26 May 2015

Memorial Day by USMC MSgt Willie Ellerbrock (Retired)

I had not planned to write an essay on this holiday, but fighting insomnia since 2:30 AM, I read a story that touched me so deeply I felt prompted to share it with you.

U.S. Marine Sgt. William Stacey was killed in 2012 in Afghanistan. The 23-year-old wrote a letter to his family explaining why he was fighting, to be read in the event of his death. Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan at the time, read the letter during a Memorial Day service in Kabul.
Sgt. Stacey wrote: "There will be a child who will live because men left the security they enjoyed in their home to come to his. He will have the gift of freedom which I have enjoyed for so long myself, and if my life brings the safety of a child who will one day change the world, then I know that it was worth it all."

Today we remember 1.3 million men and women who died so we could live. Each of them left the security of their homes to defend ours. They paid the ultimate price for their nation and for each of us. It's been said that the reason you've not received a bill for the freedom you enjoy today is that its price has already been paid. Today we remember those who paid that price and pray for those they left behind. As we remember their sacrifice, let us also remember the One who gave everything for our eternal life. Paul told the Romans, "At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:6-8).

On March 15, 1985, Wayne Alderson appeared on The Today Show. The occasion was the 40th anniversary of his crossing into Germany, the first American soldier to do so during World War II. He has a permanent crease on his head from a wound he received on that day. Asked about his most significant memory of the event, Alderson told about a red-headed friend who saved his life. Alderson had come face to face with a German soldier. He shot the German, but not before he had thrown a grenade at Alderson which exploded and sent him face-down and wounded into the mud. Nearby, a German machine gun began firing in his direction. Alderson knew that if the grenade wound did not kill him, the machine gun would. But his friend turned him over so he could breathe and threw his own body over him. He died protecting him from certain death. With tears welling up in his eyes, Alderson said, "I can never forget the person who sacrificed his life to save me. I owe everything to him. I can never forget . . . I owe everything."

Honoring and Remembering our brothers and sisters who have paid the ultimate price for all of us so that liberty shall not perish from the Earth. We've heard or have many stories of bravery, ferocity, tenacity, humanity, horror, loss, honor, valor and kindness. They've been cried out loud by our Warriors and Gold Star Families for all to hear or shared casually during a moment of shared experience, oftentimes simply whispered in the calm of night. They all come from the same place; a place of pain and vulnerability, yearning for absolution or at the very least for the next day to hurt less that the last. Unless you are or are close to them, it may be hard to understand. The important thing is that a part of the healing is the respect and remembrance of those who are gone. Every day is another opportunity for someone to honor our fallen and provide love for the living.

To the great many Warriors and Gold Star Families I know personally, you have my eternal respect, gratitude and love. Thank you for allowing me to honor you and your Heroes. It truly is my highest honor. Today is a day of remembrance for our loved and lost. Recently I was asked to elaborate whether or not it is appropriate to "fire up" the grills and 'celebrate' Memorial day and what was my opinion as a veteran ... my response was simple: ."Go ahead and fire the grill and enjoy the day because I wholeheartedly believe that's what our fallen would want us to do. They would ask you just one thing ... to just take a moment to reflect and share stories like this one with your friends and family and especially your children, so that the legacy of these brave souls will live forever."

It took me a while to let go of the "guilt" for having been 'spared' and to embrace the "gift" of being able to walk this earth and give my absolute best each and every day to make a difference the best I can. I truly believe the best way to honor our fallen is to remember them and defend these liberties with all of our might and ability; as they did for us. Love deeply and live greatly; for them and yourselves.

Semper Fidelis

USMC MSgt Willie Ellerbrock (Retired)

06 April 2015

11 Years since 2/4 Marines ambush in Ramadi, Iraq

Today marks a sad day in that it has been 11 years since 12 men of 2/4 Marines were killed in a savage ambush in the marketplace along Route Gypsum in Ramadi, Iraq. Gold Star dad John Wroblewski and I traveled to Rt. Gypsum to perform a memorial service for the Fallen Warriors on 6 March 2008, and stood where John's son, 2nd Lt. J.T. "Ski" Wroblewski was mortally wounded during the battle. The names of the Fallen as read by John Wroblewski during the memorial service are as follows:

"LCpl Benjamin Carman, LCpl Marcus Cherry, PFC Christopher Cobb, LCpl Kyle Crowley, PFC Deryk Hallal, PFC Ryan Jerabek, PFC Moises Langhorst, LCpl Travis Layfield, HM3 Fernandez Mendez, LCpl Anthony Roberts, SSgt Allan Walker, and my hero, 2Lt John Thomas Wroblewski."

