By Carlene Cross
I remember the day my son, Jason, walked into my Seattle kitchen and propped his long athletic body against the counter. He had reenlisted and came to tell me he was returning to Afghanistan, this time, stationed in the Hindu Kush mountains.
“How did you get that assignment?” I asked.
“I asked to be sent where the fighting was,” he said. “Mom, I don’t have any children, if I go there, maybe I can take the place of some father.”
“Jason, what have you done?”
I remember the disappointment on his face when he realized I didn’t see the honor in what he was doing.
Through 2007 and 2008, his small platoon fought in the isolated peaks along the Pakistani border sweeping five hundred miles to Mount Everest. It was the most dangerous place on earth for an American soldier. Then, on his final assignment, his unit was assigned to establish a forward operating base in the village of Wanat, which rested in a wedge of the Waygal Valley. Insurgent caves tunneled throughout this Taliban stronghold.
Immediately upon arriving, 40 men began constructing the base in a field below the village. Nine others built an observation post on the terrace above.
Three days later, at 4:28 a.m., machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars rained down on them from cliffs, trees and buildings. The nine men at the observation post waged a life-and-death struggle to repel more than 200 Taliban fighters from overrunning the main base. Miraculously, they succeeded, but at a heavy cost.
Twenty-seven Americans were wounded at the Battle of Wanat and nine were killed. Eight died at the observation post. My son was among them.
The Army report of his death read:
“Cpl. Jason Bogar fired hundreds of rounds from his automatic weapon until the barrel jammed. He then tended to Cpl. Tyler Stafford’s wounds and put a tourniquet around Sgt. Ryan Pitts’ leg before switching to another gun. Eventually Bogar jumped from the Observation Post to get closer to the insurgents firing down upon the men. Outside the bunker was shot through the chest and killed.”
My son’s death left me heartbroken and angry. I was mad at God, but deep inside, part of me was also mad at Jason.
How could he have volunteered to go on such a dangerous assignment? How could he have jumped from the bunker and put himself at such risk?
I spent years in a haze of grief and disbelief. Then one morning, I went to the garage and opened up the cedar chest that contained all of Jason’s final belongings. I picked up the note that lay beside his paratrooper beret. It was a letter he scribed before leaving for Wanat. He asked one of his comrades to deliver it to us if he didn’t return home.
The opening read:
“To My Family,
I feel my days are numbered and so I want to say this while I can. Never have I felt as strong that what I am doing here in Afghanistan is the right thing and is understood and accepted by god. The inevitable fact is, we have to have soldiers who are willing to die to keep our enemies from killing innocent people…I knew exactly what I was doing when I re-enlisted.”
At that moment, I realized that instead of being bitter, I needed to honor my son’s life and his decisions. He chose to follow the way of the warrior. He was part of an elite group — men and women who embody self-sacrifice, loyalty and service to country. Since time immemorial, this fraternity has reflected the highest ideals of human courage and purpose. Our best and bravest have always populated its ranks. Joseph Campbell, the famed mythologist, writer and lecturer, called the path they travel “The Hero’s Journey.”
The celebrated journey begins when our hero is presented with a challenge to protect their community against a dangerous enemy. They accept the call and endure a difficult rite of passage. Once complete, they leave their homeland to set out on this quest, filled with trials and tests, often to the brink of death. But in the battle, they meet loyal comrades and discover their inner courage and strength. They return home with great wisdom to teach others.
Throughout time, cultures cherished this legendary hero and their courageous protection. Societies bestowed on them high social positions. The Greeks considered warriors superhuman and more noble and virtuous than regular citizens. The Spartan fighter occupied the most powerful echelon. The Samurai represented Japan’s supreme ruling class. In India, the military elite were called Kshatriya. During the Middle Ages, knights signified nobility.
Some cultures have even assigned a special afterlife to their warriors. In Greece, once their noble pursuits ended, Zeus transported them to the Island of the Blessed, the Realm of Heroes, the Elysian Fields. Vikings claimed that fierce goddess warriors known as the Valkyries carried slain warriors to the realm of Valhalla. Gallic fighters rose to Tir na n-Og, known as “the Land of the Young,” where they enjoyed an unending supply of wine and adventure. A fiery four-horse chariot carried Roman soldiers to paradise.
Warriors have always pledged to strict moral codes. Samurai lead their lives according to Bushito, “The way of the warrior.” Greek soldiers lived by four ethical rules: the pursuit of excellence, valor, nobility, and diplomacy. The Medieval Knight had its Code of Chivalry with 12 virtues and the American military pledges to uphold the Code of the United States Fighting Force.
Today, our heroic warriors are our service men and women. They have stepped forward from our farms and cities to accept the call to protect us against domestic and foreign threats. They’ve succeeded in their rite of passage – boot camp or military schools – sworn to a high moral code and endured great tests and trials. They have much to teach our country about loyalty, comradery, wisdom and inner strength.
I am proud my son was part of that elite group and that he lived the Army’s military code of ethics. Jason volunteered to go into the midst of the fighting and gave his life for his brothers so they might become fathers. Two of his comrades – Tyler Stafford and Medal of Honor recipient Ryan Pitts – have become dads since returning from the Battle of Wanat.
My son completed his warrior’s story, but our service members still have chapters to write in their own.
They have inherited humanity’s most enduring and powerful legacy. They are members of the most elite fighting force in history and they play an epic role in our country’s future.
They are our 21st century Spartan, Samurai and Viking warriors, fulfilling their own Hero’s Journey.
We must give them the honor they deserve.
–Carlene Cross is a Gold Star mother and the author of three nonfiction books.
This story first appeared on USO.org in 2016. It has been updated in 2019.
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