Memorial Day is so much more than a three-day weekend celebrating the start of summer. It’s a day to honor and remember those that lost their lives while serving in the Armed Forces. It wasn’t until I joined the military that I understood the meaning of Memorial Day. Losing comrades in combat and witnessing friends paying the ultimate sacrifice will forever be engrained in my memory. I honor and remember the fallen this Memorial Day by sharing stories of two veterans who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Honor and Remember the Fallen: Sgt. Jessie Ault (KIA- April 9, 2008)
In 2004, David and I served with Ault in Iraq at Camp LSA Anaconda in Balad. Our unit’s mission was convoy security, which meant we provided gun support for military and private contractors all over Iraq. Each unit had teams that rotated on missions, and each vehicle had a driver, truck commander, and gunner. I switched between driver and gunner and ran on most of my missions with Ault. He was always someone I could count on to keep his shit together and remain calm in stressful situations. Ault’s call sign (name used on the radios) was Hillbilly because he was born in West Virginia. He had a thick southern drawl and always wore the biggest smile. He took me under his wing and looked out for me over there.
We returned from Iraq in January 2006, and Ault finished his contract with the Army. He got married and welcomed his son Adam to the world in 2007. Later that year, his wife was called to active duty. With the war in Iraq heating up, Ault did not want to take the chance of his son not growing up without his mother. Although his commitment to the service had ended, Ault re-enlisted with the Roanoke-based 429th Brigade Support Battalion of the Army National Guard in place of his wife.
A few weeks after he arrived in Iraq, his wife found out she was expecting their second child. Luckily, Ault could make it home for a two-week visit to see his daughter’s birth.
On April 9, 2008, Ault’s vehicle was hit with an improvised explosive device, and he was killed due to injuries sustained from the blast. He died just three weeks before the end of his second and final tour of duty and was only 28 years old.
Ault was posthumously promoted to staff sergeant and received the Bronze Star Medal, Combat Action Badge, and Purple Heart.
His loss was felt by so many, and the funeral brought a lot of veterans that had served with Ault from both tours together as he was laid to rest. Those who knew Ault would say he would do it again in a heartbeat. It was just who he was down to the core, a patriot and a hero. This Memorial Day, we honor and remember Sgt. Jessie Ault and the sacrifice he made to this country.
Honor and Remember the Fallen: Sgt. James Witkowski (KIA- October 26, 2005)
I served with Sgt. James Witkowski in 2005. Witkowski was assigned to the 725th Transportation Company out of California and volunteered to run convoy missions with my unit. Even though convoy missions were hazardous, most soldiers preferred to run missions than stay on base, especially when deployments were 14 to 18 months long.
Witkowski had a great sense of humor. You could always count on him to make you laugh when you needed it most. He was also thoughtful and caring and would give you the shirt off his back if needed.
On Oct. 26, 2005, just four weeks from the end of his tour, his convoy was hit by multiple improvised explosive devices. Before the dust could settle, insurgents ambushed the convoy with rocket-propelled grenades, small-arms fire, mortars, and armor-piercing rounds.
Witkowski didn’t hesitate and immediately started firing back with the .50-caliber machine gun. While he was shooting back, a grenade had been tossed into the turret, and Witkowski laid his body on top of the grenade and took the full brunt of the explosion in his abdomen to protect the other soldiers in the vehicle. The blast killed Witkowski instantly. If he hadn’t jumped on the grenade, the convoy wouldn’t have been able to make it through the kill zone without more casualties. His heroic actions saved countless lives that day.
The 32-year-old was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for courage under fire. He is the second Army Reserve soldier to earn the honor in the Iraqi theater.
Silver Star Medal Citation
The President of the United States of America, authorized by an Act of Congress on July 9, 1918 (amended by an act of July 25, 1963), takes pride in presenting the Silver Star (Posthumously) to Sergeant James Witkowski, United States Army, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving with the 729th Transportation Company, during a combat logistics convoy battle in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, near Ashraf, Iraq, on 26 October 2005.
Sergeant Witkowski is cited for heroic action against anti-Coalition forces when his convoy encountered a complex attack. Without regard for his own life, he provided suppressive fire on the enemy and absorbed the full shock of a hand grenade thrown at his gun truck, saving the lives of his fellow soldiers. His supreme sacrifice and bravery reflect great credit on himself, his unit, and the United States Army.
Memorial Day is a chance to honor and remember the fallen. Remember the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice while serving our country and their families and friends who continue to grieve. This Memorial Day weekend, I challenge you to take your loved ones to the gravesite of an American military service member or observe the National Moment of Silence. Stop what you are doing at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day and observe one minute of silence. During this time, you can pay respects to the men and women who died in service of our country, especially those who died in battle. It’s important to reflect on the courage of service members who gave their lives for the freedoms we enjoy daily.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog!