news release said Friday.
However, the new patrons’ access to American Forces Travel (AFT), the official Morale, Welfare and Recreation travel site, is still spotty, according to the latest AFT Facebook post.
Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war, veterans with any service-connected disability, and caregivers registered with the VA’s Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers program became eligible to shop at commissaries, exchanges and MWR facilities beginning Jan. 1.
Since then, these new shoppers have experienced issues, including not being able to bring guests on base and trouble accessing MyCommissary and AFT online portals.
DeCA officials said they had to work with Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC), which is used to confirm shopping privileges, to let new patrons register their Commissary Rewards cards online to access coupons and to use, as available, the Click2Go curbside service.
“In the event a new shopper is still receiving an error message when trying to create an account, they should check with the [Department of Veterans Affairs] to ensure their information and privileges are correctly entered into the system,” DeCA system engineer Clayton Nobles said in a statement. “For those receiving a new Veterans Health Identification Card (VHIC), there may be a delay between when the veteran receives the card and when the system allows them access. This delay can take up to 30 days.”
Eligible veterans must have a VHIC to access bases for shopping or MWR use.
Customers who had access before Jan. 1, such as retired service members, Medal of Honor recipients and veterans with a service-related disability rating of 100%, are not affected.
Meanwhile, AFT is still updating its customer database of “millions of records.”
“We have sent examples to DMDC and they were able to see why some patrons are having issues,” AFT said on Facebook, the only place it is providing updates on the issue. “We will let you know when that resolve has been made and then ask you to try logging on again. Records are being updated every hour.”
But some veterans are getting tired of waiting.
“No luck today. Last week they said it would be fixed this week,” one Facebook user wrote. “The week before, it was going to be fixed last week. I sent a private message this afternoon and got an automated response to call the DMDC help desk at 1-800-727-3677. That number is for the Commissary. After 35 minutes, someone answered the phone and said they could not help me to get verified.”
For one Airman, deciding to switch careers from a law enforcement tradition to serving her country was no easy decision.
Joining the Air Force wasn’t an easy decision for Senior Airman Shayna Dunn, 690th Cyberspace Operations Squadron network manager operator, but looking back she feels it was the right one for her.
“My father was a Marine and he met my mother while stationed in Germany,” said Dunn, who grew up in Stafford, Virginia. “By the time I was born, my father was no longer in the military, and was working as a Capital Police officer.”
While in high school, Dunn developed an interest in criminal justice from influences from her father and television.
“I used to watch a lot of criminal justice shows like ‘NCIS’ or ‘Criminal Minds’ and I ended up taking a class in high school and it piqued my interest,” she said.
Dunn attended James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
After college, Dunn was offered an opportunity to work with the U.S. Secret Service, but while training, an injury caused her to rethink her plans.
“One day while training, I ended up fracturing my wrist and during my recovery I was tasked with more administrative work,” said Dunn. “During this time I had to decide if I wanted to continue down my current path or did I want to do something else. On one hand, I was in a position where I should have been content with this job, however, on the other hand, something internally just didn’t feel right.”
After much deliberation, Dunn decided to resign from the U.S. Secret Service and start on a new path by joining the Air Force.
Breaking the news to her family and friends about her decision wasn’t easy.
“To some, my decision was surprising,” said Dunn. “It took a little while for people to understand where I was coming from, which made it difficult for me because I didn’t want to let anyone down, I didn’t want to let my family down, my friends down.”
Even though it took Dunn a year to make it Basic Military Training, it wasn’t until she arrived that she felt confident with her decision to enlist.
After being assigned to the 690th COS for her first assignment, Dunn earned several awards, made Senior Airman below-the-zone, and met her future husband.
“If I had to describe Shayna, she is humble and caring, always putting others before herself,” said Staff Sgt. Robert Dunn, 690th COS cyber systems operator.
To some, the uncertainty of not knowing the outcome of a decision can be exhausting, but for Shayna, her difficult choice proved to be worthwhile.
The Iowa Military Veterans Band boasts a roster of 100 veterans who have served in almost every conflict from WWII to the GWOT. These musician veterans represent every branch of the military – even the Coasties!
And the crowd went wild!
The Iowa Military Veterans Band got together to perform at the dedication of a WWII monument back in 1996. That just made sense, since the majority of the veterans at that time served in WWII. Others served in Korea and Vietnam in both combat and combat support units. But the crowd responded so well to their performance that these talented musicians decided to stay together and permanently form a band. They’re still going strong 20 years later!
Music has been a part of military history since, well, forever. Back in the day, regiments used to perform on the field to convey orders and keep the grunts motivated. Then militaries got wise and formed official bands that traveled with their units to keep up the espirit de corps. In fact, that’s where marching bands as we know them came from! These days, there are plenty of examples of great military bands. Some have even gained fame from shows like America’s Got Talent.
It’s not likely the Iowa Veterans Band is going to perform for AGT anytime soon, but maybe they should think about it?
Service is part of their blood
Here’s what makes this band so special. It’s the only one of its kind in the entire country. True to their military roots, the Iowa Military Veterans band is officially a nonprofit organization. They’re all about giving back, helping their community, and improving the lives of veterans. They help support other VSOs in the Iowa veteran community. All concerts are free and most of the admin expenses are paid for by veterans themselves.
They keep going thanks to generous donations from Iowa businesses and individuals. Not once have they used tax dollars for support.
An orchestra of veterans
Of course, these accomplished musicians in the Iowa Military Veterans Band play a variety of instruments. This includes the usual you’d expect in a band like trumpets and clarinets. But there are also some harp and euphonium musicians, too! As a matter of fact, the band even has a vocalist. With that in mind, most of the band’s set lists are performances of songs by great American composers. These include the big names like Karl King, Meredith Wilson, John Philip Sousa, Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan.
In a normal year, the band plays between six and seven concerts from early May to Veteran’s Day in November. All members volunteer their time for rehearsals and shows to share their love of music with the people of Iowa.
When you think of the VFW, what comes to mind? For many of us younger veterans the stigma is that your local VFW post is a dark, dusty bar with a bunch of older vets telling war stories. Whether that is fair or not, the VFW has had an issue attracting younger veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to its ranks, despite the obvious benefit that the VFW provides to those vets.
One post in San Antonio is moving to change all that.
VFW Post 8541 has created a cyber café in its facility with the intent that younger veterans will have a place to hang out, build fellowship, have an escape and be part of the local veteran community. And no, this isn’t a couch with an Xbox and two controllers.
