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The End Of The Afghan War Reawakens Painful Memories


For 20 years, Afghanistan was America's back-burner war, at some point overshadowed by the conflict in Iraq. It's a direct consequence of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And as the years went by, the war in Afghanistan changed in mission and scope. Now, U.S. forces have mostly departed the country. For some vets and families of fallen service members, the end of the war only reawakens painful memories. Steve Walsh with KPBS in San Diego has that story.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Justin O'Donohoe was 24 years old when he enlisted in the Army. He had already graduated college. His parents, Pat and Pam, still have his pickup truck out front. They drove it home to San Diego after visiting him at Fort Drum just before he deployed to Afghanistan in 2006.

PAT O'DONOHOE: We took him out to dinner at his favorite Chinese restaurant, which he loved. And that was the last time we saw him live.

WALSH: It's been 15 years since Justin died in a fiery helicopter crash on a mountainside in Kunar province, along with nine other soldiers.

PAT O'DONOHOE: Fathers aren't supposed to bury children. There is no closure for that. There is a internal kernel of you that is still filled with grief.

WALSH: Justin O'Donohoe was a cavalry scout with the 10th Mountain Division. His platoon was on a mountain at night near the Pakistani border. One of Justin's platoon mates, Nick Pilozzi, says the landing zone was only large enough for the giant Chinook's rear wheels to touch down. On the third try, the rear rotors struck a treetop.

NICK PILOZZI: It just tumbled and exploded, and it was just mass, mass carnage basically.

WALSH: They had been in the field for weeks, part of Operation Mountain Lion. The goal was to retake territory captured by al-Qaida and the Taliban.

PILOZZI: It was so hot that we couldn't get down in there. So we're yelling, if you're hurt and you're still alive, move or make a sound, something, and we're going to come down and get you.

WALSH: In the morning, the survivors came down to recover the bodies. Pilozzi was injured after he was knocked out of the helicopter during an earlier attempt to land.

PILOZZI: It was about 9/11, but at this point, I don't really know. I don't really know what it's about.

WALSH: Pilozzi left the Army after that first 18-month deployment. He's now living on a farm in upstate New York near where he grew up.

PILOZZI: The damage that comes from this stuff is unbelievable. None of these families are ever going to be the same after this.


JUSTIN O'DONOHOE: I love you. Bye.


COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: End of final message.

WALSH: Justin left one last voicemail before heading into the mountains in Afghanistan just to tell his parents he was OK. O'Donohoe's mother, Pam, says some days are harder than others. They're a military family. Justin's father spent his career in the Navy. His brother, Kyle, is a Navy pilot.

PAM O'DONOHOE: I don't agree with the war because I think a lot of people got - a lot of boys got killed for no reason. We didn't win anything for anybody, you know? Why were we there? I don't know anymore.

WALSH: The O'Donohoes sat around the same dining room table where Army officers sat to tell them the findings of the crash nearly 15 years ago.

PAT O'DONOHOE: When all is said and done, the helicopter still crashed and our son still died.

WALSH: The Army ruled the crash an accident. A heavily redacted copy of the crash report says two sergeants told their leadership that they considered the night landing high risk and didn't understand why it was being attempted. Regardless, the effective end of the war in Afghanistan doesn't offer any solace to the O'Donohoes.

PAT O'DONOHOE: You move on with the rest of your life and you don't forget, you don't ignore, you don't let it slide by. It's more of a compartmentalization. I have a compartment in me that's Justin.

WALSH: America has never had a conflict that stretched on for so long that the parents of fallen soldiers were still watching the war on TV, long after their children had died. As the Afghan war finally comes to an end, Pam and Pat O'Donohoe are moving forward without moving on. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGUS MACRAE'S "CRY WOLF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.