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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Reflecting on a Year

Today is my birthday; I'm 24 years-old.

In many ways, I feel much older than my 24 years.  It seems I've experienced a lot of things that most people my age have not.  And although I'm not a big fan of reflecting on the past, I can't help but think about how much has changed in my life in the past year.

I think for most people, the time between 23 and 24 is pretty uneventful.  Most are trying to settle into adult life at my age.  But, the last 12 months of my life have been anything but uneventful.

As I'm boarding a plane today, to travel to Virginia to speak to another group about my experience as a Marine and the details surrounding my Medal of Honor, I'm thinking about how I spent my last birthday.  If I remember correctly, June 26, 2011 was much hotter than it is today, but maybe that's because I was spending the day working outside on a construction site, pouring concrete and tying steel.  That was a long day!

I would have never imagined then, that my life would be turned upside down in the way it has been since receiving the Medal of Honor, but these types of things cannot be expected, or even planned for.

Now, don't get me wrong, I am grateful for the opportunities receiving the Medal of Honor have brought me.  I've visited interesting places and met wonderful people over the past year.  However, no matter if I'm standing on the 50 yard line of the New York Giants football field, sharing a beer with President Obama, or sharing my story with a group of strangers, the reality of the price that was paid for me to enjoy these opportunities is always on my mind.

I will never know why I was pulled from my team in Afghanistan on September 8, 2009.  I'll never know why my guys died and why I survived.  But I do know that I was given the opportunity to continue living for myself and for each of them.

Celebrating another year of life is a bit of struggle for me when I know my guys will never have the chance.  But, as I've said before, you can see situations in life as obstacles or as opportunities.  I choose to see the opportunity and to make the most of it. 

Tonight, when I speak to the group in Virginia, I'm going to tell the story of the my brothers, of their bravery and of their sacrifice.  And I'm going to do my best to seize the opportunity I've been given to live another year on this earth.

Here's to 24!
Dakota

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Memorial Day 2012

Memorial Day, the official start of summer, is upon us once more.  Pools are re-opened, barbeques are fired up and friends and family gather in backyards across the country to fellowship over burgers and beers.  Sure, this kick-off to a new season gives us all a reason to celebrate, but it also gives us the opportunity to stop and remember those who have given their lives for our freedom. 

We live in the greatest country in the world!  It isn't perfect here in the United States of America, but it's still better than anywhere else.  We enjoy freedoms here that allow us to choose our own paths and make our own decisions; freedoms that cannot be found anywhere else on this planet.  But these freedoms were not just given to us; they were earned by men and women willing to lay down their lives to protect them.

It's easy to become complacent in this country because we have enjoyed this way of living for so long that now we expect, rather than respect the abundance of choices that we have.  This becomes a problem when we start forgetting the price that was paid for us to live in this great country.

Many lives have been lost to protect our rights over the years, and the fight is never over.  We must continue to stand up for our country, for our freedom.  We must recognize and honor those who willingly volunteer to defend us.  And, we must never forget those who made the ultimate sacrifice protecting our homeland.

So, this weekend, as you celebrate Memorial Day, I hope you wear the red, white and blue with pride and you remember what this holiday is really about.  Think about the Americans living on the other side of the planet, in the Afghanistan heat.  Remember them as you sip your cool, refreshing lemonade.  Think about the families who would give anything to share one more backyard barbeque with a loved one they lost to war.  Think about the men and women who have died so that you can celebrate this holiday in the safety of your own home, with the comfort of your friends and family around.

We owe it to our country to fight for the memory of those who gave all.  Let us never forget!



Semper Fi,
Dakota

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Struggle

So, I have to say this week was by far one of the hardest weeks of my life...

They say time heals all wounds, but for me, it seems that the longer I wait and the more time that has passed, the harder it gets.

Marines are supposed to be the toughest men on Earth, but I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm struggling.  This week was especially hard because Tuesday was the 8th of the month.  My guys were killed on the 8th of September, 2009.  I'll admit that this week was filled with lots of tears, bad days and bad thoughts.