Not only were the lives of the families of these men affected, but the lives of their Marine brothers were also changed forever. I have had the honor of meeting several of these men, and they still miss their fallen comrades to this day, and wish they could have done something to save their brothers. David Swanson, a photojournalist from the Philadelphia Enquirer, was embedded with 2/4 prior to and following the 6 April battle, spent time with 2nd Lt. Wroblewski and others in the unit. Swanson was also wounded in the ensuing battle when the rest of the unit came to rescue their fellow Marines from the hundreds of insurgents surrounding the patrol.  

In recent comments to a post I made on the 2nd Btn 4th Marines' Facebook page, many of the Marines that served with the Fallen shared their memories. I only have specific permission from Ben Musser to share his comment, but will share the other thoughts if the men agree to do so. Ben Musser wrote, "Lt. Ski was my platoon Commander. He was probably the coolest officer I ever met. He didn't join our unit acting like he knew everything, but would ask Lance Corporals how they normally did stuff, things like that. My fondest memory of the man was in Kuwait. It was evening time, no training. Everyone was getting ready to sleep, and someone came in saying that Lt. Ski wanted to see me. I was just a LCpl, and there wasn't a reason any Lt. should be talking to me individually. So, I went over to the officers hooch and Lt. Ski came out. He pulled me off to the side so nobody would overhear, and quietly asked me if I had any Pantera CD's that he could borrow. He said he felt like jamming out to some heavy shit, and I was the guy that might have some. That was the moment he showed me he was a real person to me. He was a great Officer, and a great human (being.)"

Many other Marines lost their lives in the battles that followed the 6 April 2004 ambush in both Ramadi and Fallujah. By honoring them through our memories and shared stories, we can keep them alive forever. 

As we all know, the situation in Iraq has changed greatly today. Regardless of that, the Marines and soldiers in Iraq served with bravery, distinction, and honor, and accomplished everything they were ordered to do there. I am proud of all of you, and thank you all from the bottom of my heart for your service and sacrifices. Having walked the streets of Ramadi with 2/8 Marines in March 2008, and accomplishing my mission to get John Wroblewski to Route Gypsum, I know I will never forget these brave men that made the ultimate sacrifice on that terrible day in April 2004, along with the loss their families experienced. Today and always, the Magnificent Bastards of 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines and their families will be in my thoughts and prayers.  

Here are a few of my photographs from the 6 March 2008 memorial service performed by John Wroblewski, Major General John Kelly, and PSD Company Marines. Oohrah!



06 April 2014

10th Anniversary of the Battle of Ramadi

Ten years ago today, the men of 2/4 Marines "Echo" Company were on a routine patrol on Route Gypsum through the market when they were attacked by hundreds of insurgents in a well planned ambush. The lead Humvee at the intersection of Route Nova and Route Gypsum was hit first, followed by attacks all along the column of unarmored vehicles.

In seconds, the men of 2/4 Marines "Echo" Company were fighting and dying in the Ramadi market place. Before reinforcements could arrive, 12 men had made the ultimate sacrifice in the savage fire fight.

Today at Camp Pendleton, the Gold Star families of the Fallen and their Marine brothers are gathering to pay homage to those lost on 6 April 2004. We will never forget these men and the sacrifices they and their families made that day.

06 March 2014

6th Anniversary of Ramadi Memorial Service for 2/4 Marines KIA on 6 April 2004 by GSD John Wroblewski

Today marks 6 years since Gold Star dad John Wroblewski and I, along with USMC Major General John Kelly and 2/8 PSD Company Marines stood in a narrow alleyway off Route Gypsum in Ramadi, Iraq to perform a solemn memorial service for the 2/4 Marines of Echo Company that were killed in action there on 6 April 2004.

It took me 14 months of planning after our failed attempt to reach Ramadi in 2007, but we were finally able to stand in the market place where 12 men of 2/4 Marines were killed in the 2004 ambush, so we could honor their memories in this memorial service on 6 March 2008.

Since then, I have written a book about our 2 trips to Iraq to honor the fallen, and have signed a contract to publish "A Father's Journey to Iraq." I am in the process of interviewing the Gold Star parents of these fallen heroes to be included in the book so that readers across the nation will know these men not just as names on a page, but will realize that they were sons and fathers, and left behind grieving family members who cherish their memories.

