The day that angered us, changed us and gave us purpose

In my home, I have a framed fabric flag. The edges are worn and unraveling. The color is faded from its days in the sun.

I purchased it on Sept. 13, 2001.

After the 9/11 attacks, I sat on my couch, unmoved, for two days. I constantly watched the news. I called in sick to work. I was in college at Oklahoma State University then (on the seven-year plan), and I skipped classes that week because I was glued to the coverage. The death and destruction of average people just going about their lives was angering and  sickening. It still was unbelievable, even after the OKC bombing, even as I was watching live coverage as men and women were jumping from the Twin Towers to their deaths.

Beautiful souls with families and life left to live, but the cowards gave them no choice. They already had stolen their futures long before that — the second they decided and planned to use planes as weapons to kill.

Like so many other Americans, I watched in horror with an overwhelming want to pitch in, but I didn’t know how or what to do. On the 13th, I went to Walmart and purchased one of those 10-inch fabric flags on a stick. Since I lived a few blocks from campus in an apartment over a garage, I didn’t have a place to fly a big flag from a porch.

I settled for my little Walmart flag instead. I removed the stick and I stapled the corners of it to the rail of the stairs that went up to my apartment. When I moved to Chicago, it was taped up in the tiny window in my bedroom closet, which faced the courtyard of my building in Wrigleyville. When I moved to North Carolina, it had its own place in my underwear drawer. I framed it when I moved home to Oklahoma, and I am reminded of its meaning every day.

Back then, that $2 flag made me feel like I was doing something to help, or at least to recognize, those directly affected by horrific acts of terror – acts of war.

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A few years ago, I decided to take it a step further and I asked myself, “What can you do to make this world a better place?”

I recalled sitting in an upper-level history class the week after the 9/11 attack. My professor made an announcement. He said he wanted all of us to know that the young man who usually sat on the end of the third row had withdrawn from school to join the Air Force. He went to enlist on Sept. 12. We had a moment of silence to pray individually for him and then all 100 of us sat unmoved for what seemed like forever before the prof dismissed class early with these words…

“Whatever your calling is in life, do it with purpose.”

It took me a few years to establish my purpose. With family members and dear friends who have served the United States in uniform, I figured there was no better way to honor their bravery, and those still sacrificing, than to “adopt” members of the military,

I first chose a group of Texans, because a PFC who was serving as his unit’s liaison wrote a moving care package request to AnySoldier.com that said this:

“It would be nice to read not only things from the national scene, but local things as well. Things like which kid won the area spelling bee, or the 4-H competition. It doesn’t really matter which state or town the paper’s from… any city in America is home to us all.”

I sobbed instantly, and through the tears, I requested that particular unit’s address. Reading that excerpt made me realize I most definitely was doing the right thing by writing to random soldiers fighting for America’s protection. Because, like he wrote in that email, no matter who read my letter, no matter what state or town the soldier was from …any soldier serving America is a hero to us all.

After a few care packages, some correspondence and many thank yous on both ends, the military moved “my” unit to an undisclosed location where it was unable to receive mail. I was worried about those soldiers like I would have been about my own brother or sister. Every time bad news hit about Iraq, I shuddered. I almost was too scared to find out to which unit the fallen belonged. Two months later, I found out my entire unit was resting on America’s shores, safe and sound until its next mission. I was relieved, but I knew there were others out there, fighting in much worse areas of the world, some very remote and practically uncivilized.

So again, I went to AnySoldier.com and scrolled through the list, but this time I just closed my eyes and chose a name. With a click of the mouse, I was new friends with a unit from Virginia serving in Afghanistan.

And the next day I wrote, among other more lighthearted things, this message in a letter:

“…Because I don’t know what information you are able to receive about life back in the states, I feel as though it is necessary to tell you this: I suppose there always will be clashing opinions when it comes to war, but know that everyone I come in contact with and everyone I know has an enormous amount of respect and supports your mission fully. Like you, we all hope that casualties will be low and morale will remain high.

