All I Could Be

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“Riveting and enjoyable reading…  A powerful story.”
- Colonel Paul L. Ladd, USMC (Ret)

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Lynda O'Connor
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“American Sniper,” a Conversation

First of all, I wasn’t sure I was ready to see “American Sniper.”  There’s an interesting conundrum for me as a veteran involved with veteran advocacy—especially in aspects of post-traumatic stress and suicide.  As a survivor and now champion of issues that almost choked my joy from me, I make it a priority to do everything I can to maintain my mental health so that I have the strength to pull other struggling veterans from the dark places they sometimes fall into.

That means, not reading every suicide story, not watching every war film, not hearing every sexual assault testimony.  They’re important.  Every one.  But the battle is bigger than I am.  And long ago my mentor taught me about “battle rhythm.”  Time to fight; time to rest.  And so I save myself for the calls that come at midnight.  I save my energy for my brothers and sisters right here in my Iowa community that I give my cell phone number to in case they need to talk now—whenever their now is.  If it rings, I answer.

But out of the blue, a friend, Michael Libbie, the incredibly educated, talented, worldly and … yeah, he’s got one of those makes-butter-melt radio voices … called me up and said “hey, what do you think about American Sniper?”

“Uh … I haven’t seen it … yet,” I said.

After a few minutes of chatting about the emotional upheaval on all fronts over the movie, I agreed to see it in two weeks and be a guest on his show.

Honestly, I faced it with some dread and anxiety.  I wasn’t certain how seeing a dramatic depiction of the streets of Iraq, the streets I drove and patrolled, would make me feel.  I wasn’t sure what my reaction would be to seeing dead Iraqis.  I had no idea what would well up inside me when seeing Bradley Cooper, an actor, pretend to be Chris Kyle, the deadliest American soldier sniper of our time.

It went to a Sunday matinee at the Carmike Wynnsong Theatre in Johnston.  The rows were all more than half filled.  I sat in an aisle seat, near an exit, and to my right was a family of four that included two elementary-age kids.  Everyone was nestled in with their theatre fare.  I was surprised knowing what was about to be shown on the screen that folks had any kind of appetite.

A passage from my book jumped to the forefront of my mind.  I described my experience in Iraq as a shitty “full color, 3-D, surround sound” movie that had been running for 137 days without a “single barrel of extra-butter popcorn or quart-sized Coke.”

When the screen came to life with too-bright light and too-loud sound, I slumped down into my seat and felt myself fall into the story and back into desert camo.

February 17th at 5:30pm when, “Insight on Business” 1350 KRNT, began I read through the reflections I’d jotted down after the credits rolled.  Michael and I talked about “American Sniper” and a few other veteran issues in those few minutes of airtime.  And because we only had a few minutes, I had to return to the page to share more depth and detail.

I remember Bradley Cooper fondly from one of my favorite movies, “Silver Linings Playbook,” where he plays a character challenged by a mental disorder.  I thought his portrayal was brilliant and breathtaking in that film and I thought his performance was even more superb in “American Sniper.  He was a believable character, who wore body armor and the soldier spirit convincingly.  He was tough.   I felt he accurately showed the real human side of both combat and post-deployment.

When he used the term “savages,” as Chris Kyle did in his memoir, I did not take it as a generalization of the Iraqi people or the Islamic faith.  If the audience really pays attention, it’s seems he uses the word to describe the organized, funded sociopaths that tortured and murdered their own people and people they considered decenters.  If we look at the activity of ISIS (or ISIL) I think we can all agree it is exactly that: savagery.

I didn’t find glorification of war in this film.  Such an absolute conclusion is too superficial for my way of thinking.  Every story has a hero, and personally, if any writer cannot make her (or his) character the heroine of her story, then frankly, I don’t know who else will.  Hollywood productions are entertainment.  “American Sniper” was not produced to be a documentary or the definitive summation of the Iraq war—politically or historically.  I believe that American audiences are savvy enough to not place that expectation on anything that is over in two hours.

Was Chris Kyle a hero?  To me, yes.  And to his fellow service members as well.  It was evidenced in the film—being called “The Legend” or their “Hero.”  It was not a way for filmmaker Clint Eastwood to persuade the audience that that’s what snipers are.  These honorary titles were reflections of how Chris’ brothers in arms felt about him.  It demonstrated their admiration and respect.  Hooah!

I didn’t view the film as particularly political.  However, like Sebastian Wen shouts in the poem “Maggie’s Farm:”

Everything is political, all art is political and everything is art!

When I was in Iraq (and I get this question a lot) I didn’t think much about politics.  At least, I don’t remember giving it deep thoughts.  I’m not sure I always had deep thoughts or complete thoughts.  I had feelings and reflections that were quickly swept aside when I tapped a magazine into my M16.  My thoughts were hair trigger decisions on two things only: keeping my buddy alive and accomplishing the mission.  The deeper reflections come post-deployment.

My journey home has been lined with previous war veterans, especially those of the Vietnam era.  One of the most valuable lessons these brothers and sisters have exemplified (and one they’re begging this generation to grasp) is that you don’t have to agree with the war to support those that fight it.  The American military is the made up of some of America’s finest citizens and Patriots.  They deserve our respect and support from the day they enlist until the day the bugle plays Taps.  Another lesson they taught me is that the wrongs of the past hurt less when you do your part to correct them for the next generation.

I was up all night after seeing “American Sniper.”  I was pumped up.  Amped.  There will always be an urge in me that wants to be a physical force for good that gets the bad guys.  But the real fuel for my midnight fire was thinking on how Chris Kyle maximized his God-given talents through his profession.  There is an authenticity that rides the line between being your true and best self and doing your best with your gifts.  To me, that’s what Chris Kyle did.  And the result was nothing short of electric.

The challenge then, to me, and all of us, is to find that line for ourselves.  We should feel encouraged by the proof that greatness is a personal journey that every person can reach.  It’s not about being a sniper or doing a dangerous job or being a “tough guy.”  It’s all about being bold enough to go after with all your might, that which means the most to you.  It’s about finding your passion and embodying it.

One of the important wins of “American Sniper” to me was that it opened up a nationwide dialogue about war, multiple deployments, military families and post-traumatic stress.  On my first mission in Iraq in 2003, an insurgency group fired on my convoy at dusk as we were pulling in the gates of a forward operating base after the bridge we were supposed to cross had been blown up.  My adrenaline was like razor blades in my veins and I hesitated to take my Kevlar off to sleep.  I turned to my co-driver and asked, “does anybody back home know what we’re going through right now?”

Chris Kyle said something similar in the film after his first deployment.  He was amazed at how his community had gone on almost unchanged.  Couples were watching sports and families were having picnics and he couldn’t be fully present at home when he knew what was happening in Iraq.  He said, how can anybody do this … don’t they know there’s a war going on?

Not always.  War for a new generation of young people is something that you can turn off with the click of a button.  I think that speaks to just how uninvolved we are as a community—really un-invested—in these wars.  I think when it’s personal, when it not just media, when it’s your daughter and your father, things can suddenly look differently.  “American Sniper” made Chris Kyle our brother and father and son.

Finally, there is a forum for a discussion about American troops because an American veteran became worthy of being center stage.  We readily usher athletes, entertainers and serial killers into the spotlight all the time.  So when the credits role, I do not feel the greatest merit is in inspecting personal or historical inaccuracies, arguing fact over truth, or searching for political agenda threads.  We should not leave our emotions or thoughts in the theatres, nor should we post them on social media in a way that discourages comments.  We should simply ask, “what does Chris Kyle’s life and narrative mean to me?” and “how does his example guide the community in the tougher conversations that must be had?”

For the past decade, when I’d think back to the music of the 60’s, like CCR singing “Fortunate Son” or “My Boyfriends Back” by The Angels, I’d ask myself, where are the songs about Iraq and Afghanistan?  What’s our country’s cultural response to these wars?  “American Sniper” is one response.  What’s yours?  I’m listening.

Reintegrating Vets Need Acceptance: A letter to my dentist as a call for community action

Dear Doctor,

I’ve been coming to your office for probably a decade now, for my bi-annual cleanings and some other minor dental work. I’m fortunate to have a good smile and few issues. One of my first visits there was after coming home from Iraq. I talked to you about the yellowish stains on my teeth—the result of taking an antibiotic for a year, one of the many pills, vaccines and precautions that are prescribed during deployment.

