A Different Way to Honor Veterans

In a classic Twilight Zone episode titled “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” fear of an alien invasion makes the residents of a suburban neighborhood so paranoid and suspicious that they end up turning on each other and destroying their community – much to the delight of the aliens who observe the chaos and self-destruction from afar, where they conclude that the best way to conquer earth is simply to let its inhabitants destroy themselves.

The show was broadcast during the Cold War, but its message remains strong in today’s era when partisanship, polarization and anger pit Americans against each other. To illustrate my point, take a look at this short item that circulated earlier this year on the internet, social network sites and letters to the editor pages:

“Lindsay Lohan, 24, is all over the news because she’s a celebrity drug addict. While Justin Allen, 23, Brett Linley, 29, Matthew Weikert, 29, Justus Bartett, 27, Dave Santos, 21, Chase Stanley, 21, Jesse Reed, 26, Matthew Johnson, 21, Zachary Fisher, 24, Brandon King, 23, Christopher Goeke, 23, and Sheldon Tate, 27, are all Marines that gave their lives this week, no media mention.”

The post makes a good point. In terms of importance, the exploits of the Lindsay Lohans of the world pale in comparison to the life and death issues of war, but the post also generated the same type of anger and finger pointing that spelled doom for the residents of Twilight Zone’s Maple Street. And there was no need for this to happen. Once one examines the facts, contrary to what the post says, there were plenty of news reports about these 12 individuals.

In fact, the reporting was compelling, emotional and gut-wrenching. In many ways, it illustrated just how valuable good journalism can be. The stories painted pictures of these 12 individuals — as people, as fathers, sons, spouses and friends – instead of merely as numbers, statistics or words in Facebook posts. They also captured the emotions and sense of loss felt by their loved ones and the communities they called home.

Here is a sampling of what the media reported about the lives and deaths of these 12 young men:

• JUSTIN ALLEN was an Army Ranger who was planning to get married when he returned home to Ohio. He had hoped to use his military college benefits to launch a career in sports medicine. After Allen’s death, a yellow ribbon on a tree outside his parents’ home was replaced with a black one. (Sources: Columbus [Ohio] Dispatch; Portsmouth [Ohio] Daily Times)

• BRETT LINLEY was a British Royal Marine serving in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment. He died from a bomb explosion while clearing a route in Afghanistan – the type of task he performed frequently. Once, after a fellow soldier was killed by an explosive, Linley risked his own life to recover the soldier’s personal belongings, diffusing additional bombs as he walked delicately through an area filled with explosive devices. “In the space of an hour, on his own, he found three more IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” a commanding officer recalled. “There was no fanfare, he simply dealt with each device, and then silently moved on to the next.” (Source: Evening Standard, London, England)

• When MATTHEW WEIKERT was laid to rest in Jacksonville, Illinois, thousands of people turned out to pay their last respects. So large was the crowd that police closed traffic on one of the community’s main thoroughfares. There was even talk of forming a human chain along the route of the funeral procession. The size of the crowd prompted one of Weikert’s grandparents to remark, “You think God will let Matt take a peek at this?” (Sources: Jacksonville [Illinois] Journal-Courier; State Journal-Register, Springfield, Illinois)

• JUSTUS BARTELT was the first native of Polo, Illinois, to die in combat since Larry Mackey was killed in Vietnam in 1970. Born on the Fourth of July, Bartelt’s last words to his mother before leaving for Afghanistan were, “Don’t worry, mom.” After his death, yellow, and red, white, and blue, ribbons were tied to anything that could not move on city streets. The fire department and a local bar hung signs in Bartelt’s honor, and American flags flanked the grounds of and the entrance to his former high school. (Sources: Journal-Standard, Dixon-Sterling, Illinois; Sauk Valley Newspapers, Freeport, Illinois)

• DAVE SANTOS had a knack for making people laugh. He once offered to bring back a set of goat teeth from Afghanistan for a friend who was missing front teeth. Santos, who had a three-year old son, allegedly was stabbed to death by a fellow Marine, making the loss even more difficult for his family to accept. His father said he wants to meet the Marine accused of killing his son. “I want closure,” he said in an interview. “Like I said earlier, I don’t have any hatred, I just want to know the truth, I want to see and talk to the person who killed my son and ask him why he did it.” (Sources: Daily News, Jacksonville, N.C.; Filipino Reporter, New York, N.Y.; U.S. Fed News)

