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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#OKLegacies: The standard of grace and hope

It’s time for another anniversary of a dark day.

“The Oklahoma Standard” has guided me in many things throughout my life. Most of all, it has taught me that if you look really hard — grace floats to the top of the depths of pain.

Below is an editorial I wrote for the Cleveland American three years ago, a day after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

The Oklahoma Standard sort of took over my mind that day, so I started writing.

Watching the news come out of Boston served as a reminder of OKC. It was a reminder of hopelessness and of pain.

But even though grace is tough to come by during times of confusion and anger — the 168 souls that perished on April 19, 1995 still teach us grace every single day with their brave Oklahoma spirit still very much alive in the loved ones they left behind.

And the countless compassionate people who led our state through the tunnel and toward the light — then and now — keep our eyes focused on carrying that grace forth.

Here’s that column on Boston from three years ago, which I think is fitting for us on this anniversary of when Oklahoma City was terrorized by cowards.

God bless the 168.


Rescue hope by choking out the hate
By Brandi Ball

Published: 4/17/2013, The Cleveland American

What happened in Boston on Monday rocks my soul.
Bombs placed in a crowd of people, only to incite death and destruction?
I heard someone say afterward: “Bad has always existed. It’s not hard to believe this happened. It’s actually pretty easy to believe it. People are just evil.”
While evil is a concept that dates back almost to the inception of good, I still gasp with disbelief when things like this happen. Because no matter how much tragedy is in our world, I still believe in the good.
I believe that kindness and love reign on this Earth, no matter how much evil tries to encroach.
McViegh blew up OKC, bin Laden blew up NYC, and people all over this world are killed by hate every minute. There are unfeeling people and racists and bullies and people who live to see others suffer.
And, yes, even knowing all of that, it still jolts my soul when an intentional act does harm to others.
Perhaps that’s just my hopefulness taking root, but I always want to be stopped in my tracks with a “this is unbelievable,” look on my face when it comes to seemingly malicious matters. Because the minute I become accustomed to an idea that evil acts inherently occur in my world, that is the moment goodness begins to lose the battle.
I don’t ignore the bad. I’m very aware of its existence. But when we find it easy to believe people can callously take another’s life, that is the moment we feed oxygen to the fire. When evil becomes routine instead of anomaly, that’s when evil begins to take bigger breaths and grow and reproduce. And that’s happening right now, this week, while folks’ hearts are hardening, because constantly being on the outside looking in on tragedy is getting too painful.
My heart is hurting. I overwhelmingly trust in good and believe, on all levels, that it outweighs evil. But some days, in some places like Boston, it wasn’t strong enough. My heart is shattered because I’m disappointed brotherly love can’t always be the victor.
Instead of choosing hatred for those who do evil acts, let our hearts be softened by the heroism performed by clergy, first-responders, police, doctors, nurses, volunteers and even innocent children who are dropped to their knees in prayer.
Why? Because the alternative is too risky.
The only other option will ensure we become caught in raging flames of those evil fires. We can’t be trapped in the backdraft.
Through all the noise, never forget that things of beauty and acts of understanding and kindness are happening in all corners of this Earth. In every country. In every city. In every village. And no matter how many times evil happens this world over — no matter if it’s women being persecuted in the Middle East or genocide in Africa or murderous drug lords in Central America or dictators stealing the dignity of their countrymen or guns being shot at innocent schoolchildren or theater-goers or bombs being set off in a cheerful Boston crowd or an Oklahoma City daycare — I will still be in disbelief, time and time again.
It’s OK to be sad. I am, and deeply so. But take solace in knowing that for every one hateful coward, there are a million-plus good shepherds of society… male, female, young, old, black and white and every other shade of complexion.
We outnumber them.
When bad happens, my heart still will waver in its beating upon the announcement. My soul still will search for a way to write it off as a dream, even though it isn’t possible or logical. And my eyes always will search for those who, instead of flippantly saying, “people are just evil,” are already at work trying to choke out the hate and water the garden of kindness.
Good will win. Honor will prevail over grace.
We can’t succumb to a belief that hate cannot be overcome.
Love is alive.
But we must keep nourishing it or else we also are guilty — not of murder or of evil, but of apathy.
We will be guilty of allowing people to die in vain, all because we forgot the strength of goodness and hopefulness when they stand together as one.
Never forget to look for the grace.

 

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My “Oklahoma Legacies” series is dedicated to chronicling life in my great home state, because ol’ No. 46 makes my heart beat pretty steady and strong. Every person and every place has a story — past and present. These are Oklahoma’s. Click here to see all the posts in my #OKlegacies series.

#OKlegacies: The Hag is gone, but I think he’ll stay

Merle Haggard’s baritone. I mean, c’monnnnn.

It’s smooth. It’s strong. It’s unmistakeable.

Yes, I’m talking about his voice in present tense even though he died today.

That’s the beauty of artists, of people who create. Their physical presence is missed by their family, those who love them most. But because they are artists, writers, musicians who have living, breathing documentation of their life — their talents and connection to people are preserved for all time.

Artists are timeless beyond the grave.

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Oklahoma Legacies: ‘Cash only. Closed Sundays, Hon’

When you walk past the rockin’ chairs out front and perch yourself on a barstool at the Dot’s Cafe counter, you go back in time.

It’s unavoidable.

Just a smidge off Route 66, it’s a little hole-in-the-wall slice of Americana. You’ll pay for your patty melt the same way your grandaddy did, because cash is still king at Dot’s place.

And no matter what the modern cafes do, Dot’s stays closed on the Lord’s day — because as good as those made-from-scratch pies and chicken noodles are, Dot’s leaves Sunday brunch to the ladies in the church fellowship halls. A refreshing taste of yesteryear, with a spunky tone.

When it comes to interesting cities, Claremore is one of Oklahoma’s headliners. With it being the backdrop for one of the most famous musicals of all time and frontage to America’s Main Street as it ushers cross-country travelers through, the home of Will Rogers isn’t too shabby of a spot.

Dot’s has about as much character as the city itself — and it’s had a lot of characters sitting in its booths over the years, too.

Order up some fried taters and homemade biscuits, and get a wink and a smile from the best waitress in town, who happens to be Dot’s granddaughter. Dot may be gone, but her family carries on that decades-long legacy.

Whether you stop in for the atmosphere or for the eats, you’ll leave this diner feeling a little like your soul is whistling Dixie, with a chorus of The Andy Griffith Show theme song.

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My “Oklahoma Legacies” series is dedicated to chronicling life in my great home state, because ol’ No. 46 makes my heart beat pretty steady and strong. Every person and every place has a story — past and present. These are Oklahoma’s.

Click here to see all the posts in my #OKlegacies series.