It seems that I have not accepted that my team is dead, which sounds crazy.  I've verbally stated that they are dead, I've shared the details of that day in Ganjgal Valley countless times with many people, but in my heart it's as if the reality hasn't hit me, yet.  It just seems like a bad dream that I'll eventually wake up from.

To avoid thinking about it I try to keep myself busy; running from it as long as possible, but I will say I'm getting really tired.  I'm slowing down.  What isn't slowing down though is the demons, the reality that my brothers, my best friends are gone... GONE... Gone forever. 

But what do you do?  Sit at home and cry?  Lay in bed?  Not eat?  Feel sorry for yourself?  I don't know.  I don't pretend to know. All I do know to do is to keep breathing and keep taking one step at a time, and sometimes that takes all my effort.  Feeling the loss of five of the most important people in my life isn't enough, though.  I also have to deal with knowing that I am a failure, and I failed them.  But I keep thinking that if I can continue pushing myself, in their names and in their honor, I will earn their forgiveness for not being there and saving them.  Hopefully, they will, someday, at least understand the reason I let them down...

I accept the responsibility of being a failure.  I hold myself accountable everyday and let everyone know that a failure is what I am; not a hero, as so many people have called me.  I cringe when I hear that word.

Everyday, and especially on the days when I don't even want to get out of bed, I look down at my wrists and I see their names and I know I have no choice but to push on in their honor and for sacrificies they gave!!! 

RIP
 Lt Michael E. Johnson, GySgt Aaron Kenefick, GySgt Edwin Johnson,
PO3 "Doc" James Layton, SFC Kenneth Westbrook.
Never Forgotten

Semper Fi,
Dakota

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Opportunities

Receiving the Medal of Honor last fall has created opportunities for me that I would have never imagined.  I've gotten to travel all over the country, I've met wonderful people and I've experienced an overwhelming feeling of love and support from every corner of our great nation.  Of all the new opportunities this Medal has offered me, one of my favorites is the opportunity I have to speak to groups across the country, sharing the story of my Medal of Honor; the story of my teammates.  When I give these talks, it's always my hope that I'll say something that will inspire someone in the audience.  In my speeches, I talk a lot about opportunity and accountability, so I wanted to take a moment today to share some of that message.

I've said many times that I accepted the Medal of Honor, not on my behalf, but on the behalf of my brothers who lost their lives, on behalf of all the men and women serving our country, and on behalf of those who gave all.  I believe that the only reason I am a Medal of Honor recipient is because I was given an opportunity.  On September 8, 2009, when everything that could have gone wrong in Ganjgal Valley, Afghanistan went wrong, I was given the opportunity to defy orders by doing what my family had raised me to do and what the Marine Corps had taught me to do; to leave no man behind.  I truly believe that any other man or woman in uniform, who would have found themselves in my position that day, would have done the same thing.  But it was me who was given that opportunity.

Now, I have an opportunity to make the most of the position I've found myself in, as a Medal of Honor recipient.  I have chosen to use the platform I've been given to try to make a difference in our world.  You see, everyday we are each faced with circumstances; sometimes favorable, often times not.  We can look at these circumstances as situations, or we can see them as opportunities.  I prefer opportunities because it has a much more positive connotation, and I encourage you to do the same.

What we do with the opportunities we are given defines us.  I didn't want to accept the Medal of Honor, when I first learned I would be receiving it.  Still, to this day, I struggle with my feelings of being a Medal of Honor recipient.  But I also realize that receiving the Medal of Honor gives me an opportunity, on a large scale, to bring recognition to our service members and to my brothers who gave their lives for each of us.  It's not always easy, but when I'm feeling tired and I'm losing my will to continue on, I look down at my wrists and I find my inspiration again.  I wear a band on each wrist with the engraved names of my heroes, my fallen brothers, and when I need a lift, I'm reminded that these guys don't have the opportunity to continue on and so I have to do that for them.