It is up to us to help keep them alive through those memories, to let their families and their Marine brothers know that we will never forget them or the ultimate sacrifice that they made that day. On 6 April 2014, we will again remember the fallen, their families, and their Marine brothers when we gather at Camp Pendleton, California for the 10 year remembrance.

I hope to be there to meet the Gold Star parents and families of these fallen men, their 2/4 Marine brothers, and other distinguished guests to honor the memory of the 12 men killed on 6 Apr 2004, as well as the other 22 Marines killed and 255 wounded during that Iraq deployment, which was the bloodiest of any other Marine unit deployed to Iraq. Please join us to keep their memories alive. You can visit the 2nd Battalion 4th Marines Facebook page for more details on the reunion: https://www.facebook.com/2dBattalion4thMarines

Here are the names of the fallen men of 2/4 Marines Echo Company that were killed in action during the 6 April 2004 ambush, as read by Gold Star father John Wroblewski during the 6 Mar 2008 memorial service pictured below: "LCpl Benjamin CarmanLCpl Marcus Cherry, PFC Christopher Cobb, LCpl Kyle Crowley, PFC Deryk Hallal, PFC Ryan Jerabek, PFC Moises LanghorstLCpl Travis Layfield, HM3 Fernandez Mendez-Aceves, LCpl Anthony Roberts, SSgt Allan Walker, and my hero, 2Lt John Thomas Wroblewski."

06 April 2013

9th anniversary of 2004 ambush of 2/4 Marines Echo Company in Ramadi, Iraq

Today is the 9th anniversary of the ambush of 2/4 Marines, Echo Company, in which 12 brave Americans lost their lives, and the lives of their family members was forever changed. The names of the fallen, as read by Gold Star father John Wroblewski at the ambush site during a 6 Mar 2008 memorial service are as follows:
 "LCpl Benjamin CarmanLCpl Marcus Cherry, PFC Christopher Cobb, LCpl Kyle Crowley, PFC Deryk Hallal, PFC Ryan Jerabek, PFC Moises LanghorstLCpl Travis Layfield, HM3 Fernandez Mendez-Aceves, LCpl Anthony Roberts, SSgt Allan Walker, and my hero, 2Lt John Thomas Wroblewski."

The details of the actual ambush have been well documented by David Swanson, now a staff photographer with the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was embedded with 2/4 Marines prior to, during, and after the ambush. Mr. Swanson has created a video, "Echoes of War" which richly illustrates the time he spent with "The Magnificent Bastards" of 2/4 Marines during his embed. I highly encourage anyone interested to view his website to see his amazing images: http://photoswanson.photoshelter.com

We must never forget the sacrifices of these young men and their families. Regardless of how you feel about armed conflict, they had volunteered to serve our country by joining the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy, and lost their lives doing so. They lived alongside their Marine brothers and fought not for flag and country, but for those fellow Marines that are their brothers for life. The survivors mourn the loss of those brothers and friends to this day.

These families' lives have been forever changed by the loss of their sons. No amount of kind words, any number of blog posts, or memorials will bring these men back to their families. However, by remembering their sacrifice and loss, we can try, in some way, to keep them alive through our collective memories, and let their loved ones know that their sons will never be forgotten. 

The father of one of these Marines was determined to see and experience what his son saw while in Iraq, and to visit the site of the ambush to perform a memorial service for the fallen of 2/4. John Wroblewski met journalist Martha Zoller in Crawford, Texas during a "Support our Troops" rally. Martha had come up with the idea to take John to Iraq to try and reach the ambush site. John dearly missed his beloved son, 2Lt. J.T. "Ski" Wroblewski, and wanted to do something to honor him and the rest of the fallen.

Martha Zoller hired me to be her photographer to document the embed in January 2007, and this is how I met John Wroblewski. Unfortunately, our January 2007 embed mission was unsuccessful due to combat and heavy sniper fire in Ramadi. A Marine helicopter crew chief refused to board our group on a CH-53, telling us, "I need these seats for Marines. I don't want to be responsible for you getting killed out there." Perhaps he saved one or more of our lives - we will never know.  

What I do know is that even though John had seen much of what his son J.T. had seen, and had even visited the CSH (combat support hospital) where J.T. had died, we had failed to reach our goal of visiting the ambush site to perform the memorial service. On the long plane ride back to the U.S., I felt compelled to make a promise to John Wroblewski to get him to Ramadi one day.