I can tell you that DAILY, I pray for peaceful resolutions and the safe return of all the men and women who are on foreign soil. I try to say a silent “thank you” often. And, in case you are wondering, I am not even close to being alone in doing so. I hear so many people talk about how proud they are of those who are showing such courage. It makes me think about how wonderful God is, in that there are so many people suited for so many different things in life, but He made the hearts of soldiers so large that they are willing to protect people they don’t even know. American people. Iraqi people. Afghans. People all over the world are on the receiving end of your courage, and they live better lives for it. I am not sure of your religious beliefs, but I do know that the Lord is protecting you, just as you protect complete strangers.”

I received a heartfelt email response from the unit’s 1SG (typos included):

“Dear Ms. Ball,
Thank you for your support of the troops. The letter you wrote made our men and women tear up and even smile. They are soldiers and trained well but the appreciation shown by civilians like you are what keeps them goin. Words cant express what it means when these soldiers receive a letter from the states. i believe that the Lord will bless you in your life because of the kindness you have in your heart.

The hunting and sports magazines and newspapers you sent are a good distraction. The women are thankful someone thought to send a Cosmo or two. They were fighting over them!!! It is nice to take a break and read things like magazines and books and pretend that there isn’t a war going on and it’s nice to remember that there are people back home who depend on us and who appreciate the sacrifices our men and women are making everyday. Please pass this along to all of your friends that we hope they will keep praying for us all!!!

Sometimes its tough but I guess the thing that gets most of us by is that we know that a few months of danger for us means lord willing many years of safety for our families and our country. Life here for me isn’t really so bad. Im proud to be here and proud to serve and i miss my wife and girls, but i belong to my country and i am proud to be here helping guide these young soldiers in their paths. Things could be worse and for some of these guys it is. One of the men here just found out that his wife back home in South Carolina has cancer. When i start to feel sorry for myself in this hell hole -I think about him and how strong he is to be here and be so far away from his loved ones and how strong his beautiful Chelsea is to be going through her illness alone right now. Soldiers like that are everywhere here and they just get up and keep going because they feel like they have a purpose.

please keep the mail coming, because they need all the morale boost they can get. mostly everyone is focused and keeps up their spirits, but this is a rough country and sometimes we spend weeks in places you would not dream about going but we’ll get through and be better people because of it. Hopefully we’ll have a better country because of it also.

Thank you from the bottom of all of our hearts. We look forward to your next package. We enjoy the things you sent and if they’re donations please extend thanks for us. You don’t have to send things but we sure do appreciate it. sometimes a nice letter is enough.

God Bless you and God Bless The USA.”

And I sobbed again. That was not my first correspondence with a soldier in battle, but it’s something you never get used to. It still is mind-boggling to think there are people out there who care so much for my freedom, my safety, my corner of the country… that they would put their lives on the line.

Sure, we hear that every day. Soldiers are heroes, yada, yada, blah, blah. People sometimes say those words with such ease that I wonder if they even understand their depth. But I urge you — the next time you say them — think about it. Really, really think about the power behind those words and try to picture, for one moment, what a day in the life of a military member in time of war would be like.

And think about “my” First Sergeant, who had the right to ask his fellow Americans for anything and everything he wanted. He, and thousands like him, gave up their own lives because they felt a calling to protect us. He could have asked for ANYTHING and he should have.

But instead, he simply said, “a nice letter is enough.”

That little worn-out flag stapled to my staircase in 2001 made me feel as though I was doing something to help. And now, I suppose this blog post is my way of helping. Please utilize the AnySoldier.com service. Do it with your children. The idea of it is decades-old, dating back to when Americans would address a handwritten envelope to “Dear Any Serviceman,” and send it abroad during World War II. Now you can use the Internet to narrow it down to hometown kids or people from your state. There also are sister organizations: AnyMarine, AnySailor, AnyAirman, AnyCoastGuard.

If America is to succeed in suffering as few casualties abroad as possible, it really does begin with support on the homefront.

I didn’t pen this post looking for a pat on the back for what I’ve done in this regard, so please, no thank yous to me are necessary.

But a simple thank you card sent to “Any Soldier” could be your little worn-out flag moment.

Like the young man at the end of the third row — whatever your calling is, do it with purpose.

 

 

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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