Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Colonel and Master Sergeant Killed in Afghanistan

I heard about this incident from a soldier in Afghanistan. The loss was a heavy one for American military forces, but the troops continue to soldier on. These lost warriors were extraordinary men.

Dawn Bormann of The Kansas City Star wrote about Colonel James W. Harrison, Jr.:

"'Always take care of your soldiers. It will bring them together as a team and may one day save their lives.' Braden Harrison, quoting his father

Army Col. James W. Harrison Jr. had planned to retire. But Harrison pulled back the retirement paperwork recently when it was clear his expertise was needed.

It was a classic example of his commitment to leadership, friends said Monday at a Fort Leavenworth memorial service for Harrison, who was killed May 6 in Afghanistan by a mentally ill Afghan soldier. He was buried in a private service at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery.

The news of his death traveled quickly at Fort Leavenworth, not just because he was well-known, but also because few Army colonels have been killed in action. Only six colonels have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a group that records military deaths. Two of those colonels, including Harrison, were assigned to Fort Leavenworth.

Harrison, who had been the commandant at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, went to Afghanistan as a detention policy expert to train others. Master Sgt. Wilberto Sabalu Jr., who was assigned to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., also was killed in the attack outside an Afghanistan prison.

The 47-year-old father of three boys and West Point graduate valued integrity so much that he truly lived every day according to the institution’s motto of “duty, honor, country,” his friends and family said.

Harrison was known throughout the installation, and the depth of his influence was apparent by the uniforms of those gathered to mourn his death. The group included enlisted men and women, the installation’s top brass and the U.S. Army provost marshal general.

The service mixed patriotic with personal touches, including a poem from his son Ross. Another son, Braden, recalled what his father said after receiving the prestigious MacArthur Leadership Award.

'Always take care of your soldiers,' Braden said, quoting his father. 'It will bring them together as a team and may one day save their lives.'

Those who worked with Harrison said he was constantly looking out for his soldiers. Many called him a friend and mentor.

Army Maj. Isaac Johnson said Harrison took the time to talk to Johnson’s young son. Harrison recognized that a soldier’s family was important and critical to his or her success, Johnson said.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Ed Healy, a West Point classmate of Harrison’s, said that his friend took time to write an e-mail from Afghanistan. Harrison wanted to make sure Healy’s son, who was attending Virginia Tech, was safe after the shooting there last month.

'He has friends all over the world,' Healy said.

Perhaps the most poignant moment came when a letter was read from an Afghan brigadier general whom Harrison had been training. The words were especially touching because although the brigadier general had weathered the deaths of family members, friends and many others during battles with the Russian military and the Taliban, he said Harrison’s death had struck him deeper than any before. He described Harrison as a brother.

'I truly wish that I was killed instead of him,' he wrote.

He said the pain of Harrison’s death was felt by every Afghan soldier who knew the colonel. The Afghan soldiers shot and killed the gunman.

Harrison also was memorialized at a service in Afghanistan."

* * * *

Master Sergeant Wilberto Sabalu, Jr. died with Harrison. His story was told by Emma Graves Fitzsimmons of the Chicago Tribune:

"Deployed for the last year in Afghanistan, Wilberto Sabalu Jr. was looking forward to the end of his tour in June when he would return home to spend the summer biking and swimming with his wife and two children.

But Sabalu, who grew up in Chicago and spent 17 years in the Army, died Sunday in Afghanistan when a member of the Afghan National Army turned on several soldiers and opened fire, family said.

Master Sgt. Sabalu, 36, died in Pol-e-Charki, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered from small arms fire, defense officials said Tuesday.

Illinois native Col. James W. Harrison Jr., 47, of Missouri, died in the same incident. Their deaths are under investigation, defense officials said.

After his Puerto Rican family moved to Chicago from New York as a young boy, Sabalu graduated from Lane Technical High School, said friend Ana Lozano, who was speaking on the family's behalf.

He joined the Army in 1990 and served in the military police throughout his career there.

Sabalu was assigned to the U.S. Military Police School in Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., where he lived with his wife Amy, who also works for the Army's military police. He had two children, Joshua, 12, and Nadia, 10.

He was a coach for his children's soccer team for several years and enjoyed family cookouts, Lozano said from Sabalu's Missouri home on Tuesday. He was also known for his big smile.

Sabalu was deployed to Afghanistan last June and was able to return home to spend Christmas with his family.

'You're torn as a soldier and a father and a husband," Lozano said. "He was very good at what he did, so he was proud to be there. But he knew it was a sacrifice to be away from his family.'

In his military career, Sabalu had served in South Korea, Panama, Kansas, Missouri and Virginia, the family said in a statement. He had received several awards, including the Bronze Star and the Meritorious Service Medal.

Sabalu served as a corrections specialist in Afghanistan, taking care of prisoners for the military police, Lozano said.

Military officials told his family that Sabalu was driving a vehicle patrolling a prison's perimeter on Sunday, Lozano said. The Afghan National Army was training nearby as he passed through a checkpoint.

That is when an Afghani soldier opened fire on two vehicles. Other members of the Afghan army killed the man, she said.

'He was a gung-ho soldier,' she said. 'He died doing what he loved.'"

* * * *

I haven’t been to Afghanistan, but our soldiers spend every day hunting down members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It is a difficult job in a harsh environment, especially when you know that some of the bad guys are wearing the uniform of the good guys.

These men were working with the Afghan military leadership, mentoring the generals and senior sergeants in the new Afghan Army.

My friends in Afghanistan speak highly of their Afghan counterparts, but the very nature of guerrilla war means that the enemy is probably already in the perimeter.

Such risks are known by our soldiers, but they continue to persevere in their missions.

SFC Chuck Grist

1 comment:

  1. Walk with God, young warriors...

    This story really touched me. We loose such fine people in war. Thank you all for serving, for protecting all of us.