One came home. One didn’t.


The house full of love waiting for SSG Kirk Owen’s return sat on Freedom Street in Sapulpa. Fitting for a man who went across the globe to give his all in the name of freedom.

Owen never returned to kiss his wife or to see his children’s milestones.

SFC Mike Hamilton (now retired) was a 29-year veteran from Cleveland, Okla., when he was awarded the Purple Heart in 2014.

In accepting the medal, he selflessly deferred all references to heroism and placed them on the memory of Owen and the others who were killed in action during the tour.

Owen died protecting the platoon, Hamilton said.

Memorial Day is about honoring centuries of fallen military members and vowing never to take for granted the ultimate gesture of love for country.

Please pause this Memorial Day and think of Owen and those who have given their all in battle.

Some of them came home. Some of them didn’t.

Two years ago, I was privileged as a journalist to write about the brotherhood that binds Hamilton and Owen… even in death.

Here’s the story as it appeared in The Cleveland American newspaper, May 21, 2014.

 

A warrior’s heart

Humble Cleveland soldier awarded prestigious badge of merit

By Brandi Ball

Lined up in formation at the 41st Street Armory on Sunday, the men and women of the Oklahoma National Guard stood together not only as one group but as one family.

One by one, the soldiers of the HHC First Battalion, 279th Infantry marched off to the side, leaving Sergeant First Class Michael S. Hamilton, of Cleveland, standing at attention.

As his family and friends watched with pride, mouths curved into joyous smiles and eyes brimming with tears, Hamilton reached his hand up to his forehead and saluted his superiors as he was pinned with the Purple Heart.

The world’s oldest military decoration still in use, the Purple Heart is given to a soldier who is wounded or killed in battle. It is wounds like Hamilton’s – incurred during patrol in Afghanistan in 2011 – which mark a soldier’s body and serve as a constant reminder of triumphs and sacrifices alike.

For the 29-year military veteran who has served on three overseas tours (Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan), the piece of brass signifies everything the Army stands for and the promise soldiers make to do whatever it takes.

For some, it took their lives.

Like Staff Sergeant Kirk Owen, who Hamilton said courageously put himself in danger in order to spare his fellow soldiers.

Thankfully, Hamilton’s family – including wife Trish and their children – welcomed him home. Owen’s family didn’t get the same blessing. It’s something Hamilton has vowed never to forget about his fallen friend.

Hamilton said Sunday’s ceremony was “a chance to reflect and give honor to those who didn’t make it home or have already received the Purple Heart.”

After resisting a public ceremony at first out of humility, which most soldiers seem to have in abundance, Hamilton said he later realized he shouldn’t look at the Purple Heart as an individual award. It’s an award for the last name sewn across his chest, yes, but it’s also a way to stand up and honor every member of the Army who risked, fought and paid a price: His military family, his American brothers.

“It is like Col. Kinison said, the Purple Heart is not about me, it is about the soldiers,” Hamilton said. “After some thought, he was absolutely right. It’s about giving honor to those soldiers that didn’t make it home. It is about being humble and grateful that I was not killed and was able to come home to my family. It shows other soldiers that even though you are wounded, you continue with the mission.”

Honoring another’s sacrifice

Hamilton’s last mission, along with others deployed, was to search and face the enemy and protect the people of Afghanistan, he said.

“Each time we left the gate of our forward operation base, we all knew the real mission; it was to protect each other no matter what the cost,” he said. “That is what Kirk Owen did. …The day that Kirk was killed, he chose to be in the lead vehicle. He told SFC Bliss that for this particular mission, he was best suited for the lead vehicle. He knew the route was going to be dangerous. We all knew something bad was going to happen that day. It almost made us sick to our stomachs. Kirk knew and everyone in his platoon knew the risk.”

It’s memories like those of Owen’s final act of bravery that can bring soldiers to their knees. Even though sacrifice is the basic tenet of their jobs, realizing someone else risked it all so you could live changes a soldier. Soldiers not only give of themselves to civilians, but also receive that same gift from their comrades.

