This post is reprinted with permission from NationSwell, new digital media company focused on American innovation and renewal.
When Eli Williamson returned from two deployments to the Middle East, his hometown of Chicago felt at times like a foreign battleground, the memory of desert roads more familiar than Windy City central thoroughfares. As he relearned the city, Williamson noticed a strange similarity between veterans like himself and the young people growing up in tough parts of Chicago. Too many had witnessed violence, and they had little support to cope with the trauma.
Applying the timeworn principle of leaving no soldier, sailor, airman or marine behind, Williamson co-founded Leave No Veteran Behind (LNVB), a national nonprofit focused on securing education and employment for our warriors. Williamson formed the organization based on “just real stupid” and “crazy” idealism: “You know what?” he says. “I can make a difference.” Since work began in 2008, with a measly operating budget of $4,674 to help pay off student loans, LNVB has eliminated around $150,000 of school debt and provided 750 transitional jobs, Williamson says.
“Coming out of the military, every individual is going to have his or her challenges,” says Williamson, who served as a psychological operations specialist and an Arabic linguist in Iraq in 2004 and in Afghanistan in 2007. “We’ve seen veterans with substance abuse issues, homelessness issues.” Additionally, at least one in five veterans suffer from PTSD, and almost 50,000 are homeless and 573,000 are unemployed.
Williamson started the group with his childhood friend Roy Sartin. They first met in high school, when they joined choir and band together. “I think we’ve been arguing like old women every since,” Williamson says. Both joined the U.S. Army Reserves while at Iowa’s Luther College and were mobilized to active duty during their senior year after the Twin Towers fell. Williamson finished his education at the Special Warfare Training Center at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, while Sartin put his learning on hold.
Upon return, both struggled with crippling interest rates on their student loans. Sartin received a call from the loan company saying that he needed to make a $20,000 payment. “Although I had the funds, it was just enough to get myself back together. So, for me, the transition wasn’t as tough, but I was one of the lucky ones.” Williamson got a bill for $2,200 only 22 days before the balance was due. Desperate, he took to the streets playing music to cover the costs.
After talking with other vets, the two realized that many didn’t qualify for the military’s debt repayment programs. That’s when they started going out to financial sources for “retroactive scholarships” for our country’s defenders. And they sought employment opportunities for former military members to help cover the rest.
Jobs and debt relief for our nation’s warriors are the main focus of LNVB, but the group oversees several initiatives, including S.T.E.A.M. Corps, which pairs vets with science, technology, engineering, arts, and math experience with at-risk youth. More than 200 students have graduated from S.T.E.A.M., but Williamson, director of veteran affairs at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, points to a more intangible benefit of his non-profit’s work: the ability for veterans “to articulate a larger vision of themselves … is our advocacy mission,” he says.
“Veterans can paint a vision for where our country needs to be, and the only reason we can do that is because you realize that you are part of something larger than yourself,” Williamson adds. “That’s a fundamental value that veterans can share, as they leave military, with the communities that they come back to.” For those who’ve just returned home from Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, in other words, service is just beginning.
Women in the military have only just begun to join combat jobs, but their influence on military service has been felt for decades. Some of their contributions changed the way we treat our veterans or even changed the way we live our lifes. They all advanced the cause for women becoming equal partners in service to their country. Here are the stories of six of these female military pioneers:
1. Grace Hopper – U.S. Navy, Creator of Modern Life
If you’re not familiar with the effects of the COBOL programming language, it can best be summed up by saying that the average American requires at least 13 uses of the code every day. It’s used for business transactions, things like placing phone calls, taking public transportation, or using credit cards. There are 200 times more processes using COBOL applications than there are Google searches. Every. Day. This language was developed by Grace Hopper in 1959 after she had already been in the Navy for 16 years.
Before “Amazing Grace,” computers only spoke to each other in binary, which humans couldn’t read or interact with. COBOL was an offshoot of the first programming languages, MATH-MATIC and FLOW-MATIC. She also created the compiler, which changes source codes in the programming language to the computer language (often a binary code). She originally retired from the Naval Reserve in 1966 at the rank of Commander, but was recalled to active duty a number of times, promoted to Commodore in 1983 (then the Navy’s O-7), and was allowed to stay on active duty well beyond mandatory retirement, by special order of Congress. She died in 1992 at age 85.
2. Kit Coleman, First Female War Correspondent
The pen name of Canadian journalist Kathleen Blake, Kit Coleman covered the Spanish-American War for the Toronto Mail in 1898. She was the first accredited female war correspondent and was the first president of the Canadian Women’s Press Club.
The Toronto Mail sent Coleman to Cuba to write feature stories, not news from front line combat there. After receiving her accreditation from the U.S. government, she was authorized to follow U.S. troops. Male journalists tried to sabotage her and leaver her in Florida but she made it to Cuba anyway. her coverage of the aftermath of battles and the human casualties made her famous.
3. Valentina Tereshkova – Soviet Air Force, The First Woman in Space
Tereshkova was the first woman in space and is still the only woman ever to conduct a solo space flight. On her first trip, she orbited the earth 48 times over the course of three days. At the time, she was a decade younger than the youngest Mercury 7 astronaut, Gordon Cooper. With her 1963 flight, she logged more time in space than all American astronauts combined.
