Afghan War Still Alive For San Diego Family
Speaker 1: 00:00 For many in the public Afghanistan was America's back burner war far away, often overshadowed by war in Iraq. As us troops continue pulling out the survivors of a fiery helicopter crash. 15 years ago that killed 10 soldiers say time does not heal all wounds, KPBS, military reporter, Steve Walsh has the story Speaker 2: 00:25 Just to know Donahoe was 24 years old. When he enlisted in the army, he had already graduated college. His parents, pat and Pam 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. And Speaker 3: 00:41 We took him out to dinner at his favorite Chinese restaurant, which he loved. And that was the last time we saw him live. Speaker 2: 00:49 It's been 15 years since Justin died in a fiery helicopter crash on a mountain side in Coonara province, along with nine other soldiers, Speaker 3: 00:58 Fathers aren't supposed to bury children. There is no closure for that. There is a, a internal kernel of you that is still filled with grief. Speaker 2: 01:13 Justin O'Donoghue was a cavalry scout with the 10th mountain division. His platoon was on a mountain at night near the Pakistani border. One of Justin's platoon mates. Nick Pelosi says the landing zone was only large enough for the giant Chinooks rear wheels to touch down on the third, try the rear rotors struck a tree top and it just tumbled and exploded. And it was a mass mass current as basically they had been in the field for weeks. 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 in there. So we're yelling if you're hurt and you're still alive, you know, move or make a song, something, and we'll, we're going to come down and get you in the morning. The survivors came down to recover. The bodies Polozi was injured after he was knocked out of the helicopter during an earlier attempt to land. I mean, it was about nine 11. And at this point, I don't really know. I don't really know what that's about. Polozi left the army after that first 18 month deployment. He's now living on a farm in upstate New York, near where he grew up. The damage that comes from this stuff is unbelievable. You know, none of these families are ever going to be the same after this. Speaker 2: 02:46 Justin left one last voicemail before heading into the mountains in Afghanistan, just to tell his parents, he was okay. They were a military family. Justin's father spent his career in the Navy, his brother, Kyle, a Navy pilot, Donna Ho's mother, Pam says some days are harder than others. Speaker 4: 03:05 I don't, I don't agree with the war because I think a lot of kids, a lot of boys got killed for no reason. We didn't win anything for anyone. You know, why were we there? I don't know anymore. Speaker 2: 03:24 The O'Donnell house sat around the same dining room table where army officers sat to tell them the findings of the crash nearly 15 years ago, Speaker 3: 03:32 When all is said and done the helicopter still Christ and our sons still died. Speaker 2: 03:36 The army rule, the crash and accident. I heavily redacted copy of the crash reports. As two sergeants told their leadership that they considered the night landing high risk and didn't understand why it was being attempted. Regardless. The effective end of the war in Afghanistan doesn't offer any solace to the O'Donnell hoes, Speaker 3: 03:54 Move on with the rest of your, your life. And you don't forget, you don't ignore you. Don't let it slide by. I have a compartment in me that's Justin Speaker 2: 04:06 America has never had a conflict that's stretched on for so long that the parents of fallen soldiers were still watching the war on TV long after their children had died. As the Afghan war finally comes to an end, Pam and pedo Donahoe are moving forward without moving on. Speaker 1: 04:26 Joining me is KPBS, military reporters, Steve Walsh, and Steve welcome. Speaker 5: 04:32 I'm Maureen. Speaker 1: 04:33 Now the sacrifice of this family and the Afghan war is part of two decades of us casualties in that country. More than 2300 us military personnel have been killed. And yet, as you say, this has been America's back burner war. Why do you think that is? Speaker 2: 04:52 Well, you can make the case that Afghanistan stopped being at the forefront of public attention, right after the invasion of Iraq. In 2003, you look at all the publicity surrounding the departure over the last few weeks. You know, I'm watching this a bit more closely, so I can see some of the benchmarks as the U S starts to pull out. You know, we have a largely left Afghanistan already, but you're not really seeing, um, these stories making, you know, the top headlines, uh, you know, some of that is the Biden administration. They're not looking for that mission accomplished moment. They're