Archive for May, 2017

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The following is a series of personal vignettes/reflections on the moments in my life when I found out that Soldiers I knew were killed in the line of duty.  It is a tough series of stories for me to write about, but I believe it’s necessary to get the deep emotions out in the open and to also remember the lives they lived and the moment those lives were taken from this world. I hope anyone else who knew these individuals will also reflect on the time that they knew them and where they were when they heard the news.  And for those who never knew these individuals, I hope this brings light to who they were as people in addition to the sacrifices they gave while serving their country.

J.M.
It was a very chaotic and nerve racking day. I was battle tracking on of our convoys that had been ambushed in the Pech Valley of Afghanistan.  During the ambush, one of the trucks was struck with an RPG and set off the Halon system inside the cab. In addition to the RPG impact, the halon gas had engulfed those inside the truck. Two of the passengers in the truck had to be MEDEVAC’d to Bagram Airbase. One of them, J.M. was from our Company.  Hours later, we heard from the Commanding Officer that the convoy had made it safely to the FOB up the valley to be refit, while the two Soldiers at Bagram were in stable condition. Everything seemed ok that evening as things went on.  That night as I laid my head down to sleep, I was awaken by the Soldier on duty saying that our Soldier had suddenly gone into very critical condition. I told him to keep an eye on things.  A while later, I was told to go into the Command Post. The Battalion Executive Officer was on the phone and told me that J.M. had just passed away.  I didn’t know what to say. He seemed like he was going to be ok that day, and then all the sudden he was gone.  And as the Company Executive Officer, I had to wake up my Commanding Officer and inform him of the terrible news. His reaction was just as surprised as mine.  We didn’t know what to make of it.  It was our first casualty within the company.  As the night went on, we informed the Platoon Leader, the Platoon Sergeant, the First Sergeant, and by morning the entire Platoon learned the news.  People shed tears, expressed their anger and disappointment, walked around the base camp alone.  I spent the day inventorying all of his stuff to mail home to his family. Going through all of his personal effects, I saw so much more about him that I never knew.  He had a son and was really into electronica music.  I wish I had more time to get to know him before he was taken from this world.

J.I.
The Afghan Election was taking place. It was one of the busiest days of the deployment. The entire day there were firefights everywhere across the country. Combat Outposts were being mortared and hit by small arms fire. Howitzers were not only providing indirect fire but direct fire on targets. People were running low on ammo hour by hour. I scrambled to call for emergency resupply of ammo to push on the next convoy to the Pech. I barely got any sleep that night as things kept going on.  Then the next morning I received a report that a truck was blown in half by an IED. At least one Soldier was killed, while the others critically wounded. They ran his battle roster number over the chat window in the CP, and I didn’t recognize it at first. I was just focused on all of the other 100 things going on at the same time. A couple days after the attack, the Battalion Staff had distributed his picture and a short vignette about his time in the unit. My old Motor Sergeant asked some of the other guys in the CP if they knew him at all.  I looked at his picture, and I instantly remembered who he was.  We had just pulled staff duty together a couple weeks before I got on the bird to deploy.  He was a young Sergeant who seemed like a pretty motivated and squared away guy, and was also serving as a squad leader at the time.  I didn’t talk to him very much while we were on duty, but he seemed like someone who was easy to get along with. But now I would never get the chance to know him.

Y.L.
Another normal day in Northeast Afghanistan.  The Battalion Command Sergeant Major was holding a promotion board at FOB Blessing. Soldiers from the outlying COPs were traveling to participate in the board.  Then that morning, one of the convoys heading to Blessing was hit by an RPG. The gunner in the truck was fatally wounded from the blast and was CASEVAC’d from Camp Wright back to Bagram. I was in the CP at the time, and we learned about it from the Chat log. They ran the battle roster number, and one of the Sergeants in the CP mentioned his name.  Y.L. was a young Pacific Islander Soldier.  I had only seen him a couple of times in the mass formations of Soldiers when the Battalion Commander gave his speeches.  There were casualties all the time in Afghanistan, but when you knew the face of the person who’s name came on the screen, it made it that much harder.  And it just sucks that he was on his way to the promotion board to hopefully become a Sergeant someday and continue with his career.  But in that moment when he was traveling on his way, it would never become a reality.

