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In this May 2, 2021 file photo, a U.S. flag is lowered as American and Afghan soldiers attend a handover ceremony from the U.S. Army to the Afghan National Army, at Camp Anthonic, in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan.
In this May 2, 2021 file photo, a U.S. flag is lowered as American and Afghan soldiers attend a handover ceremony from the U.S. Army to the Afghan National Army, at Camp Anthonic, in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. (Afghan Ministry of Defense Press Office)

SARASOTA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — The costliest day for American troops in Afghanistan occurred on Aug. 6, 2011, when a single rocket-propelled grenade brought down a Chinook transport helicopter that killed all 38 people on board. Among the dead were 17 members of an elite Navy SEAL team, and the shock wave from sudden impact splashed all the way back to Sarasota, where so much of the bloody origin story began.

Scott Bill, a semi-retired building contractor, had just come in from gardening and saw CNN and all the other news channels posting bulletins about a helicopter going down around 1 a.m. local time. His son, Brian, under the umbrella of U.S. Special Operations Command, had just rotated back into the war zone.

The phone rang. It was his daughter, up in Connecticut.

"Dad, are you watching this?" and Scott Bill said yeah and she said, wait a minute, there's somebody at the door, I'll call you back. "And I'm, like, uh-oh." Then Bill's own phone rang.

"It was SOCOM in Tampa and they said they wanted to send a guy down here to talk to me. And I said, I know, my son just got killed, didn't he? Is he alive, or ...? And he said no, he's not. Everybody died."

But the dotted lines that connected the rubble of 9/11 to the quicksand of Afghanistan had run through Sarasota County long before the first American bombs rained on Al-Qaeda hideouts. By the time anyone figured it out, the trail was cold and the fingerprints belonged to ghosts.

Three of the four Al Qaeda terrorist pilots — Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Ziad Jarrah — earned their wings at flight schools in Venice.

— — —

A week or so before the suicide jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania farmland, Saudi national Abdulazziz al-Hijji, his wife and children fled their gated Sarasota neighborhood so quickly, they left food in the fridge, cars in the driveway, and a houseful of furniture and clothes.

Al-Hijji's father-in-law was an advisor to Saudi Arabia's royal family. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi; the al-Hijjis never came back to The Prestancia.

The initial FBI report into the al-Hijjis cited "many connections" between the family and "individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11 2001." Thirteen years later, in a highly redacted memo former U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Bob Graham called "stunning," the FBI claimed it had failed to collect logs of visitors to the al-Hijji home.

President George W. Bush learned of the horrors smashing into the New York City skyline during a reading class with Emma Booker Elementary School students in Sarasota.

And within a month, America would follow Alexander The Great, the Mongols, the British and the Soviet Union, among others, into what some historians have called the "Graveyard of Empires."

Four presidents and 20 years later, what has become America's longest war is nearing an end. Debates on the meaning of the U.S. occupation will persist long after the last American troops are gone.

For those with skin in the game, the struggle for clarity has been underway for years.

Attached to the official accounting of Army Specialist Corey Kowall's final moments was what seemed, to his mother Kelly, like "a dog and pony show." She found it galling.

"It was about all the infrastructure of what they had put in place to help the country," she remembers. "Solar lighting on the roads because they don't have electrical infrastructure over there, lots of roads and buildings that have probably since been demolished — I think it was to try to get me to understand more broadly what we were doing over there, to make it seem like his sacrifice was worth what they were able to accomplish."

That was back in 2009. A dozen years later, the latest numbers indicate some 2,300 American service personnel have died, with more than 20,000 wounded. High end estimates of Afghan dead, including civilian, police, soldiers and militants, stand at 110,000. The investment meter is more than $2.2 trillion and running.

Following through on President Donald Trump's decision last year to pull the plug on military operations in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden announced in April his intention to withdraw the remaining 2,500 troops by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Claiming victory, Taliban leaders are balking at reaching a power-sharing agreement with the U.S.-backed Afghan government. Civil war looms in the vacuum of American power.

"I struggle with it," says Kelly Kowall from her home in Ruskin, 11,000 miles from where Corey died. "I understand the initial reasons we went over there, that it had to be done, but ... what we went over there for and what it ended up being, they aren't the same. So it's not like you can just say yeah, what he died for was the cause.

"I'm not sure what he died for."

What she has the most trouble with is America's failure to protect its flanks: "With the amount of money we spent building their roads and infrastructure, more needed to be spent by making sure our men and women that were in theater had the equipment they needed, and that the equipment they had actually worked."

Her 20-year-old son was in the last of a four-Humvee convoy trying to secure a road renowned for roadside bombs in Zabul Province. The unit was speeding because it had come under fire moments earlier. Corey's crew wanted to tell the lead Humvee to slow down, that they were out of range of enemy guns and were spaced too far apart. But they couldn't communicate — none of the vehicles had radios.

The trailing driver veered sharply to avoid what looked like an IED. But it wasn't — a real bomb was later discovered just 500 feet shy of where the lead Humvee stopped, immediately after the fatal accident in the rear. Corey's vehicle flipped three times. He and the medic aboard were crushed to death.

"Corey was in a Humvee with (brake) calipers leaking, with only three brake pads, and the three that were there were less than a millimeter thick, and two of those were cracked. So they had no brakes. And the radios weren't working."

In the aftermath, her son's forward operating base was "shut down for two weeks, because none of the vehicles they had were safe to operate."

Since 2012, Kelly Kowall has operated a nonprofit retreat along the banks of the Little Manatee River, for veterans, first responders and their families. She says more than 50,000 people have passed through My Warriors Place, hoping to join peers to escape the daily grind.

"It gives me a purpose," she says. "Without a purpose, I don't know where I would be. Purpose is almost like your anchor in a storm, or even when the waters are calm. I'm not sure where I would be without that anchor."

If the mission had been solely about liquidating Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, that book closed on May 2, 2011. That's when U.S. special operations cornered the 9/11 mastermind and gunned him down at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Navy SEAL Team 6 was lionized for its courage and professionalism in the award-winning "Zero Dark Thirty" movie dramatization. Master Chief Petty Officer Brian Bill wasn't in the Red Squadron operation that took out bin Laden, but his Gold Squadron's missions were no less daunting. He was with best friend Adam Brown, the celebrated SEAL who returned to action after losing one eye in combat, when Brown was killed in Afghanistan on March 17, 2010.

Bill's father Scott traveled to Dover Air Force Base in 2011 to receive Brian's flag-draped casket when it returned from Wardak Province. "Thirty bodies had to be unloaded," he remembers. "It took hours."

Trying to make sense of his son's sacrifice may be pointless, given the shifting alliances of tribal politics, united only by a rejection of secular governance. "It's just a confusing mess over there," Bill says.

Like Kelly Kowall, Scott Bill has found solace in a nonprofit that appeals to veterans or, more specifically, special operations survivors. Perhaps as many as 35% to 40% of the beneficiaries are still on active duty. The Brian Bill Foundation invites them to four days of equine, yoga, and nutritional therapy, plus counseling, at rustic Westgate River Ranch Resort in Lake Wales, once every month.

"We talk about pulling out our troops, but these SO guys, if they're not home, they're somewhere else in the line of fire, maybe Iraq or Africa," Bill says. "They're always in harm's way, and they do things we'll never hear about."

Truth be told, Scott Bill says, there is one ultimate beneficiary:

"I get to see my son once a month, basically. These guys are just the same — we have a lot of Navy SEALs that go through. And when you look into their eyes, I can see Brian in there. A lot of them have been in the same places Brian has been, seen the same sort of things. They're willing to take a bullet for the rest of us.

"And here we are, on a nice sunny day in Florida."

Greg Para has had four major surgeries since coming home, and he wasn't even injured in combat. They were from operational accidents in the Hindu Kush during his 2011-12 tour with the reserves from Navy Cargo Handling Battalion 13. Back, shoulders, arms, neck — nothing is the same anymore. Throw in a little post-traumatic stress from the shelling, and he couldn't forget Afghanistan if he wanted to.

Para is in his eighth year as the director of the county's Courts Assisting Veterans program, designed to keep troubled veterans out of jail with a variety of pre-trial options. A beneficiary of avian therapy, the 58-year-old workaholic also has a five-acre spread near Myakka City called the Sarasota Parrot Conservatory. Scofflaws can earn community-service credit hours by pitching in at the rescue-bird nonprofit.

Was Afghanistan worth it?

"No. No. Certainly not for those who paid the ultimate price and are no longer with us," Para says. "And those who were injured will carry that for the rest of their lives. And to see it go back to the way it was before we went over there, it's just ... well, it's just medieval over there, and we were hoping to bring them a better life."

The U.S. might've fared slightly better on the front end with more cultural awareness, he says:

"For example, we built lots of things for them, like new bathrooms, but they were western-style bathrooms with toilets, and they weren't comfortable going to the bathroom on a toilet — they have a hole that might be tiled or it might be just dirt, but that's how they go to the bathroom. And they cleanse themselves in different ways, too.

"Imagine if somebody came over here and said, 'Let me teach you how to go to the bathroom and clean up afterwards.'"

Facilities aside, Para says the military effort never stood a chance. "They were operating out of Pakistan and Uzbekistan and all these other neighboring countries," Para says of the Taliban, "and they were just going to wait us out all along."

Looking back, Para sees one last glimmer of hope, however fleeting.

"When we got there in the early 2000s, they had less than 5,000 girls attending any school, and by the time I got there, it was about 2.5 million girls going to school without getting attacked. So I felt a little optimistic that we would be there for an entire generation to go to school and maybe take on the next leadership role in the country.

"With our allies, we built a number of universities and we built many, many schools. But I'm afraid that, when the Taliban take over, only boys will be allowed to attend school, the way it used to be, and the girls won't be allowed to have any of that."

(c)2021 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.

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