A debt to the dead
Break, break Bulldog-6, Bulldog-6. Where are you?
Bulldog-6, come in Bulldog-6
Bulldog-6 ... Come in
The family of Jacob Lowell had arrived early. They milled about for a while and then sat on the folding chairs they had arranged at the edge of a vast expanse of grass. Spread before them, in precisely laid-out rows, stretched a landscape of identically shaped headstones, bone white against the green. More people arrived: in jeans and garrison hats, in ball caps with crossed rifles stitched in gold, and in T-shirts bearing slogans like, "Remember Our Fallen Heroes." They shook hands and embraced, sometimes weeping, sometimes chatting, sometimes simply standing in silence before one of the many markers casting slanted shadows under a mostly cloudless sky.
They had been told to be at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois, at 1 p.m., and now, the hour having arrived, they turn their gaze down a long driveway. There they spot the man for whom they have been waiting. Gripping the handlebars of his custom-painted Specialized Aethos Pro bike, he coasts the last couple of hundred yards to where the people have gathered.
Fifteen years earlier, Private First Class Jacob Lowell, 22, had been on patrol in Gowhardesh, Afghanistan, when insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade into his Humvee. When he and the other members in his squad jumped out to return fire, a bullet ripped into his leg, spraying blood and muscle. Despite that, Lowell managed to climb back into the Humvee, heave himself into the vehicle's turret, and seize the twin handles of the mounted .50-caliber machine gun. He was blasting the attackers when a second, fatal shot hit him in the chest. He died 2 June 2007, only a few days after the arrival of the new commander, Lieutenant Colonel Chris Kolenda, the man now stepping off his bike at the Illinois cemetery.
Kolenda, since retired as a full U.S. Army colonel, led a unit in 2007 and 2008 of some 800 paratroopers, including Lowell, in what was then among Afghanistan's most lethal regions. Over the summer and fall of 2007, Kolenda lost six men. As the 15-year anniversary of those deaths approached, Kolenda, a member of the Rotary Club of Milwaukee, decided he needed to do something to honor the memory of those six paratroopers.
The best way, in his mind, was to visit the graves of each man: Lowell, Chris Pfeifer, Ryan Fritsche, Adrian Hike, David Boris, and Tom Bostick. At the gravesites he would meet their families, tell them their loved one was not forgotten, and allow them to share their grief with him, while also sharing his own.
But how to do that, given that the gravesites stretched across 1,700 miles, from Nebraska to Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C.? Driving seemed too easy; walking would take too long. He settled on riding a bike. The only problem? He hadn't ridden a bicycle in 20 years. Would his body hold up? He was in his late 50s and, while reasonably fit, was hardly in shape for such an undertaking.
Equally as uncertain: Would his emotional and mental state be OK? After all, each of the six men who died had done so following his orders. And they were not strangers. Among them were close friends, men he had come to love and admire. When a neighbor told him he was "nuts" to try the ride, it struck Kolenda that she was probably right.
I met with Kolenda in Milwaukee, at the century-old home he is renovating with his wife, Nicole. At 57, he is a central-casting prototype for what you'd imagine a retired military officer to be, in manner, looks, and bearing. He has a neatly trimmed full head of salt and pepper hair, a squarish jaw, and a face on which plays a mix of earnest forthrightness and playful humor.
When we spoke in late September, Kolenda was preparing to fly to Spalding, Nebraska, to begin the first leg of his journey with a visit to the grave of Chris Pfeifer. He would start the ride 25 September, 15 years to the day since the private first class died from wounds inflicted in combat a month earlier at his outpost.
"He was shot in late August," Kolenda says, sitting across the dining room table from me. "The bullet just missed his body armor by a fraction of an inch and penetrated his chest." Nearly as bad, the round nicked Pfeifer's liver, causing mass bleeding that would require multiple surgeries and blood transfusions over several weeks.
Kolenda says that many aspects of that day continue to haunt him, but one most deeply. "I just remember those eyes," he says. They were searching but couldn't really focus. "I was talking to him, and he knew it was my voice. I was telling him to hang in there, saying 'Go Huskers' and stuff like that because we're both from Nebraska. His eyes were orienting on me, but they weren't really tracking." Eventually, Pfeifer was evacuated home to San Antonio, Texas, where his wife was entering her ninth month of pregnancy. The wounded paratrooper fought for his life for a month, but died 25 September 2007. "The next day his wife went into labor," Kolenda says, "and the day after that, his daughter, Peyton, was born."
A memorial in motion
Over 28 days last fall, Chris Kolenda bicycled 1,700 miles to honor the six paratroopers from his unit who were killed or fatally wounded while serving in Afghanistan in 2007.
He did not kid himself that any of it would be easy. Still, he was a little taken aback when a cyclist friend told him about the realities of long-distance biking on major roads. "He said that some deranged driver ran him off the road one time, and now he's got 11 pins in his clavicle. So, it's the injuries, the accidents, and those kinds of uncertainties that are the biggest fears."
