Fallen soldier’s sister grapples with a battle highlighted by the Medal of Honor

July 31

Editor’s note: On occasion, Checkpoint will feature work from U.S. service members, veterans and military family members. This is one such piece.

I spent July 21 at the White House and got to not only meet but hug the President of the United States. It was the Medal of Honor ceremony for Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts. Among the nine soldiers who did not come home in the battle in which he earned his award was my younger brother, Cpl. Jason Bogar. We were invited because Ryan’s central focus has been sharing the spotlight with his fellow soldiers and the family members of those who did not come home.

The late Cpl. Jason Bogar and his sister, Micael, are depicted here in a 2007 photograph. (Courtesy Micael Bogar)
The late Cpl. Jason Bogar and his sister, Micael, are depicted here in a 2007 photograph. (Courtesy Micael Bogar)

So, I got to meet President Obama. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m glad I took it. But that night, after the ceremony, I didn’t sleep. I kept rolling over in my bed, feeling like something very, very big was off – a familiar feeling since Jason’s death.

I knew part of the discontent was disappointment for not seizing the opportunity to ask Obama a question that would provoke him to reflect on not only this one battle, but the Afghanistan War in general and where we are after years and years of so many dead brothers.

When the time came, however, I said not a word. Which was surprising, given my penchant for talking out of turn, my years of international peacebuilding work with the Peace Corps and time spent overseas with both the U.S. Agency for International Development and Clowns Without Borders, in which I performed in the Philippines for Typhoon Yolanda survivors. The July 13, 2008, death of my brother in the Battle of Wanat was the turning point when I decided to leave a career in international aid, deciding my work to make the world a more peaceful place was in my own country.

The truth is, I did have something to say to Obama but I didn’t go through with it. I had two clown noses in a purse that was taken from me by White House staff for ease in meeting the president right before entering the room. My plan was that I would take out the clown noses and ask, “Mr. President, do you believe in the power of laughter and creativity to heal?”

He would say, “Well, yes I do.”

And then I would say, “Will you take a picture with me in these clown noses to symbolize the power of play and creativity to build long term lasting peace?”

And he would say, “I’d love to Micael, you arbiter of peace and laughter for children both within the U.S. and around the world.”

And the press would rush in, and we’d smile for the camera, and in the reception room next door all the good military guys would ascend to heaven. And Obama and I would also probably ascend to heaven.

But that did not happen. Here’s how it went:

I hugged him. He hugged me. And I didn’t say a word. He seemed tired and oddly calm — and not because he’d reached some transcendental state, but because the intensity of his life, and this situation, required him to disassociate. I could empathize.

I stumbled into the next room, dizzy – realizing that that experience was over and I had said nothing, and my brother was still dead, and this whole goddamn trip out to Washington, D.C., was just bringing back all the reasons I had been so angry over the past six years. I choked down a plate of lamb and left. And then, I began to stew, and stewed all night and into the next day.

President Obama awarded Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Pitts with the Medal of Honor at the White House on Monday. Pitts held off an ambush on his platoon's post during one of the bloodiest battles of the Afghanistan war despite his own injuries. He is the 16th service member to receive the award for service in Iraq or Afghanistan. (Associated Press)

I skipped the Pentagon ceremony for Pitts the next day and walked through the streets of D.C. The stark ceremonial nature of the whole thing, the demeanor of the president, and the quivering lip of Ryan Pitts as he received the medal crowded my steps.

The truth is, the Medal of Honor ceremony was not the time or the place to bring my opinions or clown noses. I’m glad I didn’t say anything. The ceremony was a time to honor the incredible humility and bravery of Ryan Pitts. A chance to break from the typical negativity surrounding war and recognize a sliver of humanity.

But, I wish that this event could have left some time for reflection — given some time to ask the questions on the minds and hearts of most likely every single soldier and family member there.

Questions like: Why weren’t these guys given the support they needed? Is the ultimate solution to the mistakes in Wanat that the U.S. military actually needs more support and funding? Is nobody in the Department of Defense or government asking if these incredibly costly wars are making the world a safer place? And if they are asking these questions, aren’t these leaders become increasingly curious about alternative approaches to peacebuilding?

These are not new questions. But they are not being given the importance they deserve, and they are questions that are fundamental in the honoring of Ryan, my brother, and all of the other soldiers who risk their lives to serve our country.

Micael Bogar is the Gold Star sister of the late Cpl. Jason Bogar and lives in San Francisco.

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