Afghanistan takes its toll on WNC families

November 29, 2010 Asheville Citizen Times
War claims lives of six local men

By Jon Ostendorff
They call it “Enemy Central.”

Life for U.S. troops in Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan is dangerous on a good day and hell on a bad one.

This is where Osama bin Laden fled minutes after the Sept. 11 attacks. It is where suicide bombers kill American civilians and where rockets take down troop-filled Chinook choppers.

The province also is where 19-year-old Army Pfc. Kade Warriner, of Mills River, died in a firefight two weeks ago today. And it is where a roadside bomb killed Staff Sgt. Joe Ray of Asheville and Sgt. Kevin Akins of Burnsville four years ago.

Today, as families end their holiday weekend and Afghanistan is relegated to background noise on the evening news, troops along the border with Pakistan will shoulder into a rocky ravine as bullets crack into the dust around them.

They'll fire mortars to roust a sniper from a hiding spot. They'll load the wounded into a helicopter.

That's life in Kunar province — one of the most dangerous places on the planet.

“He told me how hostile the area was,” said Mike Warriner, Kade Warriner's grandfather. “Even the kids. You always think of the kids being decent and you give them chocolate. But even the kids would try to steal from them. He understood the villagers were caught in the middle. He said it was a very awkward place.”

Operation Bulldog Bite

The military has released few details about the firefight that killed Warriner and five others in his unit. His family last week had yet to receive the official letter from the Army, though Warriner was posthumously award the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

His grandfather said the battle is still under investigation.

What is known is that Warriner was part of a push designed to rout insurgents from the Pech River Valley.

Operation Bulldog Bite used nighttime air assaults on small mountain villages in the region. The surprise attack was aimed at neutralizing remote areas that the Taliban had used as sanctuaries.

The dead and wounded lay on the ground for six hours on Nov. 14 because the shooting was too intense to fly them out.

Maj. Gen. John Campbell, commander of the 101st, said the operation hit the Taliban hard.

Troops found weapons caches containing mortar systems with rounds, more than a dozen rocket-propelled grenades and 20 anti-aircraft rounds.

Watapur, where Warriner and five others were killed, is five miles from the Korengal valley, where U.S. troops ceased operations seven months ago, saying that it was not strategically important.

Forty-two Americans died in Korengal before the troops pulled out.

“This is a huge blow to the enemy,” Campbell told The (Clarksville, Tenn.) Leaf-Chronicle. “The enemy didn't think we'd go back in there.”

Operation Bulldog Bite has killed at least five insurgents, though there have been unconfirmed reports of as many as 49 insurgents killed.

Three Afghan soldiers were also killed in the operation, said Gen. Khalilullah Zaiyi, the Kunar province police chief.

He put the insurgent death toll at 30.

Warriner's family is proud of his sacrifice.

He was buried with military honors at the state veterans cemetery in Black Mountain.

“There are a lot of worse ways a young man could die,” Mike Warriner said. “It was quite an honor that my grandson died with dignity.”

Locals remembered

Since 2001, allied forces have suffered 2,092 casualties. Of those, 1,298 were Americans.

Forty-two U.S. service members have been killed so far this month in Afghanistan. The deadliest month of the war was June, when 103 died allied troops died.

Six soldiers from WNC have died there since the war began.

Sgt. Donald “Rocky” Edgerton, 33, of Murphy, was one of them.

He stepped on a land mine July 31 near Char Dara, Afghanistan. Edgerton was moved by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to join the Army.

Don Edgerton is still emotional about the community's reaction to his son's death.

“We had senators and congressmen and generals, and 3,000 locals that turned out for his funeral and they didn't know him,” he said. “It was an outpouring of patriotism and emotion.”

Edgerton said he's received personal letters from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Barack Obama.

“He volunteered the day he went out and got killed,” he said. “I know he is in a better place.”

Jessie Cassada was another.

He left for the Marine Corps boot camp at Paris Island after graduating from East Henderson High School.

Cassada's father and stepbrother were Marines. It was all he ever wanted to do.

He made it through boot camp easily, said his mother, Patricia Cassada. His high school ROTC instructed helped him train before he left.

He once carried a fellow Marine, who had passed out from heat exhaustion, a mile and a half in 104 degree weather during a training exercise in California.

Cassada's sergeant took notice of his drive.