E.W.
I was walking across the FOB with my Supply Sergeant.  As we passed by the mess hall, we saw a few of the Non-Commissioned Officers from the Brigade Support Battalion walking away from the airfield.  They looked like they were all crying, and we had no idea why.  We stopped by the medical aid station to find out what had happened, and that’s when we learned that a young Sergeant was killed on a convoy to FOB Bostick. E.W. was a junior NCO, a wife and a mother. She did not normally go on the Cannonball convoy, but that day she volunteered as they needed more people. It was on that convoy that her truck was hit by an RPG and impacted the area where she was inside the cab. A few weeks before that, I was just talking to her at our CP.  We were doing a drug test for the Company, and she was the administrator for it.  While she was sitting at the table, she asked me why I had Disney princesses painted on my desk.  I told her the story of how I went on a convoy one day and when I came back, my Supply Sergeant and Chemical NCO had painted them on there just for fun.  She giggled at them and said they looked cute.  I don’t know how her family is doing to this day without her in this world, but I hope they are in good hands today as they had a wonderful, caring mother who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect them.

M.C.
This is the toughest one to write. I was relaxing in my B-hut after dinner and was looking to go back to the CP to hang out with some of my buddies. Then suddenly I heard my Platoon Sergeant get a call on his cell phone. He sounded very frantic, not the way I normally knew him to be.  He ran out of the hut to the CP.  I decided to follow him to find out what was going on.  It was then that the NCO on duty had pulled from the chat log that a platoon in the mountains had been mortared by insurgent fighters. One of them was critically wounded in the leg and had to be immediately MEDEVAC’d. It was also then that we learned the MEDEVAC had then turned into a CASEVAC and would be on its way to our airfield.  We waited almost an hour for the bird to arrive.  When it did, the Company Commander, First Sergeant, and two of the Platoon Sergeants rushed to the Black Hawk to grab the litter from the cockpit. It was dark and I couldn’t see much.  But when they carried the litter inside the Mortuary Affairs Collection Point, that’s when I saw him.  He lied on the litter lifeless, eyes closed, not breath at all. The respirator over his mouth was pumping air, but he chest was not moving. We all just stared for a few seconds in silence, then the Chaplain initiated a short prayer on behalf of the group. I had never seen anything like it. I don’t know how the Chaplain gained the courage to say anything in that moment, but he brief words provided a small bit of comfort in that moment. Immediately after, the Mortuary Affairs team began to prepare his body for storage.  The guys from my company kept asking if they could volunteer to help, but the team told them not to interfere.  I felt their pain in that moment as well.  We all wanted to do something but we couldn’t. There was absolutely nothing we could do. He was taken from us. Only a few days before that, he was on the FOB with me.  We were in the shower trailer and there was no hot water at all. I saw him in the hallway, and I asked him how he liked that cold shower.  He said, “I think they turned off all the hot water for the Audie Murphy board!” It was just all part of the sense of humor he had no matter the situation.  Whenever you were having a bad day or didn’t know what to do, he would always find a way to make people laugh.  I will truly miss him every single day.

N.K.
We were almost done with our tour in Afghanistan.  The new unit had arrived and was learning the ropes from us.  About a week into their time with us, a squad was engaged in a small arms attack from insurgents in the mountains.  One of them was hit by sniper fire. I learned about his death while I was packing up my personal effects to get ready to go home.  The Battalion TOC had relayed to us that his body would be transported our airfield and that they needed help to transfer his body to the black hawk that would take him home.  I headed down to the MACP, and there were members of the new unit who were in the room. They all looked shocked and a bit unsure of what to do.  I didn’t know how to react myself as I did not know the Soldier and did not see his face inside the body bag. But the other Soldiers who were with me stayed focused on what had to be done – to get his body onto the bird to go home.  A few minutes later, the blackhawk had landed and the engines stopped.  That was our cue to roll the body out on the gurney and load him onto the bird.  As we walked out onto the airfield, the Pilot and his crew were lined up in formation on each side of us. They remained silent and rendered a salute as we rolled the body onto the helo.  It was a somber moment, and although I never knew the Soldier who we were carrying, I felt thankful that although he was no longer with us the professional Soldiers all around him would take great care to ensure his family received his remains and they would have closure to his life.

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BAD07155-22FA-426A-BEFB-19B4569C18AC-3885-0000096E6D019935The Department of the Army has been sitting for the past four months without a Secretary in office, and at the current time it desperately needs a strong and competent one. The first candidate for office looked promising with his West Point education, but he made the wise decision to step away from the nomination due to his conflicts of interest with business ties. The next candidate immediately faced harsh criticism from both sides of the aisle due to his firm stance on controversial subjects affecting today’s Army. His refusal to budge on his beliefs ultimately cost him the nomination for Secretary. So the office remains vacant, and it really doesn’t need to be especially after there was already a great guy in place: Eric Fanning.

