Photo: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Steve Roeper, a 107th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron weapons load crew member, performs a rack inspection and cleaning on a U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt close air support aircraft at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, Dec. 2, 2011. The A-10 can employ a wide variety of conventional munitions, including general purpose bombs, cluster bomb units, laser guided bombs and others. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Corey Hook)
Photo: Supplies get air dropped near Shah Joy, Afghanistan on Nov. 26, 2011. Supplies are frequently air dropped to remote locations in Afghanistan to sustain forward operating bases, combat outposts and service members living at those locations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras)
As we approach Nov. 11, Veterans Day, I am reminded more readily that those of us wearing the uniform have a special bond with those who have worn the uniform — our veterans. We share an identity that transcends any differences we may have. We unite in a duty to serve and sacrifice for our great nation, to ensure liberty and freedom continues to have a solid foundation in America as the beacon of hope for the world. I submit for your consideration the story below which occurred earlier in my career. Remembering this story helps frame for me, on a personal level, our obligation to our veterans. I hope it does for you as well.
After an uneventful visit to the base barber shop, I thought I would kill some time in what had promised to be an uneventful day. I decided to visit the clothing sales store — not to buy anything, but just to browse around.
Upon entering, I circled around toward the book section to see what was new. As I picked up a copy of some book, I noticed out of the corner of my eye an older gentleman, perhaps 70, struggling to pick out some merchandise. I paid closer attention and saw he was having trouble reading the tags.
Not wanting to appear patronizing, I just watched a while, not offering any assistance. As time progressed and he made no headway in his search, I felt something inside tell me to help. Maybe it was the small Purple Heart pin on his hat that motivated me, I really don’t know. Slowly, I moved toward him and asked if I could help him find something.
I was relieved when he turned and pleasantly said, “Yes, I can’t seem to find the American Defense Service Medal ribbon.” Immediately, I noticed a sheet of paper organized in lists in one hand and ribbons in the other. He was obviously reconstructing his old ribbons and medals for display or wear.
We worked through the list together, talking as we went. He told me how he was finally going to get all of his medals together and put them in a shadow box on the wall for his grandchildren. He had recently received word that he was awarded several medals and decorations from World War II that were forgotten as he was a medic assigned to another unit. The list outlined awards and decorations from World War II and Korea.
As we double checked the list, he explained what each attachment meant. “This arrowhead means an amphibious assault landing — went in on the first wave at Normandy. This Combat Infantryman’s Badge means I was in continuous combat with the enemy for 30 days in a row. We got this one and the Combat Medic’s Badge. This is a new one, the Prisoner of War Medal. Didn’t have that one when I was a POW. This one here, we all got for going to defend South Korea in 1950.”
He didn’t brag, he just stated matter-of-factly what they all meant.
In the course of our conversation, he learned I was an Air Force officer. From then on, he addressed me as “Sir.”
He acted glad that I’d helped, and was even more appreciative when I asked the clerk to run a copy of the “order of precedence” ribbon chart for him to take home. As he walked to the counter to pay for his ribbons and badges, I told him I was honored to help him. He replied, “Thank you, sir.” I thought it was odd for a man of 70 to be calling me sir, but I guess that’s just the type of man he is.
As I walked toward my car, my thoughts turned to the hundreds of injured soldiers he must have helped, the faces he must have looked into and reassured as bombs fell around them and bullets whizzed by, the helplessness he must have felt as he watched someone’s son, husband, father and brother die in his arms. The great exhilarations of battle, the fear of death he faced each day, all swirled in my head. Each time his country called, he was there, ready to do what had to be done. I owe him — we all owe him, and all those like him — for what we have today. This world is not perfect, but it is closer due to their sacrifice.
From the beaches of Normandy to the hills of Korea, he served his country with pride and, from the number of awards, with great distinction. There are many veterans out there with a similar story. Whether it is the jungles of New Guinea, the deserts of Africa, Kuwait or Iraq that their stories highlight, the frigid cold of a Korea or an Afghanistan winter or the rainy season in the Mekong Delta, they all have done this country a great service. When we think of war, we tend to think most often of the dead, but Veterans Day is a day to also remember all those who served their country. Gen. George S. Patton said it best in a post-World War II speech: “Everyone always talks about the heroic dead, well damn it, there’s a lot of heroic alive ones out there, too!”
We see those “heroic alive ones” every day. Perhaps it’s a Veterans of Foreign Wars cap, a sticker on a car, a pin on a suit, a Purple Heart license plate, an American Legion shirt, or maybe it’s your dad, grandpa, brother, sister, uncle or just a close friend. If you see one of these “heroic alive ones,” go over and shake their hand just to say, “Thank you.” It’s a small gesture, but a meaningful one. Their greatest pleasure, or payoff so to speak, is the freedom we still have, due in large part to their sacrifice and example.
I met a hero. And though I haven’t been asked to do what he did, I’m ready, when my country needs me. Meeting him, seeing his example and accomplishments, strengthened my resolve and boosted my pride. Some people say there are no heroes left, our kids can’t look up to anyone. Well, I say they’re blind. Heroes are everywhere … you just have to look.
I met one in clothing sales.
