The end, in their sights

THE END,
IN THEIR SIGHTS

As the war in Afghanistan wanes, troops deploying for
a final combat tour still have a long way to go

Published on November 22, 2014

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — To get to a place where the Afghanistan war is something not yet forgotten, drive from civilian America onto this 164-square-mile military base. Pass the armed guards who check for military identification and the four-story Warrior Transition building that houses wounded soldiers, and keep going into one of the base’s residential neighborhoods of identical two-story houses.

Inside one of those homes, Lt. Col. Chris Hossfeld is in the family room reviewing a video from his first combat tour 10 years ago.

AFTER THE WARS:

This is the eighth story in a multi-part series examining the effects of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars on the 2.6 million American troops who served and fought. Find the full results of a nationwide survey of active-duty troops and veterans here.

“Watch right there,” he says, pointing at a sandbagged window on the second floor of his old combat outpost in Iraq. There’s a spurt of gunfire from the spot where one of Hossfeld’s soldiers, Pfc. Oscar Sanchez, 19, was standing guard duty. A split second later a dump truck, containing more than 1,500 pounds of explosives and speeding toward the outpost, disappears in a fireball. The blast sheared off the building’s front, wounded 11 Americans, and killed Sanchez, the first of Hossfeld’s troops to die in combat.

ABOVE:
U.S. Army soldiers board a plane for a deployment to Afghanistan from Fort Campbell, Ky.

That was the war in 2004. Now, in a few days, Hossfeld, 41, will be going to war again, this time in command of a 700-soldier battalion headed to Afghanistan. In much of America, the war in Afghanistan may be regarded as over, if it’s thought of at all. But to Hossfeld and his soldiers, who are likely to be among the last to deploy to the country on a combat mission, the war is very much ongoing and present tense.

They will be entering a fight that’s very different from the one captured on the video. That was President Bush’s war, launched three weeks after the 9/11 attacks, when what would turn into 13 years of war — with nearly 7,000 American deaths, 60,000 injuries and a cost in excess of $2 trillion — was just beginning.

“To all the men and women in our military,” Bush said from the White House as the first American bombs fell on Afghanistan, “your mission is defined. The objectives are clear. Your goal is just. You have my full confidence, and you will have every tool you need to carry out your duty.”

Now as Hossfeld prepares to leave for Afghanistan, he’s fighting for a different commander-in-chief with a different focus: ending a war rather than beginning one. President Obama has set hard limits on U.S. troop levels and a firm timeline for the withdrawal of the remaining American forces. Obama’s effort to constrain his military’s ambitions reflects his own doubts about whether the mission is worth any more American lives. “He’s thinking very hard about what it would feel like to have casualties in Afghanistan next year,” said a senior White House official involved in Afghanistan policy. “He’s thinking about this more than anyone else in the debate. He’s considering what he would feel like.”

With his deployment just days away, Hossfeld has his own questions: What exactly will his men be doing? How long will they stay? Will one of his soldiers be the war’s last casualty? How different will this last deployment be from his first one?

“It was a gut fight,” said Hossfeld of that first combat tour. “That was a visceral thing that soldiers could grasp. It was easier for soldiers to truly identify the problem. They could see their demons. It was either him or me.”

Lt. Col. Chris Hossfeld’s dog, Lily, lays next to his packed bags.
Hossfeld meets with members of his battalion at Fort Campbell, Ky. to go over last-minute details before their departure to Afghanistan.

After that tour, each of Hossfeld’s soldiers was given a card listing the brigade’s “Victories in Iraq”: The unit had killed more than 550 enemy fighters, uncovered 233 weapons caches, built a 9,000-man police force and rescued nine kidnap victims.

A few months ago when Mosul, the city where Hossfeld’s men had fought and bled, fell to Islamic insurgents, he noticed several of his soldiers posting photos of the card on their Facebook pages. “It became something they could hold onto,” Hossfeld said of the card. “Something that showed it was worth it.”

What kinds of cards will he be able to offer his men when they leave Afghanistan? He knows their success won’t be measured in enemies killed or kidnap victims rescued. “Now it’s something bigger than us fighting and winning. That doesn’t matter,” he said. “It is up to the Afghan forces. . . . What does winning look like? It’s difficult right now to truly define it.”

A deploying soldier passes a portrait of President Obama, who has pledged to end a war begun 13 years ago by President Bush.

All across the battalion, Hossfeld’s soldiers are having their own versions of a pre-deployment conversation as they prepare to head to war. At a restaurant, Spec. Eduardo Perez enjoys a last American meal of beer and wings with friends. While Hossfeld worries about how to explain the mission and inspire his men, Perez’s concerns are more basic. What he wants with a 20-year-old’s mix of invincibility and naiveté is to see some combat; experience a real firefight.

