A bad month in Afghanistan rippled across the US

Share on Facebook Print Print
November 22, 2009

Every afternoon, seven days a week, Ed Epley has a 5 p.m. appointment with the war.

He pulls a protest sign from his maroon 1961 Volkswagen van he has 30 to 40 stashed inside and joins a one-hour peace vigil at the Benton County courthouse in Corvallis, Ore. Epley has been doing this, day in and day out, since the U.S. launched its first air strikes on Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001.

"I really don't look at it as a job, it's just part of the daily task of being a citizen," says the 73-year-old retiree.

More than eight years later, this small, 365-day-a-year vigil may seem quixotic. But it stands apart for another reason: It has kept a steadfast focus on the war. Even though hundreds of thousands of troops have served, even though more than 800 members of the military have died, the marathon war in Afghanistan has, for long stretches, been off the nation's radar.

But one terrible month changed all that.

A record number of deaths in October forced the nation to take new notice of Afghanistan as debate raged over whether President Barack Obama should send tens of thousands more troops there.

The deaths of 62 Americans including three federal agents in ambushes, roadside bombs and helicopter crashes turned a spotlight on an often overlooked reality: The war is forever shaping lives here.

In the month of October, that was painfully clear as young children learned their fathers were gone; as young men who not long ago donned high school football uniforms were mourned; as some soldiers came home, and others prepared to leave for a war that began its ninth year.

In these 31 days, the war rippled across America.



The attack was quick and brazen.

With guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells, hundreds of insurgents stormed a remote U.S.-Afghan outpost deep in the mountains of northeast Afghanistan. They attacked simultaneously from three sides a mosque, buildings and a perch on high ground in the Kamdesh district.

The fighting at Combat Outpost Keating lasted almost six hours; rocket and machine gun fire left large parts of the base in flames.

When the deadliest battle in more than a year was over, scores of insurgents were dead, but so were eight Americans and three Afghan soldiers; 24 other Americans were among the injured.

The dead Americans were based at Fort Carson, Colo. They were members of the Fourth Brigade Combat Team, which already has suffered staggering losses in Iraq: 64 deaths and more than 400 wounded in a 2004-2005 deployment.

What happened that first Saturday in October was soon felt in homes from Applegate, Calif., to Kincheloe, Mich., to Lovettsville, Va.

It was not just eight families, but teachers, coaches, pastors, friends and neighbors who mourned.

There was Spc. Christopher Griffin, a History Channel and Green bay Packers fan; Staff Sgt. Justin Gallegos, who doted on his 5-year-old son; Sgt. Joshua Hardt, who enjoyed fishing in the Sierra Nevada mountains; Sgt. Joshua Kirk, a devoted husband and father; Staff Sgt. Vernon Martin, who married his high school sweetheart and loved children (they had three), music and basketball; Sgt. Michael Scusa, who prepared for Army life as a teen marching around the neighborhood with a brick-loaded backpack; Pfc. Kevin Thomson, an occasional prankster who adored the movie "Ghostbusters"; and Spc. Stephan Mace, a hunter, fisherman and paintballer whose adventurous palate extended to raw rabbit.

By time October was over, the losses would expand to 28 states in this one month.



In the quiet of his office at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, N.J., Rabbi Douglas Sagal devotes part of each Friday afternoon to the war.

Using a Department of Defense Web site, he gathers a weekly list of those who died in Afghanistan and Iraq so he can read their names aloud at Friday night services.

Before the war in Iraq, Sagal told his congregation it would be unforgivable if the nation proceeded as normal while men and women were fighting and dying overseas. And that, he says, is exactly what happened.

So about five years ago, Sagal decided to do his part to remember the fallen.

"It came out of my belief that really the great sin of our time, maybe the great sin of our generation is we send people to war and we insist on living our lives as if nothing is happening," he says. "I made a promise to myself that we are going to know the names of those who have died in the service of our country."

Every Friday, just before the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, Sagal recites the list of war casualties since the last Sabbath. After the services, he says veterans or those with family in the military invariably thank him.

"There's an unfair burden being brought on a small percentage of the population," he says. "At the very least, we as a nation need to understand there's an enormous price for the political decisions we make or support."



Inside the cavernous C-17 transport plane, Capt. Pete Hudlow had a solemn and unforgettable glimpse of the cost of war.

On a chilly pre-dawn morning in late October, the Air Force captain was part of an extraordinary scene that unfolded in the darkness at Air Force Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base. The president had arrived to honor 18 of the war dead being returned home.

