As Americans commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Utah veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan are not ready to close the book on their involvement in that war-ravaged country.
Instead, weeks after the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, they are reminiscing about their experiences, struggling to make sense of their service and sacrifices, and yearning to write a different, happier final chapter to America’s “longest war.”
From the arrival of conventional ground forces in Afghanistan two decades ago to America’s exit at the end of last month, Utah soldiers have been there and played a prominent role.
Thousands fought, some bled and 28 died during the conflict. Many lost friends and saw carnage they would rather forget. Others watched their marriages crumble and battled to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder on their return.
“All of the veterans you talk to have experienced some kind of loss during their service in Afghanistan,” says Hurricane resident Thearon Crosby, a retired Utah Army National Guard major who served in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007.
For Lt. Col. Matthew Badell, newly retired from the Utah National Guard’s 97th Aviation Troop Command, the losses and sacrifices came quickly after 9/11.
He and his wife, Rose, were en route to California to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends in 2001 when they received the “raging bull call” that notified him he was being activated for duty.
On New Year’s Eve, several days before his deployment to Afghanistan, Family Services of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called to inform the couple there was a 5-day-old baby from Mongolia up for adoption. After trying to have a baby of their own for a decade, the Badells became parents in the space of three hours.
Then, seven days into his deployment in January, Badell’s father died. His mother died the following September.
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” Badell confesses.
Aware of the inherent dangers of combat, Badell hired someone to build a shed in the backyard of his Provo home to store all his personal effects before leaving for Afghanistan.
“I moved everything that was exclusively mine into the shed and locked it,” he says, “so my brother could sort through stuff for Rose if I didn’t come back.”
‘I was freaking out’
Family was also at the forefront for former Utah National Guard Sgt. Ryan Stream during his second deployment to Afghanistan in 2012 as he watched his wife, Elizabeth, give birth to their daughter Nixeon via Skype.
Elizabeth recalls being in the delivery room, hearing what sounded like bombs emanating from the computer the nurse was holding up so Ryan could see and watching the shellshocked doctor, who was listening to the noise and appeared to be in “full-panic mode.”
“It was chaotic,” she says. “… I was freaking out.”
Fortunately, her husband was OK, and her mother was there to calm her.
On another occasion, Ryan was Skyping with Elizabeth when an alarm blared and a mortar landed near his hut. Unbeknownst to him as he raced to a nearby bunker, he had not ended the call. So his wife heard all the screaming and chaotic sounds of the attack and wondered if he had survived.
Ivins resident Taylor Lane, a former Utah National Guard specialist with the 1st Attack/Reconnaissance Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment, was serving at a forward operating base just outside of Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province, when he was served with divorce papers. Two months later, his ex-wife remarried.
“That was really tough,” Lane says.
As painful as his personal setbacks were during his service, the horror stories he heard from Afghans working with the U.S. military helped put things in perspective.
Before the Americans arrived, one Afghan recounted, he had watched helplessly as his wife and two daughters were raped by corrupt leaders. If he intervened, he was warned, he would be killed and his wife and daughters would not only be raped but also killed.
“Whatever our political leaders’ agenda was, I didn’t care after hearing that,” Lane says. “As far as I was concerned, we were helping Afghans and giving them a better life than the one they were born into.”
‘Waiting to get blown up’
A decade later, as a member of the 118th Sapper Company, he learned combat was a lot different than it was portrayed in movies or on television. For starters, it required a superhuman effort to determine exactly who and where the enemy was.
His unit’s mission during his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2010 was to find bombs. Sadly, the bombs often found them first. By his count, about 23 of the 32 soldiers in his platoon were in vehicles struck by improvised explosive devices, some multiple times. One soldier in his unit was killed.
“You would be driving down the road waiting to get blown up,” he recalls. “That’s what it felt like sometimes. We would watch the vehicle in front and behind us get blown up, and then we would look at all the [Afghans] watching us and ask ourselves, ‘OK, who did it?’
“It was incredibly frustrating because you couldn’t shoot at anyone unless you made a positive identification,” he adds. “You’d see dead bodies. You’d see kids with missing arms and legs because they had been playing in the fields and stepped on a land mine. You’d see animals so malnourished you could see their bones, and the kids who were so poor and so dirty, and it would just break you.”
One night the stress became too much for the self-professed tough guy. His lieutenant found him crying outside, and the two chatted for a while to soothe his angst.
While soldiers like Stream fought the Taliban and dodged danger below, Badell directed air assets above. As a battle captain in charge of the Tactical Operations Center at Bagram Airfield north of Kabul, he ensured that every flight — whether it was a Blackhawk or Chinook helicopter delivering mail, troops or supplies — was escorted by an Apache attack chopper.
“The Taliban were fair-weather fighters,” he says. “When [it] got cold, there was a lot less action. They avoided Apache helicopters. We had an intel group tell us once that if the gray helicopters (Army Cobras) showed up, the [Taliban] would keep fighting. If the black helicopters (Apaches) showed up, they hid.”
The Apache aviators’ call sign was “widow maker.”
A Christmas to remember
Another war that ran parallel to the one against the Taliban was the battle to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
Badell was part of a task force that celebrated Christmas in the Afghan village of Jegdalek. After receiving permission from the local mullah, or Islamic religious leader, the soldiers filled several Conex boxes with food, toys, candy and other presents and delivered them to the villagers.
An Army chaplain in attendance also shared the Christmas story and America’s yuletide traditions with the locals, who responded by sharing their traditions, including some Afghan dances.
As the Chinook took off to return to base, Badell remembers looking out the bubble windows on the side of the helicopter and seeing the villagers cheering and holding up an American flag.
When Badell returned to Utah after his deployment, he helped organize the Afghan Orphan Project. Thanks to the nonprofit’s efforts over the past several years, an Afghan boy was able to get heart surgery, a girl underwent eye surgery, and another girl received a prosthetic leg. The charity also paid for her college and a laptop computer.
Coping and comforting
Even after Utah veterans returned home, not all of them left Afghanistan. Some brought psychological wounds back with them.
About 40% of Afghan war veterans returned with PTSD, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs study, and 18% exhibited sub-threshold PTSD.
For Ryan Stream, such statistics add up to more than mere numbers. They are a statistical mirror or self-portrait.
He married Elizabeth just a few months before his second deployment to Afghanistan, this time with the Utah National Guard’s 624th Engineers. When he returned home a year later, his PTSD returned with him.
He was angry and paranoid, keeping a knife between the box springs and the mattress of his bed. He constantly peered out the bedroom curtains looking for intruders.
To cope, he turned to drugs and alcohol, got in scraps with the law and started fighting and was hanging out with friends in bars rather than spending time with his family.
Dreaming of an attack one night, he awoke to find he had a hold on his daughter’s hair. On another occasion, crossing a Provo street during the Fourth of July, someone lit a firecracker and he ducked and dropped an “F-bomb” that was overheard by scores of onlookers.
Unable to cope any longer, Elizabeth decided it was time to leave. She called her parents and asked them to get her and Nixeon. She told Ryan if he wanted a family, he needed to change, and if he didn’t, he needed to let her go.
That was the turning point in Ryan’s life.
Rather than lose his family, he decided to fight to keep it intact. He quit drinking and doing drugs, sought help, and the two have been in counseling ever since. He also resumed playing the piano and writing music — something he did in Afghanistan to relieve his stress — and began drawing on his own combat experiences as an adult and the poverty and homelessness of his childhood to inspire others to overcome the challenges in their lives.
Last February, Ryan ended his service to the National Guard after 14 years.
Today, the Streams, who live in Payson, say their marriage is strong. When Ryan is not working as a coal miner in the Skyline coal mine near Schofield, he is a sought-after motivational speaker and a performer whose appearances and videos have garnered tens of thousands of views on YouTube.
He has also been featured in military and fitness magazines, in newspapers, and on TV news stations and radio talk shows. He recently received the Verizon Wireless Salute Award for America for his service to the community.
His message to youths and others who are struggling to overcome challenges is simple: Rather than get discouraged or give up on their lives, he tells them to press on, make better choices, and write a happier story.
“You are the author of your story,” he says. “The story of your life is a result of the choices you make.”
Writing a new chapter
As Utah’s Afghanistan veterans commemorate 9/11, they are dismayed to see the Taliban back in power. Even if they agree with the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw from the country, they are upset about the way the evacuation was carried out.
They are especially angry about the plight of the interpreters and other Afghans who helped the United States and have been left behind.
Sgt. 1st Class Justin Desimone, a mechanic with the Utah National Guard’s 211th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion who returned from Afghanistan in April, says there are established systems in place on the proper way to leave a country.
“I don’t know why we didn’t follow any of them,” the Lehi resident says. “We just left, which I feel is about the worst possible way to do that … and we set everything back to worse than before we got there.”
Nonetheless, Desimone believes ending America’s involvement was the right thing to do.
“Regardless of when we pulled out, the consequences would have been the same. It’s better to rip the Band-Aid off and pull everyone out of Afghanistan. There’s no need for us to be there,” he says, adding he is not speaking for the U.S. Army.
For his part, Badell believes the mission in Afghanistan could have been salvaged, but he is reluctant to be cast in the role of an armchair quarterback who publicly second-guesses senior political and military leaders.
Thearon Crosby, the retired Utah Army National Guard major who now teaches history and government to troubled youths at the Liahona Academy in Hurricane, shows no such reluctance.
“President [Joe] Biden’s failure in Afghanistan is a national disgrace,” he says “It sullies the memory of all our brave men and women who gave their lives fighting in a foreign land.”
Taylor Lane, who is equally upset at Biden, insists otherwise.
“Biden’s decision doesn’t take away what we did and accomplished,” he says. “Anyone with a decent heart who saw what we did and the difference we made in people’s lives would know that our presence in Afghanistan was a good thing.”
Lane has rebounded since returning after his deployment. He recently remarried. He says his wife, Littia, and her four children are amazing.
Just as he has rebounded, he and other Utah veterans hope Afghans will defy the odds, bounce back and script a better story about their lives and country.
While the last chapter on the ramifications of America’s drama in Afghanistan has not yet been written, one thing is becoming more certain. Ultimately, Afghans themselves will be the authors of their story.