Take a look at this:
Video games have come a long way since Space Invaders and Pong. Nowadays, it’s a billion-dollar industry that continues to grow every year. Consoles continue to war with each other, video game franchises compete to have the best upgrades in graphics and gameplay, and players now compete in more organized tournaments. Esports has blown up quite a bit with professional leagues forming with players making six figures a year! (Tell that to your girl the next time she gets mad when you have a COD marathon!)
Even pro sports leagues are getting in on esports. The NBA, NASCAR and Formula 1 have all had their best stars compete when everything was shut down during Covid.
While some people scoff at the amount of time and energy people put into gaming, there have been proven benefits to veterans.
Video games have been increasingly recommended to veterans as a way to cope with the effects of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. How so? Mental health experts will tell you that a great way to deal with mental health issues is to find an activity that puts you into a flow or zone. Whether it’s running, shooting drills, surfing, reading a book, or playing a game, an activity that takes up your concentration and allows you to escape and give your attention completely to that task has proven to be beneficial.
Video games provide just that. Even the Department of Veteran Affairs now says that “Video games can help in overcoming such problems as PTSD and substance abuse disorders.”
This is something Bill Smith saw during his deployments and is now bringing to his VFW post.
Bill Smith is VFW post commander who served 32 years in the Army, most of it in the Special Forces.
He did two deployments to Afghanistan and one to Iraq. After getting out in 2015, he was involved with the VFW and was rapidly put in charge of Post 8541 when the post came under suspension 3.5 years ago. He went to a meeting to talk about the suspension and found himself nominated to take over. Immediately, he looked for ways to get things back on track. And boy, has he. Post 8541 has been the #1 post in Texas the last 2 years out of 298 in the state. That is based on membership, community services, legacy programs signups. For each new life member, you get points for that.
Right now, Bill’s priority is getting lots of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to sign up. It has been an issue that many posts struggle with or don’t even try to attempt.
Not only has Bill’s post been starting to get a younger crowd, but it has been a good smooth transition.
As Bill says, “The only way to change it is to get in there and change it.” So, he went and found ways to attract younger vets.
“I was connected with the Texas Guard… just selling. I would get out and tell them this is what we have going on, come out and try it out. “Bill continues, “We had a banquet hall and one of the first things we did, was open up the hall for military functions.” A great example was a Special Forces Party that was held at the hall. The VFW picked up a id=”listicle-2647079334″,000 bar tab for the party to help with the costs. The next day the post had 40 new signups. Bill also created a family room at the post. Now if you want to get to the VFW, but have the kids, you can still go. While these were great steps, Bill was still thinking ahead of the curve. Which brings us to the cybercafé and video games.
Where did Bill get the idea?
“When I was in Afghanistan, I was embedded with French Special Forces. When I went to Bagram, I went to JOC and was berthing with some guys in 7th Group. As I was sitting there, I kept hearing. ‘Who shot me? Who did this?’
Bill saw in their down time they were gaming a lot. It was their escape and they spent a lot of time decompressing through video games. He also saw ODA guys playing in their down time.
“My sons are 26 and 23 and they game a lot, so I saw gaming was big. My oldest son’s friend, Sam Elizondo owns LFG Cybercafe and they sponsored a team for a tournament. Bill decided to talk
And talking to Sam, they came up with the cybercafé idea.
Sam Elizondo, after talking to Bill, decided to help make this idea into a reality. Sam said, “I think what I love most is that we arrived at this leg of the journey out of Bill Smith’s relentless drive to help people. He wants to give these younger combat veterans a place to heal and a place to be. It’s been a privilege to use my skill set for that mission.”
Sam’s background and livelihood are in gaming. He also comes from a military family. As Bill and Sam started planning, they knew they had to get the support of the current VFW Post members on board. After all, it’s their club and building a video game center in their post was something that might not sit well with Vietnam veterans. But to Sam’s surprise, the older vets were really receptive to the plan. Once they started seeing the plan turn into a reality, they became even more excited.
The buildout of the café started in January and is almost done. However, there was one big obstacle that Bill, Sam, and workers had to deal with. Covid -19 shut down the post for a while but they pushed through on building it out. Unfortunately, with the current rules, Texas has their post shut down just when they were about to open the café. While veterans will have to wait just a big longer before they can take advantage, the work that Sam did is utterly amazing.
This is just the first step. Most games will be provided via Sam’s company. There will be about 70 games for the PC consoles which he will manage the system remotely Right now the plan is to have 12 PCs and 6 Xboxes. Also, Grande Communications is installing fiber optic cable so that the Post will have the best download speed.
Microsoft also made a generous contribution. They shut down their brick and mortar store and decided to donate thousand in hardware. The post has had admittedly older computers (some running on Windows XP) so now they will have fast computers and fast internet connection. Sam is also helping build out a new business center with these resources so vets young and old can have access to computers.
So, what next?
Sam hopes, “Veteran Esports Competitions and just a better connected family of VFW’s. There is so much value in building out infrastructure like what POST 8541 is doing that the sky truly is the limit. They have the ability and the network to do some incredible things. It just needs to be embraced.”
Once COVID is over, the café will be open for vets to come game. The hope is it will be a place for them to escape the world and find comfort in fellowship. Bill and Sam are hoping other VFWs will take notice and build their own centers. This will hopefully lead to gaming competitions between local and long-distance posts.
The VFW has been a backbone of veteran activity for decades. Thanks for forward thinkers like Sam and Bill, it is shaping up to continue to be that backbone.
Hey, I get it: When you’re preparing for deployment, the last thing you want is a honey-do list from your spouse. You have your own gear to take care of, paperwork to complete, and stuff to pack. Your spouse, on the other hand, will be at home during the months that you’re away. Can’t some of their to-do list wait until you’re gone? After all, they’ll have the whole deployment to take care of it. What’s the rush, right?
Here’s the deal: Just as you must prepare your gear and put your things in order to prepare for your deployment, your spouse has to get the house and the family ready for their own “mission.” It’s pretty much guaranteed that as soon as you walk out the door, something’s going to go wrong: the car will break down, appliances will leak, or the dog will get sick. If you don’t help your spouse prepare for those emergencies, then they won’t be fully equipped to handle their mission. You wouldn’t send troops off to train without first arranging logistics and ammo. In the same way, you have to take care of some logistical details at home before you deploy and leave your spouse as the only adult responsible for the entire household. There are several things you can review with your spouse to make everyone’s deployment go more smoothly.
Don’t skip these mission-essential pre-deployment tasks with your spouse.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Gina Randall)
There’s a reason your CO keeps hounding you to complete your Power of Attorney, Will, and other documents — they’re actually really important! Without a Power of Attorney, your spouse will basically be treated like a second-class citizen on base. They won’t be able to renew or replace an ID card if they lose it while you’re away. They can’t change the lease, buy or sell a vehicle, or handle any banking problems that might arise. If you have children, it’s important that your spouse completes a Family Care Plan so that someone is designated to take care of the kids if your spouse ends up in the hospital from a car accident. Take the time to discuss this paperwork with your spouse so they won’t struggle during unexpected deployment situations.
(Photo by Staff Sgt. April Davis)
2. Comm check
You may not know exactly what communication options you’ll have during deployment, but discuss your expectations with your spouse so you can both get on the same page. How will you handle the time difference? Will you try to call when early in the morning or in the evening? How often will you try to call, message, or video? What’s the protocol if one of you misses a call or doesn’t answer in time? Finally, make sure your spouse knows how to send a Red Cross message. If there’s a family emergency, the Red Cross can contact you even when you don’t have internet access. If your spouse knows how to get to the Red Cross website, it will take the weight off their shoulders during a major emergency.
(U.S. Army National Guard photo by 1st Lt. Leanna Litsch)
3. Discuss car maintenance
Have you ever returned from deployment only to discover that your car has a dead battery and flat tires? Save yourselves the cost and trouble with some simple preventative maintenance. If you’re typically the one responsible for vehicle maintenance, remind your spouse when to do an oil change and how often to get the tires rotated. If your vehicle will sit unused during the deployment, ask your spouse to start the engine and let it idle at least once a week. This will prevent the battery from dying. If they occasionally drive it around the block and park it in a different position, that’ll help prevent flat tires.
4. Review home maintenance
If you’re renting or living on base, just make sure your spouse knows how to contact maintenance or the landlord. If you own your home, things get more complicated. Walk through the house together and discuss areas of regular or seasonal maintenance. Air filters should get changed monthly. Gutters should be cleaned in Fall. Discuss outdoor chores, like lawn maintenance and snow removal. Your spouse should know the location of the breaker box and water shut-off valves, in case the dreaded “Deployment Curse” visits your house.
5. Adjust the household budget
You and your spouse both need to understand how the deployment will affect your family’s income, and then adjust accordingly. If you are making more money during deployment, how will you save or spend the extra? Will it go toward paying down debts? Or will you save up for a post-deployment vacation? Sometimes, deployments reduce the household budget. You might have to pay for food and Internet at your deployed location. Your spouse may decrease their work hours or register for a class. They may have additional costs for childcare or lawn maintenance. It’s better to discuss these changes and your intended budget before deployment so you aren’t both accusing each other of mismanaging money!
6. Write down your passwords
You wouldn’t send your team on a mission without clear instructions and the best equipment, right? Then don’t expect your spouse to manage the bills and your account memberships without passwords! Log into any banking or bill payment website you use, and write down your login name and password. Do the same for your gaming accounts, renewable memberships, etc. It’s likely that something will need to be suspended, renewed, or canceled during your deployment. Writing down the passwords will make it possible for your spouse to do that for you.
Having these pre-deployment conversations now may not be easy or fun, but it’s definitely important to help your spouse feel squared away before deployment. This will reduce deployment stress for both of you, help your deployment communication go smoothly, and get you both prepared for your respective, upcoming missions.
On Dec. 13, 1636, the National Guard was officially formed, combining militia regiments from Massachusetts into one organized unit. The Massachusetts National Guard — pictured above at its first muster in the spring of 1637 — has the four oldest units in the US Army: 181st Infantry Regiment, 182nd Cavalry Regiment, 101st Field Artillery Regiment, and the 101st Engineer Battalion. Since the National Guard’s inception, these citizen soldiers continue to serve the nation’s call.
On the National Guard’s 384th birthday, we put together a list of four times it has saved the day.
The 30th “Old Hickory” Division
Fast-forward 281 years from its birth to 1917. The entire National Guard was drafted into the US Army for service in World War I. This meant 17 divisions were off to Europe for the first time in the nation’s history. Among the most famous and battle hardened was the 30th “Old Hickory” Division, aptly named in honor of general and former President Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson. He had ties to North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, the three states from which the initial draftees were pulled.
The Old Hickory Division earned more Medals of Honor — 12 — than any other division during the war. They were called other names out of respect for their ferocity in combat, including “The Workhorse of the Western Front” and “Roosevelt’s SS Troops,” the latter coinage by the German High Command.
In World War II, the men who made up the Old Hickory Division lived up to their name, serving 282 total days on the battlefield. The division had 3,435 soldiers killed in action and 12,960 wounded. They received six Medals of Honor, 65 Distinguished Service Crosses, 1,718 Silver Stars, 6,319 Bronze Stars, and 20,000 Purple Hearts. Some soldiers received the Purple Heart more than once.
The Guard Tanks of World War II
The first tank-to-tank combat was fought by the 192nd Tank Battalion in the Philippines in 1941. First Lt. Benjamin Morin was the first tank commander to engage enemy forces in World War II. The battle was not a victorious one, as his M3 Stuart Tank was disabled and caught fire, forcing him and his men to surrender to the Japanese. He went on to endure three and a half years as a prisoner of war.
The Guard tanks of the 192nd Tank Battalion were later asked to hold their position for six hours to cover the retreat of forces to Bataan. They held the position for three days. There were 596 soldiers who answered the call of duty, and among them 325 were killed in combat, executed, died in POW camps, or were killed by American submarines aboard unmarked “Hell Ships” tasked with transporting POWs. The 194th Tank Battalion also saw action in the Philippines. Staff Sgt. Emil C. Morello earned the Silver Star for ramming his tank over an enemy roadblock, destroying a Japanese weapon position, and firing his main gun until his tank was disabled. His crew pretended to be dead and escaped on foot, only to be killed or captured in Bataan, where the rest of the battalion forces would later surrender.
The Air National Guard
When the US military must move heaven and earth in response to a crisis, they call the Air National Guard. Even before the unit was officially established alongside the Air Force in 1947, it was involved in the Border War between the US and Mexico. The 1st Aero Company, New York National Guard, mobilized in 1916 to provide assistance. The Air National Guard has earned a proud reputation, both in combat and for disaster relief.
Master Sgt. Keary Miller, a pararescueman assigned to the Kentucky Air Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron, was first awarded the Silver Star for bravery in the 17-hour gunfight during the Battle of Takur Ghar in Afghanistan. He provided lifesaving aid to a wounded helicopter pilot and set up multiple casualty collection points for Army Rangers on that snowy mountaintop in 2002. He also distributed ammunition to his teammates while under heavy enemy fire. In recent years, this battle has come under the microscope of the Defense Department to properly award these airmen, Rangers, and SEALs for their heroism that day. Miller’s Silver Star was upgraded to the Air Force Cross; John Chapman, an Air Force combat controller, and Britt Slabinsky, a Navy SEAL, each received the Medal of Honor.
In the midst of the Global War on Terror, the Air National Guard also responded to international and domestic crises such as the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. These are a few notable exploits, but the Air Guard has long provided aid and support as well as rescued countless victims in distress. The 210th Rescue Squadron of the Alaska Air National Guard, famously known as the “Guardians of the North,” are one of the busiest search and rescue units in the world.
The National Guard in 2020
We may not think of this immediately because we are currently living through it, but the National Guard has saved the day countless times this year. They remain on the front lines to provide aid during the current pandemic, entering the battle against COVID-19 in March. The Tennessee National Guard flew 500,000 swabs to Memphis to resupply COVID-19 test kits, and the New York National Guard helped with distribution of food in hard-hit areas.
They have also deployed to suppress wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. In September, a 1,000-member force was sent to Oregon to give assistance. California National Guard aircrew members responsible for rescuing 242 people from the Creek Fire were each awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism. They flew in Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters on three daring flights to carry the trapped campers to safety.
In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic and the wildfires in 2020, the National Guard has also served to support public safety amid the civil unrest across the country, including in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd. The year isn’t over yet, but the National Guard is equipped to handle any problem that may arise with the same professionalism and dedication it has exhibited thus far.
Most people who join the Military are young adults. In fact, as of 2012, the US Army reported the average age of people who enlist is 20.7 years. That’s almost as young as young adults come. Generally speaking, the maximum age of enlistment for most military branches is 35. However, there is one caveat: if you’ve served in the military before, they can waive the age limit. This means that some trainees might be even older. of course, that’s a rare exception. But it happens. Like with Spc. Swanson, BCT trainee at Fort Sill.
A peek inside basic training at age 49
Fort Sill, an Army post in Lawton, Oklahoma is one of four Army BCT locations. It is also the post where John Swanson made the record for being the oldest trainee in Sill history. Swanson did his nine-and-a-half weeks of training at age 49, which was allowed because he had been in the military previously. The fact that he had also been in combat before earned Swanson a lot of respect from his fellow trainees.
Swanson said his experience at Fort Sill not only re-trained him for the military, but it also gave him an inside view of the younger generation. He now has a much better understanding of how things work today versus the way things worked when he was a young adult. One of the things his Fort Sill Gen Z peers taught him was how to find humor in everything. Before re-doing his training at age 49, he found himself to be a lot more serious. Now Swanson has lightened up.
Keeping up with the kids half his age couldn’t have been easy
Many of the other trainees, often half of Swanson’s age or even younger, watched in amazement at what Swanson was doing. The fact that he was so much older than them but was physically able to keep up with all the strenuous activity that Basic Training involves was notably impressive.
Some even said it motivated them to push a little bit harder than they might have otherwise. Watching Swanson push on, doing things like one-armed push-ups when one of his shoulders started to hurt, gave them a true role model right in front of their faces.
No slack for Swanson
Age and prior service didn’t mean they went easy on Swanson throughout his second time around at Basic Training either. They treated them just as they treated every other trainee, which is the way it should be. Giving Swanson slack would have defeated the purpose of re-enlisting anyway. But we can’t help but wonder what it was like for the Drill Sergeants shouting at him knowing full well he was twice their age.
The 80th Flying Training Wing is moving at the speed of innovation and is bound to only get faster as visionaries incorporate the latest in mixed realities to boost undergraduate pilot training.
Lt. Col. Jason Turner, 80th FTW Strategic Initiatives director, said the implementation of virtual and augmented realities is creating a portfolio of tools that allows instructor and student pilots alike to enhance the learning experience within the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program, the world’s only internationally manned and operated combat pilot training program.
Through the use of 360-degree cameras, skilled pilots and actual images from flights over north Texas and southern Oklahoma, the program is able to build instructional content to train students on items such as local aerial procedures and ground operations.
In short, it’s creating a realistic flying environment in a controlled setting that enables students to learn and make mistakes in a safe setting.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Reserve Officer Training Corps Cadets Preston Tower, left, Alexander Knapp and Ian Palmer fly three T-38C Talons in formation in a mixed reality environment during a flying training session with the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Feb. 1, 2019.
(U.S. Air Force photo by John Ingle)
“The solution essentially gives them the ability to visualize some of the things that they’ll experience airborne so that once they do get airborne, they’re able to take those reference pictures that they saw in mixed reality and apply them to their training in the air, hopefully making their air time training more valuable,” he said.
Maj. Steve Briones, the 80th FTW’s director of Wing Innovation, has played an integral role in leading the innovative charge to marry traditional simulator training and real flight time with fast-advancing technologies such as virtual and augmented realities. He said it has taken about six months to go from concept to two functional “Innovation Labs” available to ENJJPT instructors and students.
Virtual reality creates an experience where a person is immersed in a virtual world, whereas an augmented reality incorporates digital elements to a live view of an environment.
“It’s the future of learning in the Air Force,” Briones said. “It’s just being able to take different methods of delivering content or just making the learning content accessible in different ways.”
Briones said the innovative training tools will not replace traditional simulators as they provide a physical, hands-on platform to practice instrument familiarity and emergency procedures. However, the newest set up does allow for visuals that can’t be replicated in a simulator such as formation flying because they are able to link individual training stations.
The technology brings pilot training methodologies together in a new and adaptive way, he said, that is a cloud-based and student-focused in such a way that airmen in the ENJJPT program can access courseware wherever they are and whenever they want to.
“If you asked folks six months ago when we were just thinking about this if this was possible, they would’ve been like, ‘No way. There’s no way,'” he said. “So, I think it allows us to think critically about how we’re training and how we can make ourselves better.”
A group of Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were in the 10-station lab Feb. 1, 2019, trying out the technology as part of a visit to the 80th FTW. Turner said the trio taking a virtual flight had spent about 30 minutes on the mixed reality trainers, but they were already showing a skill ENJJPT students learn over the course of the 55-week program: formation flying.
“They’re still learning. They’re still developing,” Turner said of the potential for student pilots as seen by the MIT students. “But this also gives them a place to practice where mistakes don’t cost them their safety.”
There is, admittedly, some hesitancy with the new technology as there is very little performance data in the program at this time to fall back on. Turner said part of that is because the technology has not been specifically introduced into the ENJJPT syllabus.
What they’ve done, he said, is encourage students to try out the equipment to change their mindset in regards to effectiveness of the training and the sense of reality it brings. What they’ve seen is when one student sees the capabilities, they bring others to the experience, who in turn bring more.
Turner said ENJJPT Class 20-04 will start a small-group trial at the end of February 2019, which will include deliberately implementing these technologies into their training. They will also soon have the ability to toggle between T-6A Texan II and T-38C Talon training modules.
“While that virtual reality or mixed reality won’t replace actual flight time, it’s intended to augment it to make that time more valuable,” he said. “That’s when students will officially be coming here as part of their training experience.”
Turner and Briones both lauded the public-private partnership with industry leaders to create a training environment that compliments existing platforms. The technology, they said, is exceeding expectations and they are seeing how it will continue to enhance the ENJJPT training curriculum.
Slosh, plop, slosh, plop. The noise my boots made with every step seemed deafening. 20 or so Iraqi Special Forces soldiers and I were doing our best to be sneaky on our way to the target building, but it was the wet season, so Iraq’s infamous moon dust had already made the transition to sticky tar-like mud.
Slosh, plop, slosh, plop. Our boots, caked in mud at this point, were getting worse with every step. We might as well have been a middle school orchestra doing sound checks.
Before we got too close to our target house, I needed to remind the commander of the platoon I was advising about a key point we neglected on our last mission. “Remember, get one ladder up and clear the courtyard before the other ladder goes up and everyone starts jumping over the wall,” I whispered in my best broken Iraqi Arabic. I had to simultaneously motion with my hands to mimic a wall, a house, and a ladder. I wasn’t sure what was more confusing, my Arabic or the goofy hand gestures.
Luckily, the commander was used to whatever an American trying to speak in his native tongue sounded like, so he nodded in the affirmative, which could mean “yup, got it” or “whatever, dude.” I guess we’ll see in a few minutes, I thought to myself. Fortunately, it only took seconds.
“Fuck’n Yalla!” he said with a huge grin, blasting me with his ashtray breath. Guess we’re good then.
Our not-so-sneaky infil became a comically loud trot of mud-caked boots as we closed in on the target house. The Iraqi Special Forces soldiers stacked up on the wall outside the house, and the commander was directing traffic. The first ladder went up and a soldier climbed up and deliberately swept the courtyard with his rifle before stopping at the door into the house.
With security posted, another ladder was placed against the wall. The other soldiers began silently scaling the wall, entering the courtyard, and stacking on the house in preparation for breaching the door.
The third Iraqi in the stack emerged with a mini batting ram, cocked it back, and slammed it into the door. A sharp metallic clash rang out as the door flew inward and the soldiers flowed into the house.
Up to this point, the Iraqis had been as silent as possible and relied only on streetlights to see, but now that the front door had been violently breached, the gig was up. They flicked on their “white lights” — the tactical flashlights they attached to their AK47s to illuminate rooms they were clearing — and started shouting commands to each other and whoever was inside as they methodically moved from room to room. Speed, surprise, and violence of action. Check, check, check.
I watched as their lights reached the second floor, and then my radio crackled to life. “Joe, wrap it up. It’s fucking turkey time!”
Shit, that’s right, I thought. It’s hard to track holidays with the constant grind of combat operations and training. I walked into the training compound that the Iraqis had just assaulted and found their commander. “Hey brother, great job on the ladder — big improvement from last time,” I said. “That’s it for tonight, we are on standby for ops this week.”
He nodded, gave me a fist bump, and motioned for his soldiers to exit the house.
They didn’t need to be convinced. They slung their weapons, lit cigarettes, and joked and exchanged slaps on the back just like soldiers have since man first formed armies. The life-or-death business of war is too important to take too seriously.
I wished them “Tisballahhair,” or “good evening,” as I began my muddy slog back to the team house. The cool breeze coming off the Tigris River filtered through the rain-soaked palm trees, bringing with it a pleasant jasmine scent. During my first winter in Iraq, I was amazed that the smell of the city in the late fall and winter was so refreshing. But off in the distance, I could still hear the occasional bursts of gunfire and explosions mixed with the echoes of a call to prayer and horn blasts. Such was life in Iraq in 2004.
The life-or-death business of war is too important to take too seriously.
Even though I was far from home on Thanksgiving, I was living my childhood dream. I was a 24-year-old U.S. Army Green Beret on my second combat deployment living in the middle of Baghdad with my Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) training the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) and advising them on actual combat operations — which included everything from tracking down bad guys to conducting raids to kill or capture them.
And there was no shortage of work to go around. We were located in northern Baghdad on the western bank of the Tigris, caught between the Shia enclave of Kadhimiya and the Sunni stronghold of Adimiyah. That put us right in the middle of the action, which is exactly where a modern Green Beret wants to be.
Our Saddam Hussein-era military barracks were within a combat outpost secured by a company of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Cavalry Division. Before the invasion, our home away from home was one of Hussein’s most feared prisons, run by his dreaded secret police. When we moved in, several of the Iraqis had horrific stories about being tortured there, and some even refused to work there. The Iraqi commander eventually brought in a local religious leader to bless the barracks and ensure no evil spirit lingered in the erie corridors of our compound.
As was the case everywhere that early in the war, our living conditions were spartan, but we made the best of it. Our team house was a simple one-story concrete building fortified with sand bags over the windows and on the roof. We had a makeshift porch with a large grill that was glowing with charcoal and wafting smoke tinged with the sweet smell of bacon. Take that, jihad, I thought as I kicked my boots against the wall of the house in an effort to knock the mud off.
I opened the door and rounded the corner into our living room and kitchen area, where the smell of turkey and stuffing overpowered the scents of Copenhagen, gun oil, and coffee that normally permeated the house.
“What’s up, man? How’d the house go?” asked Matt, our Special Forces medic. Like most SF medics, Matt had a reassuring calm and sharp intellect that made him an asset on any mission. But what made him unique was that he could have been a stand-up comedian if he ever decided to hang up his green beret. At least once a day he had me laughing so hard it hurt — most recently performing a hilarious parody of Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi’s manifesto.
“It went well — hopefully we fixed our wall issue,” I replied.
“Inshallah habibi — grab a plate of chow!” Matt said, gesturing to our kitchen table, where Thanksgiving dinner was waiting. I happily obliged.
“Joe, your jundis are having ladder issues? That’s weird” The sarcastic comment came from Stu, our team’s intelligence sergeant.
I knew that was coming. Stu had been on the team for several years and was part of 5th Group’s legendary initial push into Afghanistan in 2001. He was built like a linebacker and always plotting a prank. ODAs are tight, which means you never live down your screw ups; all you can do is smile and hope your skin gets thick — fast. A few of the other guys laughed. So did I. Here we go…
“Wait, what happened?” asked Jeremy, our communications sergeant. Jeremy had been on the team for years but missed our last trip due to a broken neck he sustained during training. He was a good ol’ boy from Missouri and sounded like Boomhauer from “King of the Hill,” so naturally the Army gave him the job that required him to talk on the radio.
“Oh shit, that’s right, we have to tell you this one!” Matt replied. Well, at least Matt would make the story funny, I thought as I scooped some cranberry sauce onto my turkey.
“Dude, so no shit there we were,” Matt said, opening with the proper war story preamble, “assaulting a huge-ass compound out west — some deck-of-cards clown’s house, which was awesome. The mission had everything: helo infil with fast ropes to the roof, a wall breech, the door gunners even lit up a guard tower. Pretty awesome op.” Matt was now standing to make more room to add animation with his hands.
“It was going great until we were trying to get over this big-ass wall with these shitty ladders, and Joe, loaded with way too much bullshit, breaks a rung on the ladder, gets mad, throws the ladder to the side and tries to ninja climb over the 8-foot wall. He gets caught by his kit on the wall, so I get under him and push his ass over the wall like combat Winnie the Pooh!” Matt explained, reenacting my finest hour.
“Well, that’s a technique,” Jermey said with his normal deadpan wit. Everyone got a good laugh. All I could do was finish fixing my plate and find a place to sit. Gary, our engineer, was my best bet.
Gary was a wiry backwoods Southerner, and we went to Special Forces Selection and the Special Forces Qualification Course together. He had just earned a valor award for his calm under enemy fire during a raid in Samara, but you wouldn’t peg him as a Green Beret — or the guy who would remain calm while getting shot at for that matter.
“We eating or waiting for Mom and Dad?” Gary asked as he spit Copenhagen into one of the ever-present dip bottles that lined our house floor. “Mom and Dad” were Mike, our senior noncommissioned officer, or more simply known as the team sergeant; and Trevor, our team leader and only commissioned officer. Neither was Mom or Dad specifically, but together they were a couple.
“Hey, come eat!” Stu yelled into the office that adjoined our living room where Mike and Trevor would send reports back to our headquarters. These were definitely the good old days of limited connectivity and little to no micromanagement from higher headquarters. Sure, we still checked in over the radio with them daily, but it was mostly asking for forgiveness and not permission. Unfortunately, that dynamic has been replaced by nearly nonstop emails, messenger chatting, and teleconferences from every nook and cranny of today’s battlefield.
Our leadership duo emerged from the back office, Mike in the lead. He grew up in the infantry and had seen combat in the first Gulf War, Kosovo, the initial push into Afghanistan, and was on his second Iraq deployment. He was the most experienced guy on the team, an aggressive leader, and gave us a ton of space to succeed.
Trevor was Mike’s commissioned counterpart, a humble officer who had every reason not to be: he was a West Point graduate who knocked out all of the Army’s hardest training by the time he was a captain. He also had the ability to understand every detail of what we were doing and how it tied into the big picture.
“Happy Thanksgiving three-five … again,” Mike said as he piled turkey onto his plate and sat down at our gaudy wood and fake-gold kitchen table. Trevor grabbed a plate last and sat next to Mike, our team now almost complete.
“Intel update!” Josh said as he entered the room and took a seat with his plate of turkey, stuffing, and jelly-looking cranberry sauce. Josh had also been in SF for several years and was now running the Iraqi recon element that collected intel for our Iraqi Special Forces companies to action.
It was normal for meals to be interrupted by intel updates, and Thanksgiving was no exception, so all eyes were on Josh. It had been a hell of a trip so far, with summer fighting in Najaf against Sadr’s boys, chasing Zarqawi and his hostages on every backstreet of Baghdad, another away game in Samara, followed by Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah. The more information we could get, the better — you never knew when the next shithead would pop up for a round of whack-a-mole.
But today would not be one of those days.
“No ops tonight — beer light’s on, nerds,” Josh said, as he pulled a green 22-ounce Tuborg “tall boy” out of his cargo pocket. “Right, Mike?” he asked, with a smart-ass grin, deferring to our senior NCO for the official approval.
“I did say, happy Thanksgiving …” Mike said, motioning for Josh to pass him a beer.
Josh was more than happy to oblige. He cracked open our refrigerator and passed around a combination of Tuborg, Hienekens, and Efes tall boys, graciously provided by our Iraqi Christian friends. They didn’t mess around when it came to beer. “It’s like they know no one in Iraq wants just a pint of beer,” Josh said. “The tall boy is their standard.”
But just like any other Thanksgiving, you always seemed to be waiting on the weird uncle to show up.
“Where is Seaux?” Mike asked suspiciously. Seaux, named after the famous Johnny Cash song, may be the origin of the phrase “stranger than fiction.” If he’s not, he definitely lived up to it. Seaux had fought in Grenada with the 82nd Airborne, then joined the French Foreigin Legion, but eventually found his way back into the U.S. Army and had served in every war the U.S. had been in from Mogadishu to Iraq. It probably comes as no surprise that Seaux loved going native and spent most of his time with a few Iraqis doing recon work.
“I’m coming — don’t you flatlanders know I eat dinner at 4PM sharp?” Seaux grumbled from his room. “No respect for seniors.”