Obama's presence was striking not just because it was unprecedented but also because Dover's ceremonies have long been cloaked in secrecy. It wasn't until this spring that the secretary of defense lifted an 18-year ban and allowed media to film transfers if the grieving family approves.

As much of the nation slept, Hudlow, a 40-year-old captain from Tinker Air Force Base (he's on temporary assignment) walked through the cargo area, verified the identifications, checked on the American flags covering the metal transfer cases and made sure all were in the proper order to be removed.

Then, the honor guard teams escorted the fallen off the plane.

"Everything is deliberate, everything is planned, everything is done with the utmost respect and focus on what we're doing," he says. "There's a reverent, ceremonial mindset. Nothing about it is routine."

"It's a somber thing when it's one of the fallen," he adds. "But it's a little bit more emotional when you walk go into the aircraft, it has no cargo, and on the floor there are 20-something cases. ... It's humbling. It's got some sadness.

"We do what we're tasked to do. We give them the dignity and honor as best we can."

The last soldier carried off was Sgt. Dale Griffin of Terre Haute, Ind., son of a Mormon bishop, Eagle Scout, champion wrestler. (His family was the only one that allowed the media to photograph the return.)

After meeting with the families, Obama marched onto the plane where a prayer was offered, then walked down the ramp and witnessed the remains being removed. He offered a crisp salute.

At 4 a.m., Hudlow's mission was over.

"There was a sense of accomplishment," he says. "We got these guys back on American soil."



Capt. Benjamin Sklaver's contributions reached halfway around the world.

Though he was just 32, the Army reservist already had launched his own nonprofit clean water organization, worked on refugee health issues for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and built wells in Uganda, where one villager dubbed him "Moses Ben."

The rabbi at his funeral told more than 1,000 mourners that Sklaver was "a warrior for peace."

If one of war's tragedies is lost potential, no one personifies that more than Benjamin Sklaver.

Sklaver, killed Oct. 2 by a suicide bomber, founded the ClearWater Initiative after returning from service in 2007 in northern Uganda. As part of a civil affairs unit there, he helped bring clean water to embattled villages, building wells and creating protected springs in area where pregnant women and children suffered from dysentery and malaria.

"He believed in simple solutions," says David Abraham, his graduate school roommate. "He saw water as a way to give people hope. He thought of the little things that would inspire people," remembering how Sklaver once used excess piping to build a soccer post for Ugandan children.

Friends say Sklaver was trying to meet with local leaders outside Kandahar when he was killed. "He would tell me it was a dangerous place but he said, 'We're making progress. We'll get there,'" Abraham says.

His friends will now carry on his organization that has provided almost 7,000 people, mostly Ugandans, with fresh water. The goal is to increase that to 250,000 within 10 years.

Still, they can't help wonder what might have been with Ben at the helm.

"We'll never see," Abraham says, "what ideas he would have brought back from Afghanistan."



The yellow ribbons appeared almost immediately around light poles and trees in North Attleboro, Mass. So, too, did the U.S. flags, candles in windows and lawn signs that read: "Rest Easy, Capt. Kyle Van De Giesen."

In a town of 28,000, the death of a war hero travels with lightning speed. It was a deeply personal loss to those who remembered the little boy who dreamed of flying, the star quarterback they cheered on Friday nights, the charismatic Marine who could tell a joke and make everyone laugh.

"This was a big blow to the town," says Mike Kirby, editor of The Sun Chronicle and next door neighbor of the Van De Giesens. "He triumphed at everything he did in life. He was a Pop Warner football champ, a high school football champ, a college football quarterback and a Marine captain. I think people were aghast that ... this war would defeat him."

Van De Giesen, 29, was killed Oct. 26 in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.

North Attleboro paid tribute with a moment of silence at a high school football game and a candlelight vigil that attracted thousands. Folks lined the streets, clutching American flags as his funeral procession wound its way through town, passing his house, his schools, the football field where, as a Red Rocketeer, he'd scored so many touchdowns.

It was particularly poignant for Kirby.

He had attended Van De Giesen's high school and college graduation parties, his Marine pinning ceremony party, his wedding and his daughter's baptism more than a year ago. At that time, Kirby says, Van De Giesen who had served two tours in Iraq told him he had asked to go to Afghanistan. "I signed up to defend my country," he said.

Van De Giesen was the first person from North Attleboro to die in action in war since 1970.

