By Jeff Stoffer
Nearly 17 years ago, 39 days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they were inserted by helicopter onto a godforsaken middle eastern landscape to fight the Taliban on horseback alongside warlords of the Northern Alliance. On Saturday, three of them were inserted onto a parade float alongside American Legion National Commander Denise H. Rohan in Indianapolis.
U.S. Army 5th Special Forces Group veterans Mark Nutsch, Chris Spence and Will Summers – along with West Point Cadet and American Legion Boys State alum Levi Baldridge – rolled along the crowded streets of Indianapolis and heard cheers from the crowd. The entry’s title expressed a long-held philosophy of the nation’s largest veterans organization: peace through strength.
The Legion’s 500 Festival Parade float won the prestigious President’s Award for most original design concept earlier in the week. It featured a replica of the “America’s Response Monument” that now stands near Ground Zero in New York City. The statue, featuring a 21st century Special Forces soldier on an ancient-bred Afghanistan saddle horse, has come to illustrate the ongoing war on terror, America’s earliest ground response to the attacks.
“It was the initial symbol, the icon right after 9/11,” said Nutsch, whose real-life role in the early fighting inspired the 2018 hit movie “12 Strong.”
“That mission brought hope to American people, and to the Afghan people as well, who were involved in that tough fight with the Taliban and al Qaida … liberating their country,” Nutsch said. “I hope (the parade float) sheds light on more stories, more of the incredible missions and experiences that have happened in the years since.”
Summers is credited with making the oft-referenced statement describing the clash of warfighting cultures that came when the Americans deployed to Afghanistan. “We had met with (former Defense Secretary) Donald Rumsfeld,” Summers explained Saturday before climbing aboard the float in front of American Legion National Headquarters. “We just had a few minutes, and he was asking us to describe our impression of the mission, and I said, ‘It was like The Jetsons meeting the Flintstones.’ We brought all this technology, and we had all this raw, indigenous talent. We brought that together. It was such a neat, interactive combination.”
That combination helped send the Taliban into rapid retreat in the earliest stages of the war, a battle that has been compared to the famous “charge of the light brigade” in the Crimean War and other bold assaults in military history.
“Not too many people know what we did,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. (ret.) John Spanogle, an Indianapolis Legionnaire who led one of the Special Forces teams in the late 2001 mission code-named Task Force Dagger. “One-hundred Green Berets on the ground who took over a country … that’s unprecedented in history.”
The statue was brought to life by internationally renowned sculptor Douwe Blumberg of Kentucky, whose grandfather disappeared into the Holocaust of World War II. (See story at www.legion.org/magazine/230686/war-sculptor.) Blumberg allowed The American Legion to use the original foam form of the 16-foot bronze monument, housed in the attic of his studio, to build the centerpiece of the 500 Festival Parade float.
The 500 Festival event, regarded as the nation’s largest Memorial Day parade, also featured actors from “12 Strong” – including Geoff Stults and U.S. Navy veteran Kenny Sheard.
Actor Chris Hemsworth,who played U.S. Army 5th Special Forces Group Capt. Mark Nutsch, was selected to wave the green flag to start Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 auto race. Nutsch led Operational Detachment Alpha 595 team into battle in support of Northern Alliance Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostrum.
Spanogle, son of American Legion Past National Commander and Past National Adjutant Robert W. Spanogle of Indianapolis, contacted his former 5th Special Forces Group comrades last spring to see if they would join the Legion on the 500 Festival float.
“Brotherhood for life,” he said. “There is no stronger bond than the bond you forge with the men you go into combat with.”
Spence, who took the photographs of horseback Green Berets that Rumsfeld shared in November 2001, said he and his fellow elite soldiers “were just doing our job” when they became the first Americans to ride horseback into battle since 1943.
“We didn’t know the magnitude of what it was going to turn into,” Spence said before the parade began. “We just retaliated on behalf of the United States. We just brought with us America’s scorn. We brought Gideon’s sword forward, in retaliation for what they had done.