• CHASE STANLEY grew up in the Napa, California, region, where he enjoyed hunting, fishing, participating in 4-H activities and riding dirt bikes. Friends described Stanley as a joker who could easily make them laugh, recalling with great detail his antics on a camping trip in 2008 after he returned from Iraq. Throughout the evening, he kept his motorcycle goggles on and gave each of his friends special nicknames for the weekend. (Source: Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, California)

• Because JESSE REED loved to golf, five of his friends hit golf balls into the distance as part of a funeral tribute that included bagpipes, a three-volley rifle salute, and the sounds of “Forever Young” and “Born in the U.S.A.” The same priest who baptized Reed’s infant son presided over the ceremony. Reed wanted another child, and this past Christmas, his wife Heather shared the happy news that one was on the way. The soldier’s father David praised the military for the care they offered during such a trying time. “The best explanation I can give you,” he told reporter Jenna Portnoy of the Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania, “is it’s hell on earth to see your kid in a box.” (Sources: Morning Call, Allentown, Pennsylvania; Express-Times, Easton, Pennsylvania)

• MATTHEW JOHNSON enjoyed hunting, fishing, snowboarding, skateboarding and basketball, but his father remembered how he always seemed to enjoy tinkering on projects. “He’d show you what he’d done, to impress or get approval,” he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “You could see the smirk on his face, and you could see that was the thing he liked best in life — making his family and friends happy and proud.” While serving in Afghanistan, Johnson talked by video conference with the 14-year-old twin daughters of his girlfriend’s aunt. They recalled that his head was shaved, his nose was broken, and that when they asked him what the war was like, he compared it to the video game Call of Duty. (Source: St. Paul [Minnesota] Pioneer Press)

• ZACHARY FISHER was considering a post-military career in the medical field, but as a child there was little question about what path he would pursue first. As a boy, he told his father he wanted to be an Army man. When his father explained that he was too young, Fisher answered he wanted to be a policeman, but again his father informed him he was too young, so Fisher asked if he could become a “kid cop”. His father, a retired U.S. Air Force master sergeant, obliged and conducted a special ceremony, appointing his young son a “kid cop”. (Source: The Telegraph, Alton, Illinois)

• The death of BRANDON KING served as a warning that the war in Afghanistan might be entering a new phase. Unlike so many of his fellow soldiers who died from explosives, King was killed by a single, long-range gunshot, raising concerns that the Taliban was being reinforced by foreign fighters armed with AK-47s that they fire with exceptional skill. (Source: Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Florida)

• CHRISTOPHER GOEKE was bright and well-rounded. He was captain of his high school mock trial team, an accomplished drummer, and a deeply religious man who led services for his platoon. At West Point, where he graduated sixth in his class, Goeke once successfully bet a cadet that if he won a tournament, the cadet would have to attend his next Bible study class. Over the summer, he told his father that he planned to build a cabin in the Colorado mountains with him when he returned home. (Source: St. Paul [Minnesota] Pioneer Press)

• One of SHELDON TATE’s final actions was to lead a fellow paratrooper to safety in the midst of the insurgent attack that claimed his own life. His company commander called him a hero; a loved one back home simply called him “Shelly Boo”. Pamela Walck of the Savannah Morning News described this emotional scene in a story documenting the return of Tate’s body: “Tate’s mother, Valerie Moore, clutched her daughter, Ebony, as they sobbed together over the casket. Their muffled cries rolled across the silenced airfield and hung heavy in the air. Walter Moore, Tate’s father, wrapped his arms around both women as Chaplain Capt. Brannon Bowman, chaplain for the 165th Airlift Wing, paused to pray with the family. Then the paratrooper’s remains were saluted and carried away by an Army honor guard unit to the white hearse waiting nearby.” (Sources: Savannah [Georgia] Morning News, Associated Press)

* * *

This month as we observe Veterans Day, there are plenty of ways to honor the men and women who served in our armed forces. Calling Lindsay Lohan a celebrity drug addict is not one of them – nor is making false accusations about the media.

If you want to gain an appreciation for the sacrifices that veterans and their families make, I highly recommend taking some time to read the full news stories written about the 12 young men whose names became a popular Facebook post. The stories won’t pop up with a simple Google search. It takes some work to find them – in databases, libraries and archives. But it’s a task that pales in comparison to what has been done by these 12 men and thousands of others before them.

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