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Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014
Military News

Tragedy serves as reminder of enduring Afghan war

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As the U.S. and Afghanistan spar over the future of our military presence in that nation, which could mean thousands of U.S. troops there for another decade, remember this:

The war isn’t over, Afghanistan is still a very dangerous place and it will remain that way as long as there are U.S. boots on the ground there.

That’s why Tyler Garner, a retired Green Beret, is flying from Tampa to San Antonio this week.

One of his best friends was badly injured about two weeks ago when a vehicle he was riding hit an improvised explosive device. A second victim, Staff Sgt. Richard L. Vazquez, 28, was killed instantly, and a third, Staff Sgt. Alex A. Viola, 29, died several days later from his wounds.

All three belonged to the 3rd Battalion of the 7th Special Forces Group, a Green Beret unit headquartered in Florida at Eglin Air Force Base.

Garner, 29, is flying out to see his childhood friend, Jared Bullock, also 29 and a sergeant first class, who lost an arm and a leg in the blast and has been taken to the Brooke Army Medical Center.

The trip, and the reason behind it, are stark reminders that men and women are still risking their lives every day.

“It’s still going on even though it’s not in the media every day,” Garner says of the war in Afghanistan, the longest in American history. “People lose sight of that.”

Garner, Bullock, and Bullock’s identical twin, Kyle, grew up in the small town of Metropolis, Ill., where they became close buddies.

“We went to the same high school, took the same classes, did the whole youthful rebellion thing,” Garner says. “I taught them how to drive a manual transmission. They had to sit on a couple of phone books because they didn’t hit their growth spurts until later on.”

Garner and Jared Bullock continued on similar paths, enrolling and then dropping out of the same college and ultimately joining the Army.

Kyle Bullock also joined the Army, but the three served in different places.

Garner, who left the service last year, hadn’t seen the twins in a while.

Then he got a Facebook message from Jared Bullock’s wife.

“She told me what happened,” Garner says. “It was like having my little brother blown up.”

It is too early to know Jared Bullock’s prognosis.

Garner doesn’t yet know how Kyle Bullock is handling it. He just got in from Germany and is with his brother in San Antonio, Garner says.

Meanwhile, help is on the way for Bullock and his family.

The Green Beret Foundation is pitching in and sending Garner to Texas. And the Tampa-based Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides benefits for wounded commandos and their families, is providing its customary assistance for the wounded as well.

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High on the list of things I love about my job is meeting people who were part of history.

Dora Dougherty was one of those people.

A pioneering female aviator, she accomplished much in her years, but perhaps most impressive was how she showed the boys that the B-29 Superfortress was OK to fly.

Rushed into production, the bombers had a bad reputation among pilots because their four 2,200-horsepower engines often caught fire.

But with a war to fight, Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets, who piloted the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, needed to prove they were safe.

He picked Dougherty and another member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots program to show the men there was nothing to fear.

In an interview in March, Dougherty told me what it was like to climb into the cockpit.

“It was enormous,” she said. “The pilot and co-pilot were a good distance from each other, and the flight engineer was behind you. He would have all the gauges, and if you wanted to find out what the RPM was, you had to turn around and find it from him.”

Dougherty taxied the big plane onto the runway. Getting clearance from the Eglin tower, she guided the Ladybird down the runway, pulled back on the wheel and lifted her off the ground.

“It was an easy plane to fly,” she said. “Everything went perfectly smoothly, just like driving down a freeway.”

So it was with great sadness that I read the email from Diane Trimis as I was walking out of an interview at MacDill Air Force Base on Thursday.

“Dora Dougherty Strother McKeown, PhD., Lt. Col, Res, Retired, Formerly of Ft Worth Texas passed away on November 19th,” read the email.

She would have been 92 this Wednesday.

Dougherty’s life should be the subject of a movie.

Given what she faced to fly, and given the eclectic group of women she flew with, it would be ‘A League of Their Own’ with airplanes,” an official at the Smithsonian Institute joked.

She wrote an unpublished memoir, which was pretty interesting even after the war.

Because she was considered a civilian, the benefits of the GI bill were not available to her, and she had to put herself through college, receiving a Ph.D. in aviation education from New York University in 1955.

Three years later, she was hired by Bell Helicopter, becoming one of the first women to fly helicopters.

Along the way, she set female flight records for highest and longest chopper flights. She was promoted to a group chief at Bell, retiring in 1986.

As she continued her pioneering ways, she also fought for recognition, testifying before Congress in the late 1970s to get the WASPs status as veterans. The campaign eventually succeeded.

A Celebration of Life will be held for Dougherty at 2  p.m. Dec 7 at Blount and Curry Carrollwood Chapel.

Final interment, her family says, will be at Arlington National Cemetery, hopefully next spring.

v v

The Pentagon announced the death of a Florida-based soldier last week.

Staff Sgt. Alex A. Viola, 29, of Keller, Texas, died Nov. 17, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when his unit was attacked with an improvised explosive device while on dismounted patrol.

He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

There have now been 2,279 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

Twitter: @haltman

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