On Serving Your Country: Honor and Remembrance

Beege Welborn

Memorial Day weekends are especially hard at our house. As a military family with someone in uniform for every conflict this great nation has faced going back to the Revolutionary War, we have a reverence for this land, what it takes to defend it, and those who do. We cherish the time spent in the uniforms representing her, and have been so damn proud to wear them.

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We had also been singularly blessed through all those generations that we never lost a family member while wearing one. There have been close calls. The most spectacular is my memory of the story of my Uncle Bobby, a young Marine at the time, who fell three decks on the USS New Jersey during the chaos of a typhoon while off the coast of Korea during that conflict. Months in the hospital in traction, and they weren't sure if he'd even walk again.

He did.

But that run of good fortune and health changed in 2016, when, as I recounted in my Memorial Day post last year, we lost SSG John Perry to a suicide bombing in Afghanistan.

...The 12th of November 2016 started off like almost every Saturday had for the past couple years. I was at work in my friend’s store downtown. FoxNews was on – we weren’t really busy yet and could get away with it. Over the top of the racks I heard “bombing” and looked up to see a newsflash about the first reports of a suicide bombing at Bagram airfield coming in.

John was at Bagram, having volunteered to go back again with his short-handed shop instead of a special duty assignment stateside.

But the reports were sketchy and there were none about casualties, so I said a quick prayer and kept motoring.

The unthinkable happened to our family.

It has affected our lives profoundly.

If it is possible to love more deeply, now we do.

You never truly know the cost of the headstones at Arlington, Pensacola, or in someone's hometown, until you pay it yourself.

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Sometimes the cost is more than you can bear if you think about it too hard.

Our John wasn't supposed to be there - one of life's cruelties. But a testament to the man he was, to the soldier and leader he was.

He was supposed to be safe back in the States, on a recruiting tour, or some such - I can't remember now. But they put his orders off until he returned from Bagram because, as he told his mom, "I have to go. The shop's short and my guys need me."

He left his two young kiddos and sweet wife because duty called and his guys needed him.

The Army dedicated a building at Fort Hood (now Fort Cavazos) to John a few years ago, and I was privileged to join his mom and gorgeous family for the ceremony. The 1st Cavalry Wagon Masters did a bang-up job honoring their soldier. 

But one of the things that really spoke to me was when they presented John's wife with a card that had apparently been tucked above the ceiling tiles before the building underwent renovation - fluttering out of nowhere to the floor as they tore the ceiling down.

The same day his shop at Hood got word of his murder, John's "guys" bought a card on which they all wrote their memories of him. Then they hid it away in the ceiling as a token of their respect and love for him.

And never told a soul they'd done it.

Honor and remembrance.

Three years ago, our son was sitting alongside John's grave at Arlington for the first time since the funeral. He hadn't been back to the States thanks to overseas PCS moves, including doing his own tour at Bagram.

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Just before he got to visit Arlington, the disastrous Biden administration pullout from Afghanistan had happened. A reporter for The Atlantic wandering Section 60 - the Afghanistan-era casualty section - saw him sitting distraught next to John's headstone and went to speak to him. Unbeknownst to anyone, her assistant had also taken a photograph, which she sent along later. 

The pain on my son's face in that picture rips my heart out to this day.

But with the passage of time, I see other names and other heartaches surrounding John's grave in Section 60. One is a name I now recognize - Chief Petty Officer Shannon Mary Kent

Chief Kent was by every account a force to be reckoned with - a phenomenal Navy cryptologist who worked alongside special operators like the SEALS, spoke Arabic (as well as other languages and dialects), could ruck with 50 lb sacks, cancer survivor, bureaucracy battler, had married a wonderful guy...and was the mother of two beautiful little men.

...In the months after she got her deployment orders, Navy cryptologist Shannon Kent spent her days preparing to join a Special Operations task force in Syria battling the Islamic State. For Shannon, the mission was the culmination of a 15-year military career: language exams, fitness tests, repeated deployments alongside Navy SEALs.

And yet, after four stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, she had thought those deployments, pursuing extremist leaders, were behind her. Her younger son was now barely a year old. Her 3-year-old, Colt, was just old enough to know that a war was taking his mother away. “Momma no fight bad guys,” he told her.

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She went. The guys needed her. Duty. Honor.

...On Jan. 16, Shannon texted Joe from Syria, letting him know she would be out on a mission. The city of Manbij had mostly been quiet since militants were pushed out by Kurdish forces who worked closely with the United States. But like anywhere in Syria, Americans were a target. Shannon and her colleagues often went out for several days at a time, sleeping in their trucks as they met locals and gathered intelligence. They dressed in civilian clothes, hoping to avoid attention.

“I love you,” Joe responded. “Text me when you’re back.”

She didn't get to come back.

...The Islamic State was watching as Shannon and a small team of Americans slipped into a bright kebab restaurant off a bustling street. It was a favorite haunt of Americans in the city. A man hiding a suicide vest under his dark clothing pushed past people on the sidewalk.

Within seconds, a fireball swept through the dining room, blowing out the restaurant’s front entrance and scorching people walking by outside.

Another family in pain. More little guys too young to know what happened. Asking where their mother was.

The astronomical, gut-wrenching price paid for that headstone.

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God bless Shannon, Joe, and their boys. 

God bless and comfort every family who has that Gold Star that no one ever wanted, and help those who don't realize what it means to appreciate the cost. 

To take a moment to honor and remember the extraordinary sacrifices of ordinary Americans who chose to do more. And gave all.

We are very blessed here in Pensacola to have a strong military community that cherishes its ties to those in uniform and what it means to serve. Besides the base, the Blue Angels, and the obvious trappings, we have a glorious Veterans Memorial Park, which is honored to be home to The Wall South.

The foundation that cares for the park did a video years ago that I love.

In fact, it's perfect - so I will leave you with it.

Have a safe and grateful Memorial Day.

#SemperFi

Veteran's Memorial Park at Sunrise from Remote Axcess on Vimeo.






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David Strom 10:00 AM | June 21, 2024
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