Saturday, February 06, 2010

More than Football to Think about This Weekend: A Soldier's Story - In Memory of Captain Paul Peña

I guess this is a weekend to think about football - and to not think about football. Within moments of my posting the Blog piece reviewing Jon Krakauer's book about Pat Tillman, I read a sobering e-mail from a friend in Atlanta paying tribute to yet another fallen warrior. He offers a deeply moving reflection about where our thoughts should be this weekend amidst the hoopla surrounding tomorrow's Super Bowl clash between the Saints and the Colts.

Here are the words from Michael G. Boulegeris in tribute to Captain Paul Peña:

"Surely this weekend’s social calendar is crowded with multiple “must-see” events An expected record 100 million viewers will tune in to watch the Super Bowl, perhaps the biggest TV event of the year. CBS should be thrilled. Not only will the recession keep many Americans home to watch the Colts and the Saints, but a massive winter storm will further bolster ratings as many northeasterners stay home glued to their HDTV sets as well. We will be subject to a blizzard of media analysis Saturday through Sunday ranging from critique of football players, $3 million one-minute ads, the host city and whether the halftime show lives up to expectations.

Amidst the parties and gatherings, it seems as though somehow we might pause for perspective, reflect for a moment in time and bend the calendar back 14 days. Which explains why the memory of Paul Peña comes to mind this weekend.

Captain Paul Peña, 27, died on January 19, 2010 in the Arghandab River Valley from wounds suffered from an explosive device. One member of his unit, Sergeant Adam Ginett died along side Peña and five members of the patrol were wounded. Peña was a company commander, assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Ft. Bragg, N.C. He had previously served a 14-month deployment in Iraq where he was awarded a Bronze Star for valor. The favorite son of San Marcos, Texas, Peña graduated from the San Marcos Baptist Academy where he earned the Eagle Scout award and was voted as the “best all around student” by his National Honors Society. Pena graduated from the United States Military Academy in 2004. He was an Army Ranger.

From all accounts, Peña was highly respected by his soldiers. His leadership was marked by a reassuring smile, humility and quiet courage. When questioned why he decided to go out on a “routine” patrol with his company’s soldiers, Lieutenant General Frank Helmick who commands the XVIII Airborne Corps said, “Paul knew exactly where he needed to be, out in front of his paratroopers, leading them through danger.”

His attributes were not limited to bravery, as his soldiers admired Peña’s humanity. SSG Ian Combs, who served with Peña in Iraq, related how during a nighttime firefight Peña maintained his mettle, as tracers lit up and screamed through the darkness. Combs said of his platoon leader, “He always had that secret smile. He'd look at you. He was good like that ... He made sure we came back the same people we were when we left." The uncommon leadership of Peña knew no boundaries. General Helmick noted that Peña forged close relationships with the local Afghan police the Americans were training. When Peña’s unit was assigned a mission in another province, several Afghans said they wanted to quit to follow him.

Leading soldiers was the lifetime dream of Paul Pena. He lived his dream. His devotion to his soldiers was matched by his love for his mother, an elementary school music teacher. SSG Combs observed the close relationship that Paul, an only child, had with his mother, Cecilia, a single mom. Combs said, "He's a seasoned veteran, and you see him turn into a boy again with her. It was beautiful. She was his world. It was obvious to anyone who saw him. He was very protective of her. Before I met her he told me, 'Look man, if you tell any stories, make sure they have a happy ending.'"

Who are the men and woman that serve the nation with such selflessness and honor? What defines their character and goodness? When you have an opportunity, take a few minutes and read the eulogy delivered by classmate Matthew Bodie (“Paul was the best of us all.”). Here is the link:

Paul Peña was buried in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery last Friday. He was the kind of man who might have been embarrassed for so much personal account in print. But he would have understood the reason for it.

There is a little more to this weekend than the Super Bowl"

* * * * * * *

I followed the link that Michael provided above, and it led me to an eloquent and heart-felt eulogy offered at Capt. Peña's memorial service by his West Point classmate, Capt. Matthew Bodie.

