Insider outrage: Pfc. Jon Townsend, 19
Stars and Stripes October 4, 2012
Pfc. Jon Townsend, 191st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.Killed Sept. 16, 2012
CLAREMORE, Okla. — When the Army notified Pfc. Jon Townsend’s family that he had been killed in Afghanistan, there was no mention that it was an insider attack. The family had to learn that from reports on TV.
“The Army didn’t tell us,” his mother, Katy Nelson, said. “We figured it out ourselves from listening to the news.”
The family was surprised and confused, she said.
It turned out that on Sept. 16, the newly married 19-year-old had been gunned down by an Afghan ally.
The International Security Assistance Force had sent out a press release announcing that the incident was an insider attack, but when Nelson asked the Army about it, the service refused to confirm the reports or offer any details, saying that no information would be released until the investigation was complete.
Nelson is eager to read the report.
“I want to know the details of why my son was shot,” she said. “I’m his momma. I’m entitled to that.”
The Army didn’t comment on why some families aren’t informed during the notification process on the details being made public by ISAF.
Ami Neiburger-Miller, spokeswoman for TAPS, an organization that helps bereaved military families, said the nature of the notification process often means families find out information in chunks over several visits with the casualty assistance officer. “It would be really hard to turn on the TV and find out information about a loved one you didn’t expect,” she said. “That brings up other emotional pieces they then have to handle and respond to on top of their grief and loss.”
Neiburger-Miller said most families want information upfront from the military. Finding out details in other ways can affect how much they trust the military and the information they end up getting from them.
On the Friday of Townsend’s funeral, Sept. 28, more than 75 American flags lined the church grounds and hundreds came out to say goodbye.
In the church that he loved, they watched a video he had made before he deployed, in case of his death. Photos flashed on the screen of Townsend and his new bride — dressed up for a high school dance, snuggling on the couch, hugging at an Army event — set to the song “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry.
Townsend joined the Army at 17, and friends and family watched as he transformed — downing five dozen eggs a week — from an average kid into a bulked-up recruit. He left for basic training two days after he graduated high school.
Nelson said Townsend, in Afghanistan for his first deployment, believed in the mission and was particularly fond of the children he encountered. He asked Nelson to send him care packages with treats that he could give his “babies,” and he’d use his wet wipes to clean the children.
“Jon loved life and wanted to share it with everybody,” Nelson said. “He wanted to make everybody happy.”
She said he told her he was surprised at the generosity of the staggeringly poor Afghans who offered the soldiers heaps of food and water.
“He said, ‘Momma, these people bring me their riches,’ ” Nelson recalled.
In February, he came home on leave and married his high school sweetheart, Brittany Carden. The teenagers had three days together as a married couple before he shipped back to Afghanistan.
In the darkness of Sept. 16, Jon’s unit went to the aid of some Afghan police officers under attack at a checkpoint in Zabul province, but an Afghan officer turned his weapon on the Americans. Townsend and three other soldiers were killed.
That incident was the tipping point in how U.S. military leaders talked about insider attacks. It prompted strong words from the military’s top officer, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who said the military couldn’t whitewash the problem and called the attacks “a very serious threat to the campaign.”
Shortly after Townsend’s death, the U.S. military briefly curtailed its joint patrols with the Afghans. Nelson said she’s saddened that “it took my son and other young men to die” before that happened — and now the military is easing back into partnered patrols.
Still, despite her grief over the loss of her son — her youngest of three with “the cheesiest smile in the world” — Nelson is trying to focus on what his life meant to the family and not on the way he died. She doesn’t want to have that anger inside her.
“I’m not mad … Jon did this because he loved his country,” she said. “He wanted to make it safe, and (joining the military) was the only way he knew how.”