TACTICAL BASE DAHLKE, Afghanistan (August 29, 2015) – Even though it's been six years since it happened, Spc. Kiersten Funcheon still remembers it like it was yesterday.
Funcheon, then a high school junior in Orlando, Fla., was spending her 16th birthday shopping for books in Barnes and Noble when she received the call.
"I could tell something was wrong immediately," she said. "My mom was on the phone and told me that Uncle Jason had been killed. I just broke down because I couldn't believe it."
Funcheon's "Uncle Jason" was Army Staff Sgt. Jason Sean Dahlke, a squad leader assigned to 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga. who was deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. On Aug. 29, 2009, Dahlke was killed by enemy fire while conducting combat operations near Paktika Province, Afghanistan. This was Dahlke's sixth deployment in support of the 'War on Terror,' and because of his actions that day, Tactical Base Dahlke bears his name.
Today, Funcheon's an air defense battle management systems operator assigned to "C" Battery, 1st Battalion, 265th Air Defense Artillery Regiment deployed to Bagram Airfield. She's part of a specialized unit that operates the Counter-Rocket, Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM) system, intercepting incoming rockets and mortars aimed at Bagram Airfield.
This was Funcheon's first visit to the place where her uncle served. When her unit, based in Deland, Fla., deployed here in June, she said she wasn't sure if she'd get an opportunity to come here and see some of the things that were so important to him. The family knew he was an Army Ranger, but nothing about the work he did.
"When he'd come home on leave, he never talked about what he did, other than stories about the people he served with," she said. "They meant a lot to him, and just seeing this place gives me such a surreal feeling…it's pretty indescribable to say the least."
Dahlke, she remembered, was the fun-loving and joke-playing person in the family, and was always like a father-figure to her during the absence of her own father. She cherishes moments spent playing the video game "Halo" and just talking about growing up to be the best person she could be.
"He always helped me to stay focused on what was important," she said. "He wasn't afraid of anything, and always tried to inspire me to achieve just a little more, even when I didn't think I could."
As tears welled in her eyes as she viewed the memorial plaques affixed to the wall of one of the buildings of this austere base in eastern Afghanistan, she described the experience as not only extremely humbling, but such an honor for a person she remembers as low-key and never sought acclaim for anything he did, always trying to stay out of the spotlight.
"Uncle Jason wouldn't have wanted all this in his honor because he always felt that his work would speak for him and he didn't need individual recognition," she said. "He was such a daredevil and so fearless…never avoided a challenge, and taught me to always stand steadfast that way too."
As she traced the paths her uncle once walked, the hallways leading to places where he used to work, and ate in the dining hall that bears his name, she reminisced about the times they'd spent together, and how important he was in her becoming a Soldier.
"I have an older brother who's a Marine, a sister who's married to a Marine and my stepdad was a Navy SEAL," said Funcheon, who initially considered joining the Navy. "The military has always been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, but spending time with Uncle Jason swayed me toward the Army."
She said that she initially wanted to be a Special Operations Soldier like her uncle, but when she found out that it wasn't possible, she decided on another career field that would allow her to contribute in ways that made her work special.
"It was during the Thanksgiving holiday the year before his death that we really talked about what I wanted to do in the future," she said. "He was on leave from Fort Benning, and we spent some quality time at a local lake and talked about a lot of things that I remember to this day."
One of his sayings, she said, is that he felt fear should be embraced, not shied away from or avoided, and it just means that you're doing something that's worth remembering.
"I was watching him doing backflips into the lake like it was nothing," she said. "Regardless of what I decided, he taught me never to give up on a dream, or stop short on trying to achieve something I really wanted."
At his funeral, one of the senior noncommissioned officers he'd served with told us he had never seen someone like Dahlke come through the ranks.
"That really meant a lot to us to hear that from someone he'd served and spent so much time with," Funcheon said. "It just re-emphasized for us what we knew about him and really helped us get through a really tough moment."
A month after his death, Funcheon enlisted in the Florida Army National Guard.
"My uncle made us believe in true love, courage and strength by pushing us to never give up," she said. "He opened my eyes to the importance of laughter and not being ashamed to be yourself. He followed his heart, loved his country and his brothers more than anything…I'm thankful for the times I had with him."