She kept a meticulous log and took photos of the Earth’s horizon, which were used to identify aerosol layers in the atmosphere. She would later become a prominent Soviet politician and goodwill ambassador. The Tereshkova Crater on the moon is named in her honor.
4. Linda Bray – U.S. Army, The First Woman to Lead U.S. Troops in Combat
U.S. Army Captain Linda Bray was leading a Military Police company in Panama during Operation Just Cause. The U.S. invaded the country to oust the dictator Manuel Noriega, ensure the neutrality of the Panama Canal Zone and uphold the Torrijos-Carter Treaty. Bray’s platoon was ordered to neutralize a canine unit belonging to the Panamanian Defense Force and prevent their communicating warning of the invasion. When her unit, the 998th Military Police Company, approached the dog kennel building, they instead found an arms cache and a unit of the Panamanian special forces.
She led her platoon in the ensuing firefight, killing three and taking one prisoner before being forced to withdraw. Her unit took no casualties. This action earned her the distinction of being the first woman to lead a U.S. military unit in combat.
5. Dr. Mary E. Walker, First Female POW and Only Female Medal of Honor Recipient
After graduating from Syracuse Medical College in Upstate New York, Mary Walker started a lucrative medical practice. After the outbreak of the Civil War, Dr. Walker, a dedicated abolitionist, offered her services to the Union Army. She treated wounded soldiers in the Washington, D.C. area, which makes Walker the first female surgeon in the U.S. military as well. She pulled wounded soldiers off the battlefields in the middle of firefights and often used her medical abilities to cross the lines, retrieving wounded soldiers while collecting information as a spy.
On one such occasion, she was arrested by Confederate troops as a spy and sent to a POW camp near Richmond, Virginia until she was exchanged for a Confederate major. After the war, she was awarded the Medal of Honor for her extended, heroic service to frontline troops. As of 2016, Dr. Walker remains the only female Medal of Honor recipient.
6. Nell Gwyn, Founder of the First Veteran’s Hospital
An actress and sometime prostitute in Shakespearean England, she came from some of the most violent slums of London. She would come to the entrances of theaters to sell oranges and hope for a part in a play. King Charles II met Gwyn while disguised and going about the theaters of London one night. She was with a high-born “customer” in one of the theater boxes that night. The man, Lord Buckhurst, recognized the king. She ended up spending a lot of time with the king and the public grew to like her.
She felt for the aging soldiers who fought for Charles and the monarchy in the relatively recent English Civil War. They were neglected and dying en mass. While most ladies at this time would use their pull with the nobility to get titles and money, Gwyn used hers to found Chelsea Hospital, the first hospital exclusively to treat and care for veterans.
Relatives of Osama bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda leader behind the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, spoke out in an interview with The Guardian published Aug. 3, 2018, about their family’s dark legacy — and they suggested that the family’s involvement with terrorism hadn’t ended with bin Laden’s 2011 death.
Living sheltered lives as a prominent but controversial family in their native Saudi Arabia, several of the family members opened up about bin Laden’s childhood and his eventual transformation into one of the most notorious figures in recent history.
But while bin Laden’s career as a terrorist and head of Al Qaeda came to an end at the hands of US Navy SEALs in a midnight raid on his hideout in Pakistan, his militancy seems to have taken root in his youngest child.
Bin Laden’s family believes his youngest son, Hamza, has followed in his father’s footsteps by traveling to Afghanistan, where the US, Afghanistan’s national army, and NATO have been locked in a brutal war with Islamic militants since shortly after the Twin Towers were destroyed.
The scene just after United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower on Sept. 11, 2001.
Hamza, officially designated a terrorist by the US, apparently took his family by surprise with an endorsement of militant Islam.
“We thought everyone was over this,” Hassan bin Laden, an uncle of Hamza, told The Guardian.
“Then the next thing I knew, Hamza was saying, ‘I am going to avenge my father.’ I don’t want to go through that again. If Hamza was in front of me now, I would tell him: ‘God guide you. Think twice about what you are doing. Don’t retake the steps of your father. You are entering horrible parts of your soul.'”
After the September 11 attacks, some members of bin Laden’s family remained in touch while others led a quiet life under the supervision of the Saudi government and international intelligence agencies.
Many of the bin Ladens have sought to put their history behind them by avoiding media and politics, but Hamza’s apparent support of his father’s ideas suggests Osama bin Laden’s embracing of terrorism may have come back to haunt them.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
Hollywood might often showcase submarines hunting down and attacking other submarines in a variety of movies and TV shows, but it’s actually been a very rare event in history.
In fact, the only time a submarine has ever been known for successfully hunting down and destroying an enemy submarine while underwater was in February 1945, with the destruction of the U-864, a German Type IX U-boat off the coast of Norway by a Royal Navy sub.
Towards the end of the war in Europe, U-864 under the command of Ralf-Reimar Wolfram, was sent out on a secret transport mission as part of Operation Caesar to smuggle jet engine components and schematics, bottles of mercury for constructing explosives, advisors and engineers to Japan undetected by Allied warships prowling around for U-boats.
