Nearly 20 years since American military aircraft launched attacks and the first groups of CIA and Special Forces personnel entered Afghanistan, the country’s longest war is drawing to a close.
The Pentagon is following orders to withdraw the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 U.S troops by Sept. 11 — the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On May 25, top military leaders revealed that the entire NATO military force in Afghanistan, including American forces, should be out of the country by mid-July.
Five men who called Lancaster County their home, at least for a time, gave their lives in military service in Afghanistan. They are among the more than 2,440 U.S. troops killed there. Others from here were injured during Operations Enduring Freedom (2001-2014) or Freedom’s Sentinel (2014-present), joining the ranks of more than 20,500 troops injured in the impoverished and war-torn country that’s been the site of fighting, in some form or other, since the Soviet Union invaded in 1979.
LNP | LancasterOnline asked the families of two county residents who died there, one former resident, as well as veterans who served in Afghanistan, for their thoughts on the pending withdrawal.
If a theme emerges from their responses, it is one of mixed feelings, but also a consensus that yes, after 20 years, it is time to end U.S. military involvement.
Worries of terrorism
Terry Styer, of East Lampeter, whose son, Army Pfc. Brandon M. Styer, 19, was killed there on Oct. 15, 2009, said he’s not exactly sure what to make of the withdrawal.
“I agree with the pullback, but you can’t just walk away from it,” he said in a recent interview. “A lot of lives were lost in it. … They died there to keep us safe here because that evidently is a hub of terrorism. You’re trying to stabilize a country that actually, I feel, doesn’t want to be stabilized.”
He said he is worried that without some sort of U.S. presence, terrorism could surge.
Denise Torbert, of Millersville, whose son, Marine Cpl. Eric M. Torbert Jr., 25, was killed Dec. 18, 2010, also worried that terrorism could increase.
“I’m afraid if we pull out and we (have to) go back in, we’ll have another 2010. I don’t want to say massacre, but that’s basically what it was; 2010 was the worst year for losing our military,” she said. That year, 496 troops were killed, the deadliest year of combat for the U.S forces in Afghanistan.
On the withdrawal
Mikki said she is happy the United States is withdrawing troops.
“It has lasted so long and you start to wonder, ‘Why is it lasting that long?’ ”
She has friends in the military who were deployed in Afghanistan and will be returning, she said.
“It needs to end. It needed to end before,” she said.
She worries about the possibility of terrorists taking over former U.S. installations. She also thinks about the cost of the war in human terms. The men who were with her husband when he died will live with that forever, she said.
“Sometimes I wonder if he thinks it would be worth it,” she said, before stopping herself to explain. “Worth it isn’t the right word. I mean, he wanted to do that. He had fun. He loved it. But he has a 10 year old.”
On a broader level, she said, “I will always worry about deployed troops because I don’t want other families to look like mine.”
Veterans who served there said they believe it’s time to bring the troops home.
“We originally went over to seek revenge for the attacks of 9/11. You can’t say we didn’t put the time in. We’ve been there 20 years,” said Joey Lombardo, 32, of Brecknock Township.
He served two tours there as a Marine tank gunner.
“We’re always going to have the threats of the Taliban. But we have bigger threats to put our resources to,” such as China, he said. “I just don’t know when you call it over. When we were over there, we would clear an area, leave, and the Taliban would just take it over. So, what did we accomplish there?”
Luke Thorsen, 32, of West Lampeter Township, who served in the Army infantry, called the withdrawal bittersweet.
“I saw a lot of fighting, a lot of people killed and injured. But (the area) fell back into Taliban hands. It’s like all of that work we put into it, it was for nothing,” he said. But, also, he said it’s good that the fighting is coming to an end for Americans.
David E. Wood, 57, of Manheim Township, retired in March as brigadier general of the Pennsylvania National Guard and is now an adviser at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
He spent 18 months in Afghanistan in 2003, flying and overseeing aviation combat missions.
“It is probably time for us to come home. However, the United States being the beacon of freedom that I truly believe we are, having some troops (positioned nearby) is maybe not a bad idea to do,” he said. “Obviously, I don’t want to put men and women in harm’s way. The reason you have troops in a foreign country is not to occupy them, but is to protect the freedoms we have in our country and try to spread our freedoms to the rest of the world.”
‘Leave something stable’
Evan Johns, 44, of Lancaster, was awarded the Purple Heart after he was injured when a roadside bomb exploded his mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle.
“I would probably say that if we’re not going to commit to dedicate the amount of troops that we need — because we’ve always been short on troops ... we need to figure out how to leave something stable when we leave. We don’t want to create another power vacuum when we leave. We don’t want to create another ISIS-situation by us not being there anymore. I’m not sure how we do that, but hopefully better minds than mine are on that.”
Earnest Jones, 44, of Lancaster Township, was an Army mortuary affairs specialist. He said it is “definitely past time” to bring the last troops home.
He was deployed to Afghanistan in 2001. He recounted an experience that summed up his feelings on the matter.
One day, Jones said, an older civilian approached him near a market and began yelling.
“He berated me for when the Russians invaded them and where was America to help them,” he said.
The man told him “the Russians didn’t win and we’re not going to win and we just need to leave their country. And I agreed with him,” he said.
“These people over there … they have their way of life and they have a way of doing things and their own type of justice, and we try as Americans to look at it with our eyes, which is not their vision. We have to let them figure it out there,” he said.
“We went over there because of 9/11, but we ended up fighting the whole country. And the whole country wasn’t terrorists but our presence gave other people, other groups, reasons to fight the Americans.”