Utah National Guard member killed, 11 others injured in Afghanistan mission fighting Islamic State

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah National Guard soldiers concluded the 2017 State Inaugural Ceremony for Gov. Gary R. Herbert, January 4, 2017 with a 19-gun salute at the Utah State Capitol.

A member of the Utah National Guard was killed and at least 11 others were injured Wednesday during a mission battling Islamic State loyalists in eastern Afghanistan.

An unspecified number of Utah Guard members were working alongside members of the Afghan army on a ground mission fighting the Islamic State affiliate in the region, officials said. 

The wounded personnel were evacuated for treatment. As next-of-kin notifications continued Wednesday evening, few details were being released — including identities, which unit the members were from, or exactly where they were operating.

Officials said they would provide more information at a Thursday morning news conference; it is possible the tally of those injured would rise, they added. 

This is the first Utah National Guard member killed in combat since 2010.

“My heart aches for the loss and sacrifice of our members and their families,” Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, adjutant general of the Utah National Guard, said in a news release. “I know that what we do is dangerous and important work for our country’s defense, but this realization does little to console me during times of loss such as this.”

Burton said Wednesday night that he was still trying to learn the conditions of the injured Guard members who were evacuated to an Afghanistan field hospital. 

The Utah National Guard has more than 130 members operating in the Afghanistan region, he said. 

The last time a Utah service member was killed in combat was in 2013, when 21-year-old Army medic Pfc. Cody Towse, of Salem, was the victim of an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

The last Utah National Guard soldier to be killed in action was Sgt. 1st Class James Thode, a 45-year-old police sergeant from Farmington, N.M., who died in 2010 from a roadside bomb. His unit was clearing land mines in Afghanistan’s Khowst province. 

Neither the Pentagon nor the Utah National Guard identified the unit to which the soldiers injured and killed Wednesday belong. But in recent years, the Utah National Guard’s 19th Special Forces Group has been repeatedly deployed to Afghanistan to fight alongside that country’s military. In January 2016, a unit from the 19th Special Forces Group, based at Camp Williams in Bluffdale, was in a battle that killed a soldier from Washington.

Eleven U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan this year, up from 10 in 2016.

The Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan is known as Khorasan, or ISIS-K — a branch of the terrorist organization’s primary base in Iraq and Syria. Afghan and U.S. forces launched a major offensive against ISIS-K in March, according to the Department of Defense. In April and July, American airstrikes killed several of the group’s leaders.

About 14,000 U.S. and NATO troops remain in Afghanistan after nearly 16 years there.

Wednesday’s fatality is a somber reminder to the American public of the U.S.’s continued involvement in Afghanistan, Burton said, and ”just how dangerous the business we’re in is.”