Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tuesday news and notes

I took a two week break from blogging. Didn't feel like I had much to say but with more friends and acquaintances heading to Afghanistan. I had better get back on the stick.

I had been complaining about the lack of inaction by the VA in processing Mark's GI Bill benefits. I shouldn't have. He's been one of the lucky ones. See story and link below:

Veterans Get Some Relief With Tuition
$3,000 Advances to Bridge GI Bill Backlog

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 2009

Thousands of veterans who returned to school this semester under the Post-9/11 GI Bill and have yet to receive tuition, housing and textbook payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs will each be eligible for $3,000 in emergency aid, agency officials announced Friday.

"Students should be focusing on their studies, not worrying about financial difficulties," Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said in a statement.

The agency has been overwhelmed by a flood of applications. Of the 251,000 students who have submitted claims this year, 24,186 -- less than 10 percent -- have received checks, according to Veterans Affairs officials. They point out, however, that not all of those students intend to use the benefits this year. Although many universities are deferring tuition payments, the delays have forced students to take out loans, rack up credit card debt and consider dropping out of school in order to meet living expenses, according to veterans and groups that advocate on their behalf.

The rest of the story can be found here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

SSG Michael C. Murphrey: A tribute

A letter to my brother.

By SGT Mark M. Middlebrook, formerly of the 82nd Airborne.

- I met you when you transferred to my platoon from another unit.

- I became your SAW gunner and you became my team leader.

- You taught me what I needed to know because I had a lot to learn.

- You straightened me out when I needed to be.

- We served together through two tours and you kept me alive.

- I followed you like a shadow because you were fearless.

- I promised you that I would always watch your back.

- You had a family so I prayed to catch your bullet.

- You kept me in front with you because I had better vision.

- We went our separate ways after Iraq, you to a new unit and I out of the army.

- I told myself the war was over but you kept fighting.

- I was on the 2nd floor of the UNF library when I learned you had been killed.

- Somewhere in Texas they played taps for you, I heard it in a bar in Florida.

- I took a shot in your honor but it didn’t wash away the guilt.

- Your passing reminded me of -and added to- the weight my body and heart still carries.

- I knew you as only one can once they have been in combat together.

- You were my brother and I loved you as such.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

An excerpt from "The Good Soldiers"

One Day at War

While Washington argued, the 2-16 Rangers fought a different battle.

By David Finkel
Sunday, September 13, 2009

BAGHDAD -- The general was coming. His helicopter was landing. The great David Petraeus was nearly here.

"Ooh, that's nice!" Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich said, surveying the top floor of a decrepit two-story building that his soldiers had spent the morning cleaning up. They were in eastern Baghdad, on a remote base called Rustamiyah.

There were muffins, cookies and fresh fruit, all arranged on a table that had been covered with a green hospital bedsheet. "It's brand new," a soldier assured Kauzlarich, who had never briefed a four-star general before and was feeling nervous.

There was an urn of fresh coffee and a bowl of iced drinks. Kauzlarich noticed there was no Diet Coke. "That's all he drinks," he said.

Finally, everything, including the Diet Coke, was ready for Petraeus, who was here for a briefing on what Kauzlarich's infantry battalion, known as the 2-16 Rangers, had accomplished as part of the Iraq strategy called the surge. Marking the spot where Petraeus would sit were a new nameplate, a new pen, a new notebook, a jug of water, a jug of juice and a coffee mug filled with ceremonial American flags.

"There's only so many ways to polish a turd," said Maj. Brent Cummings, the battalion's executive officer.

Every once in a while, a day would feel good in Iraq, and Sept. 22, 2007, seemed one of those days. The temperature was under 100 degrees. The sky was a dustless blue. The air stunk of neither sewage nor burning trash. The only smell was the chemical bouquet wafting from some portable latrines near where Petraeus paused to shake hands with a few soldiers before he walked into the little building, climbed a stairway cracked from explosions and sat in a high-backed chair that had been wiped to a shine.

Kauzlarich took the chair next to him and watched as Petraeus ignored the muffins, cookies, coffee, Diet Cokes, pen and notebook and simply reached for a grape.

He popped it into his mouth.

"Okay," he said, swallowing. "Fire away, Ralph."

The story continues here:

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mark and Murph near Tikrit

Band of brothers: Mark's squad in Iraq. Mark is second from the right. SGT Michael Murphrey is third from the right.

