To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
-- John McCrae, "In Flanders Fields," 1915
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
-- Moina Michael, "We Shall Keep the Faith," 1918
The Memorial Day tradition of wearing red poppies to honor our fallen American veterans was inspired by Miss Moina Michael, a Georgia teacher who was inspired by John McCrae, a Canadian military doctor who wrote the famous World War I poem, "In Flanders Fields." They, in turn, have inspired me to commemorate a story of war and sacrifice that happened just two months ago.
The battle was Operation Anaconda in eastern Afghanistan. The enemy targets: al Qaeda troops and Taliban. In the early hours of March 4, 2002, the bloodiest date so far in the War on Terror abroad, U.S. Navy SEAL Neil Roberts joined his unit aboard a Chinook helicopter. They were assigned to conduct a clandestine insertion onto a 10,000-foot mountaintop to establish an overwatch position, protecting other American forces participating in the attack.
As he prepared to jump from the helicopter ramp to the landing zone, the 32-year-old Roberts and the rest of the crew came under fire from a hail of rocket-propelled grenades. The aircraft lurched. Roberts was thrown from the helicopter. He fell several feet into al Qaeda-infested territory on the Kharwar Mountains. According to classified reports, Roberts survived the fall and valiantly held off enemy troops for more than half an hour. But when his machine gun jammed, Petty Officer 1st Class Roberts was overtaken and killed at close range by three suspected al Qaeda soldiers.
A six-man commando team set out to rescue Roberts. "We don't leave Americans behind," explained Brigadier General John Rosa, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after the deadly fight. The team was also met by heavy fire, and Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, 36, was killed at the scene. During a follow-up gun battle on the mountain that lasted 12 hours, five other men from a quick-reaction rescue squad died: Senior Airman Jason Cunningham, 26; Army Pfc. Matthew A. Commons, 21; Army Sgt. Bradley S. Crose, 27; Army Sgt. Philip J. Svitak, 31; and Army Spc. Marc A. Anderson, 30.
All of the men received posthumous honors, including the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star and meritorious service awards, for their heroism on the frozen peak in eastern Afghanistan now known as "Roberts Ridge." But for Roberts, giving his life to his country was its own reward. In a letter he wrote to his wife before the attack in case of death, he reflected: "I consider myself blessed with the best things a man could ever hope for. I loved being a SEAL. If I died doing something for the Teams, then I died doing what made me happy. Very few people have the luxury of that."
In a memorial statement, Roberts' family elaborated on what motivated their cherished son, brother, husband and father: "He made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that everyone who calls himself or herself an American truly has all the privileges of living in the greatest country in the world." May we never forget what happened:
"On Roberts Ridge"
I don't know if red poppies grow
On Kharwar Mountains high or low,
But on a distant peak there lies
A modern Flanders Field.
One man battled from the ground,
While helicopters gathered 'round,
Whose crewmates' mission was defined:
We don't leave our soldiers behind
On any foreign field.
Bullets flew and seven fell dead.
For all who gave let this be said:
From Flanders Fields to Roberts Ridge,
By peaks and valleys, beach and bridge,
The blood of heroes has been shed
So we might live our lives instead
And humbly reap the gains
Of freedom's yield.
-- Michelle Malkin, 2002