“We were basically at the right place at the right time,” he added. “That’s what it all boils down to. The recognition, the thanks we get … it’s just overwhelming because we were just doing our jobs. It’s like the firefighter or the policeman who stands his post each day just doing his job. We just happened to find ourselves in that historic moment, at that time.”
Rohan said she hopes the float will inspire young people to study the stories of military courage and sacrifice. “It’s amazing,” she said. “We never take enough time to hear these stories. It’s all part of our history, and there are so many of our youth who don’t understand.”
Spanogle said the Special Forces veterans at the parade Saturday were also “memorializing our brothers on Memorial Day – the ones we lost. Holding that memory of our brothers on this day brings us together even stronger.”
“The one prevailing thought, emotion, desire in my heart, is that I just wish (people) would realize that everyone out there who is serving deserves the same credit,” Summers said. “There are so many people earning this same privilege that we have right now. I am just humbled. I don’t take responsibility for it. But I accept it for everybody out there, who is winning this. This is their float, not mine.”
For Baldridge, an Indiana American Legion Hoosier Boys State alum, “it’s a very big honor” to be a part of the festival alongside the Task Force Dagger veterans. “It seems like every generation has that group of very elite warriors that sets themselves apart. This seems to be our generation’s guys, since 9/11. I am very honored to meet these true heroes, who have set an example for what I hope to accomplish in my career.”
Legion Riders and Department of Indiana color guard were also at the 500 Festival Parade and marched. American Legion Department of Indiana Assistant Adjutant John Crosby said, “I think it’s great that we have volunteers here from all over the state. We are represented well. The whole American Legion Family is here."
Sons of The American Legion National Commander Danny Smith put it this way before joining American Legion Auxiliary National President Diane Duscheck in the parade: “I feel like I am in the company of heroes every day that I am a part of this organization.”
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By Cameran Richardson
When U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Montgomery arrived in Mogadishu, Somalia, in early 1993, he said the smell of death was in the air because of the starvation of babies, children and people – warlords were using food and other resources for their own causes. His mission as commander of U.S. Forces and deputy commander of the United Nations Forces in Somalia was to make sure humanitarian relief got to the people who needed it through the setup of feeding stations. And to disarm the Somalis.
After 13 months in Somalia, Montgomery witnessed the success of the humanitarian efforts, but also witnessed the lives of American soldiers claimed during the Battle of Mogadishu, and ultimately led efforts to rescue the Army Rangers and Delta Force with help from the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division, the Pakistanis and Malaysians.
Montgomery, an Indiana native who retired from the Army after 34 years of honorable service that earned him both the Silver and Bronze Star, shared his story to an audience at the Indiana War Memorial in Indianapolis on May 18.
“It very quickly became apparent that nobody is going to disarm Somalia. Nobody is going to disarm Somalia today either,” Montgomery said. “But what people forget is that it was a hugely successful humanitarian effort. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis survived because (the U.S.) and other United Nations did what we did.”
He showed the audience images of a feeding station with children and shared that while visiting one a young child ran over to him and put her arms around his leg and held on. He picked her up and held her. “That baby knew what that (U.S.) uniform meant. And she knew what it meant for them to survive over there.”
Throughout the humanitarian efforts, resistance from the warlords intensified and Montgomery became involved in a third mission that occurred on Oct. 3, 1993, in Mogadishu. That Battle of Mogadishu became known as the Battle of Black Hawk Down, and inspired the award-winning 2001 film. The Task Force Ranger and Delta Force had a mission to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Aidid and his allies, but they were met with strong resistance. “Every Somalian grabbed his gun, RPG, grenade … they came to fight,” Montgomery said.
During the operation, two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by RPGs. Some wounded survivors were able to evacuate, but others remained at the crash site and were isolated. The battle continued throughout the night until the following morning when a rescue mission was underway.