We are each provided chances to do something with our lives; to make a difference.  Sometimes it's hard, or even scary, to walk through that door of opportunity because there is no way of knowing where it may lead.  I had no idea that making the decision to enter the valley in Afghanistan would lead me to where I am today.  And I wish things had ended differently than they did.  But the fact is that I cannot control what happened back then, all I can do is move forward today. 

Traveling 25 days a month to speak to groups can be exhausting; even for a 23 year-old.  But I do it because I've been given this opportunity and every opportunity is a gift.  I'll leave you with the following quote and I hope you take it to heart.  I hope each of you take advantage of every opportunity you're given and make the most of your life.

"Too many people are thinking of security instead of opportunity. 
They seem more afraid of life then death."
 ~James F. Byrnes

Semper Fi,
Dakota

Friday, April 13, 2012

Thank a Veteran

Advocating for veteran support has long been a passion of mine.  I grew up learning of the struggles veterans face when returning to civilian life from my grandfather, a veteran Marine. Now, a veteran myself, I know all to well the difficulties our service members deal with, in their attempts to find a new reality once they return from combat.

I wanted to write this blog today because I think it's hard for civilians to understand the position veterans are in, and why they face some of the issues that plague them after their military service is over.  I'm sure you've all read news articles highlighting the most common issues; homelessness, unemployment, the mental and physical conditions effecting many of our veterans.  But before you can begin trying to understand the cause of these issues, I think it's important to consider the biggest struggle our veterans face and that's the mental transition from active duty to civilian life.

The strength of our nation's military is based on a team mentality; everyone does everything the same way at the same time.  While serving, there are very few opportunities to make a decision on your own; most decisions are made for you by your leaders.  Regardless of what branch you serve, all members dress the same, walk the same, eat the same, operate on the same rigid schedule.  Now imagine the challenges one might face when trying to transition from that type of existence, back to a normal civilian existence.  No one is there to tell you what to do and how to do it, anymore.

Many of our service members, and especially those returning from combat, have been living their life in situations where every decision could mean life or death.  Upon returning home from war, it's difficult to find meaning in what most Americans know as everyday living.  There's a scene in the movie The Hurt Locker, that I think really sums up the point I'm making.

At the end of the movie, the main character has just returned home from Iraq.  While serving his tour, he was a part of a bomb squad and everyday he dealt with life or death situations.  In this scene, he's standing in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, just staring at all the boxes of breakfast options; unable to make a decision.  It's difficult for him to choose which cereal he wants to buy because the whole notion seems utterly ridiculous.  He's used to making decisions that will lead to continued life, or death.  Who cares what kind of cereal he picks out!

This scene really resonated with me, because I understand the struggle.  It's so important that our veterans receive the support they need to make a healthy transition to civilian life and I think the first step in that process is for all Americans to try and understand, or at least recognize, the issues our men and women in uniform are facing.

American civilians are blessed to have men and women who volunteer to serve and protect this great country of ours.  Because these people answer the call, others can sleep soundly in their own beds at night, they can enjoy family barbeques and work in the field of their choice, they can celebrate freedom of speech and of religion and they never have to experience the brutal reality of war. 

Our veterans sacrifice everything they have, many of them laying down their own lives, so that the rest of our people can enjoy freedom.  The very least owed to our veterans when they return home is to be shown compassion, gratitude and understanding.  I encourage everyone reading this blog to try and understand that returning home from war is just the first step down a very long road for our veterans.  They need all the love, support and recognition they can get. 

I hope you'll join me in my effort to raise awareness for these men and women and show them how much we appreciate all they have done for each of us.

Semper Fi!
Dakota

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What a Crew

I want to give a big shout out to the crew that spent the week with me in West Liberty.  What an awesome group!  I appreciate everyone taking a week off of their own lives to help the people of this Eastern Kentucky community. 

When Blake and I first started talking about ways we could help Morgan County, we talked about his company, Luxury Lawn & Landscape, donating trees to be planted throughout the community.  That initial discussion turned into us loading up five pieces of heavy machinery and recruiting a few other to join us in camping out for 4 days. 

