There are soldiers who weren’t even born when we went to war with terrorists in Afghanistan, referred to as Operation Enduring Freedom. (OEF).
Eighteen years and trillions of dollars later, military members are still fighting America’s longest war.
By coincidence, my son left on his third deployment on OEF’s birthday, Oct. 7.
He is spending Veterans Day and the next eight months in Afghanistan.
Veterans Day Nov. 11 has special meaning for this soldier’s mom. My daughter is an Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan. Her older brother is still serving active duty, currently at Ft. Drum, New York. Both are White Bear grads. When our son was ordered to Afghanistan to command a medevac company, he left behind an understanding wife, also an Army veteran, and our 2-year-old granddaughter. He knew it was his turn to go to that wretched country and didn’t complain. He is resigned to deployment, knowing it’s part of the service and duty to country he swore to uphold.
We talked about the nine-month deployment before he left, how he felt about being away, again. He spent a nine-month deployment in Qatar only the year before, missing his daughter’s second birthday. Let’s see, this time he’ll miss her third, plus Thanksgiving and Christmas.
He is following in the footsteps of 775,000 other Americans who’ve served at least one tour in Afghanistan since Oct. 7, 2001, when U.S. troops first arrived to battle al-Qaeda after 9-11.
This deployment isn’t as hairy as his first, when he was in the thick of things in Helmand Province. People would ask me then if I was worried? I would always answer, “yes, but it’s out of my hands.”
So far this year, the defense department reports 17 American service members have been killed in Afghanistan, the deadliest year for U.S. forces since the combat mission officially ended in December 2014. Most of the 14,000 U.S. forces there now serve in a NATO-led mission to advise and assist security forces in their fight against the Taliban and ISIS affiliates.
It is mostly Afghan soldiers that medevac units support nowadays, although the Blackhawks are on call 24/7 for any type of emergency.
“Is it scary,” I ask, “flying missions at night? ‘Sometimes,’” he replies, especially during the new moon when there is zero illumination — referred to as “red illum” — leaving the country in near total darkness. Even night vision goggles can’t cut through the blackness. He started to describe a particular mission last month flying the Hindu Kush mountain range at night, but stopped. He didn’t want to say something that would cause me angst. I know that so I let it slide. The danger isn’t lost on me.
I am proud of my children and their willingness to serve, as I am of every military member. I hope people remember that Freedom isn’t Free on Veterans Day, and the personal sacrifice made by less than 1% of our population.
President Donald Trump issued a proclamation last Friday declaring all of November as a month to honor American veterans and military families. In his Nov. 1 message, the country’s chief executive urged communities to “honor the service, sacrifices and contributions of veterans and military families for what they have done and for what they do every day to support our great nation.”
Veterans Day has another meaning for me. Nov. 11 also happens to be our son’s birthday.
We all chipped in to buy him a fancy expresso machine as a gift. To my surprise, Amazon conveniently ships to Bagram Airfield — who knew? His flight crews bemoaned the fact the group they replaced packed up their machine and took it home, so we agreed to replace it. Providing these dedicated soldiers the perfect latte is the least we can do.
In honor of Veterans Day, I’d like to say Happy Birthday Eric. Please stay safe.
Debra Neutkens is editor of the White Bear Press.