“You excited?” he asks his friend.

“Yeah, I’m nervous” says Spec. Caleb McKinnon, 23, who deployed last year to Afghanistan. “You are stupid if you aren’t a little scared. You guys will love it. It’s the only time we get to do our job.”

“Better than cleaning bathrooms on post,” adds a third soldier.

A few years ago a platoon of infantry soldiers in Afghanistan would most likely be sent to a small outpost where they would be guaranteed to see combat. Now all of those places are closed, and U.S. troops are mostly consolidated on sprawling bases surrounded by acres of empty desert, high concrete walls and spools of razor wire.

“At those big bases, it’s is like an orgy every night,” McKinnon says.

“Are we even allowed to make out with chicks over there?” asks Perez.

“They sell condoms in the PX if that says anything to you,” McKinnon says.

Perez picks at his basket of fried mushrooms and glances at the television. He and his fellow soldiers are bound for Kandahar Airfield, a massive logistical hub where troops could dine on Burger King, KFC and TGI Fridays and go an entire tour without ever talking to an Afghan.

“I was trying to learn a little Pashto last night,” Perez says.

“You don’t even need it,” McKinnon replies. “Just yelling does the trick.”

“In English?” asks Perez skeptically.

“Yeah, English is like their second language,” McKinnon says.

Perez, the only member of the group who is too young to drink, fiddles with the straw in his soda. He’d enlisted two years ago as a combat medic because there were no slots available in the infantry, and the recruiter assured him that the job would put him in the middle of the war.

“I really hope we don’t do a lot of route clearance,” he says. “I hope we do something else. I don’t want to do guard towers, either.”

He catches the eye of McKinnon’s wife who is massaging the back of her husband’s neck.

“Don’t worry, I got McKinnon,” Perez says. “He’s coming back. I don’t know if he’ll have all his limbs or not, but he’s coming back.”

The waiter brings the bill, and the soldiers, having already cleaned out their refrigerators at home, pack up their leftover food to eat for breakfast. Perez pauses to think about where he’s headed. What kind of war has Burger Kings, orgies and IEDs? “I really want to see the sandstorms over there,” he says. “We get them in Phoenix, but I bet they’re a lot bigger over there.”

Caleb McKinnon

Spec. Caleb McKinnon says goodbye to his wife, Savannah McKinnon.

Not far from the restaurant, three sergeants, with a combined 12 combat tours among them, have gathered in the Bravo Co. headquarters.

"My wife made me go to marriage counseling last night, because I am that much of an ass,” says Sgt. Vernon Morrison, 31, who is headed out on his fourth tour.

“My wife made me go to freaking hypnosis,” says Sgt. 1st Class Angelo Fazio, 35, who is about to do tour No. 3.

The 700 soldiers in Hossfeld’s battalion are pretty typical of an Army wrapping up the longest stretch of war in American history. More than half are combat veterans. Two dozen have Purple Hearts and 15 wear awards for valorous actions — enemies killed or colleagues rescued under fire. Then there are the events that don’t show up in the personnel files: divorces, strained marriages and year after year of discussions about leaving home.

“My wife’s way is to push me away right before a deployment,” Fazio says.

“They figure it’s easier to say goodbye when they’re pissed at you,” says Staff Sgt. Carter Martinelli, 34, for whom this will be the fifth deployment.

“It’s a toughening phase for them,” Fazio says. “This is their train-up.”

Just outside Fazio’s office, the soldiers are picking up their anti-malarial pills. Fazio calls them together one last time and urges them to rest up, spend time with their families and get ready for war. “When it’s time to cut the cord, it’s time to cut the cord,” he says. “Then we’ll go do what we have to do.”

U.S. soldiers wait in line for the planes that will take them to Afghanistan.

His dinner with friends finished, Perez climbs the barracks stairs, past windows smashed by drunken soldiers who left for Afghanistan a few days earlier.

He pushes open the door to his room. The few possessions of his that remain are headed with him to combat. There’s an Army uniform, balled up on the floor, a gray sleeping bag on a bare mattress, his laptop, boots and running shoes. His black medical bag containing pressure bandages, catheters, trauma shears and tourniquets sits in the middle of the floor.

So far the sum total of Perez’s actual medical experience consists of working on live animal tissue, passing out Benadryl during allergy season and administering IVs to friends hung over after a night of heavy drinking. Alone in his room, his thoughts drift. What will happen if McKinnon loses a limb? What will happen if a roadside bomb wounds several of his friends at once and he has to decide who will get immediate treatment and who will have to wait?