I don’t know if you noticed, but I was nervous as hell at that appointment. You see, doctors make me nervous, so do bright lights. Your exam space is efficient, but a tiny bit claustrophobic for me, and the chair facing the window? Well, that’s not tactical at all. People continuously walked and talked in the hallways at my back—my “fighting position” was useless. A good indicator of enemy activity is the watching the locals. So in you came wearing a perpetual smile. You were then, and have been since, kind, personable and professional. So I assumed there was nothing real to fear; your office was “all clear.”

Then, maybe two summers ago, my post-traumatic stress injury flared up and I had what I’d characterize as a “disgruntled vet” moment in my car in your office parking lot. I was screaming into my cell phone and possibly banging on my steering wheel. I was for a moment, very distressed. And what that all looked like or sounded like (if in fact, anyone at all saw or heard me), is hard for me to know. But I have noticed that the short, brown-haired lady in your office that makes my appointments and checks me in has never treated me the same since. She seems cold toward me, very unfriendly in fact, and in a hurry to rush me from the counter. Could I be imagining this? It’s possible. After all I’ve seen, I believe anything is.

My point in writing to you is this: to raise community awareness of reintegrating veterans. Your receptionist probably doesn’t think I look like a veteran or a soldier; hell I get that everyday. But most of us out of uniform can’t be identified accept by some old and inaccurate stereotypes. Only 1% of the American population currently wears a military uniform, yet there are about 10,000 Guardsmen and women in Iowa alone and as close to Camp Dodge as your office is, I imagine several of them are your patients. For women vets, well, nationwide nearly 300,000 of us have deployed to the Middle East since 2001.

The Veterans Administration cannot give returning veterans everything we need to find our way back home and neither can the military-family community. It’s the people in our workplaces and businesses we visit each day that make such a critical impact.

You see, I got a lot of bars of soap in Iraq in troop care packages. And the fact that I didn’t have to arrange a trip to the Post Exchange to get them was truly a gift. Communities should keep doing that. But if that’s where it ends, we’re failing to take care of those that protect our way of life. I was only deployed for 14 months of my life; I will hopefully have 40 or more years to live.

The lather of this letter is this. If you as a professional doctor, as a businessman, as a community leader, or Iowan, or American patriot want to “Support the Troops,” then what veterans and service members need is respect and compassion in your office, in our neighborhoods, in all the places we meet the non-uniformed citizen. It is, really what each of us owes one another as decent human beings, regardless of veteran status. I think, however, putting it through the “Support the Troops” lens magnifies both the need and the call for action. No one really knows who a veteran is, and no one can tell what each of us has been through and if we’re triggered by something that reminds us of our past in your presence, we don’t want to be judged or stigmatized or ignored. Reintegration is dependent on acceptance. Should your receptionist have witnessed me melt down, she simply could have asked, “Are you ok? Is there anything you need?” And we both would have marched on with our days.

It has been my experience, as an injured veteran and veterans’ advocate that the simplest reasonable accommodations can keep a good day going well, or take a bad day and turn it around. You see, an unfortunately high number of us are still “fighting” everyday and 22 of us each day lose that battle to suicide but, we can all stand up and be counted for doing our best where we’re at to be a part of the cause. If every business leader had this conversation with his or her employees and thought of reasonable accommodations they could activate if needed, can you imagine how communities could be serving those that made a great sacrifice? I think about this all the time.

It’s as simple as asking. Some things you can change, others maybe not. Many veterans with post-traumatic stress injury have light and sound sensitivities. They may need to wear sunglasses or headphones or have an appointment time when the fewest number of patients are being seen. They may need to sit up and take a break in the middle of a cleaning. I don’t know all the solutions—every veteran is unique and most don’t have post-traumatic stress or a traumatic brain injury. Some vets could take offense to being offered an accommodation, even when accepting it may reduce their stress level because we are hard-wired to suffer through a lot of physical and psychological pain. That “toughness” is one of our weaknesses and it makes it difficult for us to seek the help we need.

So, there it is Doc. Writing this letter has kept me up several nights so now your receiving it will have reduced my stress over you knowing these things prior to my next appointment.

Still serving,
Miyoko Hikiji

(Outside the dental chair I am a freelance writer and the author of All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq, the Project Director for the Military Sexual Trauma Initiative at the non-profit group Veterans National Recovery Center and a speaker with the National Women Veterans Speakers Bureau. The folks at Stars and Stripes, Marie Claire, USA Today, Armed Forces Radio and NPR have been kind enough to share my message around the world).