For as far back as I can remember, Fanning was the one SECARMY to whom I felt the most compelled to pay attention. Not just because he was the SECARMY but because he truly stood out from the previous ones. Besides the fact that he immediately faced criticism himself before his confirmation hearing due to his  sexual orientation, he had a drive and charisma that no other person at his level had. From the beginning, he was immediately out front and engaging with the troops across all components. He also knew how to engage with social mediaby documenting photos of his trips, participating in interviews with DoD and other agencies, and even making a few short video clips with his buddy, SMA Dailey. It was a breath of fresh air to have a SECARMY who you felt like you had a connection with, even if he was high up in the Pentagon.

Apart from the fun and engaging stuff, Fanning also spoke publicly about the hard issues. He addressed the equal treatment and integration of LGBTQ service members into the ranks, as well as  a call for a reevaluation of the Army’s family programs so that they actually work to support the modern family rhythm. He recognized that both the service member and the spouse work full time jobs in the present era and that the Army must evaluate its work life balance to improve the overall quality of life for Army communities. And he advocated the development of more advanced and lethal weapons to supply our Army for accomplishing its bedrock mission from day one: fighting and winning the nation’s wars. Who else out there today could do as great of a job as he did?

So here we are almost halfway through 2017, and the Army is still without a Secretary? Why is it like this right now? Well I’m just going to say that it doesn’t have to be this way; we can bring back an already great leader who has lead and inspired a new generation of Soldiers and civilians to be their best in an ever changing world. And right now in our history, there is no more important time to have a more competent leader at the top as our SECARMY, especially when the world’s superpowers continue to create more friction that will most likely drive us into the next world war.

So I say this: stop messing around with politics and party agendas! Put a strong, competent and dedicated person in office right now! And what better person than Mr. Fanning?

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Senator Gardner,

Today I write to you as a concerned resident of the State of Colorado regarding the proposed American Healthcare Act. I have read the 126 pages of this bill, and I would like to recommend that you strongly reject the passage of this bill in its current form. If passed into law, the American Healthcare Act will not only deregulate the standards of fair health insurance practices across Colorado and the United States, but it will also be useless for actually improving the health of Americans across the country.

The core of this bill that frustrates me the most, which would essentially affect the greatest country in the world, is that it misses the mark on how healthcare should be handled for the American public. The terms “individual market” and “small business tax credits” are used throughout the bill to describe a system that is supposed to regulate the administration and funding of healthcare for American citizens. Instead, it is painted throughout this bill as a for-profit market, where looser regulations on premium limits and payments are portrayed as a business benefit, and nearly nothing in the bill addresses anything about the regulation of safe health practices to ensure the actual health of Americans is preserved through such insurance programs.

The bill features several clauses that strike taxes from many of the programs outlined under the Medicare and Affordable Care Act. While the tax cuts might initially seem like a benefit to the average American, the grander scheme is that it nearly deregulates the standards for health insurance to a level that the federal government has almost no control over fair practice standards, and in turn the for-profit health insurance firms operating across state lines will then have the most control. The effects of this deregulation are a market where health insurance is a commodity rather than a service and can be manipulated to be whatever terms the for-profit firms determine it to be, with no room for representative democracy. This is significantly dangerous for Americans who must purchase new insurance plans and have pre-existing conditions from previous plans. The treatment they receive is no longer guaranteed via taxes paid towards providing one standard for healthcare; it hinges on how much money is paid towards multiple corporate insurance providers, who are profiting millions every year. The end state is that Americans’ health will not improve overall due to unpredictable business practices.

This is not the way healthcare should be handled in Colorado or the United States. As someone who has served the State of Colorado as an Army Officer on Active Duty and in the National Guard, as well as in the civil service for the City of Fort Collins, I have learned that healthcare is an essential public service to our citizens in order for them to live healthy and productive lives in their home state. I have been successful in my military and civilian careers as a result of comprehensive healthcare programs. My family and I do not have to worry about paying for our doctor’s visits or medication because it is a service provided with our way of life. Every American should have access to the same opportunities to prosper both economically and socially without fear of having to spend their life savings going to the doctor.

I strongly recommend you reevaluate this bill and reject the passage of it on the Senate Floor. My proposed solution might not be a popular one for you or your party, but I strongly encourage the exploration of a single-payer healthcare solution for all citizens. It has worked for countries outside of the United States, as well as for our military and our veterans. There is no reason why we can’t do the same thing for ordinary citizens of Colorado and the United States. Colorado is known for being one of the healthiest States in the United States, and in order for it to stay that way, the people must be able to pursue their dreams without the fear of losing all their hard-earned money to a corporate insurance firm. Healthcare is not a business; it is a public service necessary to sustain basic human rights, which among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Thank you for your time, and I hope to hear from you soon.

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John T. O’Connell