His mother still remembers the day he came home and said he was heading for Afghanistan.

“My heart just dropped,” she said.

Her son was worried too — but not because he was headed for war. His sergeant wanted him to lead a group of 11 Marines.

Cassada, 19, told his family he wasn't sure he wanted the job.

It was an assignment that would turn fateful on a rooftop in Helmand province barely three months after he arrived in country.

Cassada was manning a machine gun. He got a call to abandon his position during the firefight. He told his men to run and laid down covering fire as they escaped.

“As Jess turned they shot him in the head,” his mother recalled. “They said he didn't feel anything.”

Cassada's heroism provides solace for his mother, though she said she will live with his death forever.

“I am very proud of my son,” she said. “He made sure all his men got out.”

Today, the Cassada family still sends care packages to the troops. They have 500 waiting, but no funds to ship them right now.

It's something the family started doing after Cassada told his mother that some Marines didn't have anyone at home who cared for them. He would often share what his own family sent.

They continue as a way to remember him.

“My son was a hero and I love him with all my heart,” she said. “He will not be forgotten.”

Four more years

Afghanistan is slightly smaller than Texas at 405,276 square miles.

It has no coastline but borders China, Pakistan and former Soviet states making it strategically important during the Cold War and today.

Much of the land is either desert or nearly desert.

Its elevation ranges from the Amu Darya at 846 feet above sea level to Noshak 24,557 feet above sea level.

A lack of water for drinking and irrigation makes most of the land unusable for farming. Industry is nearly nonexistent.

The median age of Afghanistan's 29 million people is 18.

It has the world's fourth highest death rate and the second highest infant mortality rate.

Life expectancy there is just 44 years.

This is the land Kade Warriner found himself in just a year after graduating from West Henderson High School.

The fighting there is mostly small-arms, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

Taliban and al-Qaida troops don't have the strength to attack head-on, so they use harassing tactics. Roadside bombs are often part of that. Ambushes are common.

“He knew the risks that he was taking,” Warriner's grandfather said. “He didn't go blindly into it. He felt like he was doing something. He felt like he was contributing to life.”

U.S. troops, according to the White House, will be in Afghanistan until at least 2014, when NATO hopes to transfer security to Afghans.

By next year, Afghanistan is expected to have 102,000 U.S. troops. Cost of the war in Afghanistan is $6.7 billion per month.

Exit strategy

Transferring power won't be easy.

Afghanistan is made up of seven ethnic groups, with the Pashtun having the majority.

Only the Taliban, with strict Islamic rule, has been able to enforce a national government.

“The mujahedeen won (against the Soviets), but they were not unified and fought amongst themselves through the early 1990s,” said Jennifer Schiff, assistant professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. “Then the Taliban emerged as the group of the mujahedeen that had the most power and continued until 2001.”

Michael Hunt, Everett H. Emerson Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina, sees parallels in Afghanistan to Vietnam, where the U.S. also tried to hand power over to a government it created.

Though many aspects are different about the wars — the communists aren't backing the Taliban like they did the North Vietnamese, for example — enough is the same to give him pause.

“The recurrent pattern in Vietnam is we kept trying to a find a Vietnamese government in the south capable of providing administration, which is what we are doing with Karzi,” he said. “The first people who figured out that his wasn't working were the soldiers. You can go back and read their letters and see that very early on they realized this wasn't working, and it led, bit by bit, to demoralization of the military.”

There are few signs of demoralization among the ranks.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. military in Kunar said Friday that troops would “continue to pursue the insurgents who are determined to inflict terror, violence and their brutal ideology back to the Afghan people.”

Army Major Mary Constantino, of Task Force Bastogne, said those who have died in the fight are remembered.

“We grieve each death and mourn with their families,” she said. “Each loss, whether from our force or the Afghan National Security Forces, is tragic. We mourn each one, but our resolve remains firm. We will honor their sacrifice by ensuring the mission we are here to do is done to the best of our ability.”

The Leaf-Chronicle of Clarksville, Tenn., the Associated Press, Military Times and USA Today contributed to this report.

Additional Facts By the numbers $6.7 billion: Cost of the Afghan war per month
102,000: U.S. troops expected next year
2,092: Allied casualties
44: Average life expectancy for Afghans
42: U.S. causalities this month
4th: Afghanistan's death rate compared with all other nations

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