Van Meter, Iowa: It’s just that simple

Last week I drove out to Van Meter, Iowa, where I’m scheduled to deliver my first Veterans Day speech of the year: Friday, November 8th at 0930 hours.  It’ll be in the school’s gym—a K-12 facility that is both the pride and center of the community … the kind of community that when I stopped at the Casey’s General Store to ask for directions I got, “follow the road into town, around the bend, you’ll see it on the right.”  It’s just that simple.

Van Meter, population just over 1,000, is only about a 20-minute drive west from where I commune with 200,000 others living in and around the state’s capitol.  Now it seems trite to say driving to Van Meter was like a going “back in time” or to “another world” and inaccurate as well, for the community didn’t feel “behind the times” or strange at all.  It was more like a smaller version of everything good and right in the Heartland.

Now I don’t want to idealize, but it’s only fair to brag a bit about this small Iowa town where one morning I stopped, breathed and just let things be.  It’s an easy place, and quiet, and it reminded me of why I’m proud to be an Iowan and an American, living at the core of our country.

Now they say nothing is more American than baseball and apple pie.  I didn’t find any dessert (there’s always next Friday) but I did pass the Bob Feller Museum.  For those of you that don’t know, I was admittedly one of them, Bob Feller made his major league baseball debut in 1936 at the age of 17.  Fans and players recall “Rapid Robert” as having a helluva fastball and TIME magazine agreed, putting him on one of its covers that following spring.  NBC Radio covered Feller’s graduation from Van Meter High School in 1937 and in 1962 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  His 18 loyal seasons with the Cleveland Indians was interrupted only by his Navy service during WWII.  Feller was the sole provider for his family, but was so compelled to join the war he waved his draft deferment, becoming the first major league player to join the service.  Feller died three Decembers ago at the age of 92.

Van Meter is also home to the Iowa Veterans Cemetery.  About 100,000 veterans live within about an hour’s drive of the location, where groundbreaking took place in 2006.  Funds for the state-run burial grounds came from the State Cemetery Grants Program, established in 1978, by the US Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration whose history dates back to 1862.  It was during the Civil War that Congress recognized the need for designated resting places for soldiers that died serving their country.  If you’ve ever been to Arlington you’ve had the privilege of experiencing our nation’s grandest gesture of gratitude for its heroes.  And the Iowa Veterans Cemetery, well, it’s simply our version—smaller geography, same gratitude and honor.

A school staff member greeted me at the door when I arrived and walked me to the office to check in.  My “tour guide,” special education teacher Colleen Tendall, showed me the gym and how it would be set up—marching band in this corner, students over here and veterans bused from the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown in front of the bleachers here.

“People from town will show up too,” Tendall said.  “Everything happens here.  We’re one of those schools that still says the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.”  I like those schools, I thought to myself.

We visited the student coffee shop, peeked into the cafeteria and cruised down the halls decorated with dozens of construction paper spiders and autumn leaves.  I could hear tiny voices burst from tiny tots in the kindergarten room as their hands waved excitedly ‘pick me, pick me.’

It’ll be the first year in the school Veteran’s Day assembly tradition that a woman will speak.  What will I tell such a diverse audience in such short time?  I took one last glimpse into the gym on my way out, imagining the faces and their reactions to my attempt over the sound system to inform, inspire and entertain.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, teachers, parents, fellow veterans … (readers):

When I was 18 years old, and coincidentally knew everything, I couldn’t wait to get the heck out of Iowa.  It was small and simple and there was never anything to do.  I saw a commercial on television, two men riding on a tank, the “Be All That You Can Be” Army motto flashed across the screen and I thought, “Yes!  I wanna do that!”  Three weeks later, I landed in the red dirt of Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for basic training.  While I was doing pushups and sweating and marching and picking cockleburs out of my socks and firing an M60 machine gun and shining my boots and screaming “Drill Sergeant, yes, Drill Sergeant” my senior class was adjusting pushup bras and sweating and dirty dancing in fashion heels and popping blisters and throwing glitter and screaming “We don’t need no education” while firing off bottle rockets in the parking lot.  Essentially we all had basically the same senior torture—mine just lasted longer, I got to wear more comfortable shoes and I was hanging out with all the hot guys. <<fast forward>>

Over the next nine years I sojourned in four states and three countries.  I met and conversed and ate meals and prayed with soldiers and citizens from all across the States and the Middle East.  And in being about 6,000 miles away from the corn fields and hog confinements, I learned a few things about Iowans that I didn’t know when I was living among them.

