Overcoming grief, embracing duty
GIESSEN, Germany — When Jonathan Falaniko was training to be a combat engineer at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., several sergeants made a point of stopping by to see the 20-year-old recruit.
They wanted to meet him and welcome him into the fold. Their chats were often casual, but formality figured into the mix as well. It had to be that way, because his father, who was in Iraq, would have it no other way.
Encouragement was one thing. Favoritism was something else.
“I realize that you get a lot of respect being the man you are,” Jonathan wrote in a July 24 letter to his dad, the command sergeant major of the 1st Armored Division Engineer Brigade.
He penned the note at 9:30 p.m., a precious time of the day for young recruits like Jonathan Falaniko.
“I realize what you’ve done [for] your soldiers and how you [have] earned their respect,” Jonathan continued. “In my opinion, I think they respect you because you’re a hard man [who] takes his job seriously, [and] not because of your rank. I’ve met a lot of sergeants here and they’ve told me stories about you. ...
“I wonder what it’s like being [a soldier] under you. I’ve never seen you in action at work, and I think it’ll be weird calling you a ‘sergeant major’ on the job, instead of ‘Dad,’ but that’s [the] Army values that I have to show. I hope I’ll be able to see you in uniform, again, before you retire.”
In fact, the Army private did get to see his father in uniform — and in action, though it was ever so brief.
On the morning of Oct. 27, a month after Pvt. Jonathan Falaniko arrived in Iraq, a rocket-propelled grenade killed him just after he and several other engineers cleared two improvised explosive devices along a Baghdad road. The RPG, which pierced the engineers’ cargo Humvee, wounded five other soldiers.
Command Sgt. Maj. Ioakimo Falaniko was in the division’s tactical operations center at the time of the attack, but didn’t know his son was on that particular mission. About an hour later, he knew that his son had been killed. Though they had met a couple of times since Jonathan’s arrival, neither was intimate with the other’s daily routine. Protocol, location and the pace of activity kept contact to a minimum.
“We talked about it,” the father said of dying in combat, recalling one of the last conversations the two had. “… I knew the danger of our mission. … I told him, ‘Don’t lose focus of why we are here.’”
Despite losing his son, Falaniko, 49, hasn’t lost his focus.
The 27-year veteran escorted his son’s body back to the United States for burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The service was attended by at least eight general officers and more than 20 sergeants major. Falaniko read excerpts from some of his son’s letters, written before Jonathan was assigned to Alpha Company, 70th Engineer Battalion at Fort Riley, Kan.
“I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place,” recalled Command Sgt. Maj. Michael L. Gravens, U.S. Army Europe’s senior enlisted soldier.
Falaniko is now back at his brigade headquarters in Giessen, Germany, but he plans to return to Iraq after Thanksgiving. His heart may be “broken,” he said, but his spirit remains intact.
Returning to Iraq, Falaniko said, “is part of the healing process for me. I need to get back in the groove. I need to go back there and do my job.”
Senior leaders up and down the chain of command have told him that isn’t necessary, offering to transfer him and his family to wherever they want to go. Falaniko knows they mean well, but he still wants to rejoin his unit.
Gravens wondered aloud Tuesday how he would handle such a loss. He referred to Falaniko as “an incredibly strong man … a pillar of strength.”
“He deserves every bit of respect that we can muster,” Gravens said.
“A lot of people talk the talk, but don’t necessarily walk the walk,” said Maj. Scott Slyter, the brigade’s rear detachment commander. “He does.”
Jonathan Falaniko, an American Samoan born when his father was stationed in West Berlin, has been described as an exceptional and respectful young man.
When Jonathan was a 16-year-old volunteer, the youth center coordinator at Fort Leonard Wood entrusted him with tasks far beyond his years. When his older brother, Niko, emerged from a 3½-week coma following a car accident in September 2001, Jonathan was the one who stayed at Fort Lewis, Wash., to help him. The rest of the family — including wife Maliana and daughters Adeline and Otilia — had to go to Germany, but Jonathan thought it was best to have a family member remain to help Niko while he recuperated.
“Whenever somebody needed help,” the father said, “he would be there.”
Falaniko, the senior enlisted soldier for the roughly 4,500 engineers in and around Baghdad, was there for his son when the private flew into the Iraqi capital on Sept. 28. Bear hugs were exchanged, and at some point the son began to address the father as “sergeant major,” but not before he made the following pledge: “Dad, I will try my best not to disappoint you.”
Now, it’s the father who doesn’t want to disappoint his late son.
Falaniko said he has heard that soldiers have taken into custody the man suspected of firing the RPG that killed his son and injured his five brothers in arms. The command sergeant major wants to look the man in the eye, but insisted he’ll let whatever process there is run its course.
There are no regrets, Falaniko said. War is hell for everybody.
“I fully understand my job,” Falaniko said. “If my son were still alive, he’d say, ‘Hey, Dad, you need to go back down there. You’ve got some soldiers to take care of,’ and I know that.”