more interested. It seems to not Telegraph their moves so they can avoid a confrontation with the Taliban. On the way out. Speaker 1: 05:36 One of the soldiers you spoke to in your feature says the war used to be about nine 11, then he didn't know what it was about. And that questioning about the purpose of the war is shared by Justin's parents. Wasn't it? Yeah. Speaker 2: 05:50 Justin's mother, especially. She really didn't understand why we had been there for so long and had the most difficult time in trying to explain that, um, his father had very similar, had a very similar viewpoint, even though he's, uh, he had a military career himself in the Navy and was a civilian contractor. In fact, he even did a crash investigations as part of his job, so he could understand what had happened to his son, but it's, you know, it's especially hard to explain the more after the seal team killed Osama bin Ladin back in 2011, there's just a sense that nothing really changed. Long-term, you know, we honor the sacrifice that, uh, these men and women made for our country and for their comrades. But overall, the goal seemed kind of murky Speaker 1: 06:38 This week. The top general in Afghanistan stepped down and that's apparently a signal of the end of the war. Can you tell us about that? Oh yeah. Monday Speaker 2: 06:47 General Austin Miller stepped down as the commander of the American led forces in Afghanistan. They had a change of command ceremony in Cabo, which effectively ended the us war in Afghanistan after 20 years. You know, we have largely left already except for a small force, which remains mainly to protect the embassy in our residual forest. That's basically handing off control to Turkish forces, but you know, after 20 years, this is not the top story this week, even though, you know, for the most part, the war is over and, and don't expect any big homecoming parades. This will most likely be a very quiet end to America's longest war. Speaker 1: 07:26 And since the war in Afghanistan lasted a generation, I wonder if the end of the war is having as big an impact as you might think it would on camp Pendleton. You know, so many young Marines were barely born when this war started. Speaker 2: 07:42 I'm always told that, you know, the Marines are, um, are the youngest fighting force. So most of the people who fought in Iraq in Afghanistan, um, they're either at the very end of their careers or they've they've left long ago, I've been told by a us Marine headquarters that there are no Marines who are part of the remaining troops. So that means no one from camp Pendleton or, or 29 palms are left on the ground. So, you know, I'm going to be sitting down with members of the dark horse battalion, which spent seven months in, in Helmand province in Afghanistan. They will go down as having the highest number of casualties of any American unit during this war, you know, 34 Marines lost limbs. And they're living with the legacy of a co this conflict in, and they'll be living with it for the rest of their lives. Their injuries though, did drive a revolution in prosthetics. So I'm really actually looking forward to sitting down with them and talking with them and, you know, really getting a sense from them of what, uh, what their understanding is of the war. Speaker 1: 08:44 The U S okay is gone, but our stated enemy, the Taliban remains is the Taliban part of a new Afghan government. Speaker 2: 08:54 Well, you know, we think we forget that talks are still ongoing with the us and the telephone and the Afghan government it's been described as a slow growing, even by optimists. Um, you know, many observers say the Taliban is just waiting for the U S departure. They've already taken wide swaths of the country. The Biden administration said that they, uh, they're confident that the Afghan government will hold its, uh, at least at the population centers around Cabo. But you know, we'll see when you spoke Speaker 1: 09:23 With Justin's family, the Donna hos, did you get the sense that they were glad the Afghan war is finally over Speaker 2: 09:31 Well for them and for everyone else who lost a loved one in that more, it does not bring back back their son or daughter, you know, it doesn't bring back their son or any of the people who died in that crash that day back in 2006 Justin's dad talks about there being no such thing as closure. When you lose a son, it was clear that they, uh, they haven't been able been able to describe the purpose behind this war for a very long time. Um, they seem relieved that it's over, but it, it really, it doesn't really end the pain that they will take with them for the rest of their lives. Speaker 1: 10:08 I've been speaking with KPBS, military reporter, Steve Walsh, and Steve. Thank you. Thanks Maureen.