Photo gallery

Click to see more photos from Fort Campbell. | Spec. Eduardo Perez sits alone in his room after telephoning his family to say goodbye.

He dials his father, who has just finished his shift at a construction site and is waiting to pick up Perez’s younger sister from her after-school job. “What did you have for dinner?” his father asks. “You didn’t eat pizza again?”

“Hot wings,” Perez says.

“Spicy food messes up my stomach,” says his father.

“That’s because you’re an old man,” Perez replies.

The car door slams and Perez’s sister grabs the phone. They’re driving through late afternoon Phoenix traffic headed for home. Soon Perez can hear a siren wailing in the background. “That’s our neighborhood,” he says under his breath.

“How long is your flight?” his sister asks.

“I don’t know. Long,” Perez says. “We fly to Maine to get gas and then we go to Romania or something. But it’s not like we get to see it.”

“At least you can say you were in Romania,” his sister says.

“In the terminal,” Perez replies.

“What does winning look like? It’s difficult right now to truly define it.”

—Lt. Col. Chris Hossfeld

He hears his sister walking through their house and handing the phone to their mother, who tells him, “I’ve been looking at pictures of you when you were little.”

“Why?” Perez says. “That’s just going to make you sad.”

There’s a long silence. Perez hunches over in his chair.

“Don’t be sad,” he says.

“Take care wherever you go,” his mother replies.

“Always.”

“I’ll be praying for you every day,” she says.

Perez hangs up the phone and glances down at his black medical bag. What will he do if McKinnon loses a limb? What if nobody does? What if he gets to Afghanistan and there’s no war left for him at all?

Pfc. Derry Long, right, embraces his girlfriend, Payton Gillick, as he prepares to board a plane for Afghanistan, part of a 700-soldier battalion that will help end U.S. combat operations there.

Just a few hours left until Hossfeld boards a plane to Afghanistan with his troops. He moves through one of his battalion’s arms rooms, which at the moment is packed with soldiers, spouses, girlfriends, children and a few dogs.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of him,” he tells a young woman who is flashing a new engagement ring.

Hossfeld, his wife and two teenage daughters retreat to his office for a few quiet moments. He adjusts the strap on his rifle and shoots a worried glance at his 15-year-old who is bent over in a chair watching a video on her phone. She’s barely taken her eyes of the screen since they left the house almost an hour earlier. He taps her on the shoulder and she pulls out one of her ear buds.

“Why is that robot wearing a loin cloth?” he asks.

“It’s not a robot,” she says, “It’s a suit of armor.”

Before Hossfeld can reply, she pops the ear bud back in and returns to the screen. “It’s easier for her to be in her own world,” Hossfeld tells his wife, who gives him a tight smile.

Hossfeld has reserved a brightly lit dining hall for the soldiers to wait with their families until it’s time to board the buses for the airfield. Most, however, drift outside, where the misty night offers an extra measure of privacy.

Inside the dining hall, Hossfeld hugs his daughters, kisses his wife and slings his rifle across his chest. His girls are starting to cry, so he hugs them again. This time the butt of his M4 hits his younger daughter on the forehead. “A welt to remember me by,” he says.

He walks through the rain, past his troops who are saying their final goodbyes and stands with his sergeant major in front of the brigade headquarters, where four stone slabs bear the names of the 78 soldiers from the brigade who have died over the past 13 years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Ladies and gentleman, we’ve got five minutes,” a voice calls.

As he flew off on his first tour, Hossfeld wondered how he and his soldiers would react when they came under enemy fire. Would instinct and training take over that first time? Would his men freeze up? Would he?

Now he’s headed off on his fourth tour and his uncertainties are those having to do with a war in which bases are being shuttered, equipment is being sent home and the size of the American force is shrinking by the day.

Hossfeld wonders where his troops will go in the coming months, and whether the war’s outcome, increasingly in the hands of a struggling Afghan government, will be worthy of his soldiers’ sacrifices.

Only a few minutes left now. The soldiers are rising from their chairs, heaving rucksacks on their backs and lining up to board the plane. Hossfeld closes his eyes, bows his head and prays silently that his soldiers will all come back whole, looking as they do right now.

Outside the plane’s engines roar. He moves to the front of the line, and leans forward onto the balls of his feet. “Well, it’s actually going to happen,” Hossfeld says. He had said something similar 10 years before. But this time, he leads his men across the rain-slicked tarmac, onto the plane, and into a war where the only certainty is that they are heading off to end it, whatever that will mean.

Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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A multi-part series examining the effects of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars on the 2.6 million American troops who served and fought.