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Tom Sileo's op-ed column on The Unknown Soldiers: Tree of Life
Courtesy of the Aaron Wittman Foundation
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ATLANTA--Just before leaving for Afghanistan in November, Sgt. Aaron Wittman pointed toward a majestic, tree-lined walkway at Georgia's Fort Stewart.
"Do you know what that is?" Sgt. Wittman asked his father, retired U.S. Army officer Duane Wittman, and his mother, Carol Wittman, who also served. "That's the Warriors Walk, and that's one place I don't ever want my name."
The Warriors Walk honors fallen post-9/11 heroes of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, as well as departed warriors from attached units. According to Fort Stewart's website, each soldier is honored with an Eastern redbud tree as a symbol of life.
Not only did Aaron's parents serve in uniform, his brother and sister both volunteered for the armed forces and deployed to Iraq.
"We're a military family," Duane told The Unknown Soldiers. "Everyone in the family is either serving in the military or ex-military."
Aaron, who used to dress up in his dad's fatigues as a young boy while playing flashlight tag with his friends, grew up near military bases around the globe. After seeing some of world's most luxurious and less fortunate places, Aaron decided to pursue a difficult, selfless path.
"He never really had any desire to go anywhere other than The Citadel," Duane, a 1975 Citadel graduate, said. "He just loved it and loved Charleston."
As freshmen, Aaron and four fellow Citadel cadets joined the South Carolina National Guard. As seniors, they were presented with a difficult choice: go to war or stay in school and graduate on time.
"All five seniors went to Afghanistan," Aaron's father said. "That's what the citizen-soldier concept is all about."
In 2007, all three of Duane and Carol's children, as well as their daughter-in-law, served in either Afghanistan or Iraq.
"In 3 months we deployed all of them," Duane said. "I always had target dates for when the kids were going to come home."