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NEWS | Sept. 9, 2009

Opportunities for Reservist brings appreciation for brothers in arms

By Capt. Bryan Lewis 315th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

As I write this I know my words won't give justice to these stories and the individuals they're about. It is often said that not enough is done to accurately highlight the sacrifices made to advance freedom and to protect this country. And it's true. Not enough can be said or done, but we must continue to try.

This summer I had the privilege to work at Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center, which is the first stop for wounded warriors returning from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. It is by far the cleanest hospital I've ever seen, and as I discovered while there, full of living history.

After nearly 60 years of treating America's wounded and their families, I couldn't help but think of the old cliché as I walked the medical center halls. What if these walls could talk?

Fortunately, I can tell the story of one wall's view this past June. For what would really count for just mere moments in its history, it separated two Soldiers more than 50 years apart in age but much closer in many ways, especially their sacrifices.

Part of my job at the hospital was to tour the halls ahead of time and find service members willing to accept special visitors, in this case some college and pro football coaches. Some don't want to be bothered, some are too ill, and others can't wait. I start at the nurses' station where Army nurses give me some names and room numbers that have patients cognizant enough to answer my questions.

One Monday in particular the nurse nonchalantly mentioned a couple folks down the hall that might enjoy a visit, a guy named Smith and another I'll call "Jones."

Walking into Jones' room I observed a bald guy, no more than 35 years old with large blood-filled, clear bandages on his right arm and right side just below the rib cage. He greeted me, and after I did the same, he immediately began telling me his story.

As part of a forward reconnaissance team, he and another sergeant found themselves in a large field next to a junkyard in Afghanistan. Within moments of entering the field they found themselves chasing down two suspected Taliban. They were confirmed hostile when they wielded AK-47 assault rifles at Staff Sgt. Jones and his brother in arms.

"I ended up behind some junk pile," Staff Sgt. Jones said. I would pop up and fire off some rounds, then he'd pop up and fire rounds. The other sergeant ran after the other guy, and soon after starting his chase I heard the sergeant yell. I knew I had to get to him. So, I threw a grenade over at the guy shooting at me. I heard him scream after it went off. So, I figured I got him and started after the sergeant."

It turns out the sergeant fell into a deep ditch, as would Sergeant Jones but not before he'd take two bullets in the arm and side from the enemy he thought he'd taken out. The enemy charged at them while pulling the chord on his explosive suicide vest. Fortunately, the blast missed both sergeants thanks to the ditch they found themselves in.

"The good news is we got 'em," Sergeant Jones said.

The same day Sergeant Jones and his company were laying their lives on the line for me and for you, I was at the World War II Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, Netherlands. I made my way through the thousands white cross headstones to my great grandfathers' cross which read, "August G. Sitzman, Jr. 2 LT 400 FA BN 9 ARMD DIV, Nebraska APR 8 1945."

His headstone and the 8,300 others tell the stories of young men from every state who came halfway around the world to free the Dutch and others from Nazi rule. The sea of crosses easily display the sacrifices made, much like the scars of Sgt. Jones will.

Because of my grandmother's fear of flying, I'd be my great grandfather's first visitor from our family. While standing at his grave I felt tremendous sadness for my grandmother. She sacrificed too, losing her father as a young girl. I also felt deep shame for being there and not on the frontlines in Iraq or Afghanistan. I felt this same shame as I stood at the bedside of Sergeant Jones. I wanted his injuries and his experiences. I also felt extreme pride in getting to meet him and couldn't wait for the moment share his story of bravery and sacrifice.

I did as many I hope will do. I thanked him for his service, which of course he downplayed like most amazing men and women like him often do.

Just beyond the wall at the head of Sergeant Jones' bed I found Smith, a stark contrast to the sergeant he shared a wall with. He sported a head of gray hair, a bracelet made of Army Airborne jump wings and thin skin that revealed more bone than anything. At 93-years-old and with his birthday the following week, he would welcome me much in the same way Sergeant Jones did.

I was amazed when I learned he was Army Lt. Col. Gordon Smith, one of the first officers in the Airborne. He'd been personally invited to the Normandy anniversary by the president of France, where he was to receive the French National Order of the Legion of Honour. The Order was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 and is France's highest decoration.

Unfortunately, Colonel Smith did not get to meet the French president or President Barack Obama due to a sudden illness, which landed him at Landstuhl. Knowing it'd be a once in a lifetime chance, I pulled up a chair and listened as he began his story.

"I was captured in Normandy in 1944," the Colonel said. "I jumped into Normandy at 2:30 in the morning on June 6. I was captured approximately 10 o'clock in the morning - I'd been shot by a sniper. I was taken to a German aid station, and there the doctor was an English speaking German lieutenant. He operated on me as I was shot through the arm and through the side. When I came to, sitting next to me, on a bench next to the wall, was a German soldier with a rifle looking at me. The doctor walked in and said, 'this is the man who shot you, he has something for you. He has a can of food ... don't eat anything, but he has a bottle of red wine, drink all you want.' So, the German uncorked the wine, I'd take a sip, he'd take one. We shared the bottle of wine.

"From there I was transferred across France, across Germany, to a U.S. ground force officers camp in Poland. In early February 1945, the Russians were coming, and the Germans marched us out, and I ended up in a [different camp]. April 13, the Russians liberated the camp, but they wouldn't let us go. Then an Army captain came to me and said, 'I [stole] a truck and [I'm headed to the American lines]. You want to go with me?' and I did. We went down the road, Germans were on one side of the road, Russians on the other, and we had a red, white and blue bunny on the truck. We waved and they waved at us. They stopped firing and on we went. It was quite a ride."

After just meeting Sergeant Jones, I now sat with one of the few WWII veterans who is still with us. Not only that, but he'd sustained the same injuries as the sergeant next door.

Colonel Smith received the Order for all those who'd landed at Normandy that fateful morning. He served 30 years in his uniform, and began crying when describing the day he had to take it off. He now was lying in a hospital bed telling the story he's shared for more than 64 years. Just beyond the plaster at the head of his bed lay Sergeant Jones who has only just begun telling his story.

Colonel Smith's generation is often referred to as "The Greatest Generation." Hundreds, maybe thousands of books exist to tell stories from WWII. But are the stories occurring at this very moment, ones formed the same way - young men and women from every state choosing to free Iraqis and Afghans - really any different? I realized at that very moment that there is a "Greatest Generation" forged daily by men and women who are leaving their blood and sweat in deserts across the ocean, hoping to safely return with their memories and comrades.

As I wrote initially, I can't capture the power behind their stories, nor can my feeble writing truly describe that June day, my birthday, in which I found myself standing alongside two heroes.

The sad truth is not all the heroes return able to share their memories. Thousands have come back in the belly of a C-17, escorted by another service member and draped in an American flag.

At the very moment I wrote this, one of these heroes began his flight home. Marine Capt. Matthew Freeman, one of my best friends since childhood, made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan just two days prior. He did it for you, for me and for the Afghans.

I spoke with his mom today, who like my grandmother 64 years earlier lost someone who can never be replaced. She shared with me her last exchange with her son.

"Bryan, he was amazed by the kids. He told me, 'Mom, all the kids here want are pens and paper. They don't care about food or water. They just want to learn to read and write. Send as much as you can. I want to give them this.' He figured they'd grow up and be one less person wanting to shoot Americans."

"The Greatest Generation" ... is there any doubt?