DALLAS -- Jay Liske was with a sniper unit attached to the 173rd Airborne Combat Brigade in the Kunar Province in Afghanistan. "I was over there for 15 months," Liske said. "A lot of fighting. We probably saw 650 firefights in 15 months. I think the most was 14 in one day." On Wednesday morning, Liske was one of 14 veterans and their guests who departed Dallas Love Field on a Southwest Airlines jet bound for Washington, D.C. They were up before the sun, mingling with commercial passengers bound for Houston, Austin, San Antonio and other locales on the daily perfunctory business trips.
The veterans served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Korea. Herbert Mowery just retired after 28 years of service, with commendations that included a Legion of Merit, Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars. Paul Thurman was injured in battle and confined to a wheelchair, but he now is able to play hockey competitively with no aid. He and his wife, Tanya, walked onto the plane. They are part of the Faces of Freedom Program sponsored by the Rangers and Southwest Airlines. The group is spending two days in the nation's capital, touring the famous monuments and meeting with Congressman Pete Sessions. "I think seeing Arlington Cemetery would be pretty cool," said Jonathan Basaldua, a Marine who served in Operation Phantom Fury in Iraq. For the 14 veterans who were guests of the Rangers, their trip to Washington was more personal. "I love D.C.," Liske said. "I'm looking forward to seeing the memorials, and Arlington Cemetery. I've got a few buddies buried in Arlington Cemetery." David Hilario was also in Operation Phantom Fury. Otherwise known as the Second Battle of Fallujah, it involved U.S. Marines in some of the heaviest urban combat action they've seen since the Tet Offensive in 1968. It was the first of two deployments for Hilario in that city. "The second deployment, we helped in the rebuilding of the city," Hilario said. "It was a unique experience. The first time, we were looking for people that were trying to hurt us. The second deployment, we were having breakfast with them. It's something I'll never forget." Hilario was accompanied to Washington, D.C., by his wife, Patricia. "It should be a very good trip," Hilario said. "This is my second time to D.C. since my deployment. It's a time to reflect on what I went through and think about the guys who didn't come back. I like being around veterans. I'm a history buff, and when those guys start talking, I shut up and listen." Hilario was able to meet Jon Lunkwicz, the current Commander of VFW Post 1054, a Purple Heart recipient and veteran of the Vietnam War. Lunkwicz's guest was James Wilson, another veteran of Vietnam. "He and I are the only two Vietnam veterans in the group," Lunkwicz said. "I was in the 198th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam ... the grunt infantry. I was at Firebase Dottie near Chu Lai. It wasn't too bad. We got kidded by the old veterans who said we were living in a palace. They said it was a palace because we had gourmet pizza." Lunkwicz said he hasn't been to Washington D.C. since 1966 and was looking forward to seeing the Vietnam War Memorial. The "Wall" has all the names of those who died in Southeast Asia etched in the iconic black marble shrine. "Yeah, I know a few names on it. ... My buddy, he's got names on there too," Lunkwicz said. David Apperson was a private first class in the Army who did his tour on in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. A cease fire was reached in 1953 after three years of fighting, but the actual Korean War has never officially ended and U.S. soldiers still man their posts in maybe the last front still in existence from the Cold War. "What I remember is it was either too hot or too cold, and be careful you don't step on a land mine," Apperson said. "It was a little different than being in Seoul or Pusan, [South Korea]. Besides guarding our posts, we would have to stop North Korean infiltrators from infiltrating and coming into the South." No doubt there will be more than a few stories swapped as these Faces of Freedom spend two days in Washington, D.C., as guests of the Rangers and Southwest Airlines.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.