When Seaux hung out with us, he did so either dressed as a viking or as a native American, complete with a bow and arrow he used to shoot flaming arrows across the Tigris. Like I said, stranger than fiction.
Before long, he emerged from his room and caught the beer that Josh tossed to him.
But just like any other Thanksgiving, you always seemed to be waiting on the weird uncle to show up.
“Cheers, fuckers!” Stu said, as he made a toasting motion. The rest of the team unceremoniously made the motion in return, cracked their beers, took a sip, and dug into their dinner. We may not have been home for Thanksgiving, but in our line of work, sitting down as a team — a family — for turkey that day seemed more like home in some ways than what we would have had back in the States.
“We’re lucky this year,” Trevor said with a grin. “The B Team busted their asses to get every ODA a turkey. Worked out well for everyone but Two-Three …” ODA 523 was just across the river from us, and we often supported each other on missions and shared intel a few times a week.
“Do tell, sir,” Jeremy said.
“Well, they drove one of their Mercedes to pick up their turkey in the Green Zone, and when they were coming back in to their base, I guess the kid on guard didn’t know it was them and lit up their car with his machine gun!” Trevor explained.
Everyone paused; there’s nothing friendly about friendly fire.
For the first couple of years of the war in Iraq, Special Forces ODAs in major Iraqi cities acquired local cars to drive around town so that they could conduct reconnaissance and low-profile assaults. That technique was a double-edged sword though. It worked great in that we could avoid contact with the enemy until we wanted to make it and got a great feel for Iraq at the street level. However, the most dangerous part of these operations was the re-entry to friendly lines. The guys guarding the gate were usually very young soldiers and were used to seeing military vehicles. Suffice it to say, that at two years into the war, all of us had stared down the barrel of U.S. weapons with our hands up screaming “I AM AN AMERICAN!” a few times.
“Somehow, no one got hurt, the kid on the gun lit up the engine block,” Trevor continued. “Marty and Lee bailed out, and the car caught on fire and ruined their turkey!” All of us laughed at the cartoonish mental image of our buddies dodging some private’s hail of machine gun fire and their turkey getting cooked early. Like many things in war, the closest of calls would usually end up as a fun story to laugh about later. And sometimes … they didn’t.
“Yeah, man. Better than last year when we got tossed out of the big Army chow hall because POTUS was coming and we looked like pirates,” Josh said with a laugh. He was referring to our last deployment when a high-strung mess officer rudely told us we couldn’t eat Thanksgiving dinner unless we were in uniform. We wanted to eat, but not that bad.
What we didn’t know at the time was that President George W. Bush was coming to eat with the troops at the chow hall we were trying to get into. In hindsight, it made sense why hooligans like us were turned away. There are plenty of perks that come with wearing the green beret, but sometimes it can work against you.
Looking around our makeshift living and dining room, I felt very grateful to be sitting there with my brothers. This was our second Thanksgiving together in combat; we didn’t know it at the time, but we’d be doing the same drill the next year on the Syrian border.
The mood would be far more somber for that dinner. Our luck would run out by then, and we would have lost two teammates by the time we sat down for turkey again. Sergeant First Class Brett E. Walden and Army Sergeant First Class Robert V. Derenda paid the ultimate sacrifice, and their families are in my thoughts this Thanksgiving.
In retrospect, I guess we were all just getting warmed up. Most of us cracking beers in our Baghdad team house in 2004 would spend more Thanksgivings with teammates in combat zones over the next 14 years than with our actual families. Holidays spent in makeshift living spaces, living feet away from each other and always in-between intense combat operations, would become normal for all of us — and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Even then, I knew the bonds I forged with those men in that room would last for the rest of my life. After our third combat deployment, most of us had to move on to other assignments. All of us stayed in the fight and made efforts to stay in touch though. Josh and I forged a tight bond in Baghdad that remained long afterward. In fact, when I married my warrior soulmate, Shannon — a special operator herself — she insisted that Josh and his son be at every Thanksgiving and Christmas we shared as a family.
But what I didn’t know was how all of them would be there for me 14 years later, during the darkest hour on the worst day of my life … the day I found out my wife, Senior Chief Petty Officer Shannon Kent, was killed in action while hunting ISIS in Syria alongside three other courageous Americans: Scotty Wirtz, a former U.S. Navy SEAL; Ghadir Thahir, a Syrian-American linguist; and Jon Farmer, a Green Beret Warrant Officer, from the 5th Special Forces Group — my old group. I had not seen most of my brothers from Three-Five in more than 10 years, but it didn’t matter. They were there for me, they cried with me, and they are still there for me and my sons to this day.
Unlike that Thanksgiving next to the Tigris in 2004, cracking jokes and telling stories over a modest turkey dinner, this Thanksgiving is going to suck. I can’t believe it has been almost a year since I last saw my wife in person. But what I am beyond thankful for is my sons, the short time I had with Shannon, and the love of my teammates. The bonds formed in the horrors of combat are lasting and unbreakable.
Take the time this Thanksgiving to reach out to your brothers and sisters in arms — talk about the good times and work through the bad. Be there for each other because you never know when you’ll need them the most.
Memorial Day brings visions of outdoor family barbeques, filled beaches and the unofficial kickoff to summertime. But it’s so much more than that. It’s the one day a year we set aside to honor those who willingly died to defend our freedoms in service to this nation.
Families of the fallen don’t expect America to approach this day with sadness, however. They truly welcome the celebration of all things red, white and blue. But they hope that while the country enjoys the day, those enjoying the festivities remember the why behind it. It’s because of their loved one’s sacrifice that we can celebrate it at all.
Krista Simpson Anderson knows all about the loss and also joy that comes with Memorial Day. Her husband, Staff Sergeant Michael Simpson, was a Green Beret. He was so proud to serve and be a part of the 1st Special Forces Group where he was lovingly nicknamed “The Unquiet Professional.” On April 27, 2013, on his 20th day of deployment in Afghanistan, nearly a decade to the day from his enlistment in the Army, Simpson sustained critical injuries from an improvised explosive device. He fought to stay alive, saying, “Wife, kids, I love,” while being evacuated to the hospital.
His medical team did everything they could to keep him alive; bringing him back each time he coded. Simpson underwent multiple surgeries as they battled to treat his severe injuries. He was medevaced to Germany four days after the blast and his wife and family arrived on May 1, 2013 and he was declared deceased not long after they arrived. He then gave all his viable organs, serving others until his heart stopped beating.