First, Iowans are truly some of the friendliest folks around.  Strangers to our ways often label our immediate kindness as weakness.  But I see our gift of hospitality as strength.  We are willing to be vulnerable in order to offer help because it is the right thing to do.  It’s just that simple.

We offer good help.  The year I was deployed to Iraq, I served in an Iowa National Guard unit.  Our job during the war was to transport supplies and troops and supplement the security missions of other units.  We kept watch in towers, trained Iraqi Border Police and guarded enemy prisoners.  But back home our full time jobs included electrician, farmer, plumber, fire fighter, teacher … dozens of other jobs and skills and knowledge bases.  So when the active duty units at our forward operating base needed help repairing or implementing something for their living quarters they knew to come to “Hawkeye Company.”  That was our nickname—sorry Cyclones from the western part of the state.  I’m a Cyclone grad myself but none of that mattered there.  We were in Iraq as Americans first, then Iowans.  After that, it didn’t seem to matter.  It was just that simple.

In Van Meter, 2013, I’m not that far from where I started my adult life and military career 18 years ago.  Things look different to me now that I realize I have a lot to learn.  Iowa, from its small town to its larger cities, has enough art and culture and entertainment for a lifetime.  Ten years ago when I deployed to Iraq, Iowa was the one place I couldn’t wait to get back to.  So many of the people in its communities still believe in and live by the values I came to understand in the Army: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.  It’s an amazing place to live.  It’s just that simple.

Now a brief morning time speech that ties that reflection together for a diverse audience: not that simple.  So if you want to see how it’s done, you’ll have to plop yourself down in the bleachers among the crowd on Friday November 8th.  The full speech will appear as a blog after the event.  Here’s your teaser:  There will be a test, after all it’s mostly school kids.  There will be four questions.  Three answers will be ideals that begin with “to be.”  And because it wouldn’t be fun without a visual aid, expect a stuffed, striped bumblebee to be a part of it all.  It’s a great day to “bee” an Iowan!  Happy Veterans Day!

Sources:

https://va.iowa.gov/vetcemetery/

www.bobfellermuseum.org

www.navalhistory.org

Teach Children About Citizenship

I was recently contacted by Maya, a 7th grader, via her mother’s Facebook page.  She had an assignment for her communications class about the military and she wanted to interview a female veteran.  Could she ask me a few questions? Absolutely!
Now some veterans might have hesitated because war is a complex topic, often gory and difficult to talk about.  But I feel obligated to educate anyone that don’t wear a uniform about what military service is like.  Doing so doesn’t glorify war, it magnifies truth.  And there are appropriate answers for every age group.  Military service is the embodiment of citizenship–the living history of this country’s commitment to maintain freedom, liberty and equal opportunity for all its people.
So what did Maya want to know?  Here are her questions and my responses:
1.  What was your childhood like?  Was it fun or boring?
My childhood had both fun and boring parts.  My family fished and camped and rode bikes and ice skated.  That was fun.  But I would say it was mostly strict.  My parents expected me to study hard, always do my best, get top grades, play at least one musical instrument, and participate in extracurricular activities.  I played piano and accordion and violin.  I sang in all the school choirs, including show choir, and I ran track and played volleyball.  My parents had me involved in a lot of activities to teach me to work hard, be disciplined and learn how to be a good team member and leader.

2.  Who are your parents?

My mother’s name is Patricia, my father’s name is Harold and my stepmother’s name is Janice.  My parents divorced when I was 10 and my dad remarried.  All three adults worked hard to raise me and make mold me into the person I am today.

3.  Why did you pick journalism in college?

I actually choose journalism because I loved to write and it was a good undergraduate degree for law school.  I was deployed to Iraq my senior year in college, which changed my plans to continue on that path at the time.  But I still think about it and I plan to pursue some type of graduate degree in the future.

