20 March 2010

Three Ways to Remember Capt. Dan Whitten

West-Pointer Capt. Dan Whitten, a 1999 Johnston (Iowa) High School graduate and active-duty soldier who was killed in Afghanistan earlier this year, was recently inducted into the Johnston Community School District Hall of Fame. From what I've read, Whitten enjoyed writing for the school newspaper when he was a student there. Given time--unfortunately, that probably means "after my deployment"--I'd like to follow up on that. Maybe there's a way to celebrate Whitten's life as more than just a plaque on the wall? Like a journalism scholarship. Or a writing program.

In the still-under-construction no-man's-land between the northern Des Moines suburbs of Grimes and Johnston, Iowa--you know, where they're building the new Wal-Mart--I recently noticed the installation of street-pole banners bearing Whitten's name. While he may have been a Johnston schools graduate, Whitten was also a Grimes resident--so the location is particularly appropriate. The banners are a simple and immediate way to celebrate his life--and I think it's great that someone in local government acted so quickly (when does that ever happen?) to remember him in this way. The one I saw (I hope there are more) is perfectly placed to be seen by those traveling from the Iowa National Guard headquarters in Johnston, to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 34th Infantry Division's headquarters in Boone.

In the same week that Capt. Whitten's death was reported over Iowa airwaves, came also the news that the 2nd/34th BCT had lost a chaplain to an industrial accident at his civilian employment. Chaplain (Capt.) Eric Simpson also had local ties--he had been a pastor in a small town north of Johnston. He was planning to go with us to Afghanistan later this year.

Both stories were near misses--they were local, but I didn't know them personally--but pre-deployment life also provides a lot of distractions. It's just too easy to not find the time, to not breathe deep, to not momentarily reflect and pray. We're not even out the door, and we're too busy to mourn. Granted, you can drive yourself (and your family) crazy with too many "what-ifs" and "but for the graces of God." My own practice has been to try to remember to turn off the radio for a few minutes while driving to Boone, to clear the head and the airwaves, to listen for the still, small voice. Carney, Whitten, Simpson ... I realize there may be other names someday, names that hit even closer to home.

I was grateful to belatedly come across these words from writer Ann Marlowe, who had met Capt. Whitten while embedded with his unit in late 2009. She was also apparently able to attend Whitten's funeral at West Point. Here's an excerpt from her Feb. 14, 2010, New York Post commentary:
Dan was special, even among the high caliber of officers I knew from the 82nd Airborne, almost all of whom are Army Rangers. Tall, big-boned and handsome, he had the West Pointer's confidence and the ideal American officer's ability to put others first. He had already earned two Bronze Stars for his efforts. Yet when it came time to edit my article, I realized I had far more material on Dan's subordinates than him. That was as he'd intended.

Dan was kind and witty and socially at ease, and remembered everything I told him. We'd talked about my writing on Afghan archeology, and so, in the helicopter that took us back from Faisabad, he drew my attention to a mysterious large tower he had passed on previous trips. I could tell at once that it was very old. This tower isn't known to Afghan archeologists: Dan?s sharp eyes and intellectual curiousity may have made a discovery.

According to Capt. Derrick B. Hernandez of the 1-508, Dan and his men had finished a three-day operation on the Ghazni Province border when his Humvee struck an IED that wounded one of his men.

Dan then jumped into another vehicle and recovered his original vehicle. Seven kilometers later, his truck again struck another IED, this one instantly killing Dan and Pfc. Zachary Lovejoy and seriously wounding three others.

Dan died doing work that had meaning to him. As Derrick pointed out in a speech he gave at Dan's memorial in Zabul, Dan could have had any assignment he wanted. He chose to return with 1-508 to one of the most remote and insecure places in Afghanistan.
I particularly like that Capt. Whitten may have used his knowledge of newspapering in order to shine attention onto his men, and not himself. I also like that he had an eye for art and archeology, in a land that many people consider only rubble.


  1. I think a high school writing scholarship is a wonderful idea. Or even a Whitten summer writing program for adults. Work it with the city parks and rec to pay a writer to lead a workshop open to fifteen adults for about ten weeks.

    I've read a book on history about Afghanistan, and must say I found it fascinating. Especially that Genghis Khan is still in their collective memory (I hear he was "the worst.") What I find sad is the Taliban blasted away the Buddhas in Bamiyan, and really did so much more to oppress art and literature.

    Anyway, the history of Buddhism in Afghanistan, The Silk Road, the empires.
    Great stuff.
    If only there wasn't a war, you'd be able to get out there and wander a bit.

  2. Great post, Sherpa. I am pimping your site today because I stole the prayer you posted by Mrs. Roosevelt. I truly hope you never see a name that hits close to home. And pray for strength if you do.

  3. I still cry a little for each Joe we loose.
    Good blog, I've added you to my list of good ones.
    I worked for the Red Bulls in Bosnia- SFOR 14. Attack!

  4. @ Kanani: I've dusted off some notes regarding a writing program proposal, and might explore the topic further in an upcoming post. In the meantime, you might zap me the title of the Afghan book you mentioned ...

    @ Coffeypot: Pimp away! But props to Aunty Brat for first pointing the Roosevelt prayer out to me. I tried her "original" link I'd also included in my first post regarding Capt. Whitten, but that one seems no longer to be active.

    @ CI-Roller Dude: Thanks for the good words. I've got some Cav buddies who went to Bosnia, I believe. I'll be sure to pass along the hi-sign as appropriate. Your use of my unit's motto, by the way, really made my day!

  5. (We actually changed the motto...when we saluted one of our California officers, they responded with "Kill, kill, kill.")


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