It's been a great experience and although we're all exhausted and ready for a warm shower, we have all agreed that our work in West Liberty is not finished.  We'll be back. 

So, THANK YOU to Jeff, Randy, Blake, Bill, Mauricio and Tony for volunteering your time to help with the recovery efforts in West Liberty, Kentucky!



And, thank YOU to everyone who has followed this blog and shared in our experience.  I hope the pictures we've posted and the stories we've shared from this community have inspired you to do your part.  Until next time...

Semper Fi!
Dakota

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Still Work To Be Done

Our time in West Liberty is coming to a close, but that doesn't mean that the work is done.  As the pictures show, this community is facing a complete devastation.  Before they can even begin rebuilding, the broken down homes, the debris hanging in the tree tops, and the blocked roadways must be cleared. 

Our crew spent three and half days in West Liberty, working from sunlight to sundown.  It feels like we've accomplished a lot, but there are still too many families homeless and too many businesses closed indefinitely.  But life doesn't stop for the residents of Morgan County.  In previous posts, I've shared the resilience and the strong sense of hope that these people, who have lost nearly everything, have shown me during my time in their community. 

These are proud, strong and devoted Americans.  They represent everything this great country stands for: faith, hard work, a second chance, determination. 

I've said before that one of the reasons America is the best country in the world is because we come together and lend a shoulder to a neighbor in need.  Many people have volunteered their time and given all their energy to help West Liberty get back on its feet, but we cannot stop here.  There is still work to be done in this community and they are going to need all of our help.  I urge anyone and everyone to do what they can to help a fellow American in need. 

I believe we can all look at circumstances life presents as situations or as opportunities; I choose to consider West Liberty an opportunity for all of us to rise above ourselves and come together for the greater good. 

I'll be back to West Liberty, to continue helping what is sure to be a long and sometimes painful recovery.  I hope you'll join me.

Dakota

Count Your Blessings

I've met many wonderful people during my time working in West Liberty.  Each person has a story to tell; some of them are stories of survival and sadly, many are stories of lost loved ones.  Talking with these people has really given me a better perspective on my own life and has made me realize how important it is for each of us to count our blessings.

While working in a small community about 10 miles from West Liberty, called Woodsbend, I met a couple who recently celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary.  John and Sherry Flannery had been living on a small piece of property in Woodsbend for the last 35 years.  Sherry's 90 year-old mother was living with the Flannerys during the time the tornado hit. 

John recalled seeing the storm make its way over the mountaintops and straight toward his house, "it looked like a huge wave you see in the ocean; white capped.  That's what the it looked like coming over the mountains, but it wasn't water; it was the storm, the wind and all the debris it was hauling with it." 

John and Sherry struggled to get themselves and Sherry's mother to the cellar in time. 

"I was trying to close the door, but the wind was pulling it open," John explained.

"You hear that the force of a tornado will pull you up off the ground, but it felt like something was pushing us down.  I know that was The Lord protecting us," Sherry shared.

The Flannerys all made it through the storm safely, but when they emerged from the cellar, all of their belongings, including the home they had shared for more than three decades, were destroyed.  With no place to live, the Flannerys are now staying in a trailer on their daughter's property, 10 miles away.  Sherry's mother was moved to Florida to live with her son.

When asked what they planned to do with what was left of their home, Sherry said, "I don't want to live here right now; I just don't think I could live here now."  But even after facing such loss and heartbreak, Sherry shared, "we've gained much more than we lost.  To see so many good people coming to help our community; people who don't live here and have nothing to gain from spending their time cleaning up this mess, it really gives you hope to see the genuine goodness in perfect strangers."

The Flannerys are trying to salvage what is left of their life in Woodsbend, but will likely sell the property and start over someplace else.  Unfortunately, not everyone in Morgan County can tell a similar story of hope. 

