Saturday, June 09, 2018

Mattis Stresses Unity in Meeting Collective Security Threats

By Terri Moon Cronk, DoD News, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON -- Threats to collective security have not waned, whether from terrorism or Russia’s aggression and hybrid threats, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said at NATO headquarters in Brussels today.

In the global fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the U.S.-led coalition “will continue to carry out operations necessary to crush the physical caliphate and prevent a resurgence of ISIS,” the secretary said at a news conference following a NATO defense ministers meeting.

“We will be unrelenting in our effort, working with like-minded nations. We will target ISIS around the world, for this remains a global fight,” he said.

And to support those efforts, NATO is transitioning its existing activity in Iraq into a sustainable training mission, the secretary said.

“In concert with the new Iraqi government, we will capitalize on Iraq’s success and reinforce their long-term counterterrorism efforts,” Mattis said. “We cannot allow ISIS or any other terrorist group to terrorize the people of this region, again driving thousands of refugees from their homes and into Europe and elsewhere.”

Resolute Support

On NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, NATO’s steadfast commitment and the implementation of the U.S. South Asia strategy have renewed stabilization efforts, now including additional, significant development funding from India, the secretary said.

“Afghan security forces continue to improve,” he said, adding that all six Afghan corps are deployed throughout the country, demonstrating Afghan resolve while their government pursues a stable, inclusive order for its people with NATO support.

“The level of confidence today is sufficient for [Afghan President Ashraf Ghani] to announce a temporary cease-fire for the end of Ramadan, offering the Taliban an opportunity to bring to an end this fighting and providing the world a clear demonstration of his government’s and our alliance’s commitment to peace and an Afghan-led, and an Afghan-owned peace process.”

Burden Sharing Improves

The secretary said NATO nations have stepped up their defense spending and reversed a three-year downward spiral, with 100 percent participation in 2017. “We also saw an across-NATO increase in military spending in a quarter century” last year, he added.

“Now, in 2018, eight nations are already meeting the 2 percent [of gross domestic product in defense spending] pledge benchmark, and I salute the 15 allies who are on track to reach 2 percent by 2024,” Mattis said.

Many allies are making investments beyond the monetary aspect of contributions, he noted. “I appreciate the troops and the leadership these nations provide to support NATO’s Kosovo [and] Afghanistan forward presence and other missions,” Mattis said.

“With [NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s] capable leadership, we also continue to improve the speed of political decision making,” the secretary said. “Coupled with building NATO’s military readiness, speed of alliance consultation and decision making [provide] a credible deterrent to any who would threaten our democracies.”

European Union Partners

Mattis said the alliance’s defense ministers also engaged European Union partners on security cooperation and military mobility. “[With] our defense cooperation with the EU, NATO recognizes effective deterrence and defense depends on a transparent dialogue between us,” he said.

“We also recognized that uncoordinated investments that waste resources or duplicate alliance efforts undercut our collective deterrence and defense posture, so we found further areas for cooperation and alignment,” he said.

“[For] nearly 70 years, the NATO alliance has served to uphold the values and the principles on which our democracies were founded,” Mattis said. “The American people remain committed to this alliance, and we look forward to working together to sustain our core function -- the collective defense of our people -- while fostering peace and security.”

Warrior Games Athlete Credits Family for Strength of Recovery

By Shannon Collins, DoD News, Defense Media Activity

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- In August 2015, while Army Master Sgt. George Vera was working for U.S. Special Operations Command in Afghanistan, a large group of insurgents detonated a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device at the front gate and had insurgents with suicide vests try to overrun the base and detonate their explosives.

Almost two hours into the firefight, after his best friend had been shot and killed, the base was thought to be all but secured. But as Vera was helping to check under vehicles, he was attacked by two men hiding under a vehicle 30 feet away from him.

“They shot me and hit me four times -- twice in the left leg, ankle and knee, and then twice in the back. It shattered my spine, so I’m paralyzed from the spine and below,” he said. “I was in Germany for about three weeks, and then they got me to Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland].  They sent me to the Baltimore shock trauma unit and then back to Walter Reed. I just kind of slowly woke up after almost three months of being unconscious.”

Angela Vera, his wife of 13 years, said it was pretty scary. “George was very sick, and it was pretty scary,” she said. “I flew to Germany, and whenever family flies to Germany, it’s because they’re going to die. So you have to say goodbye to him. I was scared, but I had faith. I knew he would get better at some point. Everything’s about God and family support.

“Just because he’s in a wheelchair doesn’t mean he’s not going to be able to do the same things he was doing before,” she said. “He’s able to do the same things, but in a wheelchair. Things change.”

Family Love of Sports

George met Angela while stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia 15 years ago. “I was in my last year of college. We met at church -- just kidding,” she joked. They met at a dance club where she went to watch her country play soccer. “They were looking for a party or something, but I went to watch the game,” she said. George said his house is a house divided, because Angela still cheers for her country’s soccer team, but he cheers for the U.S. team.

George’s eldest daughter, Sydney, 19, plays rugby, and his youngest daughter, Isabella, 11, does gymnastics. Isabella said she also enjoys racing her dad. Before his injury, George ran half marathons and once ran the Honolulu marathon.

“We cycle and race, but she usually wins,” he said.

“It’s usually downhill -- me running and him in his wheelchair -- or we cycle around the neighborhood,” Isabella said.

Pride in Recovery

Vera, who now works as an instructor at the Joint Special Operations Forces Senior Enlisted Academy at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, said he stayed strong throughout his recovery because of the strength of his family.

“I have a very strong family. I had a lot of people from my old unit who came to see me all the time,” he said. “I was a little cranky sometimes. There’s parts of my family I hadn’t seen in a long time, 10 or 12 years, and they were right there to support us.

“And my immediate family, my wife, she pushes me, which she’s supposed to do,” he continued. “It’s good. It helps out a lot. I could see how hard it would be if you didn’t have a family.”

Although Vera is relatively new to adaptive sports, having started the programs in January, his wife said he’s all about goals. “He says, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and he fights really hard until he gets it,” she said.

“I’m still physically not strong enough to do some of the things; even when I get on a bike here, I have to have guys help me in and out,” Vera admitted.

“But,” Angela proudly said, “He has two gold medals and two bronze medals.” He earned his gold medals in the shot put and discus in his disability category and bronze medals in the cycling time trial and road race during this week’s 2018 Department of Defense Warrior Games at the U.S. Air Force Academy here.

Sydney said she’s been very proud watching her father compete this week. “It makes me so proud of him I could cry,” she said. “He’s come such a long way, and I’m so proud of him. He’s doing so great. It makes my heart happy to just see him doing what he wants to do.”

Her sister agreed. “I feel proud,” Isabella said. “Maybe people who have disabilities like my dad or maybe kids, or if something happens to them like this, they can see what different things they can do -- maybe cycle or different sports. My dad’s paralyzed, and he’s doing it. I feel really proud.”

Angela said she’s proud of her husband every single day. “I’m not going to lie -- some days, he’s weak, but I always push him,” she said. “It’s not because I want to be mean. It’s because I know he can do it. He’s really strong, and when everything happened, the first thing that came to my mind was, ‘He’s going to make it. Even in the wheelchair, I don’t care, he’s going to make it.’”

Angela said her husband inspires everyone he meets. “Kids want to be like him. I’m so proud of him,” she said.

DoD Warrior Games

The girls said the games made them proud not only of their father, but also of the other athletes. “It’s crazy to see all these teams come together and play their hearts out,” Sydney said. “I’ve never seen this before. I’m really happy to be a part of it. There’s so much love here; it’s great.”

“When warriors get wounded or shot, the Warrior Games helps them know they have something to do instead of staying in a hospital room or their house,” Isabella said. “They can actually compete with other people, do some cool things. It’s not always about competing. It’s about fun, meeting new people, seeing what happened to them, maybe learning some new languages, or accents, or just making new friends -- things like that.”

George said during cycling, he was riding next to a British athlete who was in the wrong gear and having trouble. He told him to switch the gears. “He was like, ‘I’m so tired.’ I told him, ‘Switch the gear.’ He was like, ‘Oh mate, I didn’t know that; this makes sense.’ I think he may have been one of the guys on the stand that beat me,” George said, laughing. “It’s not about the competition.”

Vera said it’s great that, the athletes have their families to support them, because when service members are wounded, the families are affected as well.

 “Everybody’s affected by it -- your parents, your sisters, your brothers, everybody,” he said. “The support of the family is the most important thing. Family is everything.”

Isabella said she encourages people to help their wounded family members “because you never know what’s possible unless you try.”