The faltering German higher command had hoped that even if they were unsuccessful in their theater of war, the Japanese military could benefit from the advanced technology they sent over, continuing the war effort and eventually affording Germany a chance to get back in the fight.
In December 1944, the U-864 left its submarine pen in Kiel, Germany, for a trip to occupied-Norway where it would be refitted with a new snorkel before departing on its mission. The problematic refit and damage sustained from accidentally running aground pushed its deployment back until January of the next year.
Unbeknownst to the German navy, Allied forces were already aware of Operation Caesar, having cracked the Enigma code which was used by the German military to encrypt its classified communications. As a response to Caesar, the Royal Air Force and Navy bombed a number of submarine pens in Norway, including one where U-864 was temporarily housed in for repairs.
The U-864 eventually deployed on Operation Caesar, slipping away undetected by nearby Allied warships. However, a monkey wrench was thrown into the covert mission’s gears when the Royal Navy – unwilling to take unnecessary chances – tasked the HMS Venturer to hunt down and kill the U-864 before it could make a dash for the open oceans.
Venturer was commanded by Lt. Jimmy Launders, a highly-respected and brilliantly-minded tactician. Within days of reaching the U-864’s last suspected position, Launders “spotted” his quarry, thanks to noises emanating from the German warship’s engines.
Wolfram, unaware of the Venturer’s presence, had ordered his sub to turn around and head for port when it began experiencing engine troubles which created considerable noise – something he feared would easily give away their position. But by then, it was too late.
Launders began tracking the U-864 using a hydrophone instead of his sonar, as the “pings” from the sonar system would have likely alerted his prey to his existence. After a lengthy tracking phase, Launders fired off a spread of four torpedoes — half of his entire armament — and awaited the fruits of his efforts.
Wolfram’s bridge crew realized they were under attack when the noise from the inbound torpedoes reached the ears of their own hydrophone operators. Ordering the U-864 to take evasive maneuvers, Wolfram and his crew powered their submarine up in an attempt to speed out of the area.
Out of the four torpedoes launched by the Venturer, one hit its mark directly, fracturing the U-boat’s pressure hull and immediately sending it and its entire crew to the bottom. Launders and the crew of the Venturer had just effected the first and only submarine vs. submarine kill in history — a feat that has never been matched to this very day.
The wreck of the U-864 was discovered in 2003 by the Norwegian Navy, near where the Royal Navy had earlier reported a possible kill. Its cargo of mercury has since been exposed to the sea, severely contaminating the area around the shipwreck.
In the years since its rediscovery, the U-864 has been buried under thousands of pounds of rocks and artificial debris in order to stop the spread of its chemical cargo. It will remain there for decades to come while the metal of the destroyed submarine slowly disintegrates away.
The brain cancer that killed former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Maj. Beau Biden, might have been caused by burn pit exposure in Kosovo and Iraq, Biden said in a recent interview.
“Science has recognized there are certain carcinogens when people are exposed to them. Depending on the quantities and the amount in the water and the air, [they] can have a carcinogenic impact on the body,” he said in a PBS NewsHour interview early this month.
Beau Biden, a judge advocate general (JAG) officer in the Delaware National Guard, died from brain cancer in 2015. He had been deployed to Iraq in 2009, and worked as a civilian lawyer with the U.S. attorney’s office in Kosovo.
A book published last year, The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers, by former Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Hickman, includes a chapter on Beau Biden’s cancer and its possible links to burn pit exposure.
In the interview, Joe Biden said he had been unaware of any potential link before reading that book.
“There’s a whole chapter on my son Beau in there, and that stunned me. I didn’t know that,” he said in the interview.
Burn pits were routinely used in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of waste. Although government officials have declined to establish a firm link between burn pits and veterans’ health problems, including rare forms of cancer and respiratory diseases, the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2014 established a registry for veterans to log their exposure and complaints.
More than 120,000 veterans have logged themselves in the registry. An estimated three million are eligible to join, according to the VA.
A federal judge last year dismissed a major lawsuit by veterans, contractors and their families against KBR, a defense contractor, for operating burn pits they claimed caused deadly respiratory diseases and cancer.
But the judge dismissed the suit, saying that KBR cannot be held liable for a Pentagon decision to use burn pits for waste disposal.
The US Navy made history on March 5, 2018, by putting to sea, for the first time ever, an aircraft carrier with F-35B jets.
And by deploying them in the Pacific, it’s a message China and North Korea are sure to hear loud and clear.
The US Marine Corps’s Fighter Attack Squadron 121 deployed aboard the USS Wasp, a smaller-deck aircraft carrier that used to operate harrier jump jets and helicopters before getting special modifications to field the F-35.
“This is a historic deployment,” said Col. Tye R. Wallace, 31st MEU Commanding Officer in a US Navy press release. “The F-35B is the most capable aircraft ever to support a Marine rifleman on the ground.”
The deployment marks the culmination of years of planning. Since its inception, the F-35 has been designed with the idea of accommodating short takeoff, vertical landing variants. Initially, the design compromises forced by the massive tail fan and unique capabilities caused complications, compromises, and long and expensive delays.
