Archives For Iraq

March 26th, 2013 marks the 10th Anniversary of the Airborne assault during OPERATION Iraqi Freedom to establish the northern front. That invasion was the first sortie in a conflict of a different kind than those that came before. For one, today’s military is made purely of volunteers. Therefore, unlike previous wars, it is harder to personally know someone who fought in it. For another, the Iraq War changed how we understood wars to be fought. The demarcated battle lines of World War II or the Cold War were replaced by an invisible enemy. Even the name “The War on Terror,” suggest a combat of ideas more than adversaries.

I am thankful to come from a family of many whom have proudly served our military. As I’ve written before, although I have not served, I believe it is a mission of mine to tell their stories. That’s why I would like to introduce you to my cousin, the young 2nd Lieutenant Shane Kelley, and share a piece of his story.

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Meet my cousin, Major Shane Kelley. In this picture he is being promoted to Captain in Afghanistan (courtesy of Major Shane Kelley)

I was blessed to see my cousin Shane just a couple of weeks before he left for Italy to join the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The war in Iraq was looming, and after 9/11 some called the men and women insane who volunteered to be the first in harm’s way. Yet, he was determined to take on this new challenge in life. It was inevitable that Shane would face combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Shane had finished college earlier in 2002 and was in Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at Radford University. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the Infantry after graduation, and attended Officer Basic Course, Ranger School, and Airborne School before heading to the 173rd Airborne. In a conversation before he left, we spoke a lot about what was ahead in the Army. He had been training for four years, and he told me, “Dave, we are ready to go. We just need a mission.” Soldiers aren’t meant to be idle. They are created to fight and protect. And my cousin was ready to go. A few weeks later, he boarded a plane for Italy; he was on his way. I’d read enough books and watched enough movies to know that our conversation may have been the last conversation we ever had.

The first words Shane heard from his first Company Commander were,

“Welcome to Italy, we’re jumping into Iraq.”

It was time and immediately he and his fellow soldiers went into preparation. They were about to embark on the largest combat airborne operation since World War II (1000 troops). The jump was also the longest combat operation in airborne history, over 1800 miles from Vicenzia to Iraq.

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Preparation for the jump in Aviano (photo by Sean LaFrenier)

I remember sitting at my desk at work when the invasion of Iraq began. What a dichotomy between what I was reading in the comfort of my warm office and my cousin literally stuck in the mud in Northern Iraq!

Later, Shane was asked to keep a blog. He recorded his jump experience in the post The Six Jump Chump. I think it is one of his most fascinating stories. Shane recounted,

…this five-hour flight seemed to last a month. Some slept. Some reviewed notes. Some even cried. I spent the time envisioning the mission on the ground and reviewing all of my tasks in my head.  Eventually we snapped every snap, buttoned every button, hooked every hook and tightened every strap of our equipment; each of us now weighing an additional 140 lbs. on average.

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C-17s lined up at the airfield (courtesy of the 173rd Airborne)

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Soldiers seated on their C-17 during their long flight to Iraq (courtesy of the 173rd Airborne)

It was Shane’s first jump from a C-17, and he stumbled and hit the side of the plane on the way out.

I slowly began to spin… and then quickly began to spin, until my risers freed up and I was now ready to control my decent to the ground.  I looked up and checked my canopy, thankfully seeing a fully open parachute above me.  Now time to look below me and… PLOP!  My feet sank into the mud below me… I was already on the ground.

Next up was finding everyone in his platoon while carrying over 100 lbs of gear through the mud. With that jump and those steps, Shane’s war, and his military career, had begun.

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A soldier from Shane’s company in the 173rd Airborne taking a kneel in Northern Iraq the morning after the jump (courtesy of the 173rd Airborne)

I still have the letter that Shane wrote to me from Northern Iraq describing the jump, and I will cherish it and share with my own girls when they are older.

I am thankful for my cousin Shane as well as all of those who have sacrificed careers, families, limbs, and even their lives to protect us. We live in a complicated and gray political world, but I am inspired today by his words to me before he left for war.

“We are ready. Just give us a mission.” He went on to serve two more combat tours: one in Afghanistan (2006) and once more in Iraq (2009).

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Eternal thanks to my cousin Shane as well as the multiple others, including his lovely wife Tiffany, who have served to protect us. It has been a joy to play together with Shane as children and as adults see each other find our ways.

*****Tomorrow, I will be posting an interview with my cousin, now Major Shane Kelley. You will hear from him directly and learn more about his experience.*********

If you have not seen the movie, Taking Chance (2009), it is a must for any American to get a unique perspective on how to treat military who are lost through the eyes of a funeral escort. Based on the true story, Kevin Bacon plays a Marine Colonel who served in Desert Storm in 1991 but for several reasons, mainly having a young family and served so long in the military, decided to focus on serving  in 2003-4 in the mainland. He felt guilty not going over to Iraq or Afghanistan and made the decision to escort this young man who perished, Chance Phelps, to his family. It was highly uncommon for a high-ranking officer like him to escort a PFC. Along the way he witnesses many things that helped him understand why he needed to do this and honor those who fought in his place. It was as if a parade of honor opened up on the week-long trip to take Chance home. Kevin Bacon’s character was the escort of a hero.

Today I am 34 and amazed at the drive and sacrifice of friends and so many others younger than me who have fought and in some cases died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Regardless of your political thoughts on war, there is something special about serving your country, especially the military. I come from a long line of family that have served in the military and as a writer I am always interested in listening to them and helping tell their story.

Previously, I have written my thoughts on the military and why I did not serve. I recognize that I’m not off the hook. Neither are you if you did not serve.

The need us and we need them. Even though we don’t serve, how should we act? Here are seven helpful ways we all can make a difference for those who served:

  1. Help give them purpose. A job is just a job but a purpose in a job can have eternal impact. The group,The Mission Continues is focused on that and I’d love to find ways to help them more. If you are an employer, give each resume or meeting with a veteran a second look. Their skills may not look standard but they most likely understand hard work and leadership better than anyone else.
  2. Listen. I can only imagine what these young men and women have gone through and plenty suffer from PTSD. Engage them and listen to their stories. They may not want to tell you much but give them your all. It is therapy sometimes for them to share and we also show respect by hearing them out.
  3. Donate: Donate to your local VFW, USOWounded Warrior Project, Operation Stand Down, or Operation Homefront. It’s easy and enables you to fund those who are already making a difference.
  4. Plant flags: Plant flags with Boy Scouts during Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Veteran’s Day at National Cemeteries. My father helps The Veterans of The Battle of the Bulge do this and other things to help.
  5. Give up your seat: If you are a traveling businessperson and have a great seat on a plane, especially in 1st Class, give up your seat for a veteran or uniformed soldier.
  6. Give a Homecoming Party: If you aren’t disgusted by the way some Vietnam veterans were treated when coming home, then we have an opportunity as this generation to show what we’re made of and honor them properly. To my knowledge, The Mission Continues was the first major entity to organize an Iraq homecoming parade for soldiers in St. Louis in 2012 and it drew in the hundreds of thousands. Wow.
  7. Teach your kids: If you have children, encourage your kids to find a unique way to help troops. When she was around 10 years old, my cousin Ryan and Mandy’s daughter Victoria asked friends to come to her birthday and instead of bringing presents, give money to supporting troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan with presents and supplies. She raised almost $2,000. What an example and what legacy go give our children.

Last, never stop praying for them.

The victory in serving them well comes with action.

Stand up and serve them as they have served you.

What are some other great ways you see to help veterans?