Remembering Army Ranger and NFL Player Pat Tillman


Pat Tillman, former NFL player.

The VA marked the start of the 2019 National Football League season with a VAntage Blog entry commemorating the service of Pat Tillman. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Tillman finished his 2001 NFL season and then enlisted in the U.S. Army.

He completed Army Ranger School in late 2003 and deployed. Tillman was killed April 22, 2004 in Afghanistan.

In a previous Off the Base blog post, I shared a portion of Tillman’s “Just In Case Letter” he left his wife, Marie Tillman shared in her new book, The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss, & Life:

  • Just in case I don’t come back I want the money used to put the boys through college.
  • Just in case I don’t come back I want you to know that I was fighting for my country: my country is you and our babies and my mom and my sisters.
  • Just in case I don’t come back I want you to know that you were everything a wife was supposed to be. That you made my life happy. That even though we didn’t have 50 years together, the five we did have were the fullest, richest years anyone could ever want.

But Tillman’s life did not end there.

Marie Tillman created the Tillman Scholars Foundation “empowering the next generation of leaders.”

I’ve had the privilege to interview several Tillman Scholars over the years. They are remarkable military veterans and spouses with even larger dreams and a passion for service and scholarship, among them:

So as you cheer on your favorite NFL team this weekend, you might also consider a “shout out” to the memory of Tillman and the team of Tillman Scholars who contribute daily to better our world.

18 Veterans Ready To Skate, Ski And Curl Their Way To Gold

USA Paralympian Jen Lee in goal. Photo courtesy: US Department of Veterans Affairs.

The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics flame is extinguished – but that doesn’t end the quest of U.S. athletes for gold.

Opening Friday, March 9, at the same South Korean venue, Team USA will field 74 athletes to compete in the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games.

And one quarter, 18, of those athletes are veterans and active-duty military.

And, as a confessed hockey fan, I’m proud to say a third of veterans are playong on the USA sled hockey team:

Thanks to the work of Mike Molina, a VA public affairs specialist, and VAntage Point author Mei-Mei Chun-Moy, a VA intern, you can meet all 18 of the veterans on Team USA competing in the 2018 Winter Paralympics.

You can read their story in VAntage Point, the official blog of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

And you also can follow the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games here.

Troop Appreciation Dinner: ‘A Chance To Be Normal’

Below is a guest column and photos from Althea Paul, Vistra Corporate Communications Manager. She coordinated news coverage of the Tampa Troop Appreciation Dinner for the sponsors, Freedom Alliance and Texas de Brazil.


Army 1st Lt. Victor Prato with his parents, Janet and Gregory.

It’s a Wednesday night, around dinnertime. U.S. Army 1st Lt. Victor Prato is enjoying a nice meal with his parents at Texas de Brazil in Tampa. It may sound typical for some, but this evening is so much more than dinner.

Prato is surrounded by other wounded service members, who like him, are being treated at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital. In total, about 60 service members and their families are there.

The 25-year-old is recovering from soft tissue injuries that, for now, have left him in a wheelchair. In November 2017, Prato was wounded while on patrol in Afghanistan after a suicide bomber drove into the vehicle carrying him and several others.  Prato is not sure if he will ever walk again.

“It’s always nice to be out of the hospital room,” said Prato. “It’s hard to lose your privacy, independence and ability to walk – all at the same time.” Continue reading

West Point Women Reflect On Marines’ Nude Photo Scandal

Laura Westley and Carol Barkalow are both West Point graduates and authors of memoires about their military experiences.
Bobbie O’Brien / WUSF Public Media

The recent scandal over Marines sharing nude photos of female Marines online hasn’t demoralized some women veterans. Two female West Point graduates from Florida refuse to let it overshadow recent gains women have made in the military. And they have some ideas on how to prevent similar incidents.

The United States Military Academy at West Point didn’t even accept women in their ranks until 1976. Carol Barkalow was in that first class. She graduated in 1980 and served 22 years in the Army.

Barkalow remembers how female cadets were hazed and harassed back then. But she said women have made progress since, even in light of the nude photos.

“There is some good news with this, even though what they did was horrible,” Barkalow said. “Now, we have the social media and the interest to try at last to get the military to understand that we are a vital part of this force. We are never going away and some very basic things have to change within our military.”

West Point has come a long way over the last 40 years, she said. It now has a female dean of students and female commandant.

“But what we have to have – we have to have women, general officers admirals in every rank in each of the services. So much so that, when you walk in a room, it’s not just one woman, it’s not just two women, it’s a number of women sitting at the table and have the ability to influence our future,” Barkalow said.

Barkalow, who lives in Pinellas County, is friends with 2001 West Point graduate Laura Westley, who grew up in New Port Richey. Continue reading

A Student’s Graveside Eulogy For A WWII Soldier In France

Largo High School student Konner Ross reads her eulogy for Private Leo Chalcraft at his graveside at the Normandy American Cemetery in late June.

Largo High School student Konner Ross reads her eulogy for Private Leo Chalcraft at his graveside at the Normandy American Cemetery in late June.