But the US has still beaten China, Russia, and the entire world to the punch with a navalized stealth fighter that can fight for air superiority, pull off precision strikes, penetrate enemy airspaces, and coordinate with the two US Navy guided-missile destroyers to guide ship-fired missiles to targets ashore.
The squadron aboard the Wasp has also trained heavily on a new set of tactics meant to keep the US dominant in the Pacific region. Leveraging the short-takeoff, vertical landing ability of the F-35B, the pilots and maintainers drilled on setting up improvised refuel and reloading points, and how to quickly restock the jet for battle, much like mechanics performing pit stops during NASCAR races.
Additionally, the F-35B has the option of equipping a gun and opening it up as a close-air-support platform to support Marines making a beach landing.
The result is a stealth fighter/bomber/reconnaissance jet well-suited to the Asia-Pacific region, which US adversaries, like China and North Korea, will be sure to recognize.
US competition in the region and around the world put on notice
“You’re about to put, for the first time ever, fifth-generation fighters on a ship at sea and put it into a highly contested area that is fraught with geopolitical risk and controversy and tensions,” retired US Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Berke, a former F-35B squadron commander, previously told Business Insider.
“The implications of a fifth-generation airplane being in [the Pacific] is impossible to overstate,” he added. “They’re going to provide capability that nobody knows exists yet.”
As Beijing pushes on with its massive land grab in the South China Sea by militarizing artificial islands, intruding in territorial waters of its neighbors, and performing increasingly aggressive fighter jet drills around the Pacific, the F-35B deployment gives the US an advantage in terms of air power at sea.
China has struggled to field its own stealth jets that many see as an answer to US air power in the region.
North Korea, not a powerful nation in terms of air power, will now feel the added pressure of stealth jets it cannot track sitting near its shores in Okinawa or on deployment around the region.
Here’s a video of the F-35B landing vertically on the Wasp at sea:
Super Bowl commercials that honor military veterans aren’t new, and odds are they’re not going anywhere because dammit they’re effective.
The 2017 Hyundai Super Bowl commercial is no exception. Troops stationed in Poland were treated to a surprise when Hyundai gave them a special Super Bowl screening experience. What they didn’t know was that a few of their family members were also getting a treat.
While the service members watched the game in fully immersive, 360-degree live streaming pods, their families joined them via a Super Bowl LI box suite, complete with huggable high-tech teddy bears (wearing the uniform of the day) and cameras that allowed the family members to livestream with their heroes.
Hyundai teamed up with director Peter Berg (Deepwater Horizon, Lone Survivor) to shoot, edit, and broadcast the event.
“I’m honored to have worked on this project with the troops and [Hyundai] for the Super Bowl. Thank you for your service, and thank you for letting me be part of this,” Berg said.
Almost exactly 75 years ago, on Aug. 18, 1943, the USS Abner Read was rocked by a severe explosion.
The blast — which most historians say was likely a Japanese mine — tore the 75-foot stern section of the ship clean off. The stern plummeted to the depths of the ocean, taking the lives of 71 US sailors with it, while other US ships rushed to the rescue.
Though the rest of the USS Abner Read was miraculously saved and towed into port, the original stern was thought to be lost forever — until now.
A North American B-25 Mitchell Glides over an American destroyer after taking off from Unmak Island for a raid on the Japanese base at Kiska.
USS Abner Read (DD 526) as seen in Hunters Point, California on June 13, 1943.
The 474-feet long Japanese transport ship Nisan Maru sunk in Kiska Harbor after it was stuck by bombs dropped by the US 11th Air force on June 18, 1942. Two other Japanese ships are visible in the harbor nearby.
USS Abner Read (DD 526) afire and sinking in Leyte Gulf, Nov. 1, 1944, after being hit by a kamikaze. A second Japanese suicide plane (circled) is attempting to crash another ship; however, this one was shot down short of its target.
(U.S. Navy Photo)
After the stern section of the Abner Read sunk on Aug. 18, 1943, it remained lost on the bottom of the sea for almost 75 years. The ship was eventually repaired and re-entered active service.
In 1944, the Abner Read was sunk off the coast of the Philippines by a Japanese dive bomber, as seen in the image above.
US soldiers inspect Japanese midget subs left behind after the US retook Kiska Island.
Team members launch one of the project’s four REMUS 100 autonomous underwater vehicles from R/V Norseman II for a survey of the seafloor.
The expedition was part of Project Recover, a collaborative partnership between the University of Delaware, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, Bent Prop, a nonprofit, and US Navy partners to find and document the underwater resting places of American soldiers from World War II.
“The 17 hours of daylight that now occur at this high latitude were both a godsend and a curse as there was ample time to work, but little time to sleep,” Eric Terrill, an oceanographer and the leader of the expedition, said in a mission log.
“We take our responsibility to protect these wrecks seriously,” Samuel Cox, the director of the Naval History and Heritage Command said. The USS Abner Read is the “last resting place of American sailors,” he added.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
A command-directed investigation anticipated to be released by Air Force Global Strike Command in coming weeks will show that Lt. Col. Paul Goossen was removed from command of the 69th Bomb Squadron Nov. 27, 2018, because penis drawings were discovered on a moving map software displayed on the nuclear-capable B-52’s Combat Network Communication Technology (CONECT), according to a source familiar with the incident.
