By Laura Ross
Army Spec. Aaron Chase, 23, of Glasgow, Kentucky, reflected recently on his vision of becoming a soldier, “I didn’t know what to expect, other than what you see in the movies.”
His friend, Sgt. Westin Blakely, 27, of Louisville, gently interceded, “It’s much different. The hardest part of my career so far is the reality of getting to know and love new friends and then losing them.”
These are the thoughts of soldiers. Young men barely starting out in life. Veterans.
Blakely and Chase, along with their friend and fellow soldier, Spec. Ryan Nagg, 30, of Salzburg, Pennsylvania, enlisted in the Army to serve their country honorably, with courage and conviction. They are based at Ft. Campbell, on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. When 9/11 happened, they were just 7, 11 and 14 years old. These young soldiers are now in the midst of a conflict that they initially learned about from their history books.
On June 10, their lives changed. The American soldiers on site in the Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan were sent to train Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers. A Taliban loyalist infiltrated the ANA and killed three American soldiers who were all due to return home weeks later. Sgt. Eric Houck, 25, of Baltimore, Maryland, Sgt. William Bays, 29, of Barstow, California and Cpl. Dillon Baldridge, 22, of Youngsville, North Carolina were members of the 101st Airborne Division based at Fort Campbell.
“That’s when I went a little numb,” added Chase. “I didn’t want to believe it, and honestly, my first reaction was rage. About two weeks after that, we got the opportunity to go to his overseas funeral. It was powerful to see the cross with his picture above it. That was the first time I actually cried over it.”
The Louisville-based Warrior Empowerment Foundation (WEF), founded in 2013, serves, supports and empowers injured and recovering members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their care givers. The Foundation provides funding to service members and veterans’ organizations, with major funding generated largely from the WEF’s annual Tribute To Troops event held each October.
Chase, Nagg and Blakely all attended the 2016 Tribute To Troops, just weeks before they each deployed. Little did they know how much their lives would drastically change in the coming year. One was injured in combat in 2017 and the others have experienced loss and fear in the face of war.
Since the Tribute To Troops’ inception, the Warrior Empowerment Foundation has raised nearly $800,000, a far cry from the modest goal of $10,000 the group had for the first event. “We welcome hundreds of active duty and veterans to the event, and our guests have the privilege of meeting them and seeing firsthand how their support directly helps our heroes,” said Michael Greenwell, founder and chairman of the Warrior Empowerment Foundation.
Throughout 2017, the Warrior Empowerment Foundation distributed grants to several area nonprofit organizations, including USA Cares, the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion Alumni Fund, Paws With Purpose, Joggin’ for Frogmen, Save A Vet, Volunteers of America and St. Vincent DePaul. “Our goal is to support our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers,” said Greenwell. “Many of these veterans return with both visible and invisible wounds, such as PTSD, psychological issues or family problems. We’re simply here to support them, their families, and say thank you for their service. It’s the least we can do.”
A large portion of funding goes to USA Cares, which supports post-9/11 active duty and veterans in Kentucky and Indiana. Their funding has assisted more than 150 families in need. “USA Cares helps families quickly and at the earliest stages of intervention to prevent further distress,” said Hank Patton, Executive Director, USA Cares. “It’s about making the challenges of daily life just a little smoother for our veterans and injured service members.”
Back at Ft. Campbell, all three soldiers and young friends remain on active duty for now. Chase and Blakely returned to the 2017 Tribute to Troops event and saw it through the eyes of difficult experience. “I’m glad there are still people out there who have respect for what we do,” said Chase.
For more information on the Warrior Empowerment Foundation, to provide funding or seek support, visit www.wefoundationky.org VT