By Richard Sisk - Military.com
They were pinned down in a wooded area next to a swamp last Oct. 4 in Niger, expecting to be overrun.
They had destroyed their radios to prevent their capture by the enemy, and left final messages for loved ones on personal devices.
French helicopters had been circling overhead for 40 minutes but couldn't find them.
Then, an as yet unidentified member of Operational Detachment Alpha Team 3212 walked alone into a clearing. He waved a U.S. flag to distinguish himself from the enemy.
They had been found, and the firefight that left four U.S. troops, four Nigerien troops and a Nigerien interpreter dead was over.
The Americans killed were Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Florida; Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia.
The previously missing details about the joint patrol of members of the Army's Third Special Forces Group and Nigerien forces were released Thursday in the form of a nearly 23-minute, mixed animation and video compact disc.
For as yet unspecified reasons, the Pentagon showed only a 10-minute version of the video and animation preceding a briefing May 10 by Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command.
Waldhauser was accompanied by his chief of staff, Army Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, who led the Article 15-6 fact-finding investigation on the joint patrol known as Team Ouallam, for their base in Niger.
Cloutier's investigation was more than 3,000 pages long, but the Pentagon released only an eight-page unclassified summary May 10.
The longer, unclassified version of the video and animation had already been shown to the families of the fallen and members of Congress.
The shorter version ended with the death under a thorn tree of Sgt. La David Johnson, whose body was not recovered until two days after the ambush. It left unclear what happened afterward.
At the outset, the narration of the long version cleared up earlier confusion on the number of troops and vehicles involved, and provided more detailed timelines on the recoveries of the bodies and rescue efforts.
The joint patrol consisted of eight U.S. Special Forces troops, two special operations support troops and one intelligence contractor. They were joined by a three-member Nigerien reconnaissance team and 31 other Nigerien troops.
They had eight vehicles, mostly pickups. The U.S. troops had three vehicles -- two of them mounted with M240 machine guns. The Nigeriens had five vehicles.
Their mission began Oct. 3 and changed at least twice before it ended. The captain leading Team Ouallam had filed a plan stating that the mission was to be a civil and military reconnaissance patrol in the area of Tiloa, north of the village of Tongo Tongo near the Mali border.
However, the captain "did not accurately characterize" his actual plan, which was to kill or capture a sub-commander of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS), the narration said.
The patrol did not find the sub-commander in Tiloa; they found only an empty enemy camp west of Tongo Tongo, although the fire pits were still warm, the narration said.
The patrol stopped in Tongo Tongo to let the Nigeriens take on water. There, they met with at least 27 villagers, the narration said.
Almost immediately upon leaving Tongo Tongo, proceeding south toward their base, the patrol was hit by fire coming from the east.
The attack built in intensity, and they withdrew to a defensive position. At about 12:50 p.m. local time, more than an hour into the firefight, "they wrote short messages to loved ones, believing they would soon be overrun," the narration said.
French Mirage jets from neighboring Mali arrived, and made several passes at "treetop level," helping to scatter the enemy. French helicopters also arrived at the scene.
Shortly after 4 p.m., "a team member moved into a clearing, waving an American flag to a helicopter to establish his identity as friendly forces," the narration said.
A Nigerien quick reaction force was the first to arrive on the ground, but they initially mistook the patrol members "for enemy forces, firing on them for 48 seconds until they were positively identified. Fortunately, no one was injured," the narration said.
At 6:25 p.m., the Nigerien quick reaction force found the bodies of Staff Sgts. Wright, Black and Jeremiah Johnson.
At 6:25 a.m. on Oct. 6, Tongo Tongo villagers told Nigerien troops where they thought the body of the fourth American could be found. The Nigeriens found Sgt. La David Johnson at the thorn tree.
He had been shot multiple times. He was lying on his back, his arms at his side. "He was not captured alive," the narration said.
