One after another, two new golden placards were unveiled on Washington’s Patriots Memorial.
The markers were emblazoned with the names of two soldiers — Sgt. Don Clary and Sgt. 1st Class Clinton Wisdom.
From the audience, Lt. Col. Austin Hamner watched. He was serving in Iraq when the two soldiers were killed, his office close enough to feel the impact of the explosion.
He vowed the two would never be forgotten. So he told their story in a letter to his young daughters.
What started as a personal letter to his family has grown into a national phenomena. Hamner’s words have been used to ease grieving families and in military support groups.
With the two soldiers being added to the Patriots Memorial in Washington, he was invited to attend.
“The bigger this gets, the more I believe they will not be forgotten,” Hamner said.
Sgt. Don Clary and Sgt. 1st Class Clinton Wisdom, both of the Kansas Army National Guard, were killed on Nov. 8, 2004.
The men were in Baghdad serving as personal security detail guarding convoys of high-ranking officials.
On the day of their deaths, they were escorting members of Iraq Survey Group and the Defense Intelligence Agency, which provides intelligence support for combat missions.
While on duty, a vehicle loaded with explosives sped toward the convoy. Clary and Wisdom positioned their own vehicle in protection of the officials on board.
The explosion killed the two soldiers and wounded two others in their vehicle.
Because of their actions, no members of either the survey group or Defense Intelligence Agency were seriously harmed, said Jim Kudla, public affairs specialist for the Defense Intelligence Agency.
At the time, Hamner was serving in Baghdad as a chief of counterintelligence. He remembers what he called “a tremendous explosion that rattled for miles around,” he said.
The tragedy fell three days before Veterans Day, and Hamner struggled for a way to ensure Clary and Wisdom were not forgotten.
He wrote a letter to his three young daughters. Hamner also has three sons, but this particular letter was intended specifically for his daughters, Mary, Laura and Sarah.
The letter emphasized the importance of Clary’s and Wisdom’s actions, how they were heroes for giving their lives for others. Hamner wrote in simple yet eloquent language, explaining what had happened and why it needed to be remembered.
“The three girls are the youngest. My boys understood much more about Veterans Day,” he said. “It was such an emotional experience. I worked with them on a day-to-day basis.”
One of his daughters, Mary, took the letter with her to Greenwood Middle School, where she went to school.
She showed her teacher, and Hamner’s words were so moving that school officials asked if they could read it aloud at a Veterans Day program.
The same year, the Daily Journal published the letter on its editorial page.
Slowly, the letter and its message spread throughout the community. It was read on Indianapolis radio stations, and friends clipped it and passed it on to others.
Hamner also presented it to the command sergeant major of the Kansas National Guard, which Clary and Wisdom had served in.
“I didn’t hear anything from him, but I talked to a captain from the unit a week or two later and learned that they read it to all of the soldiers. Then they emailed it to all of their families,” he said.
Hamner started receiving requests to put his words up on dedication websites, honoring those who had fallen in service.
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who was a state representative at the time, read Hamner’s words on the one-year anniversary of Clary and Wisdom’s death.
“Like the soldier who wrote his daughters, it is our responsibility to ensure that our children and grandchildren appreciate the sacrifices made by those serving our country and never forget these heroes,” Moran said at the time.
Stars and Stripes, the independent news publication for the U.S. military community, published the letter as well as an update about the families of Clary and Wisdom in 2012.
Then this year, Hamner learned that Clary and Wisdom would be honored with inclusion on the Patriots Memorial. The wall-sized monument was created in 1988 to honor those who gave their lives in service to the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“These are people who died in the line of duty, either DIA employees or serving in support of it,” Kudla said. “It’s a chance to celebrate the lives and dedication of those folks.”
After organizers of the event already had decided to honor Clary and Wisdom, word of Hamner’s letter reached officials at the Defense Intelligence Agency.
They extended an invitation to attend the ceremony, considering his connection to their story, Kudla said. Hamner is serving in Seoul, South Korea, as a foreign area officer. It did not appear he’d be able to make the event.
But in a fortuitous bit of timing, Hamner was planning on coming home to Greenwood on leave in early November.
“I couldn’t come back on the holidays, so I decided to come back early. This memorial service was in that time frame,” he said.
Hamner and his mother, Mary, traveled to Washington to attend the ceremony. Clary and Wisdom had their names, along with two other soldiers, added on Thursday in a special ceremony. Family members unveiled the new placards on the memorial wall, and Chief Master Sgt. Troy L. Eden, senior enlisted adviser for the Defense Intelligence Agency, spoke about the sacrifice they made.
For Hamner, the memorial service solidified the goal he had from the beginning.
“I wanted to make sure they were never forgotten, and it seems like they won’t. This letter took on a life of its own,” he said.