He had just returned from one of the war’s most terrifying corners to a base that has shouldered much of the U.S. troop surge. In the past 18 months, more than 20,000 Fort Campbell soldiers have cycled through Afghanistan; 131 have been killed.
Nunez, 21, who spent about a year in Konar province near the Pakistani border, cared little that the commander in chief had declared Wednesday night that the “tide of war is receding.” He and his friends, some of the country’s youngest war veterans, have little interest in military policy anymore. Not after Konar.
The last mission is what did it. Nunez’s regiment fought for days in early April to win control of a remote valley called Barawala Kalay. Six U.S. soldiers died, and Nunez still can’t figure out why he wasn’t one of them. Bullets came from nowhere, hitting everything but his flesh.
“It was like fighting ghosts,” he said.
When Obama outlined the beginning of the end of America’s longest war — a phased withdrawal, a handoff to Afghan security forces, negotiations with the Taliban — television screens lit up at the base. In the strip of towns orbiting Fort Campbell, the 100,000-acre base straddling the Kentucky-Tennessee border, reactions came quickly. The withdrawal was too slow, or too fast, or right on the money, depending on the soldier.
Nunez, and many of the men he fought with in Konar, had no interest in joining that debate. When Obama stood in the White House’s East Room, they played video games, watched the College World Series or slept. Nunez, a broad-shouldered, square-jawed soldier from Southern California, went to the gym.
He had joined the Army in 2008, ready to see what war was like after talking to friends who had returned from Iraq. But when he enlisted, resources began shifting. Fort Campbell found itself at the crossroads of two wars, and not much later, Nunez found himself in Konar.
When Obama announced that he was adding 30,000 troops to the effort in Afghanistan — the surge ended up deploying 33,000 — U.S. commanders chose not to send any of them to Konar, a remote and violent area. Instead, commanders focused on pacifying larger population centers in the south.
But as insurgents flourished in valleys near Pakistan, brigades from Fort Campbell’s 101st Airborne Division, which saw its first combat during the invasion of Normandy in World War II, fought some of the Afghanistan war’s bloodiest battles along the hostile eastern spine, in places they never planned to hold.
Days after Nunez’s regiment fought in the battle for Barawala Kalay, U.S. troops emptied out of the valley. The mission was to disrupt a Taliban haven, not to maintain a presence there. Nunez’s tour was up. He flew back to Fort Campbell puzzling over the strategy.