By Carlene Cross
I remember the evening of October 31, 2003. I rushed down a rainy Seattle street late for the theater. In the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of the Seattle Times on the newsstand. The front page read, “National Guard brigade ordered to serve in Iraq.” Throughout the show, I prayed I had misread the headline.
I rushed back the newsstand after the show and my heart sank: “The Washington National Guard has been ordered to mobilize for front-line duty in Iraq … into hostile areas outside the capital of Baghdad. The brigade soldiers must report for active duty by Nov. 15.”
Suddenly, the world shifted under my feet. I hadn’t worried about my son, Jason, while he served in the National Guard. But now he would be on the front lines just months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Jason was happy to go. He was excited to serve his country and hoped he could help win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.
Even in the midst of my fear, I was proud of my son. He was setting out on a journey of service. Twenty years earlier, when he was born on a frigid February morning, we named him Jason because it meant “healer.” His father, a Baptist minister, and I hoped he would become a man of strength and healing.
Military parents across this nation have the same aspirations for their children, but their kids often enlist because they see that dedication and service lived out in their folks.
The Credit Goes to Dad
Duane Werner taught his children AJ and Amy that devotion. He spent much of his career as a principal and coach at Department of Defense schools throughout Europe. Duane dedicated himself to his children and those of the military families he served. He remembers when parents deployed, some would come into his office with a grim request.
“I don’t know if I’ll be back, [but] I’d like to ask you to take care of my child if I don’t return.”
His son, AJ learned that same desire to serve. When he was 15, he announced his dream of serving in the Air Force as a fighter pilot. “I viewed it as a great opportunity for him,” Duane said.
Duane helped AJ realize his dream. He took him to visit the Naval and Air Force Academies during high school. As a wrestling coach, Duane also supported AJ’s love of the sport. His son became a top athlete and scholar. During his senior year, AJ received scholarship offers from Penn State and Northwestern University and appointments to the Naval and Air Force Academies. Duane remembers the conversation they had as AJ considered each offer.
“I can’t make that decision for you, but whatever you decide I am going to love and support you. … But if you want to fly jets, you should go to the [Air Force] Academy.”
AJ decided on the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where he was an NCAA wrestler and an Academic All-American. After graduating in 1993, he attended flight school, became an instructor pilot at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma and moved on to the U-2 Dragon Lady program. Soon, he was flying all over the world.
In 2003, AJ was selected as an Olmsted Scholar and enrolled at Sofia University in Bulgaria. In his first class, he met Galina Marinova. They fell in love discussing international conflict resolution theory and married in Bulgaria. AJ finished his studies and returned to military aviation. While in California, Anelia was born; in Cyprus, Joshua joined the family.
AJ, now a colonel commanding the 9th Operations Group at Beale Air Force Base in California, credits his father for his ability to embrace new challenges.
“He is one of my best friends in life. I appreciate that he empowered me to make my own choices. ‘Great men must make great big decisions,’ my dad would say. … I can’t imagine a better father than mine.”
Son’s Service is an Honor
Whil Basea grew up in the Philippines. His father was a Vietnam veteran who returned to the States when Whil was a child. After he turned 14, Whil’s s aunt adopted him and he moved to America.
After joining the Air Force, Whil remembers the night at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois when an 18-year-old cadet named Pam Chaffee asked him for directions to the telephone. “I think I fell in love with her right away,” he said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about her.” Pam was smitten, too. “He looked so sharp in his dress blues,” she recalled.
They played “20 Questions” to make sure, then married four weeks later and served together at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for six years. After their enlistments, Pam became a nurse and Whil began a career in technology. Their son Gabriel was born in 1993. In 2006, they adopted another son, Ron, from the Philippines.
After high school, Ron attended college and became an intern at Microsoft, but felt restless and discontented. Whil suggested Ron consider the military. “I encouraged him to join the Air Force, to learn skills, have life experiences and serve his county.”
Ron enlisted and deployed to Okinawa, providing technical information to special operations forces on the ground. Although Pam is a little nervous about Ron being so close to Russia, China and North Korea, she completely supports her son’s choice to join the military.
Whil also feels great pride in Ron’s decision.
“I owe this country everything. I would not have my beautiful wife or anything I have today if it wasn’t for America. It was my duty to serve. It is an honor my son is serving as well,” Whil said.
The Colonel and His Soldiers
Mary Jo Jordan vowed she would never marry a military man. Her father served for 25 years in the Army, deploying once to South Korea and twice to Vietnam. But after she met tall, sandy-haired David Brostrom, she abandoned her pledge.
After they married, David’s Army career thrived. He became a pilot and flew attack and lift helicopters during his career, which included a Desert Storm deployment. David, who retired as a colonel, and his family moved 19 times in 30 years. Their son Jonathan was born in Stuttgart, Germany, followed by Blake at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
In 2001, Jon enrolled in the University of Hawaii and joined the Army’s ROTC program. After he graduated from college, he joined the infantry and earned a coveted Ranger tab. He told his family that he “wanted to go where the fighting was.”
Blake, still in high school, committed himself to ROTC.
“How can I not serve and support Jon?” he asked his mother. In 2007, Jon joined the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy, and Mary Jo remembers bidding him goodbye.
“I watched my father and my husband go to war, but when you send your child off, it is a different feeling – one I cannot explain,” she said.
From Italy, Jon deployed to the remote hills of Afghanistan to lead Chosen Company, a small group of tough, seasoned paratroopers, patrolling the along border that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. My son, Jason, was part of the same company. Their unit took fire almost every day.
It was the most dangerous place on Earth for American soldiers. Two weeks before they were to return home, in July of 2008, they were sent on one last mission—to establish a Forward Operating Base in a remote village called Wanat. Three days after arriving, at 4:20 a.m., hundreds of rocket-propelled grenades rained down. More than 200 Taliban attacked.
For hours, Chosen Company waged a life-and-death battle to keep their rudimentary base from being overrun. When the outpost above the main base ran out of ammunition, Jon Brostrom ran through intense fire to get supplies to his men. Jason fought from the outpost location. When Jon arrived, Jason jumped out of the bunker to help him set up a machine gun on the terrace. Insurgents broke through the barbed-wire defense and both Jon and Jason were killed. That day, 27 men from Chosen Company were wounded and nine died, but the base did not fall.
Jason fulfilled his commitment of service. Jon gave his own life to save the lives of his men.
The unthinkable had happened to our families—enough for the Brostroms to retreat from further military duty.
Yet, Blake Brostrom continued with his commitment, completing flight school and deploying to Afghanistan. If he could not support his brother, he would support those who remained on the ground. For two years, Blake flew UH-60 Black Hawks resupplying soldiers throughout the southern Afghanistan.
Dave and Mary Jo worried about their second son every day, but they took great pride in Blake’s service.
“Alongside the grief of losing Jon, is such great joy for Blake.” Mary Jo said.
Today, Blake Brostrom is an Army captain and aviation company commander in El Paso, Texas. He calls his parents to check in and discuss choices for his future.
“They are always supportive,” he said. “Mom tells me to do what makes me happy and Dad gives me advice on my next professional move.”
David encourages Blake to make the Army a career. “I remind him that the military stands for all he holds dear: integrity, loyalty, dedication to country.”
David admits he still wakes up most nights dreaming about the battle that killed his son. “Not a day goes by that the grief is not there—but there is also immense pride.”
Mary Jo wears a bracelet with Jon’s name engraved, alongside the names of all the men who died next to him in the battle of Wanat.
Every day David attaches his Gold Star pin to his shirt. He says he will for the rest of his life.
– Carlene Cross is an author, educator and a Gold Star Mother.