On Memorial Day, we remember the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces who have died serving their country.
With the pandemic and political drama in Washington dominating the news, it is all the more important to set aside time to honor our heroes, and pay tribute to the incredible families they left behind.
In 2020, 17 Americans have lost their lives during military operations. None of these people were drafted — they made the brave decision to serve and put themselves on the front lines for our country.
Honor the Fallen on Memorial Day
Javier J. Gutierrez and Antonio R. Rodriguez enlisted in the Army after graduating high school in 2008. They came from opposite ends of the country and took different paths through the Army. Twelve years later they were still on active duty, deployed together in Afghanistan with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group.
Gutierrez came from an American family with a long line of service to the country. His father, a Marine veteran, served during the Persian Gulf War, and his great grandfather served during World War II as an Army Air Forces bombardier. Gutierrez became a Green Beret, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rodriguez deployed once to Iraq as a paratrooper, before completing Special Forces training. In total, he deployed 10 times to Afghanistan — 8 times as an Army Ranger, and then twice as a cryptologic linguist, responsible for intercepting and understanding foreign communications.
On February 8, Gutierrez and Rodriguez were waiting for an airlift with a group of American and Afghan commandos in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan. Suddenly, one Afghan army soldier turned his powerful machine gun on his American and Afghan comrades.
Gutierrez and Rodriguez were killed instantly, betrayed by someone they had helped train.
Such insider assaults, known as “green-on-blue” attacks, have been one of the most tragic stories of the ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. These complex conflicts have spilled into other theaters, with terrorist splinter cells forming in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond.
Wherever they are called to serve, American Special Forces play key roles in securing objectives, gathering intelligence, coordinating with local forces, and providing humanitarian aid.
All of this important work hinges on the bravery of Rangers like Rodriguez, and Green Berets like Gutierrez, because Special Forces see the worst of the combat when they are deployed.
Unquestioned Bravery, Undaunted Courage
In 2008, during a 6-hour firefight in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan Staff Sergeant Ronald J. Shurer II, a Green Beret medic from Alaska, disregarded his own safety to save the lives of his brothers in arms.
In the Battle of the Shok Valley, as the engagement came to be known, a forward unit of American commandos was pinned down by heavy fire, suffering casualties as a result. The terrain was icier and more treacherous than expected, and now the injured troops were trapped.
As Captain Kyle Walton, the operation’s ground commander recalled, “We were under direct fire. We were pinned down with nearly nowhere to go except down that 100-foot cliff.”
Walton radioed down to Shurer who was in the trailing element of troops, already treating injured soldiers under fire from machine guns, snipers, and rocket-propelled grenades.
According to the citation, “Staff Sergeant Shurer fought his way up the mountainside, under intense enemy fire, to the lead element’s location.”
Shurer stabilized 4 soldiers with the forward element while sustaining heavy fire. He was shot twice, taking a bullet to the arm and his helmet. Shurer continued to provide care, and then:
“Staff Sergeant Shurer began to evacuate the wounded; carrying and lowering them down the sheer mountainside.
While moving down the mountain, Staff Sergeant Shurer used his own body to shield the wounded from enemy fire and debris caused by danger-close air strikes.”
His courage in the face of danger was truly stunning. He was awarded the silver star for his heroism, and, in 2018, he was given the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award bestowed by the military.
“Without Ron Shurer at my side, I would have died that day. No question,” Dillon Behr, one of the soldiers in the Battle of the Shok Valley told Stars and Stripes when Shurer was awarded the Medal of Honor. Behr continued:
“His presence gave me the confidence to know I could make it. There’s a good chance if he would have been critically injured or killed on the battlefield … we all might have died out there.”
Veterans Continue Battling After Service
Sadly, this year Shurer lost a battle with lung cancer and passed away at the age of 41. He is survived by his wife and two sons. Unfortunately, many American veterans like Shurer battle diseases after their service on the battlefield is over.
Veterans account for roughly 1 out of every 3 new mesothelioma diagnoses. Mesothelioma is a rare, aggressive, and incurable cancer that is caused by exposure to asbestos. All branches of the military used asbestos before the risk of mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other asbestos-related diseases was made public.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has resources and healthcare available for those who served. Veterans with mesothelioma and other cancers may be eligible for VA benefits and access to some of the top cancer specialists in the country.
Support Veterans on Memorial Day
It’s important to pay respect to the stories of Shurer, Gutierrez, and Rodriguez, and to think of their families on Memorial Day. There are many more to remember. The Military Times keeps a list with the pictures and stories of soldiers who will never come home called Honor the Fallen.
Over the long weekend, parts of the country will begin coming out of lock-down and people may once again be able to congregate in small groups. There are likely to be many articles and blog posts written about the return to freedom that Americans typically enjoy.
Never forget those who gave their lives to secure it.