When Mark returned from Iraq the second time, he started writing about some of his experiences there. This is one story about a raid near Tikrit in which his team leader SGT Murphrey is mentioned. Murphrey was killed in action Sept. 6 in Afghanistan. A cautionary note: the language of war is fairly explicit.

By Mark M. Middlebrook

We had somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 Humvees.
At first, I really had no idea why. Normally, Our mission was to
go in by helicopter where ever we thought the bad guys
were hiding. Not Humvees.

They were rather sad looking Humvees.
Reminded me of old pack mules, broken down by years of
hard labor. It took a crew of about 20 mechanics
working around the clock for two and half months to get
them all mission capable, which wasn't saying much
considering mechanics were adjusting them and
replacing parts when I was mounting the machine gun on
the roof.

So many of the casualties in Iraq after the invasion
were roadside bombs or IEDs. If you were there and
weren't scared of them you were probably a moron or
someone who was blessed with a job that kept you off
the dangerous Iraqi roads.

Until then I had thought I was one of the lucky ones. I had told my family that
I was much safer cause I didn't have to drive anywhere. Helicopters took me where the brass wanted me to be and picked me up when the job was done. I
walked everywhere in between. Later I realized
that telling my family not to worry about IEDs was as
much for my benefit as it was for theirs.

That night when I was given the warning order of the
mission to come, all I could think was, “Crap.” We
were to "ground assault convoy" or GAC to a small
village just outside Tikirt, the city of Sadaam’s
birth. It's been about a year and half since then and
I'm not sure who exactly we were going after or if we
we had caught him.

I can only remember what happened that first night.
I should have known I was in for something interesting
when I was told that I wouldn't be traveling with my
company. Not only that, I was to be separated from my
squad leader and half my squad. You really only can
trust those you know out there.

My team leader and I were attached to Delta company for the initial
movement. Delta company was to stop at a specific
intersection within the village and let us out. We
were then to wait there for the rest of my squad to
link up and hit the house on the intersection . . . hit
and hold that house to control the intersection and
provide watch for our buddies as they went ahead
with the task at hand.

Not only that, I was to be riding in the very first truck in the first of two
convoys. . .the bomb finder.

Before I went to Iraq I had been a smoker for several
years. When I got to Iraq, I decided to quit.
It went pretty well for the most part and it had
been almost a month without a single cigarette. As
the sun set that afternoon, I chain smoked, one after
another. We got the word sometime around midnight to,
“mount up” and so I strapped on all my combat gear and
climbed into the Humvee.

It was about a 45-minute ride from Camp Speicher to that little village. I
breathed low, hunched forward, muscles tensed and ready as
I peered through my night vision goggles, watching and studying
every foot of the dusty road. After a very tense hour
we turned off MSR (main supply route) Tampa and into the village.

I had studied the maps ahead of time and memorized every
turn that would take us to our intersection. We
hadn't gone into the village but ten feet when we
had to turn around because of a road block. From that
point on I had no idea where I was going but I prayed
that Delta company did.

It's not a good feeling being away from your guys and that feeling was growing worse by
the minute. Twenty minutes and six turn-arounds
later, I was sure that we were all completely lost.
Just then and without warning, the Humvee skidded
to a halt and the sergeant in the front passenger seat
said, “This is you, get out.”

I went through the open Humvee door with a little help from the adrenaline
flowing through my veins. Ran over to a wall and picked up
security with my machine gun. My team leader, Murph,
ran over throwing his back into mine and picking up
security the other way down the road. The final member of our team, Jenkins, came up throwing himself between the two of us.

The humvees dropped into drive and drove off kicking up the dusty road and leaving us
in a cloud. Then, quiet. Nothing. No sound, only
helicopters criss-crossing overhead. Jenkins broke
the silence and said exactly what all three of us were
thinking, “Well, this isn't where we’re supposed to

It was totally obvious seeing as how there wasn't even an intersection in sight.

“Yeah I know, where the hell are we?” Murph said in a
yelled whisper.

“Fuck man, I don't know,”I said in between breaths.

“Middlebrook, did you see our intersection?”

“Fuck me man, I don't know. Everything looks the same.”

“Shit uh... shit.”

“Well we cant just sit here man. We’ve got to mo. . .”

“Goddamit, I know.... Middlebrook, which way do you
think our intersection is?”

