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07-22-06, 06:05 AM
'Remembering the Brave'

Littleton parents to receive Silver Star for dying son's actions in Iraqi battle

By Jim Sheeler, Rocky Mountain News
July 22, 2006

Perched at the edge of "the kill box" in the battle for Fallujah, the Marines of Red Platoon didn't have time to think about Veterans Day.

In the bomb-ravaged Iraqi city, they were about as close as it came to a front line, the farthest ahead in their company. They arrived in fast-moving eight-wheeled Light Armored Vehicles that look like a combination of an amphibious vehicle, a tank and a monster truck.

In an ambush, the kill box is the area where the enemy has set a trap, the place where oncoming troops are most vulnerable. For Red Platoon, it opened Nov. 11, 2004.

That same date would soon appear on two tombstones at Fort Logan National Cemetery. It would also lead to one of the military's highest combat medals for a Colorado Marine who died earning it.

"I didn't think about it until afterward," said Capt. Paul Webber, platoon commander. "It happened on Veterans Day."

As insurgents opened fire that morning in the ruins of the city, Webber saw dust and dirt blasting on the ground near a group of dismounted scouts, then saw bullets rip into the leg of a Marine.

"Armendariz is hit," the radio crackled. "I think he's hurt pretty bad."

As the Marines moved to rush the injured man to a hospital, the gunfire intensified, along with rocket-propelled grenades.

"The platoon became heavily engaged, and if there's a time in my life I thought I was going to die, it was then," Webber said. "I was so heavily engaged I couldn't withdraw without exposing myself worse - that's when Kyle was hit, and all hell broke loose."

Within minutes, a rocket-propelled grenade sliced into the right side of Lance Cpl. Kyle Burns, a Carhartt-wearing, Copenhagen-chewing, self-described "country boy" from Laramie.

The hard-swearing, churchgoing 20-year-old had squirreled tins of chewing tobacco all around the vehicle, packing them into every crack and cranny. In his wallet, he still carried his fishing license.

"I'm hit," Burns said. Those were his last words.

Not far away, a staff sergeant from Littleton received the call to roll in. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, 27-year-old Sam Holder was built like an action figure, with a square jaw, massive chest and muscles that tapered to a trim waist.

Though relatively new to the unit, Holder had earned the respect of even the lowest-ranking Marines, with a wisecracking sense of humor and a reputation for unflinching, decisive action.

As they stood in the turret, Holder and his gunner, Cpl. Adam Solis, were exposed from the waist up, protected only by body armor. As they rolled in, Solis saw his staff sergeant duck and flinch.

"I asked him if he was OK, and there was a 3-4 second delay in a response," Solis later wrote. "He stood back up and said he was fine, but that 'whatever it was, it hurt.' I asked 'where?' He then said not to worry about it. Then he told me to fire into five different buildings to the west."

Soon afterward they received the call to help evacuate the wounded Marine and his scouts who were pinned near their vehicle. At Webber's instruction, Holder directed his driver to pull up to the trapped Marines to provide cover and allow their escape. Once the Marines on foot pulled the injured man into their vehicle, Holder sent the order to pull forward and distract attention from the makeshift ambulance.

"As they're backing out, he pushes forward. So knowing he would take more fire, he still pushed up," Solis said. "We could have stayed there in the place where we were. We could have stayed there, but he chose to push forward for a few more yards, deeper into the kill box, so we would take more fire. I remember my palms being all sweaty."

From his vantage point, Webber listened over the radio as Holder's vehicle moved toward the insurgents.

"He pulled up in front of the vehicle that was stuck there and he became a bullet sponge for all the fire that was being directed there," the platoon leader said. "He was hit, but he still stayed on his machine gun. That allowed the platoon to break contact. While he was laying down the fire he was dying, and I think he knew it.

"It was by far the most courageous act that I have ever witnessed."

'He died for his buddies'

The Silver Star Medal is the third-highest military award, designated "for distinguished gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States or while serving with friendly forces against an opposing enemy force."

Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Marine Corps has awarded 65 Silver Stars.

Tonight, 19 months after the battle in Fallujah, Sam Holder's parents will receive the award for their son at a Denver ceremony, where all the medals are posthumous.

During the ceremony called "Remembering the Brave" in a Denver hotel, similar tales of heroism will be read to a crowd as medals are presented to families of Marines who died in combat.

Holder's family has heard the story of the battle. They've heard their son called a hero. They only hope that when the story is told, people also remember the 27 years of life that led up to the last few minutes.

In Sammy Holder's room of the family's Littleton basement, a Cindy Crawford poster hangs alongside a Broncos cheerleaders photo and a velvet Popeye painting he had since he was in grade school. There's also an empty dress-blue Marine uniform, preserved behind glass.

Technically, Holder grew up in Littleton, but he never really grew up there, his parents say - that came later. As an accident-prone kid, he never seemed to master his lanky legs and arms. He struggled constantly with grades, and he barely graduated from Green Mountain High School.

He joined the Marines because, his father, also named Sam Holder, says, "They were the only ones who would take him."

After boot camp he drew guard duty at U.S. embassies, where the world literally opened to him as he served in Trinidad & Tobago, Cyprus and the Czech Republic, where he met his fiancee, Jana Kramarova.

On the shelf in his room, volumes of Piers Anthony science fiction paperbacks are filed near a collection of Edgar Allen Poe. After ignoring books most of his life, he started reading while on guard at the embassies. Near the books are sets of Three Stooges videotapes.

From a stack of letters, his mother found one of the last ones they received: an anniversary card sent a month early, before he went into battle.

"Happy anniversary Mom and Dad. I wish you the best on this day and don't worry everything's wonderful here in Iraq. Love, Sam."

"That's how we found out he was in Iraq," his mother said. "It's so Sammy."

Holder's parents say they don't know the entire story of what happened in the battle. They say they don't need to. In some ways, Sam Holder says, he's heard enough war stories.

As a Vietnam veteran, he says he's seen how too many of the war stories end. He's also seen how many are forgotten.

"I have friends whose names are on the Vietnam Memorial. You go there and you think of how much life that I experienced that they never will. That Sam never will."

They say their son believed in the war and in what he was doing. The Holders say they do, too. Still, Sam Holder said, he also knows that on the battlefield there are no lofty aspirations of saving the world - the Marines are too focused on saving each other.

"He didn't die for the war," he said. "He died for his buddies."

At their dinner table, they looked over the letters from dignitaries, the cards from strangers and from the Marines who say they're alive because of the actions of their son.

"You could lose a son in a car accident. It could be worse. You could lose . . .," Sam Holder said, then his voice trailed off, and he corrected himself.

"No, it couldn't be worse. You lose a son, you lose a son. There's no good way to lose a son," he said. "I'd rather have him back and they could have all their damn medals. But we don't have any choice in that."

At the same time, he says, the family respects the award - not just because of the medal, but all that led to it.

"I start thinking about what the Silver Star means to me," Sam Holder said. "I'm proud of my son. Always have been. And the Silver Star doesn't enter into that at all. But it's reinforced what I've always thought of my son."

'I have blood on my hands'

On the morning of Veterans Day 2004, in the United States, politicians and generals made the round of morning talk shows; cemetery workers and American Legion posts prepared for their annual ceremonies; and stores advertised their Veterans Day sales.

At the same time, in Iraq, Paul Webber stood before the Marines of Red Platoon inside a house occupied by the military. The house was dark, he remembered. The room was quiet. He stood before the men and began to speak.

"I couldn't see their faces - all I could see were silhouettes; there was just an outline of Marines, they were just spread out around the room," he said. "And I told them that Staff Sgt. Holder and Burns passed away on the way to bravo surgical in Camp Fallujah.

"I remember somebody in the background, I don't know who it was, but I heard them break down. I heard them openly cry. You could see people putting their arms around each other. Consoling each other."

He told the men to try and get some sleep. Then he walked through the house, and sat, alone, at an Iraqi dinner table, and he began to write an account of what happened. Much of it would end up on the citations for Kyle Burns' Navy and Marine Corps Commendation with "V" for valor, and for Sam Holder's Silver Star.

Like most of the other Marines, he then swept the day as far back as possible, focusing instead on the mission. Six weeks later, he could no longer hold back.

"I feel like if I don't get this out I'm going to explode. So bear with me," he wrote in an e-mail to his fiancee, Brooke Faschetti, who is now his wife. "Sometimes I feel like I'm going to lose it. Maybe it's good that I recognize this now and am trying to do something. My mind races and I can't sleep. Some days I'm OK but most not. I feel shaky, depressed, confused. What happened on the 11th keeps replaying through my head. I have to keep telling myself I wasn't the one who killed them, it was the enemy. I remember Burns and how limp he was when I pulled him out of the turret - how white his skin was. Looking over as everything was falling apart and seeing Staff Sgt. Holder slumped down in his turret, blood all over his flak. I don't know why I'm still here . . . I still feel as if I have blood on my hands. This will never go away. Will it?"

When she wrote him back, she did her best to help him answer that question.

"The thing is this: You should not ever forget what happened. Because what happened to you and those men is something absolutely worthy and precious of remembering and holding close to your heart. It is part of who you are and who you will grow to become. What you also need to realize is that while this will always be there with you . . . eventually that will be OK. That while the blood feels still fresh on your hands . . . eventually it will be in your heart and it will touch your soul."

Today, Webber keeps the pictures of Burns and Holder on his wall. He wears bracelets with their names. He still writes to their parents.

Tonight, he will present Sam and Mary Holder with their son's Silver Star.

Conversation in the turret

Sam Holder spent his last hours in a turret, sharing his life story with a corporal he barely knew.

"We ended up just sitting down, and we talked for like six hours," said Adam Solis, who ended up as the gunner with Holder. As they waited in the turret, Solis spoke to the vehicle's commander about the places they'd been, and the places they planned to go. Holder talked about his fiancee, and his plan to get married after he returned from Iraq. They also talked about Solis' future, and the importance of going to college.