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By Richard Sisk - Military.com
The House Wednesday passed by a vote of 372-70 major veterans legislation to extend and reform the Veterans Choice Program to allow more private care options.
The "VA Mission Act," would also lift the restrictions on family caregiver benefits, which are now limited to post-9/11 veterans, and extend them to the caregivers of veterans of all eras.
The bill will now go to the Senate, where Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking member of the Committee, have already expressed their support.
President Donald Trump has said he will sign the bill quickly when it reaches his desk.
In a statement last week, the White House said the bill would "transform the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) into a modern, high-performing, and integrated healthcare system that will ensure our veterans receive the best healthcare possible from the VA, whether delivered in the VA's own facilities or in the community."
Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), which previously had expressed concerns that a rapid expansion of community care options could lead to the "privatization" of VA health care, had lined up to back the new bill.
Denise Rohan, national commander of the two-million member American Legion, said in a statement that "I applaud the passage of the VA Mission Act." She said the bill "will streamline and fund the Department of Veterans Affairs' many community care programs" and also "expand caregiver benefits to pre-9/11 veterans and their families."
Keith Harman, national commander of the 1.7 million member Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the bill "will help improve services throughout the VA health system while utilizing private sector resources when needed, striking the right balance to make sure we provide veterans with the best care possible."
A similar bill offered last year by Isakson was left out of the omnibus $1.3 trillion spending package signed by Trump in February for all government agencies, forcing the House and Senate to begin anew on reforming choice.
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee who was instrumental in gaining bipartisan support for the new legislation, said that "Over the last several months, we've taken great, bipartisan steps to reform the department, and this legislation is yet another strong step in the right direction."
Roe said the provisions in the bill would keep "our promise to give veterans more choice in their health care while building on our strong investment in VA's internal capacity."
The bill would authorize $5.2 billion to extend the current Veterans Choice Program, whose funding was set to expire on May 31, for one year while the VA enacts reforms to expand private care options.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minnesota, the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, voted against the bill.
"There is little debate that the VA Mission Act is better than the current Veterans Choice Program," Walz said, but he questioned whether there would be sufficient funding in the long run to sustain it.
"Voting against this bill is not something I take lightly," he said. "While I have serious concerns with regard to long term sustainability and implementation, the bill does take steps to consolidate VA's various care in the community programs while providing much needed stop gap funding for the ailing Veterans Choice Program."
Former VA Secretary David Shulkin last year said that about one-third of VA medical appointments were being handled in the private sector, but the Trump administration had argued for more private care options for veterans who face long waits for appointments or have to travel long distances to VA facilities.
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By Seth Harp - New York Times
On May 9, a federal appeals court heard oral arguments in a case about an explosive issue among U.S. veterans: the widespread use of burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the potential health consequences they suffered as a result.
The case, which dates back to 2008, consolidated dozens of lawsuits by hundreds of veterans and their families seeking to recover damages from the military contractor KBR Inc., but a trial court dismissed it in July 2017. It could be at a legal dead end unless the panel of judges, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., overturns the dismissal.
The plaintiffs accuse KBR of negligence for exposing them to toxic emissions from open-air trash fires known as burn pits, which they say cause respiratory, neurological and other health problems. In tossing the case last year, the trial court accepted KBR’s argument that the American military made the decision to use burn pits to dispose of trash on bases, and that federal courts cannot second-guess the executive branch’s wartime decisions.
One plaintiff, Lauren Price, a Navy veteran from Pasco County, Fla., who developed constrictive bronchiolitis after working at a burn pit in Baghdad, said in an interview that she has already given up hope. “I’ve stopped paying attention,” she said. After 10 years of litigation, the case is still at the procedural starting gates, and unless the plaintiffs eke out a win on appeal, it will be one of the biggest setbacks yet for tens of thousands of affected veterans who have received zero recompense despite years of advocacy by lawyers and nonprofits.