4.  Why did you write a book?

I wrote a book for several reasons.  While I was in Iraq I knew that I was doing something that many people could not understand and would never see.  War is costly, in lives, injuries, environmental damage, structural damage to city buildings and roads, and the country’s national debt.  In a democracy the people vote for politicians to make decisions, like declaring war, for them.  If we are an informed public, we can make more informed decisions.  I wanted people to see the war in Iraq from my point of view, not just as a 30 second TV segment that is sandwiched between an advertisement for shampoo and a funny story about, let’s just say for example, a dog that dances to music.  That’s not a good perspective.  Stories are powerful because they bring you alongside the main character.  You experience days and pains and joys with them. When the country declared war on Iraq, they didn’t just send soldiers, they sent Patricia’s daughter and hundreds of thousands more parents’ sons and daughters.  When the numbers are that large, it’s hard to see the tremendous impact on one life.  When we do and begin to imagine it multiplied many thousand times, wow, that’s something powerful.  Also, two soldiers died in my unit, a transportation company of about 130, and two were injured.  I wanted to keep telling their stories because they deserve a nation’s appreciation and honor for the rest of their lives for their sacrifice.  Lastly, it helped me cope with very stressful things that happened while I was there.

5.  Did the military change you?

My life changed forever since the day I decided to join the Army: April 4, 1995.  The military is like another world, different people, new rules, travel, unique experiences like firing weapons and throwing hand grenades.  I appreciate my freedoms in this country much more.  And I have a network of military brothers and sisters across the country and around the world that I’m proud to call “my family.”  The war was the cornerstone experience of my adult life.  I lived without hot meals, dairy products, comfortable bed, cozy clothes, air conditioning.  While on an important mission once, I could not sleep for three days.  I don’t take these things for granted now.  Sleeping in is my favorite luxury, and it still doesn’t happen very often.

6.  What are some events you remember from Iraq?

I visited a girls elementary school once.  The government had outlawed education for girls, but when the war started the schools opened for them to attend.  They had no desks, chairs, pencils, paper, no electricity, and they went to the bathroom outside.  We built them desks and chairs and people back home collected supplies to send to us to deliver to them.  It was one time I felt like I was doing something good there.

Once when I was on a mission at the Iraq/Jordan border I saw a sign pointing down the road, like a highway sign, that said Damascus.  I am a Christian, and this had significance to me as the story of the Apostle Paul in the Bible had a conversion of faith “on the road to Damascus.”  He started to believe in Jesus on that road I was on.  I was very close to Holy Lands from the Bible while in Iraq, which felt very strange since the land when I was there lacked the peace or beauty that you would expect a Holy place to have.  I prayed a lot and felt that God was protecting me while I was there.

7. What was life like in Iraq?

Life in Iraq was very scary.  I did not know if I would live or die or come home without an arm or a leg.  The summers were so hot they are difficult to describe, but about 120 degrees with no shade.  With our uniforms and equipment inside a vehicle, the temperatures I lived in were about 140 degrees.  The winters felt cold even though they only got to about freezing, but there was less to insulate us since we weren’t living in houses.  There was sand everywhere and it got in everything.  I never felt clean and took short showers or baby wipe baths for 9 months.  A bath at home felt really refreshing, my second favorite “me time” activity besides sleeping in.

Thank you Maya for the opportunity to share my story with you and your class.  Serving in the military is one of my proudest accomplishments and my service didn’t end when I took off my uniform in 2004.  I have the privilege now to continue serving through writing and telling my story, which I hope empowers and inspires you, and all my readers, to never give up on your dreams, to always strive to be your personal best and to care for everyone you befriend like a brother or sister.

 

 

Memorial Day: Remembering the Fallen

Today I had the privilege and pleasure to be part of the Memorial Day Remembrance Ceremony at the Fort Des Moines Museum and Education Center in Des Moines, Iowa.  The event was appropriately filled with ceremony and symbolism: prayers, vocal music, bagpipes, the assemblage of a fallen soldier battle cross, a wreath laying, flag folding and playing of Taps.

The Museum’s Veterans Education & Programs Coordinator Lisa Whitmarsh Peterson schooled us on the history of the day and of the 21 gun salute.  Brig. Gen. Janet Phipps, Deputy Commanding General-Sustainment, Iowa Army National Guard delivered the keynote address, paying tribute to Iowa’s fallen heroes and reminding us all of the magnitude of the day.

Then it was my turn.  Now I’m not a teacher or an officer, just a dusty old Specialist, so I had two tough acts to follow.  But I am a bit of a storyteller.  So …

When we start with the numbers, we forget their stories.  When we stop telling their stories, we fail to honor their memories, when we fail to honor their memories, we are no longer a grateful nation.

We are a grateful nation.  Every citizen that spends a moment in still silence, whispers a prayer, visits a gravesite or attends a remembrance event demonstrates that we are a nation that has not forgotten the sacrifices of the servicemen and women of the United States Armed Forces, or their families or communities that have lost the most precious commodity this country still produces—patriots.

A patriot is passionate about defending the liberties and luxuries of his or her country.  A patriot puts the needs of others above self.  A modern-day patriot grips  tightly to ideals that never go out of season: loyalty, duty and courage.

In the last decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of fallen patriots total  6679, 70 of those patriots called Iowa their home state, 147 of those patriots were women.

I don’t know how to describe 6679 pair of boots without feet, dog tag chains absent  necks to hang from or helmets missing heads.  I don’t know how to describe rifles without two hands on the grip and stock.  I don’t know how to articulate the heart piercing, soul quieting reverence of Arlington National Cemetery.  But nearly that same number, just over 6679 veterans and their dependents are buried there every year.

I don’t know how to talk to you about a number, but I do know how to tell you a story.

Aaron James “George” Sissel was born on Valentines Day in 1981 to Kirk and Joallyn Sissel.  He lived in Tipton and graduated from high school in 1998 and enlisted in the Iowa Army National Guard the following fall.  He did his basic training and heavy vehicle job school at Fort Leonardwood, Missouri.  After the September 11th terrorist attacks, Sissel volunteered for Force Protection Duty, where he met his fiancé Kari, and me.  Sissel worked the overnight shift; I worked the first.  When we changed the guard shift over I always noticed that everything was squared away.  It was wintertime, so he’d warm up the Humvee, topped off the generator with fuel, cleaned the guard shack, completed the paperwork.  Not every guard did this; not everyone cared.  And now that the gates of Camp Dodge are no longer protected by body armor and M16s and no terrorist has ever infiltrated its gates, plenty could argue it never even mattered.  But it mattered to Sissel; he did things the right way, working hard, being a strong team member.  He cared.  And all those qualities, along with his easy smile, made him easy to like.  He was the type of friend you were glad to have at your side.  He was a true patriot.

In 2003 he answered the call again, deploying with the 2133rd Transportation Company to Iraq for a year where his above and beyond the call duty performance was recognized by General Roger Shultz, Director of the Army National Guard at the time, with the General’s coin.  But his highest military decorations—the Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal and Bronze Star—were awarded only after making the highest sacrifice a soldier can make—his life.

It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 29th and the good people of AAFES had just put out the Christmas cards at our forward operating base’s Post Exchange.  It was the rainy season in Iraq, cold and windy and the fine desert sands turned into seas of muck and mud.  Everything was a depressed grey.

I was coming from FOB Quinn near the Syrian border, heading north on the main supply route returning from a supply convoy mission.  Sissel was returning from a mission at FOB Tiger, driving south on the same road when his convoy was ambushed.  Sissel and another Troop’s .50 gunner were killed.  Sissel’s co-driver Gottschaulk sustained a debilitating injury as a bullet passed through his ear and exited his eye.  I listened to the radio transmissions and messages sent over the movement tracking system laptop.  My convoy couldn’t get there in time; neither could the Medevac helicopter.

Sissel died in the northwestern sands of Iraq at the age of 22.  He never got to marry Kari and start his family.  I did.  I have two beautiful daughters now.  And I don’t dare take them for granted.  I don’t dare act ungrateful for that chances I’ve had in life since returning from Iraq nearly 10 years ago.  I don’t dare forget to honor Sissel’s memory by failing to tell his story.  If I did, Aaron James “George” Sissel would just be one of 6679.  But he counts for so much more than one number.  You are not forgotten, brother.

For all the servicemen and women that have died for this great and grateful nation, we honor your sacrifice.  We revere and remember your service.  Thank you.  God Bless you.

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All I Could Be All I Could Be
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“Reading this tribute to those who serve in combat only reinforces the respect I have for this soldier turned author.  This book is exactly how I recall the dedication, candid atmosphere, and unselfishness I grew to respect from the author long before Hikiji’s deployment.  I would have expected nothing less and congratulate her for this undertaking.” Michael A. Gardner Colonel, Ret, US Army
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