A “Hometown” Medal of Honor Ceremony for Dakota Meyer

Tampa's ceremony to remember fallen Marine Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Kenefick and celebrate Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Dakota Meyer.

Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer received the Medal of Honor Thursday for saving the lives of more than three dozen U.S. and Afghan forces. Yet, during that six-hour fire-fight he was unable to save his buddies – three Marines – a Navy Corpsman and an Army soldier.

Meyer wrote a letter to the families of the fallen asking them to hold ceremonies in their hometowns rather than attend the Medal of Honor ceremony in Washington D.C.

A majority of those who attended were veterans.

One of those hometown events took place outside under a bright Florida sun at Tampa’s Patriot Corner, Bayshore and Bay to Bay boulevards.Dozens of veterans, active duty military and citizens, most held an American flag. They lined Tampa’s heavily traveled, scenic road that curves along the bay from MacDill Air Force Base to downtown.

They were there to honor Marine Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Kenefick – one of five teammates that Sgt. Dakota Meyer tried to save.

Kenefick’s mother, Susan Price, helped arrange the ceremony to celebrate the heroic efforts of Sgt. Dakota Meyer and to remember her son.

“Dakota is a special breed of human being and part of him died that day he was on the other side of the radio listening to two hours of calls for help,” Price said.

A rifle volley, a poem, a prayer, the unveiling of a portrait of Kenefick and the release of a butterfly were all part the ceremony.

A portrait of Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Kenefick by Greg Crumbly, also a veteran, who does commemorative portraits of fallen warriors and presents the works to their families for free.

Multiple Deployments: A New Reality for a New Military

Master Sergeant Nation holds a photo of he 8-year-old daughter - he's been deployed for half of her life.

I wrote a headline earlier this week that the “military continues to pay the price for 9/11.” Not all of that cost is in blood, the price also is exacted in how military families live their lives.

“You deploy for a year, then you come back, you have another honeymoon, then you deploy for another year,” said Master SG Milt Nation, a military policeman who joined the Army in 1989. He joined because he always wanted to be a cop. He’s deployed a lot to Bosnia and Croatia “but those were peacetime deployments.”

Nation has deployed five times since 9-11, three times to Iraq, once to Afghanistan and once to Qatar. He’s currently assigned to U.S. Central Command Headquarters at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base. I met him at the CENTCOM 9/11 ceremony on Friday.

With so many deployments I asked how that affects his family. He pulled out a photograph of his daughter, Alexandria.

Nation has deployed five times since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he is currently assigned to CENTCOM.

“She turned 8 years old, but I’ve only known her four years of her life with all the deployments that I’ve gone on,” Nation said. “I’m just actually balancing it out right now, to know her, to see her and be a dad. So, I have fun.”

“All soldiers know they’re going to have to deploy to one of those two places (Afghanistan or Iraq) and they expect that and the leadership expects that,” Nation said adding that today’s soldier is different, “I joined a long time ago in ’89 for a different reason, for college and for an  experience to be a police officer. But they joined just to help out our country combat on terrorism and I thought that was very honorable, it surprised me just young kids just joined to come over and deploy

He said families learn to deal with deployments taking it day-to-day and technology has been a great help – with the internet and phones – keeping families connected. But he added that it’s important they don’t get distracted.

“Sometimes you’ve got to stay focused about what’s happening with the mission and the families they have to focus what’s going on at school or with the kids,” Nation said. “At the end you’ve got to have that relationship where you come back and try to bond with each other again.”

Nation has two Purple Hearts from his deployments in Iraq and he still loves what he does being a military policeman.

Deploying Air Force Officer Opts for a Short Good-Bye

Air Force 1st Lt. Mark Graff prior to deploying to Afghanistan.

President Obama is slowly drawing down forces in Afghanistan and talk in Washington focuses on how to get out. But replacement troops arrive there every day to train the Afghan forces and help rebuild the country.

One of those is 1st Lt. Mark Graff. Until a few  months ago, he was the public affairs officer at MacDill’s 6th Air Mobility Wing in Tampa, Florida. Now, he’s serving for 9 months on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Farah, Afghanistan.

The airman talked with me just days before his deployment for three months of combat training and then joining his team in Afghanistan.

“The sense of upheaval in one person’s life or in a marriage is just immeasurable,” Graff said. “Professionally, I’m still very excited to get started because joining ROTC years ago, this is something that you hear about, your first deployment. I feel like I’m reaching one of those milestones in my young career.”

But, emotionally and personally he admitted to a building nervousness and anxiousness.

Graff had been married less than five months when he left for combat training. He’ll spend his first anniversary in Afghanistan. They understood deployment was in his future even though his first assignment out of college ROTC was to the Public Affairs Office at MacDill.

Graff holds the two lucky acorns he picked up prior to deployment. He kept one and gave one to his wife.

