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A U.S. soldier assigned to the 10th Mountain Division surveys the back of a CH-47 Chinook during flight over Kabul, Afghanistan on March 3, 2020.
A U.S. soldier assigned to the 10th Mountain Division surveys the back of a CH-47 Chinook during flight over Kabul, Afghanistan on March 3, 2020. (Jeffery Harris/U.S. Army)

(Tribune News Service) — The Army unit called upon more often than any other in the fight for Afghanistan is on its way home to New York after almost 20 years of war.

The last soldiers from Fort Drum’s 10th Mountain Division to serve in Afghanistan will return in the coming weeks to the sprawling Army garrison about 80 miles north of Syracuse.

Their return, by way of third countries hosting U.S. soldiers, will mark the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that all of the division’s soldiers will be home from Afghanistan with no plans to send anyone back.

During those 20 years, Fort Drum’s soldiers became the most deployed in the Army. Units were sent overseas for nine to 15 months at a time, fighting some of the key battles in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As the chapter in American history closes, soldiers, military leaders, and historians will have time to reflect on the war’s gains and losses, the lessons learned, and whether the effort in Afghanistan was worth the sacrifice.

But this much is already known: The 10th Mountain Division made a series of nearly non-stop combat deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq that claimed more than 320 of its soldiers over the past two decades. Of those, 180 were killed in Afghanistan.

All told, various units of the 10th Mountain Division soldiers were sent 36 separate times to Afghanistan from February 2002 through this August. It’s not known which Army division spent the most cumulative time on the ground there.

Last week, one of the last Fort Drum units sent to Afghanistan – 135 soldiers from the 23rd Military Police Company – returned home after they were deployed on short-notice following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.

The soldiers departed from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, where they helped the United States and its allies evacuate more than 114,400 people.

The 10th Mountain Division will go down in history for its role in America’s longest war, becoming the first Army division to spend 20 consecutive years in combat or in a constant state of combat readiness, said Sepp Scanlin, curator and director of Fort Drum’s 10th Mountain Division Museum.

Scanlin, who retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2016 after almost 22 years in the Army and two deployments to Afghanistan, said the length of the war is what will stand out in American history.

“I think this is the first conflict where we really tested the all-volunteer force in a sustained way,” Scanlin said. “We’ve had conflict before, but never sustained for this long. We’ve even had service members who served early in Afghanistan, and whose kids later served in Afghanistan.”

Other soldiers and officers served multiple tours of duty at Fort Drum, including the division’s new commanding general.

Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle Jr. returned to Fort Drum as its commander in July, following in the footsteps of those who would rise up into the nation’s highest military leadership roles.

Gen. Mark Milley, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, a retired Army general, are both former Fort Drum commanders.

Beagle said it’s only fitting for the division’s soldiers to be among the last out of Afghanistan.

The 10th Mountain Division was among the first Army units sent to Afghanistan in 2002. The division’s soldiers led Operation Anaconda, the successful battle that began March 2, 2002, to establish a U.S. foothold in Afghanistan and push out fighters from al-Qaida and the Taliban.

“If not for the operations of Anaconda, there’s no telling how well we would have been established in Afghanistan,” Beagle told Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard in an interview.

The success came at a high price, a fact that’s not lost on Beagle.

The division suffered its first fatalities in Afghanistan in August 2003 when Spc. Chad E. Fuller, 24, and Pfc. Adam L. Thomas, 21, were killed by Taliban fighters who attacked their patrol on the first day of Operation Mountain Viper.

Seventeen years later, Spc. Vincent Sabastian Ibarria, 21, would be the last 10th Mountain Division solider to die in Afghanistan, killed in a vehicle rollover accident in the capital of Farah province on July 3, 2020.

“The thing we should never forget is what our young men and women do to be ready for our nation,” Beagle said. “In 20 years, there has been a lot of precious treasure lost not just here in the 10th Mountain Division, but in other divisions. We owe it to all of those we lost to not forget that one point.”

Beagle, who previously served as the division’s deputy commanding general of support in 2017 and 2018, says only history can judge if the mission was worth the cost.

From his viewpoint, there’s no doubt that the 10th Mountain Division – built to be a light, rapid-response infantry force or what he calls “the blue-collar workers” of the Army – accomplished its goals of stabilizing Afghanistan. It rid the country of al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden, he said.

For most soldiers that was a worthy cause, Beagle said, even if there’s a difference of opinion on how the U.S. exited the country.

Nick Armstrong, a 10th Mountain Division veteran who served eight years at Fort Drum, said the veterans he knows had a range of reactions to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, including sadness, anger and outrage.

“I’ve talked to a lot of veterans,” Armstrong said. “I think it’s fair to say that there are mixed emotions in terms of the outcome, but not in knowing what we did and what we accomplished. We prevented any 9/11 style attacks on U.S. soil for two decades, and the things we did for an entire generation of Afghan women and children from an educational standpoint.”

Armstrong, now a senior director at Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families, deployed to Afghanistan three different times at the start of war.

After 20 years, neither he nor many of his veteran friends could believe how quickly the U.S. would leave and how fast the Afghan army would fold.

“We all kind of thought this day would happen for some time,” Armstrong said. “But I think the speed at which it happened – nobody was quite prepared for it.”

He added, “There’s definitely more of a common frustration over how the evacuation has been handled. There are a lot of folks who have close connections and ties to those who they served with. The ethos and creed of leaving no one behind has been a struggle for a lot of folks.”

Armstrong said only time and distance will allow historians to judge whether the war was worth the costs, including $2 trillion on the war effort and an additional $2.5 trillion caring for veterans and wounded through 2050.

All told, 2,461 American service members were killed in Afghanistan, including 13 service members who died Aug. 26 in a suicide bombing at Kabul’s airport, according to statistics compiled by The Associated Press.

In reality, the human toll of the war was much larger.

Over two decades, the war claimed the lives of 3,846 U.S. contractors, more than 66,000 Afghan national military and police, 47,245 Afghan civilians, 444 aid workers and 72 journalists, according to the AP.

And there’s a lingering impact. Four times as many active-duty U.S. soldiers and veterans of the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have died by suicide (30,177) than in combat, according to a study by the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

At Fort Drum, three 10th Mountain Division soldiers died in “isolated and unconnected suspected self-harm incidents” in 72 hours over the weekend, a 10th Mountain Division spokesman said Sunday.

“I think history will answer the question of whether it was worth it,” Armstrong said. “I certainly have no regrets because that’s what I signed up to do. But I think the question of whether it was worth it is for the American people to decide.”

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC.

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