The system, used to display common data such as pre-planned routes for sorties and target coordinates, captured the data for post-sortie debriefs. Screengrabs of the images were later used for laughs at an end-of-deployment party, sources said.
“Any actions or behavior that do not embody our values and principles are not tolerated within the Air Force,” said Air Force Global Strike spokesman Lt. Col. Uriah Orland in response to Military.com’s request for comment.
Orland would not confirm the contents of the CDI, but added the zero-tolerance policy “includes creating or contributing to an unhealthy, inappropriate work environment.”
A B-52 Stratofortress.
During the 69th’s deployment to Al Udeid Air Force Base, Qatar, between September 2017 and April 2018, penis drawings were repeatedly created by members of the unit and were captured as screengrabs for a CD montage, the source said. The montage was played at the end of the deployment, and then left behind and later turned in to officials. The suggestive material prompted an investigation.
The Air Force on Nov. 27, 2018, said Goossen was removed “due to a loss of trust and confidence from his failure to maintain a professional workplace environment.”
Col. Bradley Cochran, commander of the 5th Bomb Wing, initiated the investigation, which concluded Oct. 31, 2018, said Maj. Natasha Cherne, spokeswoman for the 5th Bomb Wing.
Goossen took over as the squadron commander in summer 2017, Cherne said in November 2018.
Goossen was commander of the 69th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron when the B-52 flew its last missions against the Islamic State before the B-1B Lancer took over the mission in the Middle East, according to the Air Force.
During its eight-month deployment, Air Force units to include the 69th launched “834 consecutive B-52 missions without a maintenance cancellation,” while targeting ISIS and Taliban fighters across the U.S. Central Command region, the service said in a release.
Lt. Col. Paul Goossen speaking to the president during a conference call.
(U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Patrick Evenson)
“Having the 69th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron be selected to receive a morale phone call from the President of the United States is a true Christmas gift and a real honor,” Goossen said of the phone call. “We feel fortunate to represent all Air Force deployed personnel and we are humbled to have the opportunity out of so many deserving units,” he said in the release.
Even though the 69th’s drawings were restricted to the cockpit, the latest incident follows a spree of aerial maneuvers from various units over the last year throughout the military involving illustrated penises.
Russia has sent two modernized submarines equipped with advanced stealth technologies to the Mediterranean Sea as part of efforts to reinforce naval presence off the Syrian coast.
“The Black Sea fleet’s new large diesel and electric submarines, Kolpino and Veliky Novgorod … have arrived in the Mediterranean,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement on its website on Aug. 28.
The ministry added that the two stealth submarines were fitted with new navigation systems, fully automatized control systems, high-precision missiles, and powerful torpedo equipment.
The submarines, classified by NATO as “Improved Kilo” class, were built in the northwestern city of Saint Petersburg and are designed for anti-ship and anti-submarine operations in mid-depth waters. They are capable of holding a crew of 50 and have a top underwater speed of 20 knots and a cruising range of 400 miles.
A Improved Kilo-class submarine. Photo from Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation.
Part of Russia’s Black Sea fleet is engaged in the battle against the Daesh Takfiri terrorist group in Syria.
Moscow launched its campaign against Daesh and other terror outfits in Syria at the Damascus government’s request in September 2015. Its airstrikes have helped Syrian forces advance against militant groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Syria has been fighting different foreign-sponsored militant and terrorist groups since March 2011.
Damascus blames the deadly militancy on some Western states and their regional allies.
The Defense Department owes the families of the soldiers lost in Niger and the American people an explanation of what the soldiers were doing in Niger and why it was important, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said October 23rd.
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford said the four Special Forces soldiers who were killed and the two who were wounded in the Oct. 4 action, were conducting an important train, advise, and assist mission with Nigerien forces.
Building Capacity of Local Forces
“Our soldiers are operating in Niger to build the capacity of local forces to defeat violent extremism in West Africa,” the general said at a Pentagon news conference. “Their presence is part of a global strategy.”
The soldiers were on patrol with forces from Niger, he said, when a group linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria attacked. “As we’ve seen many times, groups like ISIS and al-Qaida pose a threat to the United States, the American people and our allies,” Dunford said. “They’re a global threat enabled by the flow of foreign fighters, resources and their narrative.”
The four soldiers — Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Sgt. La David Johnson, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright — were training local forces to conduct security in their own country. The four Americans were part of a multinational response to the threat these violent extremists pose.
ISIS seeks to survive in the dark corners of the world where local inhabitants lack the power and expertise to control the violent group, Dunford said. ISIS operates where it can exploit weaknesses in local government and local security forces, he added. Libya, Somalia, West Africa, certain places in Central and Southeast Asia are places where ISIS and like groups choose to operate.
“If you think of those enablers as connective tissue between groups across the globe, our strategy is to cut that tissue, while enabling local security forces to deal with the challenges within their countries and region,” Dunford said.