When I returned home, I immediately began planning an independent Marine embed consisting of just John and myself. After 14 months of planning (and a little subterfuge), the dream finally became a reality. John and I departed to Iraq from Atlanta, Georgia on 27 February 2008. It seemed as if our trip was blessed from the start, as every aspect of our journey went incredibly smooth. There were lots of twists and turns, but we were determined to get to the ambush site to perform the memorial service.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to USMC Msgt Willie Ellerbrock, my Marine PAO. When I first spoke with him while I was in Baghdad awaiting a helo flight, Ellerbrock said he'd meet us in Fallujah and we could patrol with the Marines there. I told Ellerbrock that my plan had always been to get to Ramadi. Ellerbrock told me that we could only go to Fallujah, and could see the same type of operations there as were being conducted in Ramadi. I explained that my "assistant" was actually a Gold Star father, and we were trying to get to the actual site in Ramadi where his son and 11 other Marines were killed-in-action to perform a memorial service. After a long silence, Ellerbrock said he would see what he could do, and that he would meet our helo in Fallujah. A short while later, John and I climbed aboard a CH-53 and flew into Fallujah, where Ellerbrock met us. Ellerbrock and his team, including Amy Forsythe, had made some calls and gotten us permission to go into Ramadi. His commanding officers were also intrigued with my plan, and provided assistance, including an escort to the ambush site by USMC Major General John Kelly, who at that time was the Commander in Chief of MNFI-W (Multi-National Forces Iraq - West.)

 On 6 Mar 2008, I had the honor of standing alongside John Wroblewski, USMC Major General John Kelly, and the men of 2/8 Marines, PSD Company at the exact spot where John's son, 2Lt J.T. "Ski" Wroblewski fell in combat. John stated that we were there to honor the memories of the fallen of 2/4, and solemnly read the names of the fallen: "LCpl Benjamin Carman, LCpl Marcus Cherry, PFC Christopher Cobb, LCpl Kyle Crowley, PFC Deryk Hallal, PFC Ryan Jerabek, PFC Moises Langhorst, LCpl Travis Layfield, HM3 Fernandez Mendez (Aceves), LCpl Anthony Roberts, SSgt Allan Walker, and my hero, 2Lt John ThomasWroblewski."

When John finished speaking the names of the fallen, he asked PSD Company and Major General John Kelly to give a loud "Oo-rah" in honor of these men. This raw, heartfelt cheer echoed throughout the alleyway and surrounding houses, bringing chills to my spine, before it faded into the palm groves surrounding us.

We must always remember these men and the sacrifices they and their families made on that terrible day, 6 April 2004. I know I will never forget them.

28 May 2012

Memorial Day 101 by Willie Ellerbrock

Memorial Day 101

By Willie Ellerbrock

“Official definition for Memorial Day: Originally called “Decoration Day,” the holiday began with a proclamation in 1868 by General John Logan designating May 30th as a day to place flowers on or otherwise decorate the graves of soldiers who died in the Civil War. Soon thereafter, the annual tradition of visiting cemeteries and holding parades to honor fallen soldiers in all American wars became widespread.

But it wasn’t declared a national holiday until 1971 when Congress changed the name and moved the date to the last Monday in May, creating a new three-day weekend.”

 Unfortunately, these changes make it easy to forget or ignore the Day’s solemn purpose, and, for many Americans, Memorial Day is just the unofficial beginning of summer (e.g., “the day public pools open”) and an opportunity to stay home from work or school to picnic with soda, beer, and barbecues.

Today we remember the sacrifices of U.S. service members worldwide who gave their lives for the pursuit of freedom for all. Forever remember the Families of the Fallen, and honor our Soldiers, Military Families, and Friends.

I once saw a Memorial Day cartoon depicting a car passing an ignored military cemetery alongside a well-travelled country road. Not even noticing the cemetery, the driver says, to his wife: “Blanket? Cooler? Grill? Hot dogs? Did I forget anything?”

Yes, he did. Like his countrymen who neglected the cemetery, he forgot to remember why he had the day off.

