Real American Heroes: My Hero

Real American Hero:  My Hero

Few know about and even fewer can ever understand the sacrifice that so many make so that we may enjoy the “freedom” to go about our days in “blissful” ignorance.

It is hard for me not to be direct and straight forward when speaking about this topic because I feel ashamed for just how much I take my own freedoms for granted and how little I have sacrificed since September 11th, 2001.

I was in college that day.  West Virginia University.  Watching the planes crash into the towers froze me and captured my attention for a couple days and then I went about my life, mostly oblivious to all that happened in the aftermath.  I wasn’t a soldier, nor did I have any close relationships with one outside of what little I knew about my grandfather having been a Marine.  I guess, for the most part, we take notice of only that which we care to take notice of.  And for me, 9/11 only came into view during the few days leading up to each year’s anniversary of that horrific day. 

I tried a couple of years ago to enlist in the military, but due to shoulder surgery on my rotator cuff, I was told that I wouldn’t even pass the screening physical.  With the doors closed to becoming a soldier, I decided to focus my attention on work and coaching.  I was blessed to be able to return to Glasgow, where I had first coached in 2003, for the last three years (2008-2010), last fall being my last season, and with the cancellation of the Viking Classic last year (now known as the White Clay Creek Classic) I decided to hold an invitational.  Last summer (2010) I organized an alumni meet for Glasgow.  Coach Bill Conley, who was the Glasgow cross country coach for about a decade starting in the school’s first year, and a retired service member himself, was able to make it out along with many of his athletes from his era.  While talking with Coach Conley he mentioned that his son, Kevin Conley was involved in organizing a race in Afghanistan where he was stationed.  I asked him to tell me more and he mentioned that Maj. Conley would like to try to get shoes for the local village kids.  He would run with them and, of course, coach them but none of them had shoes, so it was very difficult and even dangerous given the terrain where they were located.        

 So from what funds we got from the invitation, we decided to send him some money to be able to purchase shoes for the children in the village.  We sent as much as he said would be necessary to buy shoes for the kids.  Then the day Maj. Conley was to give out the shoes, so many mothers showed up with so many children, that he felt he couldn’t turn anyone away, so he went out and from his own money bought enough shoes to meet the need before him.  That’s the kind of guy Maj. Conley is. 

Last year when Maj. Conley came home, I was honored to be invited by his father and wife to come to his house for his home coming party!  It was awesome to see all the signs outside of his house saying welcome back.  Inside, there seemed like there was a sea of people.  The house was packed with friends and family.

Maj. Conley’s Dad, Bill Conley, wanted to do a presentation of plaques that he had made up with the Newark Post article about Shoes for Kids in Afghanistan.  He made two, one for me and one for Maj. Conley.  It felt amazing to be able to present Maj. Conley with a token of gratitude for his service, and it spoke to the reason why Kevin has the character that he does given he grew up with a man as his father with such noble character.  A character that he will pass on to his own children!

Maj. Conley walked noticeably gingerly that day.  Apparently he had some lingering effects from injuries he incurred from various training exercises before and during deployment.

His first injuries occurred while being loaded onto a helicopter and falling on his head and shoulder.  He explains further, “Due to the extra weight of the body armor I suffered a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), torn labrum in my right shoulder and bulged a disc in my neck.  At the time of the injury I thought I was just sore from being jolted and got my bell rung. During testing after the deployment, they discovered the actual injuries.”

He later injured himself rescuing a fellow soldier, “As soon as we got in country (Afghanistan) we were practicing how to survive a vehicle roll over. When our MRAP rolled over, the soldier next to me suffocated because he could not get off his harness due to his weight.  Another soldier and I dropped down and tried to lift and free the soldier to free him.  I ruptured two discs in my back but we were able to free him and resuscitate him. I saw the medic for my back but we did not have any MRI machines so I just took pain and anti inflammatory medicine.”

Even more injuries occurred from a simple misstep and the everyday wear and tear of being deployed in tough terrain.  “Lastly during one of our foot patrols halfway through the deployment I slid on some loose rocks on the side of a mountain and tore my meniscus in my right knee.  My other two injuries (Bi lateral Bunions and carpal tunnel) developed from being old and pretending to be young. This is defiantly a young g man's war. The extra weight and all the walking hurt my feet as well as the driving and operating the machine gun on missions over unimproved roads. The vibration not only shook apart the vehicle but my body as well.”

Maj. Conley is now currently still on active duty, but has undergone unsuccessful back surgery, “I had my first surgery mid August on my back, microdiscectomy.  We are lining up another one in 4 months to do the same thing at another level because the first one didn't fix the complete problem.  All of the surgeries should take about another 18 months or so.  Long recovery.”

As you can see, 9/11 was ten years ago, and every day since, men and women like the first responders, the fire fighters and the police officers who rushed into buildings about to collapse to save lives, to the citizen soldiers of the National Guard, the active duty Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy to the friends and families of all who serve, protect, defend and keep us safe.  Men like Maj. (Coach) Kevin Conley have stepped up courageously to confront the threat to their country and families while enduring so much sacrifice!

Men and women, young and old, no longer in country (frontlines) are still dealing with the effects, both mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually,  that war has taken on them and those who love them. 

Maj. (Coach) Conley is one such man and his wife is also an example of the amazing spouses all throughout this country maintaining the homes of these warriors, dealing with the stress of single parenting and not knowing what each day may bring to their loved one in harm’s way.

It is important today and every 9/11 to remember that there is evil in the world and to thank God for the heroes that are not afraid to stand up for us against those who would intend us harm.  To be thankful and to show thanks to the heroes who never think twice about risking life and limb in order to prevent harm from befalling their fellow neighbor.  We should remember too their families waiting here for the safe return of their husbands, fathers, wives, and mothers, sons and daughters.

And the best way to remember, to say thanks…emulate our heroes!  Make choices that come from a foundation of valor, integrity, commitment and a willingness to sacrifice.   

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends John 15:13

Courage in the Towers (Part 1 of 2) 20:20

Courage in the Towers (Part 2 of 2)

Winning Afghanistan one foot at a time

Shoes for Afghan children

Wounded Warrior Project

9/11 Photos

I want to also make sure to thank all the guys I have coached with and taught with who have served.  I want to specifically thank Keith Walker, Kevin Pollack, Art Madric, Scott Kemerling, Mr. Scott, and Sterling Freeman.  All great men of service and sacrifice who have taught and coached young boys and girls to become great men and women of service and sacrifice!