His primary focus, as planned, was on honoring the dead — never forget — and the living, the families that grieve yet. But Kolenda wanted his effort to have a larger impact. The varied mental health and substance abuse issues that await service members who make it home are a heartbreaking reality. Kolenda often speaks about the particular vulnerabilities of veterans, including himself, to post-traumatic stress, feelings of aimlessness, and a lack of a sense of belonging.
"When most of our paratroopers are in combat, they've got this incredible sense of purpose," he explains. "You know, we are deployed to a foreign land defending our country. They have this tremendous sense of belonging. They've got the United States of America wanting them to be successful, giving them the resources to succeed. That's very powerful. A lot of people will look back on their days in combat as among the happiest days of their lives."
Life is the opposite after they return, he says. "Now, 'Nobody gets me. I don't feel like I belong.' And so our folks, at ages 35 to 45, are entering the most dangerous parts of their lives."
Kolenda points out that the United States lost about 7,000 service members in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while more than 30,000 veterans and active duty members of those wars have died by suicide. They are figures Kolenda cites at every stop on his Fallen Hero Honor Ride.
He's also using the ride to raise money for an endowment for his Saber Six Foundation to support veterans of the 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade and their families. The endowment will also fund a scholarship, hosted by the Rotary Club of Milwaukee, to assist underserved youths in the area. "The Rotary Club of Milwaukee is honored that Chris entrusted us to carry forth the legacy of his men by creating paths for young people to pursue their education and create better lives for themselves and their families," says Todd Bentley, the club's 2021-22 president.
John Page, a former infantry officer who was with Jacob Lowell in 2007 when the paratrooper was killed, is among those who battled (and largely overcame) the kinds of issues Kolenda describes. Page believes that the collapse of his marriage is largely due to his "inability to connect" with people after returning home from Afghanistan, and he still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder — what Kolenda calls "post-traumatic stress normal" for combat veterans. "I'll watch a war movie," Page tells me in Elwood after remarks by Kolenda, "or walk out onto my porch in Tennessee on a cold night, and suddenly I'll be back [in Afghanistan]. It's so strange how the mind works."
Page, who retired as an Army major in 2015, is a social worker and suicide counselor for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, working "with families like the Lowells who have lost someone," he says. He traveled from Nashville to Elwood for the ceremony honoring Lowell for two reasons: to meet Lowell's family and, he hoped, to help heal the guilt he has felt over Lowell's death. "It was my job to bring Jacob back, and I failed," he says. "It's been hard to let that one go. I thought it would be helpful for me to come up and meet them [Lowell's parents] and tell them a little bit more about Jake's story."
Ray Lowell, Jacob's father, says the presence of Page and others who served with his son moved him deeply. "I talked to John Page for three hours yesterday," Lowell says, standing a few feet away from his son's grave, as bells peal in the distance. "And just seeing the guys who served with Jacob: It meant a lot."
When I caught up with Kolenda in Elwood, he had already logged some 600 miles, much of the distance "against some pretty strong headwinds," he says. His journey began at Chris Pfeifer's gravesite in Spalding, Nebraska. "Because I was born in Omaha, Chris and I would talk about Nebraska football all the time," Kolenda says. In Afghanistan in August 2007, Kolenda and Pfeifer often chatted about the Cornhuskers' upcoming season when Kolenda visited Pfeifer's outpost. "He was always Mr. Reliable," Kolenda says. "Always doing the right thing to protect his comrades."
From Nebraska, Kolenda rode 200 miles to Carroll, Iowa, to visit the grave of Sergeant Adrian Hike. Killed 12 November 2007 when the Humvee in which he was a gunner was hit by an improvised explosive device, Hike was the first soldier Kolenda ever pinned with a combat medal. "He saw some really heavy fighting in Iraq in 2004, 2005," Kolenda says. "He was an extraordinary soldier. I remember one of my staff sergeants said, 'There is nobody I trust my life with more.' He was that good."
The trip wasn't all plaudits and solemnity. Kolenda experienced his first road rage incident in Nebraska, when someone with Iowa plates yelled expletives at him as he made his way along the highway shoulder. He was drenched in Pittsburgh during a long day of rain, the only real weather issue he encountered.
Throughout the ride, Kolenda followed a strict regimen. He rose each morning at 7:15 and ate a bowl of oatmeal with walnuts, fruit, and honey. On the road, he would fortify himself with energy gels and Honey Stinger waffles. At night, he ate a high-protein meal and mapped his itinerary for the next day. He usually plunged himself into an ice bath or stepped under a cold shower and then pulled on what's called a Speed Hound — inflatable compression sleeves and boots for his legs and feet that massaged his muscles and dramatically accelerated recovery time. He was usually asleep by 10 p.m., then out the door by 8 a.m., "ready to rock and roll again."
As the fighting raged, Kolenda monitored by radio. It was 27 July, and the battle was not going well. His men had been pinned down along a switchback that ran through a bowl of a valley, frowned down upon from all sides by mountain ridges. Sounds of battle shattered the otherwise quiet valley: grenades, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades. Mortar shells whistled overhead, followed inevitably by concussions and smoke, while A-10 Warthog jets roared across the sky, leaving in their wake the shuddering boom of their payloads exploding.
