Afghanistan exit felt by Roaring Fork Valley military families, vets
When Afghanistan’s capital city’s airport was being overrun by people trying to flee from the Taliban’s grip, Old Snowmass couple Bob and Laura Guion couldn’t get the information fast enough.
They knew their son, Colter, a 2014 graduate of Aspen High School, was stationed with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division in Kabul on Aug. 16, one day after the Taliban seized control of the city. As for how he was doing, however, they had no clue.
“The weekend before last, we had no idea whether he was alive or dead,” Bob Guion said. “We saw the images of the Taliban surrounding the airport, and we knew he was at the airport.”
Colter Guion, 26, would be among what were as many as 5,800 U.S. troops who secured the airport over the past two weeks, with Monday marking the completion of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Guion, done with his work at Hamid Karzai International Airport by early last week, was removed before Thursday’s bombing attack outside of the airport, which killed 13 American soldiers and more than 90 Afghans. The terrorist group ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack.
The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan came after President Joe Biden, on July 8, announced Aug. 31 as the deadline for full troop withdrawal. His announcement was made nearly two decades after the U.S., responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, as part of President George W. Bush’s Operation Enduring Freedom.
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Under four American presidents, the war has resulted in approximately 2,500 U.S. military troop casualties and more than 47,000 Afghan civilian deaths, and cost the U.S. more than $2.2 trillion.
Yet it has been the past two weeks that has evoked outrage over the Biden administration’s handling of the exit’s timing and lack of readiness for the Taliban’s quick takeover, while defenders have argued the war was a lost cause and conflict was inevitable whenever U.S. troops were removed.
“My son is a soldier and he follows orders and does his duty,” Bob Guion said. “There will be plenty of time for plenty of political dialogue. I’m glad that he was there and his team didn’t take any casualties, and they were part of history, and for whatever reason they held that airport and without them, you wouldn’t have seen this.”
Colter Guion didn’t have to be in Afghanistan, but the young soldier wanted to return and help as the country rapidly began to fall to the Taliban, which seized the Nimroz province Aug. 6 and took over Kabul on Aug. 15.
“He was scheduled to redeploy on the day that the Taliban surrounded Kabul,” said Bob Guion, noting he stays in contact with his son every few days. “So, obviously they kept them there.”
Prior to his returning to Kabul, Colter Guion had been temporarily stationed in Qatar and Kuwait.
“His 10-month tour in Afghanistan had expired and come to an end. And they pulled most of them out in late July, in the mid-summer, and quite a few of them had returned to Fort Drum (the 10th Mountain Division’s base in New York state),” the father said. “But he actually volunteered to be on what they call a QRF — a quick reaction force.”
At the onset of the airport’s takeover, Colter Guion was there as part of the QRF. They “handle flare-ups and he volunteered to stay, much to his mom’s chagrin,” Bob Guion said. “But he said he wanted to do it.”
On Aug. 16, chaos erupted at the airport as thousands of people trying to flee Afghanistan stormed the airport, forcing a temporary pause in the evacuations.
“Their unit is extremely prominent,” Bob Guion said of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team’s 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry, “and they had the only armored vehicles in the field.”
Impacts on veterans
What’s been happening in Afghanistan can affect U.S. military veterans to varying degrees. Eagle County veteran services notes veterans reacting to the recent events in Afghanistan might experience feelings of betrayal and anger, as well as frustration, sadness, helplessness and grief.
Some might be more prone to alcohol and drug consumption, or have an increase in such mental health symptoms as PTSD or depression.
TJ Bolt, who runs veterans services for Pitkin County, said he has heard little from local vets but he knows they are taking the events in Afghanistan hard.
“I know it’s very upsetting for a lot of veterans to see their hard work and their blood, sweat and tears into defending this situation in this country, and all of the sudden we’re pulling it out of it,” Bolt said Friday. “And we’re leaving Americans behind. It can be very upsetting for veterans who devoted years of their life to this cause.”
Bolt said he is available for veterans who need help or just someone to talk to. The best way to reach him, he said, is by email at email@example.com or by phone at 970-987-4855.
“I don’t want to speak much about it politically,” he said. “I have my personal opinions but I want to let the veterans know they are heard, and I invite them to talk to me or somebody rather than pushing it down.”
Fred Venrick, a Vietnam veteran who is involved in local vets outreach including his work as an Aspen Elk, last week called the situation in Afghanistan an “embarrassment” and that Biden should have “kept the 2,500 troops there for their security and then pulled them out. I went back and forth on this, and I think about the poor women there, but we can’t go any longer.”
He added, “I feel bad about it. I feel bad for all of the veterans, and for all of the kids who lost their lives.”
Venrick said he has stayed in touch with a nephew who is special ops in Afghanistan while at the same time trying to help a family with a member who served with the U.S. military in Iraq. The Purple Heart recipient has been reeling of late because of the events playing out, said Venrick, who himself also earned a Purple Heart.
During his talks with his nephew, Venrick said that his relative “wasn’t surprised by the failure of the Afghan government troops. They weren’t highly motivated.”
Venrick served in Vietnam in 1964, ‘65 and ‘66 as a Marine and sergeant. Working on the Elks Club’s veteran services committee, he has helped raise and distribute more than $40,000 to groups helping women veterans and others.
In Ghani’s words
Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country Aug. 15 as the Taliban closed in, was virtually interviewed Jan. 29 as part of an Aspen Institute program.
“How concerned are you that if U.S. leaves and NATO follows suit, that ISIS will be able to gain a foothold in Afghanistan?” asked NBC News correspondent Carol Lee.
Ghani’s reply: “The Afghans are responsible for Afghanistan. We will fight to deny our country to the terrorists. Nobody should underestimate us. … None of us has plans to live somewhere else or to abandon this country that we love so much and has suffered so much.”
Ghani called the country’s geographic location “a blessing and a curse.”
“The blessing because we are the shortest route between central Asia and south Asia and eastern Asia and western Asia. So we have these wonderful visions that are now being realized — railways, transmissions lines, pipelines, you name it. And our national wealth is finally being explored, investments are taking place.”
The curse, he said, “is that in the narrative and ISIS and others, we are the site of the End of the World Battle … and Afghanistan is where the final fight must take place.”
Without “a political settlement that brings peace,” he said, “every terrorist group is going to migrate here and target us.”
Venrick said there was no good time to exit Afghanistan, but it had to be done. The British and Russians couldn’t win there, and neither could the U.S., he said.
“Needless to say, we’re not very good at nation building,” he said.
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Mountain Rescue Aspen had a busy day Thursday responding to two separate incidents.