Oct. 23, 2007, might have been just another Tuesday for most Americans but for Carmin Rougle, it was the day all future moments with her father were stolen. She was just 3 years old.
Army Staff Sgt. Larry Rougle, of West Jordan, Utah, was killed at Sawtalo Sar Mountain, Kunar Province, Afghanistan, when he was engaged by enemy small arms fire. At just 25 years old, he left behind a young daughter with cloudy memories of her father and loved ones buried in grief.
Losses like Larry’s inspired Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Gomolka to create Project 33 Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to annually honoring one Special Operations soldier on Memorial Day who has died since 9/11.
“I have almost 23 years in service, which if you do the math, brings you to pre 9/11. At this point I’ve served multiple combat tours overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan and everywhere else you can imagine,” Gomolka said. “I lost a few buddies of mine along the way, and anyone who’s been through any kind of environment like that knows that there’s challenges and grieving that is done on an individual basis. It was so hard to manage, but by 2005, I had almost become numb to it.”
RELATED: Project 33 Memorial Foundation honors fallen Green Beret
Thinking the war would soon be over, Gomolka left the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment for the “Q” course. He became a Green Beret attached to the 19th Special Forces Group through the Army National Guard. But the war continued and he was in the thick of it – over and over again.
After a rough Afghanistan deployment in 2016, Gomolka wanted to do something about what he had witnessed.
“I was watching 16 years of America fighting this war, and it felt like no one knew who these men were,” he said. “When someone dies, the support is immediate for the first few months and then fast forward 10 years and it’s nonexistent. I wanted people to know them, to remember their names. A year later, I turned to my wife Samantha and told her I was going to run.”
Knowing this mission was bigger than just one man, his wife gathered the troops and the rest as they say, is history. Project 33 is now in its sixth year running 6.8 miles for the fallen and is preparing to honor Rougle, who Gomolka served with as a Ranger.
History of Project 33
Though Larry was divorced from his wife, Jackie Taylor, at the time he was killed, the two remained close. The couple began dating, and Taylor said that despite his intellect, Larry was often in trouble with the law.
“He was in and out of juvenile detention and then he was turning 18 soon,” Taylor said. “The judge told him he could either enlist in the military or he was sending him to prison.”
A 2018 analysis by the Council on Foreign Relations found that the majority of the modern enlisted warriors come from low or middle-class socioeconomic status.
According to Taylor, Larry blew through basic training, leaving as an honor grad in March 2000. From there, he trained to become a Ranger. During the process, he cut his finger badly, almost losing it. He refused to be recycled and instead finished the course with stitches and tape holding it together.
They had been married before he went in and were eventually assigned to Fort Benning, Georgia, when the 9/11 terrorist attack occurred.
“I was watching it at work in disbelief when I heard my office phone ringing,” she said. “It was him telling me he wasn’t coming [home] that night and didn’t know when he would.”
Though he did make it home a few days later, his unit was deployed to Afghanistan within months. It was the first of three combat deployments to the region and two more of which he served alongside Gomolka in Iraq.
In the midst of war, the couple got pregnant in 2003 and Larry was sent home from deployment early to await the baby’s arrival. On April 4, 2004 – Carmin was born.
“From the moment she was here Larry was inseparable from her,” Taylor said. “I’d drop the baby at day care and get a call an hour later that he’d picked her up.”
When Larry was stateside, he stayed with them – soaking in the stolen moments. When Carmin was 2, the marriage dissolved, but the couple remained committed to coparenting. An enemy ambush would cut those plans short.
“I don’t know if he died instantly, but I pray he did,” Taylor said. “Larry took so many bullets all over his body. At first I didn’t want Carmin to see him in the casket, but she begged. All she said was it looked like he was sleeping.”
His last moments were captured and shown in “Restrepo,” a 2019 documentary about the Afghanistan War.
Why to research, honor the fallen
Gomolka had just earned his Green Beret when he saw Larry’s name pop up on the KIA board.
“It was horrible. He was such an incredible guy and exactly what the war needed. He gave everything to it,” he said. “We’ve had some people comment that when he was killed he was with the 1/73 and not Ranger regiment, so he wasn’t special operations. Just because you leave doesn’t mean you ever lose that. He’s our Airborne Ranger in the sky now.”
Eventually, Taylor had to help Carmin remember her dad as the memories faded.
“He loved his country and wanted his daughter to grow up in a place she would always have the opportunities freedom offers,” Taylor said. “Larry wanted to make a difference.”
Carmin said it has been weird “grieving something you never had.”
“Every year my school would ask me to share my story for Memorial Day, and it was hard,” Carmin said. “Eventually I got to a place where I didn’t want to talk about him. Growing up I’d watch Disney movies or see daddy-daughter dances and cry. There’s been so many big moments in my life that he’s missed and future ones he’ll never be part of.”
As Americans prepare to spend Memorial Day over barbecues and fireworks, for Carmin and her mother, the day brings all the emotions.
“The American flag isn’t just something beautiful to look at. The red stands for the blood shed for it,” Taylor said. “I would encourage people to look into the true meaning.”
Gomolka echoed her sentiment with a challenge of his own.
“Search your own city and pick one person who died in service every year and learn about them,” he said.
“Who they were and their contributions to this world before you start bringing out the beers and burgers. Teach your kids about the true meaning behind Memorial Day. That’s all I want. Remember them, please.”