“For 8 hours we would stop, soldiers would exit the vehicle, skirt the road searching for IEDs and check every culvert along the route,” Hamilton said. “The members of the platoon would volunteer to change out with the lead vehicle to give those soldiers rest — not just from being tired, but from the mental stress of putting their lives on the line. Those men that I had the privilege of being attached to [the day Owen died] are true heroes. I knew that every time I was attached to the Scout Platoon any one of those soldiers would risk the ultimate sacrifice. Not just for me but anyone that was with them.”

Injuries Hamilton sustained while he was in Afghanistan are lasting. He carries with him many wounds that still plague him daily, although he tries not to let his pain show, and it’s not something on which he wants to focus. His family, however, knows his private struggles.

“I am very proud of Mike,” wife Trish said. “This last deployment has been really tough on him. He knows that he could be consumed by anger if he allowed it, so he tries to stay positive, to cherish life, to cherish family and friends and to remember that The Lord must have a plan for him that still needs to be fulfilled or he wouldn’t be here.”

The greater purpose

As Hamilton said, the mission doesn’t stop because a soldier plants his feet back on American soil again. Likely, for him, it won’t even end with his retirement in June. Soldiers always seem to find a way to keep giving back to society. They hang up the fatigues, but they still are partial to metaphoric camouflage, sowing seeds in private without need for thanks. They might think they are sneaky, but people notice good works.

Trish loves her husband’s servant heart because it has a domino effect on her children and teaches them lessons about life, community and appreciation.

“My kids have always known that their dad did something special, and it was never because of something he did or I said,” Trish said. “Our wonderful community taught them that. They saw the way people looked at him when he was in uniform. They saw how they went out of their way to shake his hand, to say a word of thanks and sometimes even secretively buying his lunch. They saw that he was respected and that is something I am very grateful for.”

And each of the times he was deployed, Trish, who is a teacher at Cleveland High School, saw the community band together to ensure her family was doing OK with its leader across the globe in grave danger. She shared her husband with America, so Cleveland stepped in and took special care of her.

“I know that not all military families have this kind of support,” Trish said. “My mother-in-law, who isn’t from here, was amazed by how our community went out of their way for us. It was proof that we live in the best little town in the world.”

For military families, the fears of the unknown loom every second of every day.

“Seeing an unfamiliar car pull in your driveway can take your breath away as it may mean that they are coming to tell you face to face the devastating news that your soldier didn’t make it,” Trish said. “And I can’t describe the different feeling you get when you miss a call from your soldier in comparison to missing a call from anyone else.”

The cold, hard reality of battle is that the bravest and the best, like Hamilton, sometimes are wounded. The good guys, like Owen, sometimes don’t get a parade or a special ceremony. Sometimes they get a funeral.

“Getting awarded the Purple Heart is a honor, but the true honor of being awarded this medal is always remembering the cost that soldiers like Kirk placed themselves in arms way to protect soldiers like me, that I might come home to (my wife) and the kids,” Hamilton said.

Like many soldiers before him, Hamilton refuses to look at himself as a hero, even though he went through the same risks and dangers as the others. You’ll never hear him admit it.

The real heroes, he says, are the ones like Owen. The real heroes, according to SFC Michael S. Hamilton, are the 14 fellow soldiers in his group who put their lives above everything else and were sent off with a 21-gun salute after a trip home from Afghanistan in a pine box.

Hamilton doesn’t only know about their sacrifices, he benefitted from them. He witnessed them. He lived because of them.

“It is one thing to hear about [heroes] in ceremonies or at a graveyard service,” Hamilton said. “It is another thing to be able to witness it firsthand, to be one of those soldiers that Kirk and the members of his crew protected. So for me, it gives a different meaning of being awarded the Purple Heart.”

And on Sunday in that armory, the true colors of a soldier’s heart bled through.

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