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OPINION

‘The Last Day Some of the Best Ones Die.’

Honoring the veterans of Afghanistan and the sacrifice they made for our country.

This past Memorial Day—the real, meaningful day on May 30th, not the conveniently concocted one for extended picnics—I visited the memorial to Vietnam veterans in Kansas City, which was dedicated in 1985. I had the small plaza all to myself. Like most war memorials, it is a place for contemplation.

Spring 2021 was a special time for me. It was 50 years since I had returned from Vietnam. Of the 387 names on the wall, 21 had been killed in action or died in Vietnam a half-century ago. Who was left to mourn them, I wondered. Surely, virtually all their parents had passed away. Only their siblings, perhaps extremely close friends, and the men with whom they served remembered them long after the war.

As any Vietnam veteran will tell you, his or her war physically ended the day he or she boarded the plane to return home. (The war of personal memory is another thing altogether.) This is how it is in a war of rotation as opposed to one of duration.

I imagine it must be a similar situation for veterans of the Afghanistan War. The last day of their last tour was the physical finale, especially when there was no conclusive end in sight. So how will the last uniformed Americans killed by hostile action in Afghanistan be remembered?

We know how they should be remembered. Tom Flynn, who created the War on Terror Memorial (listing all the names of America’s dead in the ongoing war) in Heritage, PA, put his finger on it. “We can’t forget these people,” he said (1). “Their sacrifices can’t be understood until you’ve learned who they were and where they came from.”

War in Afghanistan.

War in Afghanistan.

FROM FIRST TO LAST

Before speculating, it is instructive to look back on how the first Americans killed in combat in Afghanistan have been treated by society. In short, the respect, recognition, and remembrance paid to them has been outstanding.

CIA Special Operations Group officer Johnny Michael Spann, KIA November 25th, 2001, and Army Special Forces Sgt. 1st Class Nathan H. Chapman, KIA January 4th, 2002, have been honored by documentaries, newspaper/magazine profiles, statues, various memorials, and received burials in pristine national cemeteries.

But that always seems to be the case for the “first” of any war. In researching the first and last killed in 14 American wars, it quickly became evident that public interest wanes as a conflict drags on. Afghanistan serves as no better example.

The Obama-Biden Administration declared America’s combat role in Afghanistan officially over on December 28th, 2014 (2). But no one thought to tell the Taliban, ISIS, or other assorted Islamist terrorist groups in the war zone. So small-arms fire, IEDs, suicide bombers, bombings, and so-called “insider” attacks claimed another 64 American servicemen’s lives by early 2021 (30 more personnel died in non-hostile incidents).

The last hostile American deaths occurred on February 8th, 2020, when a rogue Afghan policeman wielding a machine gun murdered two members of Operational Detachment Alpha, 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group. In military parlance, that is known as “green on blue.” Both men were 28 and had enlisted in the Army in 2009: career soldiers each serving more than a decade in uniform.

Sgt. 1st Class Javier Jaguar Guiterrez was a veteran of the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, in Iraq before he became a Green Beret communications sergeant. He was on his first tour in Afghanistan. “We’re reaping the rewards of his sacrifice with freedom,” his father Javier said. “He took it more as a calling to be in the military. His trait is the loyalty he had to serve this country.”

When Guiterrez’s body was returned to San Antonio, the mayor ordered flags flown at half-staff. He is buried in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. Left behind are his wife, Gabby, and four children.

Sgt. 1st Class Antonio R. Rodriguez served on eight deployments with Delta Company and the Recon Platoon of the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, earning the coveted Combat Infantry Badge. After a stint with the regiment’s Military Intelligence (MI) Battalion, he was assigned to the MI Detachment of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group, as a cryptologic linguist.

“He liked fighting for us and our country,” said Adam Hernandez, his paternal grandfather. “He would volunteer over and over again.” “Rod” is survived by his wife, Ronaleen; they were married less than three years at the time of his death. Hundreds of supporters turned out for his funeral in Las Cruces, NM, where he was born and raised. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

All told, between January 4th, 2002 and February 8th, 2020, 1,897 American military personnel were killed by enemy action in Afghanistan. Another 415 uniformed Americans died from non-hostile causes up through July 12th, 2020, bringing the total to 2,312—coincidentally close to the same number of GIs who died in Vietnam during 1971 (2,349). It is important to note that no uniformed American was killed by an enemy in Afghanistan in the last 1 1/2 years, and no service member has even died there accidentally for more than a year.

War in Afghanistan.

War in Afghanistan.

FEARING A ‘PALE MEMORY’

A nagging fear has always haunted warriors. Tellingly, a book published earlier this year underscores that dread. Marine vet Beau Wise lost two brothers (Ben and Jeremy) killed in action in Afghanistan, a poignant story he tells in the Three Wise Men (2021). He remarked to a reporter that one of his greatest fears is that when all the troops are home that “only a pale memory of those who died” will remain.

Famed Hungarian-American combat photographer Robert Capa, killed by a landmine little more than two months before the French Indochina War ended in 1954, voiced these same sentiments some 75 years ago when he said, “The last day some of the best ones die. But those alive fast forget.”

Let us hope that this prediction does not come true regarding Jaguar Guiterrez and “Rod” Rodriguez, along with all the other Americans who sacrificed their lives in far-off Afghanistan in the wake of September 11th, 2001.

Americans have an obligation to get to know them and where they came from, and the sacrifice they made for our country.

CITED MATERIALS

1 “Memorializing War’s Dead,” in War in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 (2015): p. 1. A special print issue of Veterans of Foreign Wars.

2 “America’s War in Afghanistan ‘Closed’,” in War in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 (2015): p. 64. A special print issue of Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Written By:

Richard K. Kolb was publisher and editor-in-chief of VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) magazine for 27 years (1989-2016). VFW reports extensively on the war and its veterans. Richard accompanied U.S. troops in the field in Afghanistan in May 2010, is a Vietnam veteran, and is the editor and the primary contributing author of Brutal Battles of Vietnam: America's Deadliest Days, 1965-1972 (2017).