Captain Tom Bostick, one of Kolenda's closest friends in Afghanistan, was leading the imperiled Bulldog Troop. As Kolenda recalls it, one paratrooper, Ryan Fritsche, had already been shot dead. Others were wounded. Bostick, whose radio call sign was Bulldog-6, and three other men were pinned down on a steep mountainside. Tom Bostick, whose family traced its military roots to the Revolutionary War, whose paternal grandfather was at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked, who had another relative who survived the Bataan Death March.
Now Bostick, one of Kolenda's best and brightest, was in deep trouble. Enemy grenades were landing ever closer to his position.
"We need cover!" Bostick radioed. "I think they're coming from the ea —"
Kolenda heard the grenade blast from well across the valley and immediately got on the radio.
Break Bulldog-6, Bulldog-6. Where are you?
Bulldog-6, come in Bulldog-6. Where are you?
No answer. Kolenda knew. His friend was gone.
On Kolenda chugged. From Illinois and the ceremony honoring Jacob Lowell to Hall, Indiana, where Ryan Fritsche was buried. "When I think of Ryan Fritsche, I think of benevolence," Kolenda says. "It's this combination of good grace, good spirit, wanting to make everybody feel like a winner."
Kolenda cycled east through Ohio, to Minersville, Pennsylvania, and the grave of David Boris, a captain. "Dave was one of my troop commanders," Kolenda says, and like Kolenda, Boris was a West Point graduate. Kolenda had known Boris since late 2003, longer than anyone in his unit. "Dave was like a little brother to me," Kolenda says. Boris was killed in the same IED explosion that took the life of Hike.
Kolenda's trip through Pennsylvania proved to be the most difficult. He was holding up fine physically. But riding through the state he encountered hostility. "Road rage on a Sunday," Kolenda says. "It was in Amish country, so there was a lot of horse and buggy traffic." But there were also cars and trucks roaring by at 80 miles per hour, and more than once, Kolenda was almost run off the road. "I was white-knuckling for 77 miles," he says.
He made it unscathed, and that meant he had one last stop — the grave of Tom Bostick at Arlington National Cemetery.
Drenched in the lemon sunlight of a cloudless early fall afternoon, the seemingly never-ending sea of white marble headstones at Arlington National Cemetery appears almost incandescent against the deep green of immaculately trimmed grass from which they rear.
It is a Saturday, and the shrine to the nation's war dead brims with families visiting graves. Tourists absorb the vastness from a steady stream of trolleys. Despite the throngs, the grounds are still enough to hear the snap and snarl of a giant American flag flapping nearby.
As had been the case weeks earlier at Lowell's grave in Elwood, Illinois — and at the four other stops along Kolenda's journey — a group of about 30 friends and family strains for a glimpse of the arriving colonel's bike, eager to greet him at his final destination.
When he finally appears, however, about an hour beyond the scheduled time, he is on foot — in his socks. He had alerted the park's security about the event, but guards refused to let him ride his bike. Since his only shoes were his riding cleats that bolt to his pedals, he took them off. He had come this far. He wasn't going to let Bostick's loved ones down, even if it meant crawling the half-mile to the grave.
He pinches the bridge of his nose and his eyes are wet, and he nearly falls into the arms of the people who receive him. He had begun the journey nearly a month earlier. In preparing, he knew it would be tough — physically, of course, but spiritually as well. Each of his previous five stops had been deeply emotional — healing, yes, but also draining.
None more so, however, than this last visit to the grave of Tom Bostick (who received a posthumous promotion to major). After composing himself, Kolenda calls for a long moment of silence and then, as he had done throughout, he recounts the last moments of the serviceman's life. This time, Kolenda could barely choke the words out, his own words to Bostick that day 15 years earlier, after the rocket-propelled grenade had hit:
"Bulldog-6, where are you?" Kolenda says.
"Bulldog-6, where are you?"
Kolenda's voice trails off as he repeats the phrase one last time.
There would be a dinner later that night to celebrate the trip. But for Kolenda, in this moment, the journey is over.
Kolenda and his men, it turned out, were part of a history-making effort. By diplomatically reaching out to an insurgent group, they were not only able to motivate that group to stop fighting but convinced them to support the Afghan government, a singular achievement in the 20-year history of the war. It's one of the things Kolenda is most proud of and one that, to him, elevates the heroism of the six paratroopers who perished under his command.
Kolenda drew on that truth in the days after he completed his Fallen Hero Honor Ride. "All of that emotion," he says. "Just being at the six gravesites and meeting all of those families and seeing the people who served with them. And thinking about Afghanistan and those deployments." And remembering the grief and the monthlong journey to honor that grief. "Now that it is done, you can kind of let it go," he says.
"You know, this is the end of this 1,700-mile journey, it's the end of this chapter," he continues. "And it's like, we actually did this. So, it's a sense of finality and gratitude, all at once." A feeling of a job well done.
A regular contributor to Rotary magazine, Bryan Smith wrote about the Chicago rapper Phenom and his Emcee Skool for our February 2022 issue.
This story originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.