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Heroes, sacrifices and making a difference across generations

Col. Chris Karns

Heroes, sacrifices and making a difference across generations
You never know where inspiration may find you. As I was recapping the day’s activities with a teammate, we were unexpectedly invited into a room of legends to include one whose actions decades ago continues to benefit all generations.

Spc. Henry Mayfield Jr. died during an al-Shabab attack on Jan. 5, 2020, in Manda Bay, Kenya. (Facebook)


Lt. Col. Alfred Shehab signals for Francis Chesko of Mahanot City, Pa., to help him lay a wreath by a monument honoring veterans of the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 15 at the battle's memorial behind the Fort Meade Museum. (Army)

At 96 years of age and still full of energy, U.S. Army Sgt. Francis Chesko is a Purple Heart recipient who served in the 7th Armored Division. Sgt. Chesko, along with a few fellow War War II soldiers, are in Washington for a reunion recognizing the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Sgt. Chesko earned five Bronze Stars for his heroics in World War II. During his service in uniform, he faced continuous battle, to include the Battle of the Bulge, where the U.S. experienced tremendous casualties, but eventually defeated the enemy. In this case, the Nazis.

Our brief visit was a lesson in sacrifice, honor and courage. It was a tutorial in values, respect, and what is and should be valued. It had moments of laughter and offered more serious moments of reflection.

Our talk was a reminder that wearing the uniform is a privilege. It represents America, as well as generations of hard work and sacrifice to help ensure the safety, security, and good standing of our nation.

It made me think of the sacrifices the World War II generation made and the role each of us in uniform has to protect America and her interests. In Sgt. Chesko’s day, Americans almost universally recognized the cost of not engaging the enemy.

Our encounter made me also think about the recent American lives lost in Kenya, one of whom was U.S. Army Spc. Henry Mayfield Jr. Spc. Mayfield is another hero in uniform because he selflessly served and made the ultimate sacrifice for an extremely important mission. What we are doing in Africa is significant. The mission has a tremendous purpose but isn’t as well or widely understood as the mission Sgt. Chesko experienced. However, it’s a story worth telling because it matters greatly. It is also a responsibility to underline its importance.

U.S. Africa Command is a command with diverse responsibilities. It offers African partners options to the aggressive and rapidly growing pursuits of China and Russia in Africa. The command builds strategic partnerships and capabilities, helping partners develop skills as well as counter terrorist groups and malign activity on the continent. As an economy of force, U.S. Africa Command seeks to optimize resources, and relies on various international and U.S. government partners for mission success.

The command has about 5,200 personnel on the continent with a massive and vast area of responsibility that is three and a half times the size of the United States. U.S. Africa Command professionals wake up every day looking to do their part to build the capability of our partners and prevent the expansion of terror groups seeking to do harm to America and our citizens.

This is important because the African continent contains just about every major brand of terror group — ISIS, al-Qaida, al-Shabab, and Boko Haram, to name a few. Each has a warped view of the world and desire to strike the U.S. and kill Americans.

Al-Shabab, the very terrorist group that tragically and recently took the lives of the three Americans in Kenya is the most robust and active al-Qaida network in the world.

Al-Shabab’s alignment with al-Qaida is real. Al-Qaida is the very same group that took thousands of lives in the attack against America on Sept. 11, 2001. Our efforts help keep their ambitions in check.

This is important because in early November, al-Shabaab leadership announced an expanded vision that included U.S. interests and Americans as desired targets. Their remarks could certainly be viewed as a basic declaration of war on the U.S., its citizens, and interests. They definitely seek to export and carry out their hateful intent with broader attacks. The Kenyan attack was one example. Al-Shabab’s attack in Kenya was the first against a Kenyan base and demonstrated their plans for their desired expansion of violence.

We are working with African, international, and interagency partners to prevent this group from conducting attacks more broadly.

One of U.S. Africa Command’s core roles on the continent is training, but the command also offers surgical precision capabilities with armed over-watch. It is one of only two combatant commands currently engaged in necessary kinetic operations. U.S. Africa Command activities help create the necessary space for Africa to extend governance and create the necessary economic development to reduce violent extremist organization and malign actor influence and their desire to grow.

In places like Somalia, Kenya, and other locations, U.S. Africa Command is working hard to build self-sufficiency in African partners so they can share in the necessary burden and responsibility to counter terror groups in Africa and future threats more broadly.

The sacrifice made by Spc. Mayfield was at the hands of a brutal enemy who wishes to do our nation harm and test our resolve. Our engagement prevents this from becoming a reality. Countering al-Shabab and other nefarious groups relies on the strength of African and international partners as well as the Department of State and USAID. These terrorists do not have the capability to attack the U.S. homeland today due to the efforts of our African partners, international community, the U.S., and service members like Spc. Mayfield.

As Sgt. Chesko reminded me, our involvement in far off places matters to U.S. security, and the service of heroes such as Sgt. Chesko and Spc. Mayfield was dedicated to ensuring America’s security and the broader collective security of others.

Prior to departing for the evening, someone came up to Sgt. Chesko and asked him to lead the pledge of allegiance. He accepted the request as if it was the greatest honor imaginable. Serving in uniform is an honor. It represents the past and present work being done to make future generations safer. Selfless service to others is what makes America great. It is what makes Sgt. Chesko and Spc. Mayfield’s contributions both great and heroic. Their service and sacrifices will never be forgotten. We owe both our deepest respect and a debt of gratitude. For they are America’s greatest heroes.

Col. Christopher Karns is director of public affairs for U.S. Africa Command.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman,