First let me apologize for not getting this up sooner, having some internet issues. Picking up where I left off, Thursday night the Forester family and a few friends, including Michael Madsen, Leah, Lauren and Canella Tinker took 2 charter buses to Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina to attend services provided by Mark’s 21st Special Tactics Squadron.
I have had a lot of interaction with different branches of the Armed Forces throughout my life, and while I have always been impressed by all of them, none have made the impression on my mind as the 21st STS has. Words are inadequate to appropriately convey the genuine sincerity, love and sense of “family” they effectively communicated. Even as a close friend to Mark, I felt immediately accepted…almost like I was adopted into a new family and I felt like I belonged there with them. Hard to explain. Madsen and I talked about this- we were so impressed with how tight knit and sincere they were. These men are probably the most incredible soldiers I have met, and they were amazingly humble. Again you can see how I’m struggling to express myself about this.
After arriving, we were able to get cleaned up and were then taken to tour some of the facilities. I asked for permission to take pictures to share with you and was given the ok, so I hope this is cool. If someone with the 21st STS see’s something that is “mucho no beuno” as Mark would say, please let me know, but I think we are good. I think most of you will find this fascinating.
The first stop we took was to visit Mark’s “Cage”. It is essentially his footlocker where he stored his gear and some of his personal belongings. GZ and VS were there to show us around. It was sad, humbling and healing to see Mark’s Cage. There was a message board where many other controllers wrote farewell messages. Mark had left his own note at the top, the ATT stands for “At This Time”.
Next we went over to the team room. We got to see the gym where Mark worked out. It was good to talk with many soldiers who worked with Mark and were familiar with him personally as well as professionally.
Next we went to the 21st STS building.
We had a quick lunch in a meeting room where the “Wall of Honor” is. You will notice the one plaque covered in black cloth.
I am not exactly certain what the name of the 3 Star General was, but it seemed obvious to me this was the head-head honcho- I could be mistaken, but he was the only guy I saw with 3 Stars on his shoulder.
He presented Mark’s Parents with Commander Coins, they were beautiful. He also had many stories about the capabilities of Combat Controllers and some of the heroic battles they had been in. Some of the stories, like GZ’s seemed like something from a movie, but these were real.
The Wall of Honor had a dozen or so plaques of Combat Controller’s medals with stories of incredible heroism and leadership. If someone made a book with just these soldiers’ stories it would be a best seller. Just jaw dropping incredible stuff. I hope to share one or two of these about Mark when the time is right.
I cannot look at Mark’s brother David without seeing Mark. It actually brings me a lot of comfort to look at him and remember how Mark was.
The 21st also let us see one of the simulator’s used to train combat controllers. It looked like a confusing system, like there were a ton of codes, rules and protocols that needed to be commanded quickly and effectively in a changing environment.
There was also a weapons simulation room where there were different types of simulating weapons. I wasn’t as impressed with this simulator in terms of pure action as I would be with something like Modern Warfare, but it felt like this room was more about correctly re-loading and accurately using many different types of weapon systems in a controlled environment that could measure different variables (response times, accuracy, etc) of each soldier. The younger kids seemed to enjoy this room the most.
The services were held in a hangar, complete with GINORMOUS American Flag, felt like something out of a movie.
Awesome talks from Mark’s leaders. I really liked this one who we will call “Eddie”. He went out of his way to make me feel welcome and appreciated. He is a genuinely great and charismatic leader.
“Chief” is the guy in charge of all the 21st. He is a no nonsense, all business type of soldier. He exuded professionalism and commanded respect.
Robert gave another great talk. I have been very impressed with him. He was a great friend to Mark.
We also were read a letter from another of Mark’s Best friend’s “YK” who who is still deployed. I know it hurt to not be there man, I hope these images can offer you a sense of healing and closure. While you were not there physically, you were there in spirit and your words about Mark were heard by all present.
Mark’s family was presented with several Medal’s, including a Bronze Star with Valor and a Purple Heart. The Bronze Star he earned was for a battle in August where if I am not mistaken, 3 members of his team were injured. Thad and family met one of these men who told them “I would not be alive today if it wasn’t for Mark Forester” and then recounted how, while sedated, he watched the 2 bombs delivered under Mark’s control which saved the unit, allowed them to safely extract and live to fight another day.
Mark’s combined efforts with his team accounted for ~37 enemy kills that day. When you account for the fact that this was one of many battles these guys engage in, you realize what an important and vital role they play. Several of them have done many tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is possible there may be one more medal on the way for Mark’s efforts on his last day, but I must say I don’t know anything about this and am only speculating.
A “Shadow Box” containing Mark’s ribbons, awards, and beret was also presented to the family.
Afterwards we grabbed an early dinner with the 21st, whose wives prepared the pot luck meal.
More pushups, this time Mark’s Nephews jumped in. Little Nick said at least 10 times on the way home: “I’m going to be an Air Force Combat Controller.”
One of the soldiers in another Squadron presented this amazing image of Mark which he drew in 2 days (it usually takes him up to a week). I will be adding a link if anyone wants to order a copy of it on the tribute page soon.
We were also given these black remembrance bracelets. I love mine and have worn it everyday since.
Robert joined us for dinner and I grabbed this picture of him with Mark’s parents.
Eddie invited us back upstairs to watch the video they had prepared (its on the tribute page). It was the only time on Saturday I cried like a baby. We were then walked back to the Wall of Honor where they unveiled Mark’s plaque. It brought me a tremendous sense of pride and respect for Mark. Man….he did it right.
On the way back to the buses, we were able to stop at the Combat Controller School. This is where Mark received the core of his instruction. It was a fascinating place.
The downstairs was somewhat of a museum explaining the role and history of combat controllers.
We also got to see the Class Plaques….
and then went to “The Pit” and pool where students train.
It was truly such an awesome experience to spend the day with the 21st. They were amazing and I know Mark’s family will never forget it. Went back to the buses and headed back to Alabama that night. Ray and Pat were understandably exhausted.
I am in Haleyville now with Ray and Pat just helping out with little things. They are some of the most gentle, kind, and warm people you will ever meet and are still grieving and in the healing process. My heart really aches for them and I can see it will take some time. I hope to someday be half the man and father Ray is and find a woman like Pat (he hit a homerun with her). Just awesome, awesome people- it is mostly hard and somewhat rewarding to watch them work through this. I am treasuring the little stories and memories they share about Mark. They are tenderhearted and I am seeing their strength growing.
I apologize if I am behind on some of the tribute page (links, articles and stories) but will try to get caught up tomorrow. Having some internet problems but we will get them worked out. If there is anything I can communicate or give to Mark’s Parents, please feel free to contact me directly.