In an effort to revitalize interest in honoring all military men and women who died in the service of their country, a Presidential Proclamation was issued in 2000 establishing a “National Moment of Remembrance” and declaring:

Memorial Day represents one day of national awareness and reverence, honoring those Americans who died while defending our Nation and its values. While we should honor these heroes every day for the profound contribution they have made to securing our Nation’s freedom, we should honor them especially on Memorial Day [by encouraging] Americans everywhere to pause for one minute at 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day, to remember and reflect on the sacrifices made by so many to provide freedom for all.

Including those who died in the first half of 2011, more than 600,000 countrymen have been killed fighting for their country. A moment of solemn reflection is such a tiny payment for such a great service.

As we approach the Memorial Day weekend I’d like to share my response to an interview I gave a few years ago where the reporter asked me to give a personal connotation from a combat veteran’s perspective about Memorial Day.

 Most of you that know me personally understand that I never miss an opportunity to ‘share’ my view and ‘educate’ the many willing to listen about proper etiquette, so here is my response:

 Memorial Day was set aside to honor the dead and decorate their graves. It is a day with special meaning to us veterans. It's a free country; everybody doesn't need to mark the day in somber fashion. But here are some points of etiquette from a vet’s point of view:

1) Memorial Day is 'observed' as opposed to 'celebrated'

2) Don’t thank vets for their service- Veteran's day is on November 11- my service was far less ‘costly’ than my honored comrades

3) Please don’t say 'happy Memorial Day'

Once in your life, go to the ceremony at the end of the parade.   They'll explain the history of Memorial Day, read the Gettysburg Address and render funeral honors.  I’ve organized a firing detail in theatre, a few fallen friends’ funerals and also at the Los Angeles National Cemetery Memorial Day remembrance ceremony and will never have dry eyes at Taps again.”

Personally, the hardest part of coming home for me has been the disconnect with folks that have never worn a uniform and those whom haven’t deployed to theater.  Memorial Day, at least for me, is where that disconnect is most apparent.

I hope you will take at least that minute today at 3:00 p.m. local time to reflect and venerate for the immense and immeasurable sacrifice of millions of soldiers, airmen, sailors, coastguardsmen and Marines past and present who fought for and died protecting the freedoms and privileges we all enjoy. And while you are at it, think about and remember the thousands of American troops who are still in harm’s way in Afghanistan and in the Horn of Africa. And if you miss the opportunity at 3 p.m., please find another time to commemorate them.

“Semper Fi”

Willie Ellerbrock 

Semper Fidelis: Semper Fidelis distinguishes the Marine Corps bond from any other. It goes beyond teamwork—it is a brotherhood that can always be counted on. Latin for "always faithful," Semper Fidelis became the Marine Corps motto in 1883. It guides Marines to remain faithful to the mission at hand, to each other, to the Corps and to country, no matter what. Becoming a Marine is a transformation that cannot be undone, and Semper Fidelis is a permanent reminder of that. Once made, a Marine will forever live by the ethics and values of the Corps.

06 April 2012

8th Anniversary of 2-4 Marines Ramadi ambush

Today marks the 8th anniversary of the 6 April 2004 ambush in which 12 men of the "Magnificent Bastards" of 2-4 Marines were killed-in-action in the marketplace on the east side of Ramadi, Iraq. I never personally met any of these young men, all volunteer warriors who proudly served alongside their fellow Marines, but I know that I will never forget their names or what happened to them on that day.

As I have written previously, I had the honor of escorting Gold Star father John Wroblewski to the actual combat site in Ramadi on 6 Mar 2008. While at the site, John performed a memorial service for the fallen of 2-4, solemnly reading their names The names of the fallen read aloud by John Wroblewski are as follows: "LCpl Benjamin Carman, LCpl Marcus Cherry, PFC Christopher Cobb, LCpl Kyle Crowley, PFC Deryk Hallal, PFC Ryan Jerabek, PFC Moises Langhorst, LCpl Travis Layfield, HM3 Fernandez Mendez, LCpl Anthony Roberts, SSgt Allan Walker, and my hero, 2Lt John Thomas Wroblewski."

When John finished speaking the names of the fallen, he asked PSD Company and Major General John Kelly to give a loud "Oo-rah" in honor of these men. This raw, heartfelt cheer echoed throughout the alleyway and surrounding houses, bringing chills to my spine, before it faded into the palm groves surrounding us.

I have had the honor of speaking to 2 of the parents of the fallen Marines, but my words to them were inadequate to convey the heaviness that my heart felt at their loss. And while we can never replace the loss of these brave men, or the anguish of the families on their loss of a loved one, we can honor them by never forgetting those sacrifices.