The United States is working with nations around the world to improve their military capabilities and capacities, Dunford said. U.S. troops, he added, have been working with forces from Niger for 20 years, the general said, training more than 35,000 soldiers from the region to confront the threats of ISIS, al-Qaida and Boko Haram.
“Today, approximately 800 [U.S.] service members in Niger work as part of an international effort, led by 4,000 French troops, to defeat terrorists in West Africa,” Dunford said.
Dunford related what is known about the Oct. 4 operation in Niger.
“On the 3rd of October, 12 members of the U.S. Special Operations Task Force accompanied 30 Nigerien forces on a civil-military reconnaissance mission from the capital city of Niamey to an area near the village of Tongo Tongo,” he said. The village is located a little over 50 miles north of Niamey, and officials expected the chances of meeting an enemy were slight.
The next day, Dunford said, the forces began moving back, when they were attacked by approximately 50 enemy using small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and technical vehicles.
“Approximately one hour after taking fire, the team requested support,” he said. “And within minutes the remotely piloted aircraft arrived overhead. Within an hour, French Mirage jets arrived on station.”
Still later, French attack helicopters arrived on station, and a Niger quick-reaction force arrived.
During the firefight, two U.S. soldiers were wounded and evacuated by French aircraft to Niamey, and that was consistent with the casualty evacuation plan that was in place for this particular operation, Dunford said.
Three U.S. soldiers who were killed were evacuated the evening of Oct. 4, Dunford said.
“At that time, Sergeant La David Johnson was still missing,” the general said.
“On the evening of Oct. 6, Sergeant Johnson’s body was found and subsequently evacuated,” he said. “From the time the firefight was initiated until Sergeant Johnson’s body was recovered, French, Nigerien or U.S. forces remained in that area.”
Questions to be Answered
The combat was tough and confused, the chairman said. There are more questions that need to be answered, he added, and that is why U.S. Africa Command appointed a general officer to investigate.
The questions that need answers, he said, include: Did the mission of U.S. forces change during the operation? Did U.S. forces have adequate intelligence, equipment and training? Was there a premission assessment of the threat in the area accurate? And, How did U.S. forces become separated during the engagement, specifically Sergeant Johnson?
And, why didn’t they take time to find and recover Sergeant Johnson? Dunford said.
“We owe the families of the fallen more information, and that’s what the investigation is designed to identify,” he said.
The general said the campaign against violent extremists is making progress, but much more needs to be done.
“Even with the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, we’re at an inflection point in the global campaign, not an end point,” he said.
The general said he’s hosting the chiefs of defense and representatives from 75 different countries will meet to improve the effectiveness of the military network to defeat terrorism.
“In our discussions over the next day or two, we’ll focus on improving information sharing between nations to detect and defeat attacks before they occur, and to improve the support we provide to nations confronted with violent extremism,” he said. “And that’s exactly what our forces in Niger were doing.”
It’s pouring rain as the photographer and I run through the cobbled streets of Philadelphia. You can see it in the locals’ faces and the Colonial buildings still standing strong just blocks from the Liberty Bell that this city is tough. For over 300 years, Philly has been the home of patriots, presidents and even movie characters such as Rocky Balboa. Yet, there is one theme that continues to define Philadelphians. No matter how much they struggle, get kicked around or scarred, there will be a moment when they rise, gritty and determined, and GO on with their mission.
We arrive at the Union League, a brick and brownstone club, which has supported the military and veterans since 1862. As we pass two statues of soldiers marching off to war, I receive a text, “Finishing a board meeting. Use the side entrance. You won’t be allowed in unless you are in a jacket. Which I assume you are not.” The subject of our next interview is 100% correct and I instantly know we are in the place where Ryan Manion and her team hold court each December.
Ryan is the President of the Travis Manion Foundation, co-author of the Knock at the Door, mother, Gold Star sister and marathon runner. She’s busy. Always on the go, and the second week of December is her Super Bowl.
The night before our interview, she led the annual If Not Me, Then Who gala, which honors fallen heroes, veterans, active-duty troops and military families. Today, she’s leading the TMF board meeting, which includes current CEOs and former generals. Tomorrow, she’ll go on Fox Sports to represent TMF at the Army-Navy game where Navy will take home the win (but we don’t know that yet). Ryan has thankfully given us thirty minutes of her downtime for a one-on-one interview which she tells me is “no big deal” after I thank her again.
The Travis Manion Foundation is a big deal. The non-profit, which started as a small family effort, is now an organization that coordinates thousands of community volunteers across the nation. Ryan, who lost her brother, 1st Lieutenant Travis Manion, and her team are driven by the mission to “empower veterans and families of fallen heroes to develop character in future generations.”
The most amazing thing about Ryan Manion is not only all that she and her team have accomplished since 2007 but the fact that she is still going, and going strong. Ryan, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, is a former smoker who now runs marathons and does ruck marches. She talks fast and moves faster. “Come on, let’s GO,” she tells us when we see her. I follow, knowing without a doubt that Ryan is the next generation of tough as nails leader that Philly is known for.
WATM: How’s your Army-Navy week going?
Ryan’s phone rings. It’s a family call. She answers while we start taking photos. Then she’s back.