The Air Force officer talked with his wife and they mutually agreed how they would say good-bye when he left.

“She’s not a fan of long good-byes and I suppose I am really not either,” Graff said. “Over a glass of wine (we) just agreed she’ll drop me at the airport, I’ll unload the bags and we’ll say our good-byes then and there.”

Graff and his wife wanted to avoid “spending that last one-and-a-half hours in the airport with that black cloud sitting over us,”

He did give her a card and a lucky acorn. He picked up two, one for him and the other for her while in the woods during a visit home to Illinois. It’s a habit he developed, randomly picking up something to fidget with while hunting. She teases him about it, but to him they’re lucky charms and now they each have one while he’s deployed.

We’ll be checking in with 2nd Lt. Graff during his deployment and as he reaches milestones like mid-tour R and R, when he receives his next assignment and when  he returns to Tampa completing his first deployment.

A previous version had 1st Lt. Graff at his former rank of 2nd Lt. Congratulations on the promotion!

An Air Force Wife’s Thoughts on Memorial Day

Military personnel and civilians join together to line the streets at MacDill AFB for every "Fallen Hero Homecoming."

This Memorial Day I couldn’t help but reflect on some of my new experiences of the past few months. I have attended my first few Fallen Hero homecomings since moving to Tampa last summer.

Each time, the sidewalks on MacDill Air Force Base slowly fill. People mingle and talk and joke with one another. Some are in uniforms, some are in office attire. Some hold flags, some, like me, hold babies. It is always quite a cross-section regardless of where I’ve stood.

As the first police cars or motorcycles come into view, a silence takes over. Even fussy babies and rambunctious toddlers seem to know that it is time to be quiet as they watch the cars drive by. Of course, the hearse carrying the guest of honor gets my attention, but I can’t help but get choked up looking at the family members in cars behind. They clutch to their cameras. They gasp and cover their mouths. They are stoic and yet you can see that their eyes are glossy and red from tears.

Dayton National Cemetery where Michelle along with the Girl Scouts place flags on every grave annually for Memorial Day.

The families are the reason I attend these homecomings. The journey is over for the soldier but it is just beginning for the parents, spouses, and children. I will continue to take my daughter with me because I want her to respect the sacrifices of others. I know that I am fortunate that my husband does not deploy too often.

Watching a story about the American Widow Project on the Today Show this morning, I caught myself thinking “Wow, I want to do that.” I then realized, no, no I don’t want to be able to be part of that organization.  I can’t imagine going through losing my husband. Those spouses are who my heart goes out to on days like Monday.

Treats for Troops boxed up and awaiting shipping.

When my husband and I lived in Ohio, we participated in placing flags on the grounds at the Dayton National Cemetery through the Girl Scouts. I always found it interesting to listen to the children talk about what they were doing and how much pride they took in placing the flags just right. I plan to find a way to participate in something similar next year here in Tampa.

There are so many great organizations that do so much for military members and their family’s year round. There are organizations here in the Tampa area that I hope to volunteer with when I am able to. Operation Homefront Florida has a variety of events throughout the state. I recently began working on collecting items for care packages for Treats for Troops.

Memorial Day, and every day, I am thankful for all that have served to make this a great country and to those that serve today to keep it that way. Thank you to their families that support them as well.

Michelle VanHuss is an Air Force wife, Off the Base contributor and member of the MacDill Enlisted Spouses Club. Her other entries include:

Finding a Balance: Redefining Myself as an Air Force Wife

Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

A Special Memorial Day for Special Operations Forces

A bronze statue of a special forces warrior keeps vigil at Special Operatons Memorial on MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, FL.

Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes – the recent success of U.S. Special Forces taking out Osama Bin Laden is rooted in the failed attempt to rescue the  American hostages in Iran. That 1980 mission also created awareness of the need for better coordination of joint military operations.

In 1987, Congress created the U.S. Special Operations Command, SOCOM, based at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base. Its creation also cemented the mindset of the Special Forces warrior whether Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines.

They are known as the “tip of the spear” – the first to go into dangerous regions. While the world learned of the Osama Bin Laden operation – most Special Forces’ missions never become public.

Former special forces officer Geoff Barker oversees the memorial and raising money to keep it going.

A handful of military professionals wanted to assure that their fellow Special Forces’ comrades would not be forgotten. So they conceived of the Special Operations Memorial and raised money to build it.

“A special operations’ warrior is a volunteer, who has seen where the action is and wants to go into where the action is,” said Geoff Barker, who served with both British and U.S. Special Forces. “There’s a vast huge bond between all of the services and all of the special operation forces. We all work together.”

Barker is a co-ounder of the memorial and serves as president of the Special Operations Memorial Foundation. He carries with him a thick notebook that includes the names of all those killed, each has an engraved tile on the wall. He places each tile himself.

