An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Commentary: Memorializing today's sacrifices

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Zachary Wilson
  • AFCENT Combat Camera Team
This year's Memorial Day featured a variety of ceremonies, retreats, moments of silence and various other ways to honor the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country. 

While the nation took the time to memorialize those past patriots, the U.S. Air Force and America lost another patriot Monday - Lt. Col. Mark E. Stratton, of Foley, Ala., who was one month away from completing his tour as the commander of the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan's Panjshir valley. 

Colonel Stratton was one of two Airmen killed by an improvised explosive device near Bagram, Afghanistan. Also killed was Senior Airman Ashton L. M. Goodman.

I did not know Colonel Stratton well - certainly not as well as the mix of U.S. servicemembers and civilian partners who served with him in Panjshir nor the many friends and colleagues he had made throughout his 17-year Air Force career as a RC-135 navigator and later at the Pentagon. 

I met him in February when he and his team welcomed my Combat Camera teammates and I on a visit to document his organization's mission. During the week we visited his PRT I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with him and I got to know his background as well as some of the details about his family. Though he was a bit older than I am, our children are around the same age and right away his love for his family was readily apparent as he openly expressed his pride in them every chance he had. He was married and had 3 children, ages 4, 5 and 6. 

Though a life-long aviator before his previous assignment to the Pentagon, Colonel Stratton was also completely dedicated to his mission serving as a ground commander within the Panjshir province where he threw himself into the work of bettering the lives of the people who lived there. He accomplished this by forging exceptionally close ties through the local government and community and through the creation and management of countless projects aimed towards re-vitalizing his economically hard-hit region. He was an avid-believer in creating conditions within the province to allow private investment to take hold by empowering the area's residents and the majority of the PRT projects reflected that belief. 

"The people here want and need development," he told me while were traversing a narrow and treacherous road on the way to a project site. "We really work with the local provincial government to help build these opportunities that will lead to private re-investment." 

While dedicated to providing much-needed resources and care towards the people of Panjshir, just as importantly Colonel Stratton was dedicated to the Airmen and Soldiers who served with him. 

Serving at an austere base far removed from local amenities, Colonel Stratton still setup a convoy schedule to provide transportation to Bagram Air Base for any servicemembers who were interested in attending church services. I found this to be a rather exceptional offer for people serving in a warzone. His troops also had access to a variety of quality-of-life resources and he was dedicated to making sure they were as comfortable as they could possibly be, given their circumstances. 

As military members and citizens of a nation at war, it is only natural for us to become a bit de-sensitized to the daily updates of those who are killed or wounded in service as the war in Afghanistan approaches its eighth year. The true depth of the sacrifices made by our fellow Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines are sometimes only felt when you have a personal connection to the names of the fallen portrayed in the crawl at the bottom of the newscast following the New York Stock Exchange's ticker and the previous day's sports scores. 

Lieutenant Colonel Stratton, who was preparing to take command of the 332nd Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas at the conclusion of his tour later this summer, extended an invitation to my team and me to come back and visit again in the last e-mail he sent me a month ago. 

I look at that e-mail now with a very heavy heart knowing I'll never have the chance to take him up on that invitation. 

Sadly enough, the reasons myself or the countless others who knew Mark Stratton observe Memorial Day will not become vague or ambiguous any time soon.