Ryan Manion: It’s been a little heavy this week. We started off Tuesday with a meeting for all our senior TMF leadership, which we did for the first time. They flew in from all over the country. Then Tuesday night, we had a huge book event here in Philly, and my son has pneumonia.
WATM: OMG, that is a lot.
Ryan: He’s fine. Home with the family. He had a cold for three days. It didn’t even seem like a big cold. You know, it’s been kind of crazy.
WATM: How do you manage everything on your plate?
Ryan: I love what I do, and I get to work on wonderful things. We’ve been working on a project for tomorrow’s Army-Navy Game. We’re bringing 30 wounded warriors and their families to meet the President during the third quarter.
WATM: Wow, that is amazing. Did you ever see yourself doing this kind of work? Especially leading an organization such as the Travis Manion Foundation?
Ryan: Today, one of our board members said it best, “It all just gets back to Travis, saying, if not me, then who?” And that kind of simplified the journey for me. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God. I’m sitting here with all these people because of my brother.’
WATM: You and your family established the organization as a way to carry on Travis’s legacy. Does it still feel that way a decade later?
Ryan and her brother Travis at the Army-Navy Game.
Ryan: Last night, somebody at the gala who was a Marine that served with Travis came up to me and said, “You know, I’ve been at this gala for eight years now, and every year gets better and better. It’s unbelievable. But I got to tell you, I was sitting there thinking, these people don’t know who Travis Manion was.”
WATM: How did that make you feel?
Ryan: Travis is my personal driver, but this organization is bigger than one person. I am excited for so many to see the fruits of what he stood for through this organization.
WATM: If Not Me, Then Who?
Ryan: Exactly. My brother wrote those words before he deployed to Iraq, and they represent the character, leadership and selfless service that is the backbone of all our programs. Whether it is our strength-building seminars, expeditions, fitness events or service projects, we unite our volunteers, both civilian and veteran, in the common cause to better their communities by living the mantra of “If Not Me, Then Who…”
WATM: What do you think draws people to the foundation and your work?
Ryan: It’s funny because our board was just asking me the same thing.
Ryan: I have to tell you, the thing about our organization is that it’s like the feeling you get when you’re around your family. It started out as a family affair. It was a small family that was grieving the loss of their loved one. But even as we’ve grown, it doesn’t matter what event you’re at or how many show up. You know, tomorrow there will be a thousand people at our tailgate, everyone’s going to feel like they’re part of a team, a family.
WATM: Was that the plan from the beginning?
Ryan laughs. I’ve been to a few TMF tailgates, and we both know the answer.
Ryan: I can’t articulate in words why that is. But you’ve been around it, you see it, and I don’t know what drives that. We come from a very different place from a lot of other traditional veterans service organizations, especially those in the post 9/11 world. I think they’re all doing great work. They came with an idea, “Ok, this is the problem, and this is how we’re going to solve it.”
We came with, “I just lost my brother, my mom and dad just lost their son. And we want to make sure that we continue his legacy.” So when you come at it from that place, there’s no chance that it’s gonna be anything but super authentic in what you’re doing. Since then, it’s been, “Ok, we’re going to do this. Oh, people are into it. Ok? Let’s keep doing it. Oh, wow. We’re really doing something here now.” That’s the plan.
Ryan Manion with a copy of her book, The Knock at the Door.
WATM: So let’s talk about the book. First of all, congratulations.
Ryan: Thank you. Yes, it’s pretty awesome.
WATM: What’s the feedback you’re getting so far?
Ryan: The feedback has been tremendous. We’ve found that this book, to some degree, breaks down the wedge between the civilian and military worlds because everyone receives some type of knock at the door. We all have challenges that we weren’t expecting to appear in our lives.
The Knock At the Door shows what a military family goes through when they lose someone. But this story doesn’t end there. Our story just begins there. So it’s set in a much different context. The Knock At the Door empowered me and my co-authors into another chapter of our lives. We all had different journeys from shock to finding purpose.
WATM: In the book, you describe how physical fitness helped you find focus. Specifically moving from smoking to running the Marine Corps Marathon?
Ryan: I totally recognize the extreme of it all. Physical fitness is huge both in general and in times of grief. It was truly eye-opening when I discovered the effect it had on my daily psyche. I mean, people say, exercise is a little bit of a drug and they’re right. That’s why I had to write about my physical journey alongside my emotional one. I went through some dark times after I lost my brother. I struggled with anxiety and depression and was ultimately diagnosed with PTSD. It was realization that I was not ok that helped me to pick up the pieces.
WATM: Is there anything that people are really responding to or the people are coming to you afterwards and saying, I love this. That you’re finding people are really resonating with?
Ryan: I think for me, people were surprised about how vulnerable I was in the book. You know, I’ve been given the opportunity to run a veteran serving organization that requires a lot of professional appearances and public speaking. People get to meet me as the President of the Travis Manion Foundation, but this book showed a whole different side of me.
WATM: Was it scary to be that vulnerable and open?
Ryan: Yes. You know, the other thing that’s been really great about the book is the response from the Gold Star community. If you would have asked me before I wrote, what’s your biggest fear? It would be that like the Gold Star community doesn’t connect with this. And they have.