"He gave me advice on what to do in life," Solis said.

Then the battle began.

Around the country, the Marines say, the memories of that day will always resonate. The battalion's lieutenant colonel came to the funerals of Holder and Burns, and still calls on Mother's Day and Veterans Day. The company commander has written full-page, handwritten letters to the family on the anniversaries of their sons' death.

"Pretty much every time I look at my Purple Heart, my Navy Com (commendation medal), the same time I look at them, I think I wasn't worthy to get those," said Mike Ball, who now lives in Midland, Texas. "All I have is some shrapnel in my eye and my leg. Anytime there's a lull or a break, there's Kyle, there's Sam, there's Jason (another Marine from the platoon who died in a later battle).

"They're the epitome of what a friend should be. They brought my friends back."

Ball is one of the many Marines who say that day in Fallujah and the battles that followed shaped their decision to leave the military.

Solis also says he'll never forget Nov. 11. "There's not a day that I don't think about what happened. Every night when I go to sleep and say my prayers. Every day I think about it for at least 30 minutes or an hour."

During those quiet moments, Solis said, he sometimes replays the discussion in the turret on that morning.

"Him saying go to college, it is more influencing - especially since it was one of his last conversations," Solis said.

It also eased his decision to leave the military.

"I love making new friends and to make everybody happy," Solis said. "I hate to lose people, and no matter where you're in the Marine Corps, you're always losing people."

Ball attended the "Remembering the Brave" ceremony last year, where he had a chance to hug the families, and release some of the tears he held for so long in Iraq. Though he won't be there this year, he has a message for the Holder family.

"A medal cannot replace his life. But that little Silver Star with that blue and white ribbon, that's the least we can do," he said. "It's not replacing him. It represents the five or six Marines who came back because of him."

A ritual of photographs

Inside Fort Logan National Cemetery, Sam and Mary Holder brought out a bouquet of flowers, a bucket and a camera.

"We have kind of a ritual. Mary cuts the flowers. I make sure the water is there," Sam Holder said. "The last thing I'll do is take photos."

The ritual began more than a year ago, when Jana - Sam Holder's fiancee - sent 27 red roses for what would have been Sam's 28th birthday. Since she lived in Prague, Sam Holder took a photo of the flowers and sent it to her via e-mail.

He did the same thing the next week. And the next.

The photos capture the changing seasons. In October, the flowers sprout from a pumpkin. In December, snow covers the grave. In January, artificial flowers contrast brown dormant grass.

The only constant is the dull, gray marble tombstone, and its inscription.

"The only thing I'd like to change now is to add 'KIA' and 'SILVER STAR,' " Sam Holder said.

Eventually, as families heard about Holder's photos, they asked if he could take pictures of their sons' graves, too. Soon, Holder was e-mailing photos of Kyle Burns' grave to Burns' parents in Laramie, and photos of Navy SEAL Danny Dietz's tombstone to his widow, Maria Dietz, who lives in Virginia.

"Since I can't be there, it's like a window to my husband's grave," Maria Dietz said of the photos.

As they looked at the graves last Sunday, the couple realized that it would have been Kyle Burns' 22nd birthday. Mary Holder placed flowers on the grave. Then, to their surprise, Burns' mother and brother arrived at the cemetery after driving in from Laramie.

As the two families stood in the section of the cemetery that holds the casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan, they exchanged hugs.

"I didn't know it was Kyle's birthday today," Sam Holder said.

Jo Burns sniffled a yes.

"What are you going to be up to for the rest of the day?" Mary Holder said.

"Crying," Jo Burns said.

Nearly two years ago, the families first met inside the cemetery, after their sons' services.

"I thought the hardest days would be the holidays - Christmas and Easter," Jo Burns said. "But this is the hardest. Birthdays."

As they stood at the stone, they looked at the date they had in common.

"Veterans Day," said Kyle's brother, Kris. "It's ironic."

"It's poetic," Mary Holder said.

"That's the word," Kris Burns said, nodding. "I've been looking for the right word to describe it, and that's it: poetic."

As the afternoon wore on, only a few cars entered the cemetery. Before his son died, Sam Holder was one of those who had never been inside Fort Logan.

"You look at the war and it only touches a few of us. It doesn't touch on the majority of the American people," Sam Holder said earlier. "What always bothered me is how disproportionately the whole war has affected people in the U.S."

He knelt down, propped his camera on another grave, and snapped photos of his son's grave, then walked to Danny Dietz's tombstone, and took another picture.

When he got back to Kyle Burns' grave, he stopped.

"Sometimes I'll just stand back with the camera," he said, as he looked at the grave, his wife and Jo Burns. Sometimes, in addition to the gravestone photos, he says he likes to capture the spontaneous moments that he says not enough people see, that not enough people want to see - those that continue long after the battle is over.

"Sometimes you can get some pretty touching pictures," he said.

At the foot of their sons' graves, the two mothers embraced once again.

Sam Holder brought the camera to his face, and pressed the button.

sheelerj@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-2561