Pulling U.S. troops from Afghanistan a complicated question for slain Utah soldiers’ families, veterans

Cody Towse didn’t want to miss the war.

Already a volunteer firefighter and EMT in Elk Ridge, Utah County, he joined the Army shortly after graduating from Salem Hills High School because it assured him a position as a medic. Assigned to Fort Bliss upon completing basic training, he sought out a unit that would be deploying in a few days. He was sent to the Kandahar region of Afghanistan in December 2012.

Towse called home on Mother’s Day five months later to say he wasn’t going to extend his military service because the war was almost over.

“That’s why he wanted to hurry and get over there because it would be ending,” said his father, Jim Towse. “But obviously, that didn’t happen.”

Pvt. 1st Class Cody J. Towse died May 14, 2013, when he kneeled on an improvised explosive device in Sanjaray, Afghanistan. He had just applied tourniquets and administered morphine to a soldier on foot patrol who had lost both legs in an earlier explosion. The two of them and a third soldier died in the larger, second blast.

Towse had told his dad earlier that if he didn’t come home, he wanted it to be because he was trying to save someone’s life.

Eight years later, the war that Towse didn’t want to miss is still going on.
President says it’s time to end ‘forever war’

Last month, President Joe Biden announced the U.S. withdrawal from the “forever war” in Afghanistan, saying that the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks cannot justify American forces still dying in the nation’s longest war. He plans to pull the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops by the 20th anniversary of the attacks, which were coordinated from Afghanistan.

More than half of Utahns agree that it’s time to end America’s involvement in a war that has cost more than $2 trillion and killed 2,218 U.S. men and women in uniform. To date, 53 Utahns have lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found 56% of residents in the state support the president’s decision, while 29% do not. Another 15% aren’t sure.

For family members of those who died in Afghanistan and veterans themselves, the question of staying or going is a complicated one. The answer is not clear cut.

Jim Towse is among those who aren’t sure.

“I’m happy that they’re pulling out because nobody else will have to suffer what we suffered,” he said.

“I feel bad for the people of Afghanistan. I don’t understand why we couldn’t go in there and just wipe out the Taliban. The rules of engagement should have been changed long ago to just take them all out, get the job done,” Towse said. “I feel like it’s never going to change there. There’s just evil people.”

Twelve-year-old Nigel Olsen made up his mind to join the military the day al-Qaida terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Eight-and-a-half years later, Lance Cpl. Nigel K. Olsen died while escorting a Taliban prisoner to a light armored vehicle that rolled over an IED in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on March 4, 2010.

Like Jim Towse, Olsen’s mother, Kim Olsen, is conflicted about removing U.S. troops from the unstable country.

“That is such a hard question for me. I’m mixed. No, I don’t want to pull our troops because I want to protect those people, and yes because we’ve had enough deaths,” she said.

“My biggest fear is that the Taliban, the insurgents will take back over. The women, the girls will lose all their rights again and they will live under fear. They’ll be manipulated. They’ll be lied to. Their personal lives will never be the same if the Taliban moves back in, and it breaks my heart.”

Both Kim Olsen and Jim Towse say their sons were where they wanted to be when they died.

“He definitely loved what he was doing. He loved being a medic. He loved his guys. Everybody loved him. You couldn’t get him down. He was just always smiling and happy,” Jim Towse said of Cody.

Kim Olsen said Nigel joined the Marines to work in reconnaissance on the front lines.

Jeremy Ruppe was sitting in the vehicle that triggered the explosion that killed Nigel Olsen. The two of them deployed together and were on the same team. Ruppe wasn’t injured in the blast.

Like Kim Olsen and Jim Towse, he has mixed feelings about the decision to pull out.

“I’m not going to say President Biden’s wrong. The American people don’t like wars that never end because it reminds them of Vietnam and the tens of thousands of troops that died there. Plus, we’ve lost a lot of people in Afghanistan, killed and wounded,” he said.

Ruppe, now an Orem police officer who studied politics and international relations in college, said he goes back and forth but overall feels like there are more benefits to staying than there are to going.

