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Afghan War Still Alive For San Diego Family

Pam and Pat O'Donohoe, parents of Justin O'Donohoe, talk about the death of t...

Photo by Steve Walsh

Above: Pam and Pat O'Donohoe, parents of Justin O'Donohoe, talk about the death of their son at their home in San Diego, Calif. June 29, 2021.

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Looking back at two decades of war, some San Diego families are not able to turn the page as the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan.

Aired: July 14, 2021 | Transcript

As U.S. troops continue pulling out of Afghanistan, time has not healed all wounds for some families who lost loved ones years ago in the war.

Justin O'Donohoe died more than a decade ago. He was 24 years old when he enlisted in the army. He had already graduated college. His parents, Pam and Pat O'Donohoe, still have his pickup truck out front. They drove it home to San Diego after visiting him at Fort Drum, just before he deployed to Afghanistan in 2006.

Listen to this story by Steve Walsh.

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“We took him out to dinner at his favorite Chinese restaurant, which he loved, and that was the last time we saw him live,” Pat O’Donohoe said.

It’s been 15 years since Justin died in a fiery helicopter crash on a mountainside in Kunar province, along with nine other soldiers.

“Fathers aren’t supposed to bury children. There is no closure for that. There is an internal kernel of you that is still filled with grief,” he said.

Justin O'Donohoe was a cavalry scout with the 10th Mountain Division, from Fort Drum, New York. On May 6, his platoon was on a mountain, at night, near the Pakistan border. One of Justin’s platoon mates, Nick Pilozzi, says the landing zone was only large enough for the giant Chinook’s rear wheels to touch down. On the third try, the rear rotor struck a treetop.

“It just tumbled and exploded. It was just mass, mass carnage basically,” Pilozzi said.

They were part of Operation Mountain Lion. The goal was to retake territory captured by Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

“It was so hot that we couldn’t get down there. We ended up yelling ,'if you’re hurt and alive, move or make a sound, something, and we’re going to come down and get you,'” he said.

The next morning the survivors went down to recover the bodies. Pilozzi was injured after he was knocked out of the helicopter during an earlier attempt to land.

“It was about 9/11 ... but at this point, I don’t know what it’s about,” he said.

Pilozzi left the Army after that first 18-month deployment. He now lives on a farm in upstate New York, near where he grew up.

“The damage that comes from this is unbelievable. None of these families are going to be the same after this,” Pilozzi said.

Justin left one last voicemail before heading into the mountains in Afghanistan, just to tell his parents he was OK. He tells them he’ll call them later before hanging up. His father keeps a copy of the message on their home computer.

The O’Donohoe’s are a military family. Justin’s father spent his career in the Navy. His brother Kyle is a Navy pilot.

Pam says some days are harder than others.

“I don’t agree with the war,” she said. “I think a lot of people, a lot of boys, got killed for no reason. We didn’t win anything. For anybody. Why were we there? I don’t know anymore.”

The O’Donohoe’s sit around the same dining room table where Army officers sat to tell them the findings of the crash nearly 15 years ago.

“When all was said and done, the helicopter crashed and our son still died,” Pat said.

The Army ruled the crash an accident. A heavily redacted copy of the safety investigation says two sergeants told their leadership they considered the night landing high risk and didn’t understand why it was being attempted. That night, the flight was delayed eight minutes while the helicopter crew waited for a high-wind warning to expire. Witnesses describe the CH-47 Chinook making three attempts to land from different angles.

On one attempt, the pilots may have seen sparks from a burn pit and pulled up when they thought they were under fire. The day before the landing, the unit on the ground attempted to cut down trees to clear more space to land, but they didn’t have an axe or saw. Instead, they tried unsuccessfully to use their knives.

Pictures show the helicopter’s rear rotor sheared off the top of a tree at the back of the small landing area. The pilots pulled up, flipped and then the helicopter fell down the mountainside. This was the first of several pickups, so the helicopter was filled with fuel when it exploded.

Ten people died in the crash, including Justin O’Donohoe, commander of 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division Lt. Col. Joseph J. Fenty, Pfc. Brian M. Moquin Jr., Spc. David N. Timmons Jr., Sgt. Jeffery S. Wiekamp, Sgt. John C. Griffith, Sgt. Bryan A. Brewster, Staff Sgt. Christopher T. Howick, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christopher B. Donaldson and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Eric W. Totten.

The Army did not release the results of its investigation. If any changes were made after the crash, the O’Donohoe’s were not told. Regardless, the effective end of the war in Afghanistan doesn’t offer any solace to the O’Donohoe’s.

“You move on with the rest of your life and you don't forget, you don't ignore, you don't let it slide by,” Pat said. “It's more of a compartmentalization. I have a compartment in me that's Justin.”

America has never had a conflict that stretched on for so long that parents of fallen soldiers were still watching the war on TV long after their children died. As the Afghan war finally comes to an end, Pam and Pat O’Donohoe are moving forward, without moving on.

Reported by Steve Walsh , Video by Steve Walsh

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.

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Photo of Steve Walsh

Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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