"On behalf of Mike Normand, Cory Wallace, TJ Root, Danny McManus, and everyone else from Paul's West Point family that could not attend this service, I would like to offer our deepest sympathy to Paul's mother, Cecelia. Madre, it is not by choice that these young men could not be here with us today, for they are somewhere far away fighting the very fight that took Paul away from us. I have spoken with each of them, and they each offer their sincerest condolences. I first met Paul on 29 June 2000 at West Point on what is called "Reception Day," or R-Day for those familiar with the institution. This is the infamous day where new cadets are "welcomed" to West Point to the tune getting yelled at and hazed by upperclassmen. Aside from getting hazed and doing push-ups with fellow recruits that I just met, my only other recollection of R-Day was that it relentlessly poured down rain that day, and many times that summer. Perhaps I never realized it at the time, but as I started to forge new friendships with cadets such as Paul, this rain truly foreshadowed that something bad was going to happen to several members of the Class of 2000. Well, unfortunately it is raining once again today, and Paul is officially the 11th classmate of ours to die in action in the past 6 years. The reason that I mention R-Day is because aside from JROTC in San Marcos, R-day back in 2000 was officially the day that Paul began doing what he loved -- serving our nation as a soldier. While the rest of us cadets were scared of the unknown that summer, Paul truly enjoyed every minute of his training. Up until that fateful moment of Paul's death in Afghanistan, Paul was proud to don the uniform each day, and he loved being a soldier more than anything in the world. The Army was truly Paul's home. Through our years at West Point, I can remember sharing just about every memorable moment with Paul. I have vivid memories of Paul from each important event at West Point including Beast, Camp Buckner, Yearling Winter Weekend, 500th night, Ring Weekend, 100th night, and Graduation. One thing that I will never forget about Paul is his unwavering faith in our Lord through the good times and the bad. Anyone who knew Paul, knows that he was a man of faith. As we progressed through West Point together, Paul and I used to go to mass together on many Sundays. I remember that no matter how hard things got, Paul always relied on his faith to help him achieve. While the rest of us found ample time to moan, groan, and complain about how difficult it was, I never once heard Paul complain about how hard things were. Paul had a quiet confidence about himself that I always wished to emulate, but could not. I truly looked up to him because he was the humblest friend I've ever had. Even though Paul didn't exactly graduate at the top of his class, he is truly at the top of the Class of 2004 today when it comes to valor, bravery, and dedication. Not only was Paul dedicated to all of his friends; he was truly dedicated to being the best soldier he could be for his country. Simply put, Paul was the best of all of us. While the rest of us may not have appreciated all aspects of being a soldier such as hard, physical training, and "roughing" it out in the wilderness, rain, cold, and mud, Paul loved it for some strange reason. Anyone who knew Paul knows that Paul loved the outdoors. Paul told me that he dreamed of moving back to Alaska after he retired from the Army. Although I've never been to Alaska, my wife, Megan, and I dreamed of visiting Paul up there someday in the future and experiencing the majesty of the outdoors that Paul loved so dearly. Unfortunately, this dream will never happen because the last time that I will ever get to spend outdoors with Paul was fishing on a lake in Georgia last year before he deployed. Neither of us caught any fish that day. Perhaps this is another sign of what was to come. Like everyone here, I wish that I had cherished the last moments I spent with Paul just a little more. His death was so sudden, and when I first heard of it, I honestly did not believe it. I spent the whole morning of the 20th researching casualty reports and story boards with my Brigade S2 officer down in our vault. I did not fully believe and comprehend it until Paul's cousin, Cristina, called me on the phone to confirm it. Calling Paul's mom that night to offer condolences was the hardest phone call I ever had to make. Paul truly was not only a good soldier, he was a great friend and a wonderful son to Cecelia. My heart truly aches for you, Madre, for words cannot express how much of wonderful son Paul was. Please know that as we try to move forward, all of us who were friends with Paul are here to do anything for you. While our friendship will never take the pain away from losing your son, I sure hope that it will help his spirit live on within each of us. While today is truly the saddest day of my life, I will offer everyone this. We should be proud of Paul, not only for what he accomplished, but for who he was. He was the most humble and loyal friend that I have ever known. He truly was a brother in arms, and a man of faith. His legacy will never be forgotten. I do not have any bad memories of Paul, and I will never forget the good times we shared together. In closing, a wise man once told me that everything happens for a reason. Well, right now, it is hard to think of a good reason for Paul leaving us. However, God works in mysterious ways, and whatever that reason is, I am sure that Paul is in a better place right now. We will all see you soon, Paul. We love you, and we will never forget you."

CPT Matthew Bodie
USMA '04

1 comment:

Wes Bumgardner said...

Al...thanks for the post...paul was indeed all the things that matt described and we will really miss i reflect on this memorial day weekend...i cant help but think of paul and the sacrifice he made...

Wes B.
USMA '04