“I don’t think it’s worth letting go of the gains we have made. I think we lose more than we will gain,” he said. “The people are kind of relying on us.”

Though U.S. efforts to stabilize the government in Afghanistan have been limited, withdrawing now would allow the Taliban to gain a stronger hold like ISIS did in Iraq after the pullout there, Ruppe said, who remains a lieutenant in the Marine Reserves.

“We’ve already been there for 20 years, a 5,000-troop presence is not a significant investment in a million-man Army, especially if you start thinking about incorporating the reserves,” he said.

Ruppe points out that the U.S. military has had a presence in Germany, Japan and South Korea for more than 60 years, even after those countries rebuilt following devastating wars. Maybe Afghanistan could emerge as well, though he sees that taking much longer.

Also, pulling out might cede U.S. influence in the region to China, he said.
Was the 20-year commitment worth it?

Jason Schow spent 10 months in Afghanistan as a member of the Utah National Guard attached to the 101st Airborne Division supporting intelligence in 2008.

He said when he was there it seemed too big of a logistical operation to accomplish “what we all felt like we were there for, which was to completely revamp the state of mind of the populous and the leadership to convince them that the Taliban being in control wasn’t in anyone’s best interest.”

Schow, now an attorney in Ogden, said he doesn’t think the U.S. ever got it right in Afghanistan, so in some ways it makes sense to cut its losses.

“Not that we lost the war necessarily, but we lost a lot of service members and a lot of good was probably done over those 20 years. But was it worth it? I can’t say that I know that it was because of how it was handled,” he said.

In the poll, Utahns were asked whether America’s global war on terror was worth the cost.

According to the results, 32% said yes, 39% said no and 29% weren’t sure.

“I don’t have to say it’s worth it because my son said that. He went. He volunteered. He wanted to serve his country. He wanted to keep us safe. He also wanted to serve the people of Afghanistan that for years had been under the Taliban rule and for the first time could walk down the street not being afraid,” said Kim Olsen, who works with Utah Gold Star families.

Jim Towse said he doesn’t know but he thinks it was worth it.

“I’d hate to think my son died in vain, for nothing. I think it’s a safer country because of what our guys do when they go over on foreign soil. I wish we would spend more time and money here,” he said. “But I think Afghanistan is just a sinking ship. The Russians couldn’t do it. We couldn’t do it. I guess they just have to live with themselves, figure it out on their own.”

Olsen, too, doesn’t see an end to the war.

“Do I think that this is a war that will go on for a million years if we don’t do something different? I think so. It’s nothing that we can stop. It’s more of a civil war. I would like to see our troops able to protect our borders and not let those folks come over here again,” she said.

The poll found 46% of Republicans and 78% of Democrats favor withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The political parties are also divided about the war on terror, with 45% of Republicans saying it was worth the cost, compared to 20% of Democrats. Nearly a third in both parties are unsure.

Members of Utah’s all-Republican congressional delegation favor Biden’s withdrawal plan, except for Sen. Mitt Romney.

Romney said the small number of U.S. and allied troops have an outsized ability to prevent the Taliban from providing terrorist groups like al-Qaida and ISIS the ability to train and flourish.

“Our military presence also helps to buttress the democratic government and its military, foster human rights for women and girls, and hold the Taliban accountable to their promises,” he said last month.

Rep. Chris Stewart said it’s well past time to bring U.S. service members home.

Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee and a former Air Force pilot, said though there was initial success in establishing a democratic government in Afghanistan, it crumbles whenever there is a troop drawdown, leaving it “extraordinarily fragile.”

“But at some point, you have to say to the Afghan people we’ve done all we can for you. It’s really up to you now. It’s really up to the Afghan leadership. The presence we have there isn’t even stable. It’s deteriorating. Every year, the Taliban has more and more control. Every year the government is less effective,” Stewart said.

In a Facebook post, Cody Towse wrote about four men in his battalion who were killed in action a week before he died.

“Four great guys died today,” he wrote. “It’s too bad because nobody will ever know and nobody will ever care.”

Said his father: “That killed me to think that’s what he felt when he died.”