He was killed on his last mission before he was to head home to welcome the birth of his second child, Colin Joseph. The baby arrived four days after his father's funeral, on the day Van De Giesen was supposed to reunite with his family.

"To die under these circumstances," Kirby says, "it's just much too much."



Her husband has just left home to prepare for his second tour in Afghanistan and Betsy Charlesworth already in wondering what it will mean for their year-old son, Marty.

How, she wonders, will he react when his father returns after being away a year?

"I said to Rob ... 'Marty is not going to know you and he may be afraid of you.' It breaks my heart. It absolutely breaks my heart," she says.

They'll be in touch by phone and Web cam, but Betsy says, "I am fully prepared for him (Marty) to look at Rob and say, 'Who are you and why are you in my house?' ... That's probably the toughest thing. He's probably not going to remember him."

Rob Charlesworth, a 39-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Vermont National Guard, flew to Fort Polk, La., at the end of October. He'll deploy early next year, one of 1,500 "Green Mountain Boys."

He'll be back for the holidays, but Betsy says they've already prepared for his departure: Rob has handed over the bill-paying duties and written his will. She has adopted his 11-year-son, Myles, from a previous marriage.

She tries to remember the lessons of her husband's first tour in 2003 they were just dating then when he told her not to panic every time she heard about bloodshed in Afghanistan.

Still, Betsy knows Afghanistan is "a scary place."

"People ask me, 'Why don't you tell your husband to get out of the Army? You have three children. He could die.' But this is his passion," she says. "This is what he has been called to do. We all will die. I feel that if God is going to call him in Afghanistan, that's what's meant to be. He could also walk out the door and be killed. ... I just pray that he comes home safe and sound and we're all family again."



Col. Will Roy knows exactly what his 83-year-old father thinks about his fourth tour to Afghanistan.

"My dad keeps saying, 'You've done enough. You've done enough,'" says the 49-year-old colonel who arrived in Fort Polk, La., in October to prepare for his deployment.

Next year, Roy will lead the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which has more than 3,000 soldiers, about half from the Vermont National Guard. It will train and mentor Afghan security forces.

Roy says he reminds his father, Henry, of his service in the Marines in the Pacific during World War II he signed up when he was 16 and how he was away for five years. "So what I'm doing there is no comparison," Roy says.

But he does appreciate his father's angst. When his own son, Adam, now 22, was deployed to Afghanistan he returned last summer they had a final phone call, where he told the young man he was proud of him, urged him to keep his head down and do the right thing.

Then he called his elderly father and said, "'Hey, Poppy, I really didn't understand what you were going through. Now I get it.'"

Roy says he's excited about returning to Afghanistan, where he has many friends. He's determined to help bring peace and stability to the country.

"When people ask me how long we should be in Afghanistan or Iraq, my response is 40 years," he says. He knows that raises eyebrows but, he says, he's not talking about a huge military presence but a full international economic and diplomatic commitment to get the country back on track.

He likes to provide a biblical analogy to his soldiers:

"How long," he asks, "did Moses take the Jews into the desert?"

And then he answers: "Forty years."



Meanwhile, Ed Epley is in year nine in the vigil at the county courthouse in Corvallis.

He's among 8 to 12 regulars who gather from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekends and holidays included.

Mike Beilstein, a city council member, still comes by a few times a month. He helped launch the vigil in 2001 when he brought a "Peace on Earth" sign to the courthouse the day after the first air strikes on Afghanistan.

"We never feel we're wrong, but we've asked ourselves is this the best way to address the issue," Beilstein says. "Would I be more effective going home writing letters? That question has been there from the start and it's there now, but now that we've been doing it, how do we quit?"

Most days, about 10 people or fewer show up. On the October anniversary of the war, about 50 did. When big announcements are made including events tied to the Iraq, which also is part of the protest the numbers swell.

They've endured shouts of "nuke them," ''go back to Russia," ''dirty hippies, get a job." Motorists have pelted them with cans and food.

They've also been greeted with peace signs, honks of support and letters from as far as New Zealand and Tunisia. (Al-Jazeera taped a segment on the vigil.)

"The message does get out," Epley says. "It's really hard to tell how much effect we're having. People will stop by and write letters and say they do appreciate we're out there. That's what keeps us going. ... I think most of us realize we're never really going to win world peace."

As for the future?

"I don't know what the signal is going to be to say, 'Let's call it quits,'" he says. "We never thought we'd be here this long."

Share on Facebook Print Print