“Uhmm. . . . fuck man. . . uhmm. That way I think, man . . . fuck man, I
don't know.”

“All right. All right. Well then, that's the way were going.
We're going to keep bounding (bounding is a movement
where one moves while the other covers you then
covers the other while he moves) until we find where
we’re supposed to be. . .All right... Go Middlebrook,

I picked up my gun and hoisted myself and took off at
a dead sprint. Wheeling left and right I got about a
hundred meters and dove on the ground just like in
training. Seconds later, the heavy foot steps of an
over-loaded paratrooper came up behind me and gave a
“hughhh” as he hit the ground, lying there huffing and
puffing, sweat pouring and pulling security until the
final member of our little party ran up.

When he did, I instinctively jumped up and took off again. This
continued for nearly a click (1000 meters). It broke down to this: the further we went, the more nervous we became. Towards the end, we were just running . . . running for our lives.
In my mind - I think in all of our minds - we were beginning to panic. But in that situation, fear and panic is what will get you killed. We kept to our training. We stayed together and we kept moving.

By ourselves, it wouldn't have taken much for us to be overrun or even captured. Huffing along those dusty roads and alleys, all that could be heard was heavy
breathing , footsteps, barking dogs and distant helicopters.

I was running low on gas. Picking up and running, dropping then picking up again with a full combat load of an M249 machine gunner is not an easy task. Plus food and water, I was carrying somewhere in the neighborhood of 110 pounds of gear. When we set out, I was in the front. Now, nearly a mile down the road, I was in the rear and trailing. Everyone always
gets angry with SAW gunners for slowing them down. But when things start happening and you let that thing loose, everyone loves you.

When we got to the very end of the road, we turned a
corner and spotted three Americans running across the
street under some sort of make shift street light. A
hundred meters away and through distorted night vision,
I instantly recognized one of them as American.
Not only American but my squad leader.

“It's Sergeant Medina!”

We took off again at a dead sprint giving it everything we had left. Without even saying a word we stacked on the courtyard door and SGT Medina kicked
it in. Within seconds the house was clear and I was on the roof training my gun across the village.

Through my night vision, I could see paratroopers hitting houses and clearing to the roofs. Flash bangs, popping tactical lights searching houses, infrared
strobe lights blinking while Apache helicopters flew lazy figure eights overhead.

A year and half later, I think back to that night and how lucky I was that nothing happened. At the time, I didn't think about it. I just did what I was trained to do. When I thought about it later, it dawned on me just how bad it could have gone.

Just hearing the name Tikrit today . . . my veins open and adrenaline begins to flow.
Remembering that night is a conscious re-occurring nightmare.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

SSG Michael Murphrey, rest in peace

SGT Mark's former team leader for two tours in Iraq:

From the Snyder (Texas) Daily News

A Snyder High School graduate has been killed while on active duty in Afghanistan.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Michael Chance Murphrey was a member of the graduating class of 2003 and reportedly died in combat Sunday. He was an all-district defensive end for the Tiger football team and competed in hurdles for the track team. He served as the escort for the boys track
team queen and helped the football team earn a playoff berth his senior
year. He began attending Snyder schools while in junior high.

Tiger head coach Chad Rogers remembers Murphrey as a good student.
“He was an outstanding young man. He worked hard and looked out for others,”
Rogers said. “He always had a smile on his face, a good kid. This is a tragic loss.”
After graduation in May, Murphrey left for boot camp in September. He and
his wife, Ashley, were married in April 2005 and have two children, a
four-year-old boy and a 10-month-old daughter. Ashley and the children are
with her parents in Colorado.

Murphrey was on his third tour of a war zone, according to his sister Jeanie
Rutherford. The first two were in Iraq. He was assigned to 501st Airborne in
Fort Richardson, Alaska. He had earned six medals of valor during his tours.
His parents moved from Snyder and now live in Clyde.

His parents were leaving their home this morning to meet with Army officials
and were unavailable for comment. Richardson said the family was told
that the sergeant was on patrol and stepped on a pressurized plate that set off an improvised explosive device.

The military said it would release information as soon as word of notification
of next-of-kin is received through military channels. His body will first be
flown to Dover Air Base in Delaware and then to Dyess Air Force Base in

Services for Murphrey are pending at Bailey Funeral Home in Clyde.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Afghanistan fatality

The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.

Staff Sgt. Michael C. Murphrey, 25, of Snyder, Texas, died Sept. 6 in Paktika province, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, Fort Richardson, Alaska.

SSG Murphrey, formerly of Bravo Company, 1-325 AIR, 82nd Division, was Mark's team leader in Iraq for two tours. More to come.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Off topic: Glider v. Isabeau

Mark's dog, who turned six months yesterday, takes on the new kitty. They are best friends.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

VA program only places two dogs with vets in eight years

Vietnam veteran William Callahan, a paraplegic, began seeking an assistance dog in 2004. He credits his service dog, Taylor, with enabling him to stay in his Baytown home and calming him when he experiences flashbacks from the war.

By ARELIS HERNANDEZ (AP) – 21 hours ago

HOUSTON — The drone of helicopters still haunts William Callahan decades after Vietnam combat left him paralyzed, but he said government bureaucracy stood in the way of getting the one thing that made the echoes stop and kept him independent: a service dog.

It took four years and giving up on a Veteran's Affairs canine program for Callahan to find Taylor, a specially trained Labrador retriever.

Although the canine program's Web site touts that it "routinely" gives veterans service dogs, the program's director Neil Eckrich said only two dogs have been paired with veterans since Congress authorized the program in 2001. Eckrich acknowledged there were difficulties with the program, including the time it took to conduct studies on the dogs' benefits and problems promoting the service.

Finally, about eight years after the program began, many hope it will start finding homes for the four-legged companions that can help disabled veterans be more independent, better deal with post traumatic stress syndrome and to just be a friend. The VA is now working on improving the program and in Washington, increasing funding for such programs is getting bipartisan support.

Callahan, 63, began trying to find a service dog in 2004, and his local VA office said the program didn't exist — even though that wasn't true. He eventually turned to one of the more than two dozen nonprofit groups in the U.S. that train dogs for injured veterans.

The full story can be read here.

Staff Sgt. returns home

Hundreds honor Jacksonville soldier killed in Afghanistan
The graduate of Mandarin High was killed in Afghanistan.

By Adam Aasen
The Florida Times-Union

Staff Sgt. Jason Sean Dahlke was a warrior who was never afraid of anything.

Dahlke went on six deployments for the Army during wartime - three in Iraq and three in Afghanistan - and earned the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

Friends and family said he never shied away from anything difficult. Whether in the Army or enjoying outdoor activities like scuba diving or mountain biking, he took on every challenge.

"We thought he was invincible," said his wife, Nikole. "We all thought that.

"He lived his life like he could die tomorrow."

Hundreds of friends, family and soldiers gathered Saturday at Jacksonville Naval Air Station to pay tribute to a man who died while serving his country in Afghanistan. Dahlke, 29, was killed by enemy gunfire on Aug. 28 in the vicinity of the Paktika province.

Dahlke attended Mandarin High School and the University of Central Florida. After graduation, he enlisted in the Army in 2004 and became a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment in 2005. He served as a rifleman, grenadier, machine gunner, fire-team leader, section leader and squad leader.

Dahlke leaves behind his wife, Nikole; father, Roger Dahlke; mother, Deborah DeLaney; stepmother, Tessa Dahlke; and sisters Talia Dahlke, Taryn Funcheon, Donielle Graham and Kelsea Evans.

The full story can be found here.

Off topic: Chasing butterflies

Gayle and I spent the day chasing butterflies at Master Gardener's garden at the St. Augustine Agricultural Center. She found bees....and lots of them.... instead. Her handiwork can be found at La Florida today.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Facts I have learned about the VA

Those of you who are ETSing out of the service and expect the Veteran's Administration to hop right on your benefits applications, don't.

Last year in the Southeast Region, 7,000 former service men and women filed for GI Bill benefits. This year, 50,000 applied. The regional office in Atlanta has hired 400 temporary workers to process the applications. Somewhere in that pile of applications is Mark's.

Calling your Congressional rep. helps but only in finding out information. The VA will not expedite an application at the request of a Congressional rep.

VA resources, such as hospitals, are not spread across the nation based on where the vets are. Florida, the third most populous state, has four VA hospitals. Chicago has six. During the winter, the Chicago hospitals ramp down because their veterans have headed south to - guess where - Florida.

Florida has the second largest veteran population in the nation.

No wonder things are slow here.