Ryan with her TMF GORUCK.
WATM: What do you think Travis would say about all of this?
Ryan: I don’t know what Travis would be doing now. I don’t know if he’d still be in the Marine Corps, if he’d be out and working in corporate America or doing something less traditional. I have no idea. But I know that he would be involved in this world. He would not be the veteran that takes off the uniform, goes away and is unconnected to what’s happening in their community. But would I be connected to this world? Probably not, because my brother would have been. I think he would be proud that I am involved and active with the Travis Manion Foundation, but he would have hated that it’s named after him.
WATM: I think I can understand that.
Ryan: We were years into this thing, and my dad’s like, “I just feel like I don’t think Travis would like that his name is everywhere. It’s nameless, maybe we should change the name?” And my response was something like, “Dad, you’re kidding. We’re in too deep. Travis’s name represents this generation.” And so, that’s my rebuttal. I think Travis would be super proud of what’s happening in his name.
WATM: Is there anything that you’re looking forward to in 2020? Maybe something you’re scared about or something we should keep on our radar?
Ryan: The next big thing I’m doing is going to Puerto Rico at the end of January for one of our service expeditions. We have eight or nine of these service expeditions a year, but this one is special. I will be traveling with a Marine who was with Travis when he was killed. We will be doing rehab projects for veterans’ homes effected by the hurricane a couple of years ago. I am looking forward to that.
WATM: Will you keep us updated on the trip?
Ryan: Of course.
WATM: Last question. Who do you think will win the Army-Navy Game tomorrow?
“Sir, my father was an Islamic State militant, but he divorced my mother in 2013,” said Jassem Mohammad, 21, pulling out his identification card and presenting it to the camp manager. “He now has two other wives.”
In a tiny patch of shade on the edge of a blistering desert camp outside of Mosul, the manager listened as Mohammad made his case. He wanted to leave the camp and go back to college. He had good scores, he said, and was never involved with IS.
Militant rule in Mosul has collapsed and IS fighters here are dead, fled, arrested, or in hiding. But as their relatives try to re-integrate into society, Iraqi authorities face impossible questions with only bad answers.
If someone loved or even tolerated an IS militant, is that person guilty? How do the relatives of the perpetrators make peace with the relatives of the victims?
Officially in Iraq, the answer to the first question is “no,” especially when speaking of small children. Women and children fleeing areas IS occupied are checked for bombs, and when cleared, they are considered civilians.
Unofficially, families of militants are shunned, feared and often separated from the “regular” people, all traumatized by violence and extreme poverty under IS. Many IS families now live in camps, like Mohammad, where they are not quite sure if they are being detained or protected. And both, in fact, are true.
“We’d need to see the divorce papers,” the camp manager explained to Mohammad. If Mohammad offered evidence that his father was not in his life during IS rule in Mosul, it might be possible for him to go back to school.
“I want to study and do humanitarian work,” Mohammad continued, pleading his case to a nearby journalist.
As Mohammad and the reporter chatted, the camp manager looked nonplussed and strolled away. A security officer, in contrast, was visibly annoyed and abruptly ended the conversation.
“You cannot talk to him without official permission,” he said, ushering all journalists out of the camp. Other Iraqi officers said they worry that news about camps set aside for IS families will make them look like monsters, locking up women and children.
“What can we do as the Iraqi government?” said a member of a community police force who didn’t want to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “We are exposed to danger. They are families, but we can’t loose them without rehabilitation.”
Inside the city, at the base of a long-dormant Ferris wheel, a short row of tents served as a collection point for families fleeing Mosul in the final days of battle.
Women and children filed into the tents, some collapsing where they sat. Medics treated injuries and food and water alleviated some of the most pressing pains. Many of the people had been hiding in basements for weeks, after months of water shortages. The smell of unwashed bodies was pungent and the heat in the stagnant tents was overwhelming.
“We were imprisoned,” said Khalifa, 46, a mother of three. Unlike the rest of the women in the tent, she wore no veil and her curly hair was tousled. “We tried to run away and militants locked us in a basement. For the past three days we’ve had no food or water.”
“Once they brought us food in the basement,” adds Hoda, 25, her daughter. “He came down wearing a suicide vest.”
Their story echoed tales from families all over Mosul and, even if their husbands or fathers were IS fighters, it could still be true. However, local authorities worried they were lying, casting themselves as victims, rather than somehow complicit.
One man peppered Hoda with questions about the neighborhood she said she was from. IS militants in Mosul were often not stationed near their original homes. Hoda failed to identify the most famous church, mosque, and graveyard in the area.
“See, they are an IS family,” the man said. “They are lying.”
Another woman, Fatima, a mother of eight, said for relatives of IS omitting certain truths is a matter of survival. Sitting with an intelligence official, Fatima admitted she had two brothers that fought with IS. Both, she said, are now dead and she never supported their decision to join IS.
But when the officer walked away, she said at least one of her brothers is alive and now in Tal Afar, an Iraqi city still held by IS.
“We are afraid to tell them when we talk to family members who are with IS,” she whispered. “We don’t want to be blamed for what they did.”