By Staff Sgt. Delia Marchick
Air Force Public Affairs Agency
At the end of every work week the U.S. Air Force story is told through photos. This Week in Photos set includes a Purple Heart recipient, along with seven other photos that can be viewed here. Which photo is your favorite?
Photo: U.S. Air Force Maj. Michael Epper, a Byram, N.J., native assigned to the 866th Air Expeditionary Squadron, was one of 12 service members recognized for actions taken Oct. 26, 2011, when their convoy was ambushed twice while traveling through Afghanistan’s Tangi Valley. The team successfully overcame a 45-minute complex attack in which insurgents used rocket-propelled grenades, small arms fire and improvised explosive devices. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Katie Justen)
QALAT CITY, Afghanistan — It was a day like any other, but one I’ll never forget; it was beautiful, with the sun rising behind the New York City skyline. I was a seventh grader sitting in class waiting for my teacher to call attendance.
Nothing seemed different from the day prior. Children were in the corner rushing to finish last night’s homework as the teacher was walking in with her bag full of books in her right hand and coffee in her left.
“One of my students says he just saw a plane go in the twin towers,” says Michele Mortoral with worry in her voice as she is rushing into my class.
“Tell him to stop kidding around,” jokingly says Jane Lynch, my seventh grade teacher.
My classmates are rushing to the windows to see one of the twin towers on fire, with dark smoke rising into the beautiful blue sky. The sky is beginning to turn gray, as if it is about to rain. My friends are beginning to panic and the teachers are trying to calm us to the best of their ability. There is fear and worry in the room. I am staring out the window wondering; “Why is this happening…Did the pilot fall asleep…Isn’t there a co-pilot?”
We are starting to wonder where our families are. I’m worrying about where my father could be. He is a messenger and does trips between North Jersey and New York City daily. There are days where he has to go in and out of New York City about six times a day. My mother is at her restaurant taking orders, like every other morning.
The teachers at Lincoln School are working really hard trying to continue class to keep it off our minds, but there is no way that is possible. I switch classes, from homeroom to math class. Ms. Rachel Mullane is teaching in front of the class.
Some of my classmates are staring out the window, looking at one of the twin towers burning the sky with smoke like a lit cigar. Some of them are actually paying attention in class, not understanding how big and historical this is. The rest, like me, are sitting at our desks worrying about our families.
“There is the other one,” someone yells, while pointing out the window. His pointing finger freezes in mid-air while his arm slowly shifts from left to right. He is following the plane like a sniper following a target. The class is in complete shock and very quiet, just watching.
At 9:03 a.m., I am watching a Boeing 767 hit tower two in front of my eyes. I am 12-years-old and my eyes are completely dry and focused, but at least ten other pairs of eyes are tearing. My classmates begin to panic. They feel like running out of the classroom, but Mullane is blocking the classroom door so no one can leave class. Safety is a teacher’s responsibility so it’s understandable.
“Attention!” says a familiar voice over the loudspeaker, “We are under attack but we need to remain calm.”
The voice is Michael Ventolo, my principal and a very happy person, but in his tone, I know this is too serious to think of him as a happy person behind the microphone. Fear and worry have just thickened the air. I can smell it.
“Grovert Fuentes” says Mullane, “Your mother is downstairs. Pack your books, you can go home.” I am relieved to know that my mother is well and I can go home with my mother and little brothers. One of my brothers is five and in kindergarten, in the same school as me. My two-year-old brother is at home with the babysitter.
The look my mother has on her face, I have never seen before. She is a brave woman with lots of courage. Her face reassures me that this is a serious situation.
On the ride home, my mother is telling me how worried she is about my father. She can’t get in touch with him. She’s taking red lights and breaking the speed limit. We arrive home and continue calling my father, but no answer. The cell phone towers are down and we can’t get through. The calls that can get through are giving us the busy tone.
For the next few hours, my mother and I are glued to the television, waiting to hear details. At 9:37 a.m., we find out that the Pentagon is also hit. We do not know what to do, nor what to expect, but we do know that the president is about to come on TV and make a speech.
“Today we’ve had a national tragedy,” says the President of the United States, George W. Bush. “Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.”
Finally, around 11 a.m., my father calls to tell us he is safe, and has just exited the Lincoln Tunnel, but is stuck in New York City. He is also telling us that traffic is frozen and many people are abandoning their vehicles to run through the tunnel, to the New Jersey side.
5 p.m. comes around and my father comes home. Our family is united and we are happy to see each other again.
A decade later, I am away from my family again.
I am a combat photographer standing on Afghan soil with plenty of Taliban around me. Some ask me why I volunteered for this deployment. On Feb. 21, 2010, shortly after my return from Iraq, U.S. Army Sgt. Marcos Antonio Gorra died in the line of combat. He was a hometown friend, who died on this same soil I stand on today. He died for freedom and for those towers.
I’ve been exposed to explosives, rockets, and gunfire, yet, I’m still glad to be where I am now; I’m defending what I saw 10 years ago and trying to keep the fight on their soil instead of ours.
Many ask me my reason for joining and I say, “My biggest reason is because of 9/11. It is a day that I will never forget.”
Photo: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras, a combat photographer assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul, stands on top of Alexander’s Castle in Qalat City, Afghanistan, July 17, 2011. (Courtesy photo)