We often drone through life with weeks passing us by without recognition, counting the Mondays until a big holiday, or a long-awaited vacation. We are incrementally effected by little things, often without notice. Then, on occasion, we live through an experience that drives to our core, leaving an indelible mark on us forever. The little events are often difficult to gauge in how they affect us, but those significant emotional events are easy to remember, to analyze, and apply to our lives. One of those events occurred to me during the last week of September of 2010 in Afghanistan, and it forever made me appreciate and recognize selfless service, the truest test of a real leader. The embodiment of that service came in the form of a young man named Mark A. Forester.
Mark’s call sign was Jaguar 28, and he was rolling through a valley with his Special Forces team in South-Central Afghanistan, performing clearing operations with Afghani soldiers. Mark, or Senior Airman Forester, was exactly where he wanted to be and where he felt he should be.
Mark was older for his chosen profession and rank. A college graduate from Alabama who had been a Christian missionary, he felt strongly that he should join the service. Shunning the opportunities, pay and career progression of an officer, he chose to enlist to be a combat controller, the Air Force’s version of a dirt-eating special operator, only his chosen job required an extreme level of technical aviation skill piled on top of his ability to shoot, move and communicate with a ground force, and interact with the locals in the more dangerous parts of the world. As a Senior Airman, he was living right near the poverty line, putting his life on the line on a regular basis, because his desire to serve was stronger than any desire for personal recognition and career advancements.
During that final week of September, Jaguar 28 (Mark) and his team were working their way through some dangerous country, trying to win over the locals while clearing the land of known Taliban fighters. As the terminal controller, Mark’s main job was to keep the team connected with their air support, to identify and eliminate targets, and give the team a bird’s eye view of the fight to help them maneuver. My squadron was overhead their operations for most of the time they were there, and during a particularly hot moment in the fight, one of Jaguar 28’s team-members was mortally wounded. As he tried to help him, knowing he was dying, he also recognized that his choice was to leave his friend and hopefully save himself with the rest of the team, or stay with his team member for his last few moments on earth. Mark chose the latter, and members of my squadron, although doing everything we could to help and protect them, were devastated when Mark was killed with his team member. We felt that we had lost a brother, as we had. We felt that we had failed, as we swore an oath to protect EVERY one of our servicemen on the ground. Every one of us was severely impacted by his loss, and his selfless actions.
As I pondered why his life mattered to us, a man whom we had never actually met, I thought first of our inability to save him. That was a big one. But we also had been unable to save his team member, who I am sure was another great American. Additionally, he was our voice on the ground. He was our direct link to the ground forces, our bond of trust to help each other succeed in our joint mission. He was gone, so that link to help the rest of the team was no longer there. As I thought more about it, though, I realized that while all of those points were important, it hurt because we were unable to save such a clearly valiant soul from that terrible conflict. He willingly chose to lay down his life for someone who was already a “lost cause”. His team mate was dying, no doubt about it. But Mark would not allow his last moments on earth to be suffered alone, would not allow for him to leave this mortal life feeling like he had been forgotten. Mark selflessly gave of himself to honor and protect the last few moments of another. There are great people in all walks of life, but rare is the person so willing to ignore the ‘common good’, or ‘greater good’, and selflessly give of themselves for another. The analyst or pragamatist would have said to pull back and live to fight another day, to recover the team mates body after the fighting calmed down. Mark’s mother probably does not have a day go by where she does not wonder what would have been in Mark’s life were he still alive. But none of that mattered as Mark looked upon his team mate and saw his ‘need’.
As I said, Mark chose the life of an enlisted Airman instead of an officer for a specific job. By all accounts of how he lived his life, he had all of the characteristics of what the Air Force and any organizations dreams of when searching for the next generation of senior leaders. By those same accounts, however, I have come to realize that Mark’s leadership was not bound by the duty title or rank on his sleeve. He understood leadership more than most, and understood that his actions were more important than the handle in front of his name. He understood that mentoring, teaching, coaching, and vision can come from anywhere in an organization.
Most importantly, Mark understood that true leadership is where the leader, regardless of title, puts the needs of others in front of himself. He thinks not of his next job, or what opportunity awaits him, before he thinks of serving those around him, of giving of himself, his comfort, and even his very life, if the needs of others demand it. True leadership never loses sight of the overall mission, but understands that missions lose their meaning if the seemingly small needs of the team members are ignored.
Since that fateful day, my thoughts about Mark’s effect on others has further solidified my belief that he knew exactly what he was doing. The United States lost two great servicemen on that day, and were forced to regroup in that particular battle, but the outpouring of love and the influence that Mark’s short time on earth has had on literally thousands of people are indicators that true leadership has a more lasting effect on what matters than any short-term mission. Thank you Mark for showing us what a true leader is really like. America’s enemies don’t have a chance when we have leaders like Mark amongst us.
The following is the letter that I wrote to my squadron’s wives group after Jag 28’s death.
For this week’s letter, I wanted to share a bit of what is happening here regarding the mission that should leave you feeling glad that your husband’s are doing what they are doing, even if the outcome is not always perfect. I know that it has not been that long since the last one, but this one is time-critical and I wanted to share it while the emotion of it is still with me. The following story is an example of the often not-so-perfect outcome:
The Special Forces teams often roll into the most dangerous areas, and sort of act as bird dogs to flush out the enemy so we can dispose of them. If/when we win this war and the Afghanis take back their country for good, it will be due in a large measure to these guys who just love the job and risk their lives daily to mix with the locals, train them in basic military tactics, and instill in them a sense of pride and desire to own their country.
A large portion of the squadron was involved in a gunfight supporting one of these Special Forces teams, including their Afghani trainees/companions, and some Air Force JTACS (Joint Terminal Air Controllers, the guys we talk to on the ground every day). Their team was involved in a clearing operation of a valley, trying to root out and capture/kill any Taliban forces, along with their weapons caches. We provided armed overwatch, surveillance support, and often firepower for the groups of men fighting for the valley that was their objective.
After a number of our flights had provided coverage for them Jaguar 28, their JTAC, was killed, along with another team member. Having just heard his voice on the radio, and worked with him to clear some of the valley, the guys felt like they had just lost a brother. We take it personally when anyone on the ground gets injured/killed. We know we cannot save everyone, but that is our intent. And to punish those who would do them harm and fight against the people of Afghanistan. The feeling after that news was pretty somber in the squadron, and we are hoping to play some part in his memorial service this week.
During our 6 months here, we will probably work with less than 100 JTACs. You come to recognize their voices, know how they operate, and establish a level of trust that doesn’t occur in most of life’s endeavors. More than once already, we have been asked to employ weapons in close proximity to the friendly forces. The JTAC doesn’t know your name, can barely see your aircraft if at all, and yet he is willing to trust that you know where you are aiming, even when he is in your field of view. Some JTACs are better than others, but each has the respect of all of the Tigersharks for what they do, and how they facilitate what we do.
I’m sure that Jaguar 28 will not be the last, but for many he was the first that we had any connection with, and it has steeled our desire to follow the radios, know where the good guys are, and NEVER MISS.
Until next time,
“Mark believed with all his heart in serving his God, his country and his family,” said Maj. Edmund Loughran, the 21 STS acting commander. “The unit mourns his loss, but we could not be more proud of his devotion to defending what he believed in most.”