Largo High School senior Konner Ross was one of 15 students selected for “The Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student & Teacher Institute silent hero project”. Fifteen teams of high school students and their teachers from around the country team up to research a soldier, sailor or airman from their home state, who is buried in Normandy.

The Normandy Institute program also includes an all-expenses paid trip to Normandy to visit important sites from WWII. It culminates with the teens writing a eulogy for their selected, “silent hero” and reading it aloud at their graveside at the Normandy American Cemetery.

Here is the eulogy Ross wrote for one of St. Petersburg’s fallen soldiers from World War II:


Born into the Great Depression, Leo Kenneth Chalcraft lived in a family where his father had to work jobs like selling ice just to get by. Leo quit school after the fifth grade to go work as a gas station attendant.

He did not have an easy childhood. He lived in a town where the war was full throttle. St. Petersburg, Florida was a place where many soldiers trained to go overseas.

Private Chalcraft, a black panther in the 66th Infantry Division, was only 19 years old when he died in the sinking of the Leopoldville – a story almost too horrible and tragic to believe.

The Leopoldville was a Belgium transport ship headed toward Cherbourg, France on Dec. 24, 1944. The soldiers destined for the Battle of the Bulge. (The ship was hit by a German torpedo.)

Five miles from the shore the Belgium crew was reported to have taken a soldier’s knife, cut a lifeboat and sailed away, laughing and joking in Flemish.

The crew left the soldiers on the ship. Leaving them to do the only thing they could do, wait for rescue or jump into the frigid water.

Leo and his fellow 66th members stood on a sinking ship, stuck in a situation that certainly called for panic, but they were absolutely calm coming together to sing the national anthem to honor their country one last time.

During a time of war, everyone expects to make sense of death. They understand that people die in war. They understand that many people they know probably will not come home. But they expect that those deaths will be fighting for the cause of freedom.

Leo never had his chance to fight for freedom. For the two-and-a-half hours the Leopoldville was just sitting on the water that Christmas Eve, most of the men could have been rescued. But they were not. Of the 2,235 infantry men on that boat over 700 men could do nothing but walk into the water, including Leo.

Leo once wrote in a letter to his mother, “I think that when this war is over, and I get back home, I will take a trip and come over to see what it looks like after it is fixed up and the lights are lit up.”

I am right now in a place where he wanted to go. He would have loved to see this spot right here. I’m able to see the things that he wanted to see. I’m able to see the lights lit up.

Somehow Leo, I hope you know that everyone remembers you.

You’ve not been forgotten. For the rest of her life, your mother never again celebrated Christmas. Your niece, Albert’s daughter, was close to your mother and knew all about you. Albert’s wife Charlotte still to this day preserves your possessions.

And now I know you and I’ll never forget you.

My brother passed away at the age of 19, the same age as Leo. I have never in my life felt anything so painful. The loss of someone so young, someone who will never experience or see so many things that you can, changes you forever. Everything reminds you of them.

And I know now that this is how Leo’s family felt. I know that they had never felt anything more painful and for that, I am forever heartbroken.

He wasn’t a fighter pilot, a paratrooper, any of those people that are glorified in the movies. He was what most soldiers in WWII were, normal men who were called to serve their country, men who were too young to know yet what they were going to do with their lives. They still traveled thousands of miles away from home to fight for this country. That’s what most of the men were.

And without those men, just like you Leo, we would never have won the war.

WWII Silent Heroes Brought To Life By Younger Generation

Omaha Beach in the background where Pvt. Leo Chalcraft is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, on September 27, 2013, at Colleville-sur-Mer, France. (Photo by Warrick Page - American Battle Monuments Commission)

Omaha Beach in the background where Pvt. Leo Chalcraft is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, on September 27, 2013, at Colleville-sur-Mer, France. (Photo by Warrick Page – American Battle Monuments Commission)

Army Private Leo Kenneth Chalcraft was a green-eyed, brown-haired teen from St. Petersburg, FL when he was killed in action in World War II.

It happened just six days after his 19th birthday.

Today, his grave is among the 9,387 military dead buried in France at the Normandy American Cemetery that overlooks Omaha Beach. There, 72 years ago this June 6, U.S. troops stormed the beaches on D-Day, marking the beginning of the end of World War II.

“He was so young and I feel like he didn’t get to experience a lot of his life,” said Konner Ross, a 17-year-old who lives in Largo, near St. Petersburg. Continue reading

Florida Teen Selected To Write Eulogy For WWII Silent Hero

leo k chalcraft

U.S. Army Private Leo K. Chalcraft drowned off the coast of Normandy Christmas Eve 1944, just weeks after turning 19.

The toughest writing assignment 16-year-old Konner Ross will have this year is to write a eulogy for a young man she’s never met. But there’s a part of him the Largo High School junior never forget – his green eyes.

“They have his wallet from when they found it on the beach and on his identification card, it says (he has) green eyes and brown hair,” Ross said. “I didn’t know he had green eyes until then. So, that seems like something small, but it was really cool to learn for some reason.”

Ross is describing U.S. Army Private Leo K. Chalcraft, a St. Petersburg native drafted to serve in World War II. He drowned off the coast of France in 1944 on Christmas Eve, just weeks after turning 19. Continue reading

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