U.S. soldiers reflect on time in Middle Eastern conflict, lives lost
Although Tyler Plasencio was in seventh grade, he recalls vividly the news of the hijacked planes being flown into the twin towers and the stories of lives lost, of chaos and destruction of Sept. 11, 2001.But he also remembers the sense of community across the country.
“When that happened, I remember very much the unity we felt. That is a time I haven’t seen since. We’re just so split,” he said.
Plasencio, who joined ROTC in 2007 and served in the Army Reserve from 2007-2019, and was put into active duty in the Army and deployed to Afghanistan in December of 2012, said the summers he spent working on his grandfather’s Nebraska ranch were instrumental in guiding him to join and serve in the military.
Plasencio relied on the skills and mental toughness he learned from his granddad, Lee Hughson, while helping on his Mitchell, Neb., ranch during the summer. In fact it was his granddad who inspired him to don the uniform.
“My granddad was a body counter in Vietnam. Working with him on the ranch, I got to learn a lot of history and hear memories that he didn’t share with others. He was a tough guy. Out of respect for him, I didn’t feel like I would be able to look at myself in the mirror if I didn’t serve. I wanted to be a fraction of the man he was,” said Plasencio.
The long days spent with Hughson helped get Plasencio in a frame of mind that lent itself well to military service.
“Him being a cowboy is what it was all about, he was a cowboy through and through. He wasn’t going to back down from anything. Anything I would go through, (in the Army) it was like a hard days’ work on the ranch. It seemed like nothing I could go through would be as difficult as what he had been through. That attitude helped me get through a lot. I tried to emulate his attitude of never giving up.”
The trauma and violence in Afghanistan were real, said Plasencio. ‘We got hit with rockets all the time,” he remembers. There was more than one time that he was sure he would die, and had calmly accepted his fate. “Maybe we were in a helicopter just weeks after another one had been shot down and crashed.” He was aware of many soldier deaths including some killed by Afghan soldiers who may have been Taliban spies or may have simply turned on the Americans for cultural or other reasons.
Plasencio and his unit returned home safely in 2013.
Post-deployment, being able to share and discuss wartime thoughts and memories with his granddad was helpful, said Plasencio.
“When I came back and I was working on the ranch, I would say, wow I was just in Afghanistan a month ago but it feels like forever ago. My granddad would respond, ‘I was in Vietnam years ago, but it feels like yesterday.’”
Although he didn’t lose fellow soldiers while on the front lines in Afghanistan, Plasencio has lost comrades since then, to suicide.
Plasencio said he is thankful that he was with his grandfather when he died in May of this year. “My granddad and I were close. We had a bond. He is actually the first person I saw die,” he said.
Cory McKinstry grew up on a farm and ranch near Bison, S.D., and has spent much of his adult life farming near Miller. His ag background has also helped him tremendously with his military service. McKinstry served a tour in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.
“In agriculture you wear a lot of different hats,” McKinstry said. “You are diversified in what you can do, which has benefited me in my military career. I’m not just stuck in a rut as far as my job, I can fix a truck, set up an AC unit, wire electrical stuff, just like being on the farm or ranch.”
South Dakota is known for its superior National Guard units and in fact the 200th unit was honored with the Itschner Award in 2015, which recognizes the most outstanding U.S. Army engineering company across the entire nation. Many of his fellow soldiers also have agriculture experience, said McKinstry. “Ninety percent of my guard unit is in some way shape or form tied to an ag background. Either they grew up on a farm or ranch, or in a farming community, or helping their uncle, or something along those lines,” he said. “Coming from the background I did, helped me with my military career more than anything.”
Plasencio recalls the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when the country pulled together in support of our freedom, and the thousands of families who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks. The country was also united in its support of a US military presence in Afghanistan, he said.
“What were we supposed to do?” asks Plasencio, rhetorically. “They were hosting these people who attacked us. I don’t see any other option at that point in time.”
Plasencio said when he was deployed to Afghanistan, the plan at that time was to pull troops out much sooner. “We thought we’d be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014,” he said, and his assignment was preparing equipment for transport back to the U.S. “Our main function was making sure paperwork was correct on all containers, making sure they were sea worthy, air worthy, railroad worthy,” he said. Plasencio appreciated his mission, which allowed him to spend time on the ground rather than in an office.
The purpose of the American military in Afghanistan was to help set up a democracy, said Plasencio. “We were trying to train a national army to handle itself, much like in Iraq, much like in South Vietnam, we tried to set up a different government that wasn’t run by the Taliban and based on religious beliefs,” he said.
But an end to the war was needed, Plasencio believes. “If not now, when? Another 20 years?”
Plasencio’s thoughts are with the families of the 13 service men and women who died recently in the war in Afghanistan, along with the more than 2,000 who have died since 2001. “It’s so tragic,” he said.
Plasencio, and McKinstry, are troubled by the recent casualties, as well as those throughout the last 20 years.
“It brings me great sadness to hear what’s going on,” said McKinstry. “I’m angry and disappointed. My heart goes out to those families that lost a loved one. Although it wasn’t a waste of time, it almost feels like it was. Yes, we made a difference, but it feels to the soldier that it was just all for naught. They are a brutal, ruthless force,” he said, of the Al Queda.
While in Iraq, McKinstry’s unit’s primary mission was to construct a float bridge across the Tigris River to add mobility to U.S. and allied troops. After the bridge was in place, they secured the bridge and ran presence patrols in the local villages. They also ran a detention center for people apprehended for attacks against U.S. and allied forces. Another assignment was conducting humanitarian missions, which included distributing currency and re-building infrastructure which included water works in nearby cities. They greatly impacted the day to day lives of the civilians. “Girls couldn’t go to school, but while we were there, they started being able to go to school. We were making sure they went to school. They would stop and visit with the troops, and we’d tell them to get to class,” he remembers.
Both men said that U.S. involvement in the crisis was needed, and neither regrets his time there.
“As a good human, we should feel for them,” said Plasencio. “We can say ‘who cares what happens, it’s not our country,’ but I feel bad for the Afghan people. Look at Iraq, they have a government that we helped set up. Afghanistan won’t have that, it all fell apart when we left.”
But, Plasencio adds that eventually the American support would need to lessen, and with such cultural differences, training an army in that country was difficult. Just teaching the new soldiers was difficult, for instance, because it was seen as a personal attack, he said. ‘They can’t take criticism. They take it personally, their culture is so different.”
The two servicemen agree that the war in the Middle East is unlike previous wars fought. “It was a different war than wars past. Nobody was in uniform, except us.” Anyone “standing alongside the road” could have been the enemy, and many times they were, said McKinstry.
“We all felt justified in being there. We went there and made a difference and changed things for the better,” said McKinstry. “It’s frustrating to see what’s going on. Those people didn’t have a life, and now it’s been turned back to that.”
“The money and time we wasted is beside the point, but the lives and the people that were lost there, that’s the thing that rubs everyone wrong,” he added.
Patriotism seems to be a bit more pronounced in recent days with the drawdown from Afghanistan, said Plasencio. He hopes to see it continue.
McKinstry, who took a 10-year stint out of the National Guard, re-enlisted in 2017. To see the troops pulling out weighs heavily on him, knowing that life will return to a difficult normal for the Afghans.
‘We are soldiers for a reason, no matter what branch you are in, you are there for a reason, and you want to do a job well and see it to completion,” he said.
If asked to deploy tomorrow back to the Middle East? “I’d go. That’s my job,” said McKinstry.
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