He was only 30 years old.
On the original day set aside as Memorial Day, May 30, 2013, Mike’s family said their final goodbye at Arlington National Cemetery. It was in that moment that Krista and a close friend decided to create a nonprofit organization to give back to all of those who had supported the family through their loss.
They called it The Unquiet Professional.
Since its inception, The Unquiet Professional has evolved from a fundraiser to an organization that provides resources and education to those actively serving, veterans, surviving families and Gold Star families. They also do a memorial run, every Memorial Day. The purpose is to spend that mile remembering the lives of the fallen. This year they are honoring Simpson as always but also SFC James Grissom, SSG Timothy McGill, SFC Liam Nevins and Sgt. Joshua Strickland, all who lost their lives within months of each other in 2013 defending their country.
But they were more than just soldiers.
Simpson was a deeply faithful man with an amazing sense of humor who loved his family. Grissom’s family shared that he had such a kind spirit and was always finding ways to help others. McGill’s sister Megan shared that he never told her he was a Green Beret because he was so humble and such a “gentle giant.” Nevins was known for his dimples, blue eyes and his love of pranks. Strickland was remembered by his family for living life passionately and always laughing.
It is the hope of all families of the fallen that the world will remember them this Memorial Day.
“Memorial Day is my favorite holiday of the year. We honor Mike every day, but everyone honors him on Memorial Day. How could you not love that? I want people to celebrate, have barbecues and make fancy cocktails. Celebrate your freedom; that’s what he died for,” shared Anderson.
You can join in on TUP’s virtual memorial run here. Share pictures on social media during your memorial mile and use the hashtags #MotivatedByTheirLives and #TupMile. For those able to participate in a longer run, Project 33 Memorial Foundation is also hosting a virtual 10k to honor MSG Nicholas Sheperty who was killed during military freefall operations on April 17, 2019. All proceeds raised from their run will go to a memorial stone in his honor.
This Memorial Day, run for the fallen. Enjoy the day to live as they would want us to, but don’t forget to pause and remember.
Ryan Hendrickson is a retired Green Beret who’s been through a lot. Despite overwhelming challenges, he refuses to wear the title of victim and instead calls himself a survivor. He wants you to do the same.
Tip of the Spear wasn’t supposed to be a book. It started as a journal for Hendrickson, a way to work through his thoughts and post-traumatic stress. But after a few months, he saw something in those writings – as did friends. “The therapeutic effect I got from writing actually turned into a book. I had to see the silver lining in something as bad as stepping on an IED [improvised explosive device]. A lot of people that were reading it said the book talks to everyone — not just military — as far as not being a victim in your life,” Hendrickson explained.
In September of 2010, Hendrickson was deployed to Afghanistan as an 18 Charlie, a Special Forces Engineer with Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th special forces. He had just completed the elite schooling to earn the coveted Green Beret and was feeling on top of the world. The first chapter of Tip of the Spear takes the reader vividly through what it’s like to arrive in Afghanistan – and the mission that changed his life.
When Hendrickson and his team entered the deserted Afghan village before dawn, he said he knew something big was coming. When his interpreter went too far ahead of uncleared ground, he had no choice but to quickly and quietly get him back. “I grabbed him by the back of the shirt and moved him around. You never like to have any unknown area or blind spot, so I put the muzzle of my M-4 in the doorway of the compound and stepped back… right onto the IED,” he shared.
Hendrickson said he didn’t realize he hit it at first, remembering that he just felt like he couldn’t breathe because of the heavy dust and ammonia in the air. “As the dust started to clear, I saw that my boot was six inches away from my leg…When I reached behind my knee to pull my leg up, my boot sort of flopped over with my toes pointed at me. I saw these two pearly white objects sticking out of my pant leg. Then it kicked in that it was bone,” he said.
It was then that Hendrickson realized it was really bad. His team couldn’t rush in to support him either, since they knew that if there was one IED, there were probably five. His interpreter started a tourniquet, effectively saving his life. After a while, his team was able to safely make it to him and they got him out. “We could hear the Taliban on chatter celebrating that I got hit and that they were going to move into position to ambush us. They splinted the leg the best they could to put the lower and upper part together,” he said.
Hendrickson was in theater for over a week as they tried to stabilize him and keep him alive. When he made it to San Antonio, it would take 28 surgeries to reattach his leg. Then the real work began. “I had a sergeant major who came in to see me; he told me if I could get medically cleared he’d send me back to combat. That was the big driving factor behind me taking control of my life and hitting rehab as hard as I could. That and knowing the Taliban were cheering when I got hurt. I wasn’t going to let them beat me or win,” he explained.
Although he was medically retired, Hendrickson refused to accept it. After spending a grueling year in rehabilitation, he passed all the required tests and was reinstated into active duty through a special waiver. In March of 2012 – only a year and a half after almost losing his leg to an IED – his boots were back in the sands of Afghanistan.
It wasn’t easy though, he shared. The guys he was working with were concerned he’d be a liability. Hendrickson was sent to the biggest known IED province of Afghanistan, a real test given his own experience. He had to prove himself to his teammates and did it by methodically finding IED after IED, keeping them all safe.
Hendrickson would continue to serve and deploy for years after that. In 2016, he earned a Silver Star for heroic efforts during a difficult seven-hour firefight in Afghanistan. “It wasn’t what I did, it was what we did…It’s the same thing all of us say, we were just doing our job,” he shared. He headed home fromAfghanistan in 2017 and found himself struggling with a lot, mentally.
After trying unsuccessfully to talk with a counselor, he sought help through the chaplain. He advised him to write, using that avenue to tell his story and work through his thoughts. Those thoughts and writing were unknowingly turning into a story of his life, both the good and the bad. It was here that he found healing and the deep resiliency he needed to never feel like a victim again.
Tip of the Spear will bring the reader on a powerful journey through a difficult childhood leading to military service spanning three branches, ultimately leading Hendrickson to become an elite Green Beret. The story culminates with the unfathomable challenge of coming back from an injury that almost took his life and was certainly considered the end of his military career. Hendrickson refused to quit and fought his way past the odds stacked against him.
It’s Hendrick’s hope that readers will use his journey to be inspired to do the same in their own lives. Anything is possible he says, but first you have to become a survivor, not a victim.
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