Warrior Games Athletes Build Friendships Through Competition

By Shannon Collins, DoD News, Defense Media Activity

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- More than 300 athletes and 500 family members shared tears and laughter and made lifelong friends over the past eight days during the 2018 DoD Warrior Games here.

Wounded, ill and injured service members representing teams from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force and U.S. Special Operadapations Command, along with allied armed forces from the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada competed in shooting, archery, cycling, track and field, powerlifting, indoor rowing, swimming sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball June 1 through today at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

For many of the athletes, this was their first year competing at the Warrior Games, and the biggest challenge was showing up.

Small Victories

“For some of our guys, getting on the plane was their gold medal,” said Hillary Conway, the swim coach for the U.K. team. “Some of the team wouldn’t have gotten on a plane six months or a year ago. Winning a medal is an absolute bonus. For them to be here and thriving is absolutely amazing.”

She said the U.K., Canada, Australia and U.S. teams all look after each other. “We’ve been made to feel so welcome,” she said. “Everybody is so helpful. Our guys feel really appreciated. Being undervalued is very common among people who have mental health or physical injuries. We’ve been made to feel like absolute royalty.”

Her team came from all over the U.K. and just started gelling with each other. “It’s become a nice, tight-knit group who are looking after each other, but we’re being looked after by other teams as well,” she said.

Conway noted one instance was when a U.S. athlete with a service dog helped a U.K. athlete who had an anxiety attack during the opening ceremony.

“He came straight outside with his dog and helped her,” she said. “She shared a shirt with him today. Everybody appreciates what everyone else has been through. It’s been lovely.”

Running Partner

Anthony Dieli, a medically retired former Navy petty officer, was originally only going to compete in the 100- and the 200-meter runs, but enjoyed it so much that he decided to run the 400-meter as well. He said he was a little nervous to run at first because with his Alzheimer’s, his leg begins to drag a little.

His wife, Carolina, said the support and encouragement of his team and family gave him the strength to run the races. He also inspired Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Rob Jones, a bilateral amputee, to finish a race with him. Jones finished the 400-meter race and doubled back to finish with Dieli.

Carolina said she also enjoys the camaraderie amongst the service members and how they pick on each other. “They’ll be sitting down and some of the guys will be sitting in a wheelchair, and they’ll say, ‘Hey, get up,’ but they’re joking. They’re like brothers and sisters. They’re family. All of the support is just awesome. It makes a huge difference.”

Sharing Joy

Tiffany Hudgins, a former Marine Corps gunnery sergeant competing on the U.S. Special Operations Command team, said she saw some Australian athletes putting glitter on in the bathroom. “I told them, ‘Solid, I love it.’ Why didn’t I think of that? I love how everybody’s interested in each other’s culture, and we’re asking questions. It’s not weird. It’s great,” she said.

The Australian team brought back their inflatable kangaroo and baby kangaroo, or joey. They also have an Australian flag with a broom for the flagpole.

“We had to bring the ‘roo; it was such a big hit last year. It had to come back with a sibling, the little joey,” said Geoffrey Stokes, head coach for the Australian team and a retired Royal Australian Navy warrant officer. Last year, the baby ‘roo went home with Jon Stewart.

“It’s hard to explain when you’re a 55-year old man on an airplane. It’s my service ‘roo,” Jon Stewart said during opening ceremonies.

As for the broom flagpole, “It’s not the right flagpole, but it sends a message -- we can clean up after us,” Stokes quipped. “We’re really pleased to be here and really grateful for the invitation to participate in such a fantastic event, to be able to socialize with like-minded people going through the same type of journey.”

Socom’s Navy Lt. Patrick Ferguson and his fiancĂ©, Debra Esterces, said they hoped to sweet talk the Aussies into letting their popular Warrior Games service dog, Clyde, take home the little joey for a toy.

“I’m going to steal that kangaroo,” Ferguson joked.

“No one’s going to see a white fluffy dog with a kangaroo?” Esterces said laughing.

Team Spirit and Understanding

Canadian Army Bombardier Jason Melo said being at the Warrior Games is important for recovery because he can be around people who understand what he’s going through.

“At home, I don’t deal with a lot of people who understand what I’m going through, who can just look at you and know, hey, I’ve got to walk away for a second. They’re not in your face, saying, ‘What’s wrong?’ They understand. It’s definitely been a humbling experience to be around everybody,” he said.