The controversy is at a point where it could become the subject of a Supreme Court decision or an act of Congress. Here’s a brief introduction to an issue that has risen over time from the lowest military scuttlebutt to the highest levels of American government.
What is a burn pit?
The military bases the United States maintained for eight years in Iraq and 17 years to date in Afghanistan were hardly spartan encampments. There were air-conditioned stores, fast-food restaurants, movie theaters, internet cafes and swimming pools. Soldiers bunked in prefabricated trailers and dined in spacious chow halls serving up hot square meals three times a day. All that consumption produced garbage, lots of it, which had to somehow be disposed of. The solution? Dump it into open-air pits, drench it in jet fuel and light it on fire.
On the largest American bases, like Camp Victory in Baghdad or Camp Anaconda near Balad, a perpetual miasma lingered over the tents and trailers, reeking of burnt plastic. The effect, worsened by the extreme heat, could be nauseating. Until 2010, when the Department of Defense banned burn pits, soldiers complained of coughing up “black gunk.” Thousands came home from deployment with some kind of respiratory illness, mostly mild or moderate, but including career-ending lung diseases and fatal cancers.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has even speculated that his son died from burn-pit exposure; Beau Biden received a rare brain-cancer diagnosis in 2013 at the age of 44, four years after a deployment to Iraq.
In 2013, in response to rising concerns from doctors and veterans’ advocates, Congress directed the V.A. to set up a registry of veterans who were exposed to burn pits. More than 142,000 have signed up so far.
So burn pits cause lung disease?
Deployments are associated with an increased risk of asthma and emphysema as well as a number of rare respiratory conditions, but there are numerous factors that could contribute to these illnesses.. Iraq and Afghanistan are two of the world’s most polluted countries, and there are also dust storms, oil-well fires and battlefield explosions to take into account, not to mention the copious quantities of cigarettes that soldiers smoke.
In 2004, the Department of Defense asked Dr. Robert Miller of Vanderbilt University to examine a large cohort of soldiers who had come back from Iraq with unexplained shortness of breath. “Soldier after soldier going from elite athlete to someone who could not complete a two-mile run,” Miller said. “This is not something you see in a normal young adult — period.” While their X-rays were often normal, Miller went further and performed surgical biopsies on about 60 veterans, taking tissue samples from their lungs. A majority showed evidence of constrictive bronchiolitis, an incurable disease characterized by tiny particles lodged in the airways. “There was particulate matter in all of the biopsies,” Miller said. “It’s clearly inhalational.” Most of the soldiers Miller treated were medically discharged and received disability benefits. But after he reported his findings, the Defense Department stopped sending him patients. “They felt we had stepped over the line by doing aggressive biopsies,” he said.
It was 16 years ago that Bill McCoy had a vision for the creation of a veterans memorial that honored all who have served from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terrorism. He wanted it to be a place where people could pay their respects to the men and women who have and continue to sacrifice for a greater good, and where American Legion Post 182 could conduct its Memorial Day ceremony.
Veterans throughout Indiana and across the United States are now memorialized at the new Southern Hancock County Veterans Memorial – an American Legion Family project of Post 182 in New Palestine, Ind.
McCoy, a post member, was present to see his vision come to fruition and dedicated May 12 at Sugar Creek Township Park in front of hundreds of Legion Family and community members. His response to those in attendance about seeing the memorial completed was, “I am relieved.” Post 182 Commander Tom Ayer added, “McCoy was the driving force behind this memorial; he was the driving force that kept us on track and kept our eye on the prize.”
Construction began on the Southern Hancock County Veterans Memorial in 2015. The nearly acre of land near that the memorial sits on at the was donated by the Sugar Creek Township Parks Board, while the design, funding and construction of the memorial was through Post 182’s Legion Family, donors and volunteer labor.