There also are tribute tiles – on the exterior walls for donors – the interior walls are only for those who have qualified as special forces.

One donor purchased tiles for Special Forces members he fought with in WWII, another for his Special Forces’ teammates from the Vietnam War.

The memorial’s first design had four walls clad in tiles. The four walls formed a square. In the middle was a bronze statue of a Special Forces’ warrior holding his weapon – at the ready – peering out to the street and further to the bay.

That bronze warrior is all that is left of the original memorial which held 306 names of special forces members killed in action or training  from 1980 through 9/11 including the name of one Special Forces officer who was killed on 11 September 2001 when the aircraft crashed in to the Pentagon.

But due to those very terrorist attacks, there’s been a dramatic increase in special operations and in the loss of personnel. It required a redesign so the memorial could hold more names.

The new design was completed in 2007. Its black walls now curve to form the shape of a spear tip.

A gray brick walkway forms the shaft of the spear. The bronze statue of the special ops warrior remains at the center. Behind him is the wall that holds the names of all Special Forces members who have been awarded The Medal of Honor or the Victoria Cross.

Three flags fly above – the U.S. Flag, the MIA/POW flag and the Special Operations Command flag.

“It’s a beautiful place and there’s a lot of beautiful people  on that wall,” Barker reflected pointing out friends and men he’d served with.

Since the 9/11 attacks,  441 names of lost special forces have been added to the memorial. There are 27 new names since last Memorial Day:

Army SGT Jonathan K. Peney

Army SGT Andrew J. Creighton

Army SPC Joseph W. Dimock

Marine SSGT Christopher J. Antonik

Army SGT Justin B. Allen

Army SGT Anibal Santiago

Army CPT Jason E. Holbrook

Army SSG Kyle R. Warren

Army MSG Jared N. Van Asist

Army SGT Andrew C. Nicol

Army SPC Bradley D. Rapphun

Navy SOC Collin T. Thomas

Army SPC Christopher S. Wright

Army SGT Martin A. Lugo

Air Force SrA Daniel R. Sanchez

Army SFC Ronald A. Grider

Navy LT Brendan Looney

Navy SO3 Denis Miranda

Navy CTRCS David McLendon

Navy SO1 Adam O. Smith

Army SFC Calvin B. Harrison

Air Force SrA Mark Forester

Army SFC Lance H. Vogeler

Army SSG Kevin M. Pape

Army SFC Daehan Park

Army MSG Benjamin F. Bitner

Marine Sgt. David P. Day

Their names will be read aloud at a ceremony Friday at the memorial for family, friends and Special Forces personnel.

Celebrating the Special Operations Command Memorial

Geoff Barker stands at the Special Operatons Memorial he helped to get built.

I had the privilege to spend part of my day with Geoff Barker. He’s a 73-year-old retired military officer who served in special operations with both British and U.S. forces. Now, he spends his days caring for the memories of all special operation warriors.

Barker was a co-founder and now serves as  president of the Special Operations Memorial Foundation. The organization raised money and built a  memorial to honor the special forces who have lost their lives in action and in training. It sits next to the Special Operations Command, SOCOM, based at Tampa’s  MacDill Air Force Base.

Names on the memorial date back to the 1980 failed hostage rescue in Iran – that was prior to formation of the Special Operations Command.

I will have more about the memorial and the warriors it honors later this week. A Special Operations Memorial Day service is planned Friday at the base.

Schenecker Sues His Wife for Murdering Calyx and Beau

Below is a statement released by Parker Schenecker through a family spokesperson.

Today (Monday), I have filed a wrongful death suit as well as other filings against my wife Julie for the murders of my children Calyx and Beau.

This is a necessary step in my desire to give voice to my children and to ensure that throughout what may happen in future criminal and civil litigation, Calyx and Beau are not forgotten.

I feel strongly that Julie be held accountable for her selfish acts on January 27, 2011 when she silenced my children..I won’t let that happen again. They deserve to be heard.

I am choosing to file this suit to give voice to my children and to hold their murderer accountable for what she did. As I’ve said, my loss is total. But I won’t let my children be silenced or forgotten now or ever.

This is another step in my commitment to them, to my family and friends, their friends and to the public – to honor my kids and the way they lived.  If I did not file this suit I would not be true to my children or my character.

I now look to the judicial system for help. It’s a system I swore to protect and defend along with the US Constitution for more than 27 years in uniform. I have faith this system, that defends good over evil, will do the right thing and hold my children’s muderer accountable for her actions.

Parker Schenecker

Previous postings:

Everybody Processes Grief Differently

Our Journey to Healing

Be Kind to Others, Live with Purpose

Family Update

A Father Talks About the Loss of His Family

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