Yesterday, my crew and I worked on a site where a family of five once lived.  They tried to take cover when the tornado hit, but three members of their family did not survive.  In addition to losing all of their personal belongings, they lost three loved ones.  You cannot rebuild or recover the people you lose..  Hearing their story and seeing the complete devastation, both materialistic and personal, broke my heart. 

I ask everyone to please keep the people of Morgan County in your thoughts and send your prayers that they may, somehow, someday, find peace in their hearts.

Dakota

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

FOX NEWS

Check this out.... FOX News coverage of our work in West Liberty.
http://video.foxnews.com/v/1519217500001/

It Happens on the Big Jobs

Our team suffered a few injuries, but we're tough and the work must continue!
I almost lost my head to a tree limb that came crashing into the cab of the Bobcat I was driving.  Sure, I probably could have used stitches, but who has time for a trip to the hospital??? Just stick a butterfly on it and I'm good to go!


As it turns out, Monica did need three stitches after a piece of tin caught her in the arm.  Don't panick people, it looks much worse than it actually was... she was a trooper though!




It happens on the big jobs.
Dakota

Day One: Complete

Yesterday was our first full day of working on the clean-up in West Liberty, KY, and man, there was a lot of work to be done!

My crew and I were up by 3:30am and ready to get started.  I had an interview with FOX News at 5am and by lunch, it felt like we had already put in a full day's work.  We started the day working in an area called Liberty Heights; a residential area on top of a hill.  People's personal belongings, baby blankets, books, clothes, toys, journals, covered the once beautiful mountainside.  Residents' most private and intimate personal items were scattered, sometimes miles away from their home.  Houses that once stood tall and offered safety for a family, had been leveled by the tornado.  Pieces of tin were wrapped around tree tops, a true indication of the force of the deadly storm.

When we rolled in on Sunday, I couldn't believe my eyes!  I've seen a lot of heart-wrenching scenarios in my life, but the devastation of West Liberty is unlike anything I've ever experienced.  Main Street has been completely demolished, as you'll see in the slide show.  In a community like West Liberty, the family owned businesses are the heartbeat of the town; of the people.  As we drove down Main Street, I couldn't help but reflect on the blood, sweat and tears that went into building each of these businesses.


On the corner of Main Street and Prestonsburg Street, a 100 year-old church was left in crumbles.  This church, that represented so much of what West Liberty values, and had been a landmark in this community for a century, had been reduced to a few piles of bricks.  Some residents shared that the church had the most beautiful stained glass windows and one recovery coordinator was carrying a piece of one of windows with him, as if to keep the memory alive.

But existing right along with all the devastation is a strong sense of hope.  The people of West Liberty have hope, even if they have very little else.  It would be easy to get lost in the aftermath of the tornado and all the work that is now required to clean-up their small Appalachian town; they are facing years of recovery efforts.  But these people have a resilience, a will to take back what was theirs and build it back better than it was before.

Just like the gentleman carrying the piece of stained glass window from the church; the residents of West Liberty, Kentucky are ready to move forward; they are looking forward to the future, while never forgetting their past and it is that strength and perseverance that is the most important component of their recovery.

There's still much work to be done, so I've got to get to it...
Dakota 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Welcome

Welcome, everyone, to my new blog and thanks for checking in!

I hope to use this blog to share my life experiences with others.  I'm new to blogging, so for all you veteran bloggers out there, please have patience as I learn the ropes.

I'm preparing for a trip to West Liberty, KY to help with the recovery efforts from the deadly tornadoes that recently swept through the community.  As you can see in the picture above, many people lost everything and the entire town is devastated.  Myself, along with three close friends, decided we couldn't sit around and do nothing when so many people need our help.  We have packed up our equipment, rented some heavy lifting machinery and we're headed east. 

I'll use this blog to keep everyone engaged with the efforts in West Liberty so continue to check in for updates, but please don't stop there.  I encourage everyone to do their part to help their neighbors; donate food, clothes, money; volunteer to help with the clean-up; at the least, send your prayers to the victims of the tornadoes. 

We'll be doing our part... I hope you'll join us.

See you in West Liberty!
Dakota