Fundraising efforts for the memorial included proceeds from the post’s Tuesday night poker tournaments, and the selling of T-shirts and engraved bricks that are placed throughout the memorial. The proposed budget for the veteran’s memorial was cut by more than half thanks to all the volunteer labor that included, among many things, the laying of the foundation, engraved bricks, granite monuments, landscaping and pergola – a dedication overseen by 10th District Sons of The American Legion Commander Dave Mummert and Post 182 member Bob Robertson.
“We didn’t charge for anything; and we spent a lot of hours out here,” said Mummert, who owns a construction company that provided the volunteer labor. Both he and Robertson supervised the construction of the memorial. “There were a lot of contractors who donated their time to help us get the project to where it is and we do appreciate every one of them. The whole thing has been a Legion Family project – the Legion, Sons of The American Legion, Auxiliary and Legion Riders. Now we have a place for people to come out and respect our fallen veterans. It’s a place people can sit, relax and think about things. With the American flag flying, it’s a beautiful place.”
The path leading to the Southern Hancock County Veterans Memorial is lined with more than 80 pavers inscribed with every conflict the United States has been involved with since 1776, the number of American and civilian casualties, and the number wounded. The center of the memorial is surrounded by the words duty, honor, integrity and service; six granite monuments for each of the military branches (Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, Army, Navy and Merchant Marines); eight memorial benches; and four granite markers with the emblem of The American Legion, Sons, Auxiliary and Legion Riders. The POW/MIA, U.S. and Indiana flag soar in front of the pergola with two small black canons at the base.
The dedication ceremony included a festival with bounce houses and face painting for children, free food, free Huey rides for World War II and Korean War veterans thanks to Indiana Air Search and Rescue, and other displays such as Past National Commander (PNC) Bob Spanogle’s 1942 WLA Harley Davidson World War II motorcycle. Other Legion leadership present included PNC Butch Miller and Department of Indiana Commander Marty Dzieglowicz.
The ceremony featured music performed by the New Palestine High School concert band and show choir, the Pledge of Allegiance led by Post 182’s Oratorical Contest winner Ben Heady and special guests Jeffrey Mittman and Josh Bleill.
Bleill, who grew up in the New Palestine area, is a double amputee Marine veteran and now a motivational speaker. He was injured by a bomb in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006. “This memorial and this dedication shows the love that this community has for this community and for our veterans,” Bleill said. “The men and women that are in our active military. The men and women that have served here today – that’s what this memorial is honoring. That we recognize that, that we see the beauty because of what they did.”
Retired Army Master Sgt. Mittman, a member of Post 182 who suffered severe wounds in Iraq in 2005 from a roadside bomb, has two daughters – one in college and one in high school. “It’s events like these where they get to see what community means, what service to others means, and what sacrifice for others means,” he said.
Mittman shared that this past President’s Day his daughters conduced community service projects instead of enjoying their day off. He told his wife that it was “incredible that both of our daughters turned out to be better human beings, better individuals than I am. My wife said there’s a reason for that – there’s a reason our children get what it means to serve something greater than yourself. They have been around the members of Post 182; they have been around other veterans; they have been around people who sacrificed their whole lives. They know friends of mine who are longer with us. They understand what giving is, what caring is, what service is. But the only reason for that is because of people who spend their time, effort and money to create a memorial dedicated to those who have sacrificed for a greater good.
“(Legion Family Post 182) built this memorial for the sacrifices of those who have served before us, those who are serving now and those who will serve in the future. This is a place of healing, this is a place of remembrance, this is a place to teach (future generations).”
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Photos By: Tim Sproles, Steve De Feo and Lee Thacker
Legionnaires, fellow veterans and others came out to celebrate the service and sacrifice of our fallen military comrades during the Southern Hancock County Veterans Memorial Dedication.
This project has been a labor of love for area veterans for more than a decade. A partnership between the New Palestine American Legion Post 182 and the Southern Hancock County Parks Commission made this dream into a reality.
Together, we change lives for Veterans, their families and their communities.
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