Special Tactics Airmen march to honor fallen brothers in arms

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151004-F-GV347-021By 1st Lt. Katrina Cheesman, 24th Special Operations Wing

After more than 800 miles on the road, 20 Special Tactics Airmen finished their journey to honor fallen teammates, crossing through the gate here with families of those Special Tactics Airmen killed in combat.

The march was held specifically for Capt. Matthew Roland, special tactics officer, and Staff Sgt. Forrest Sibley, combat controller, who were killed in action, Aug. 26, 2015, Afghanistan.

“These men walked 812 miles, demonstrating to the vast majority of the southern part of America what our country values,” said Lt. Gen. Brad Heithold, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command. “And that’s people who are willing to make sacrifices.”

Special Tactics Airmen honor fallen with memorial marchThe marchers walked day and night through five states to honor the fallen special operators who gave their lives in service to their country, relaying the 812 miles in two-man teams.
Special Tactics Airmen honor fallen with memorial marchAcross the southern part of America, communities and individuals took time to cheer on the marchers, and honored the fallen with salutes and hands over hearts. Some community members even prepared home-cooked meals for the Special Tactics Airmen, who would walk a total of 90 miles with a 50-pound assault pack on their back, and a memorial baton in their hand.

While the marchers blew through anticipated timelines by completing their 12.6 mile-legs in three hours instead of the expected four, this consistent speed didn’t come without its costs. Throughout the ten-day period, they experienced large blisters, muscle tears, heat exhaustion and dehydration. One Special Tactics Airmen completed his 90-plus miles with three broken ribs.
“We are pretty tired and beat down, but it’s about telling the story of the guys who made the ultimate sacrifice,” said a Special Tactics combat controller about the march. “That’s why we do this: to remember the brothers we lost and show support to the families.”

Special Tactics Airmen honor fallen with memorial marchFor many of the Gold Star families and Special Tactics Airmen, it was a reunion. The ST Airmen had carried memorial batons engraved with the names of the fallen hallway across the country to walk alongside the families who lost their loved ones. This was not the first time they had done this; most of the families had attended all four of the memorial marches, which first occurred in 2009.

“Who’s got Argel?” one family member shouted into the chaotic crowd of hugging people, searching for the person holding their son’s baton. Eventually, the batons and their safekeepers found their way to the right family. Then the Airmen, who had so diligently carried it over 800 miles, handed it over to the family and walked the last mile with them.

At the end of the final mile, the Airmen took part in a small ceremony. The batons were solemnly saluted and returned, one by one, to a waiting Special Tactics Airmen, as the names of the 19 teammates were called.

The batons will be returned to their display case in memory of the fallen, and will only be removed for a memorial march if another Special Tactics Airmen is killed in action.
Then, as tradition in the Special Tactics community, all Airmen formed up to complete memorial pushups, honoring teamwork, fallen comrades, and Roland and Sibley.

“The fallen’s legacy will never die because we will continue to honor their sacrifices and perpetuate their excellence,” said Col. Wolfe Davidson, 24th Special Operations Wing commander, of the 19 Special Tactics Airmen killed in action since 9/11. “We aren’t ever going to quit talking about them. We will walk across this country to say, ‘we will never forget you.’”

For more coverage, visit the AFSOC Blog here: http://bit.ly/1OGniGs.

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Special Tactics Airmen march to honor fallen brothers in arms

First Lady Joins Maryland Governor at Veterans’ Bill Signing

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Story by Amaani Lyle, American Forces Press Service

First Lady Michelle Obama watches Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, seated, third from left, sign the Veterans Full Employment Act of 2013 during a ceremony at the State House in Annapolis, Md., April 17, 2013. Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, far left, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., second from left, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, right, joined O'Malley. White House photo by Chuck Kennedy

First Lady Michelle Obama watches Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, seated, third from left, sign the Veterans Full Employment Act of 2013 during a ceremony at the State House in Annapolis, Md., April 17, 2013. White House photo by Chuck Kennedy

First Lady Michelle Obama joined Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley at the State House in Annapolis on April 17, 2013, as he signed into law the Veterans Full Employment Act of 2013.

The Defense Department collaborated in development of Maryland’s comprehensive bill, designed to streamline credentialing and licensing procedures for service members, veterans and their spouses.

“We have asked them to risk their lives in combat, manage dozens of peers, operate complicated machinery, oversee millions of dollars of assets and save lives on the battlefield,” Obama said. “And then, when they come home, we’re also asking them to repeat months of training for skills they’ve already mastered. So we have to ask ourselves: how does this make sense?”

The first lady said enacting the bill represents more than merely “eliminating a few bureaucratic headaches” for veterans and their spouses.

“This is about improving the financial security for thousands of military families,” Obama said. “It’s about giving veterans and their spouses an opportunity to build their careers and create a better future for their children.”

As part of their Joining Forces initiative, in February, the first lady and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, addressed the National Governor’s Association as part of a call to action to bring millions of veterans into the civilian workforce.

“With the Iraq war over [and] the war in Afghanistan winding down, more than a million service members are going to be hanging up their uniforms and transitioning back to civilian life,” Obama said. “And that comes on top of the hundreds of thousands of veterans and military spouses already out there looking for work.”

While the first lady noted much progress in veterans’ employment over the past few years, she acknowledged that there is still more work to do. As of March 2013, roughly 783,000 veterans were unemployed and looking for work, including 207,000 post-9/11 veterans.

“We need more businesses to make big, bold commitments to hire and train our veterans and military spouses,” Obama said. “We need more hospitals … colleges and employers from every sector to recognize our veterans’ and military spouses’ unique skills and experiences and give them a fair shot at a job.”

Prior to the bill-signing, Obama visited the U.S. Naval Academy, where she ate lunch with midshipmen and met with a number of health care professionals who have served the country for years and mastered highly technical, high-demand skills.

Introducing the first lady at the State House was 23-year Navy veteran and former Senior Chief Petty Officer Andrew Hite, who suffered a traumatic brain injury while on active duty. Hite said he experienced anxiety about pursuing a degree.

“Even though I served this country for more than two decades as a radar tech, an avionics electronics technician and an avionics instructor, I was unable to receive even a single college credit with all of my military experience and numerous formal training courses I completed on active duty,” Hite said. “Legislation that’s being signed today will ensure the well-deserved recognition of our country’s veterans’ efforts of service and acknowledge their military experience and their formal training received while serving our country.”

The legislation, Hite emphasized, will remove the barrier of time.

“It will help shorten the time required to complete the desired degree by allowing credit for the often-expensive knowledge [veterans] have gained during their military service,” Hite added.

Maryland joins a growing list of states that have taken legislative or executive action to help service members, veterans and their spouses get the credentials they need to successfully transition to the civilian labor market.

“Your bill here in Maryland is one of the best bills we have seen in the entire country,” Obama said. “You’re helping our veterans obtain professional credentials … earn college credit … and making it easier for military spouses to continue their careers as they transfer to your state.”

O’Malley also addressed the plight of veterans before signing the bill.

“These individuals should never come home, after overcoming all the barriers they have for us, and face barriers to employment, barriers to licensing, barriers that prevent them from keeping a roof over their children’s heads and providing them with a loving home with economic security and dignity.”

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First Lady Joins Maryland Governor at Veterans’ Bill Signing