Indiana soldier household killed in Afghanistan reacts to Taliban rule
What did he die for?
Was the price worth it?
What is different?
These are the questions Gene Griffin asked himself as he watched the Taliban retake Afghanistan, overthrow Kabul and declare themselves de facto rulers of the country.
It’s the same questions he asked 12 years ago. The same feelings of insecurity that weighed on him when his son Sgt. Dale R. Griffin, 29, from Terre Haute, was killed on October 27, 2009 in an improvised explosive device attack in Arghandab Valley, Afghanistan.
At the time, reassuring me from a senior military commander and friend that Dale had fought an important, necessary, and significant battle, “helped me not get so deep,” Gene said. And years later, others report to the military community to check on the Griffins.
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“They knew we were going to hurt,” Gene said, clutching his wife Dona’s hand as he spoke to IndyStar on August 20th. “They knew we were going to question what our son gave his life for. That is a difficult question.”
The Griffins are not alone.
Veterans and their families across the country have grappled with a range of emotions as they watched events in Afghanistan. Some are disappointed in those who make decisions. Others are frustrated with the Afghan military’s response to the Taliban’s resurgence. And still others need to reflect on their service and sacrifice.
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These feelings are heightened by images of thousands of people desperately trying to flee Afghanistan as US and NATO forces withdraw from the country. Many people were killed in a bomb attack on Kabul airport on August 26, including 13 US soldiers. One of them was a hoosier. Six days later, the last US troops flew out of Kabul, ending the US’s 20-year war in Afghanistan.
The impending 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks that sparked US involvement in the war hasn’t made matters any easier.
But the griffons no longer question their son’s sacrifice. Instead, they focus on the positive impact Dale had on his fellow human beings and the Afghans he allegedly cared about.
“It’s a heartbreaker,” said Gene about the current situation in Afghanistan. “I just don’t doubt Dale’s sacrifice. The people there hurt me. “
“I think I can make a difference”
It was in 2005 that Dale came to his parents with the news that he was about to recruit.
The then 25-year-old was a master high school wrestler and attended the Virginia Military Institute on a full scholarship before moving to a school in Illinois. He took a job in Indianapolis as he was planning to complete his business studies.
“Then one day he came up to us and said, ‘I have to go,'” Gene recalled. “It was a simple statement. He said, ‘I think I can make a difference.'”
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Although Dale wasn’t always interested in academics, according to his mother, Dona, he was very interested in his new roles. He studied Arabic for 10 months when his battalion thought they were being stationed in Iraq, and he began learning Pashto when that mission was relocated to Afghanistan.
In 2009 he was with the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd
“He was enchanted by the country and the people,” said Dona of her son’s time in Afghanistan. When Dale wrote home, he asked her to send candy, colored pencils, and coloring books for the Afghan children.
It is this connection that Dale had with the Afghan people that pains the griffins when they see photos and videos of Afghans swarming the Kabul airport to escape Taliban rule.
Last week Dona woke up badly. “More than anything,” she said, “it was a depression about what I saw – where these families who have sacrificed so much to support us are simply left behind and no right steps are taken.”
Dale was friends with an Afghan interpreter, Dona noted. The Griffins later learned that the interpreter was killed in the same IED explosion – he ran to catch up with Dale so they could ride in the same Stryker vehicle that night. Six other soldiers were also killed in the attack.
“(I sympathize with) those who have paid the price for their country and for our country – for the freedom that our country represents,” said Dona and looked at her husband. “And (after) all these years, now we’re just packing up?”
Gene repeated these feelings, but noted that he wasn’t saying the US should have stayed in Afghanistan. If the US should go, he said, it should go with the right plans and “without letting the world know what is going on”.
“Well, the people our son really loved … now all of these people are in danger,” he said.
“They are there for each other”
“To the men of Arghandab River Valley ’09 -’10,” the letter begins, “we are probably all disappointed to see the Taliban regain control of Afghanistan. Kandahar City is one of the most recent places to fall.”
“I read a report that some veterans (Operation Enduring Freedom) said their comrades who were killed died for no reason – we lost died in vain.”
“In my opinion, each of them gave their life for you, their brothers who stood on their left and right when things went bad …”
Col. Jonathan Neumann, the commanding officer of Dale’s battalion in Afghanistan, told IndyStar that he sent this message to his former soldiers and their families in mid-August because he knew it was “terribly disappointing to see and think that much hard work “” has been washed away.
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The anniversaries of the deaths of some members of the battalion were also approaching, he said. The first two men were killed on August 18, and his men post pictures and memories of those they lost every year.
“I would hate it if someone thought that these guys died in vain, that they died in vain,” said Neumann. “I don’t think so at all.”
In contrast to much of Afghanistan, the Arghandab Valley is a dense, overgrown area with pomegranate plantations, melons and other crops. Before Neumann’s men arrived, the Taliban placed “many very large explosive devices” in the area and used the valley as a passage to launch attacks on Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city.
That made the area “deadly”, said Neumann, and the men were often in combat.
“We were there for each other, not so much for a big mission,” said Neumann of his soldiers and their victims. “When it comes down to it, young soldiers – they are on duty and they are there for each other left and right.”
He noted that his troops had “put a big damper on Taliban operations” during their time in the valley and said they “left the place much better than we inherited”.
Dale, said Neumann, was a hero and a “great athlete”. He recalled a time before his deployment to Fort Lewis, Washington state, when Dale won the heavyweight championship in an Army mixed martial arts competition.
And he won it with ease.
“Watching him do it was pretty impressive,” the Colonel recalled. “You could tell, OK, this guy is a bit different from many soldiers we had.”
“We feel Dale in the park”
For Gene and Dona Griffin, Col. Neumann’s note was one of the few things that comforted them in the past few weeks.
But the Griffin’s said their belief in God and their bike park in Terre Haute are the two main anchors helping them cope with the loss of their youngest son and the pain of recent events.
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Griffin Bike Park was founded in 2016 and offers more than 32 km of off-road trails. It was started to commemorate Dale – who loved mountain biking with his family – and the more than 200 Hoosier soldiers who have lost their lives since the War on Terror began 20 years ago.
One trail, the Warrior Trail, which has the photos and names of dozen of fallen Hoosier soldiers on either side, has drawn veterans and their families from around the world. The path leads to a bronze monument to Dale.
“One thing we noticed is that we feel Dale in the park,” Dona said with a smile. “We feel it in the wind.”
Gene spoke about his son, the victim, and the bike park at a ceremony in late August at the Indiana State Fair honoring the state’s fallen soldiers.
He told the crowd that a person only dies twice: once when they leave this earth and a second time when their name is never mentioned again.
“That will never happen,” he said.
Contact Lawrence Andrea at 317-775-4313 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @lawrencegandrea.