Only a week ago, the family of the late Army Pfc. Paul Cuzzupe II gathered at his grave in Brandon, Florida.
They shared memories of the 23-year-old who died on Aug. 8, 2010, from wounds suffered in an Improvised Explosive Device attack while serving with 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment. Afterward, they ate a big Italian meal. It was a tradition Cuzzupe started. One he told his mom before his deployment that they should continue while he was gone.
They’ve done it every year.
This time, mounting catastrophes in the place where Cuzzupe lost his life marked the occasion.
In recent months, the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan has crept closer, becoming more real with gains made by the Taliban. Since troops deployed to Afghanistan in 2001 following the Sept. 11 terror attacks to defeat the terrorist group al-Qaida, more than 2,300 U.S. military troops have died.
Many of the parents of the fallen who spoke with Military Times are roiling with grief, as each advance by the Taliban left them reconciling what their sacrifice meant and reminded them of the chaos where their children were hoping to bring order.
Cuzzupe’s mother, Annette Kirk, herself an Army veteran who serves as the National Banner Guard for the American Gold Star Mothers, is still trying to understand how the withdrawal became a crisis so quickly.
“I follow it. I’m not one to sit there plugged in every single day, glued to the television set every single day,” Kirk said. “But when I see things like this it’s really scary and it really just hits home for us even more.”
Craig Gross, the father of Army Cpl. Frank Gross, 25, who died on July 16, 2011, from an IED attack and vehicle rollover while serving with 2nd Battalion, 38th Cavalry Regiment, 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, is more direct.
“It’s a global travesty,” Gross told Military Times. “The ramifications are going to be devastating. And now, because of the way they’ve pulled out they’ve put a whole lot of people’s lives in jeopardy.”
Military Times caught up with Gross while he was traveling home from a family reunion in Corning, New York. Even there, surrounded by family, Afghanistan wasn’t far away.
“My son was killed in Kandahar. That was taken over last week,” Gross said. “And that really hit home, it was like ‘what the heck did my son sacrifice his life for if we’re just going to turn around and walk away from this?’”
Kim Allison doesn’t believe that the U.S. military should stay in Afghanistan indefinitely but she was shocked by how the nation’s longest war is ending in disarray.
Her son, Army Spc. Zack Shannon, 21, of Dunedin, Florida, was serving with 4th BN, 3rd Aviation Regiment, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade when he died in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crash in Kandahar on March 11, 2013.
“Part of me was glad there was not going to be any more military killed,” Allison said. “Then I got to thinking about what was going to happen there.”
As she watched the news, questions swirled.
“Did my son die in vain? Did the work they went over there to try and help do, to help Afghan soldiers maintain their country, was that in vain?,” she said. “It was really hard.”
A quote from a friend helped: when evil is confronted and fought against, it is never in vain.
She remembers her son’s own concerns. He told her that some of the Afghan soldiers were good, others bad but he was never sure who he could trust.
Some parents simply don’t watch the news; it’s all too much.
Mary Miller, a Marine Corps veteran who served for 24 years, said she hears what’s happening when her partner shares updates.
She lost her son, Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason Fabrizi, 29, on July 14, 2009, when he was serving in Konar Province with 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 4th BCT, 4th Infantry Division during an attack involving small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
“In my opinion, we really didn’t get our mission done,” Mary Miller said. “My son went in fighting for our country and our flag. I still believe in our country and our flag.”
Her son didn’t talk much about Afghanistan, only his soldiers. He died on his second tour in the country.
“My son felt that his job was to do nothing but protect his soldiers,” Mary Miller said.
On special days, such as the day of his passing, she and his four children celebrate his smile, his love for them and his memory.
Kelly Kowall has long thought that despite the decades already committed, leaving now was far too early.
“If we’re going to send guys over there…we need to stay for the long haul,” Kowall said.
Kowall lost her son, Spc. Corey Kowall, 20, of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on Sept. 20, 2009, while he served in Zabul Province with 2nd BN, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th BCT, 82nd Airborne Division.
“While I did feel that it was a good thing for us to be getting out, I did not think we should have been totally out,” Kowall said.
Kowall founded and runs a nonprofit that serves veterans, military families and first responders called My Warrior’s Place.
The chatter about Afghanistan had reached a crescendo recently, she said. “It’s been hard on a lot of them,” she said.
“There’s a lot of hugging and a lot of crying and a lot of anger,” she said. “The common feelings you would have in this situation. It’s been crazy, it’s like a punch in the gut really.”
She wishes a decision to leave the country would have been made much sooner. Knocking out al Qaida and deposing the Taliban was accomplished early. The United States should have committed to staying until the country was stable enough to hold off the Taliban or leave right away, she said.
That kind of commitment, she said, would have meant fewer lives lost.
“We got over there, did the initial push, we let off the gas,” she said. “We needed to keep our foot on the pedal and just really take care of it. We’re going to end up back over there and we’re going to have more lives lost.”
Sandy Miller has followed every whisper of news about Afghanistan she could find, especially since the end of the war was announced.
“I’ve known for some time that they needed to end this war,” she said.
But, when she listened to what Pentagon leaders had to say about the military mission, she could see that the Afghanistan military might not hold up.
“They’re not ready,” she said.
Her son, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Scott Dyer was died on October 11, 2006, after multiple tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dyer bonded with the trainees and interpreters he served on his deployments. He knew them by name. Once he even sent a bicycle to a young girl he met on one of his deployments.
“Scott believed in what he was doing,” Sandy Miller said.
Now, she worries about the troops the Pentagon is sending in to provide security and the dangers they face that might have been avoided. The withdrawal should have included enough time to get anyone out of the country that wanted to leave.
Sandy Miller worked in the Pentagon when the United States left Vietnam. She sees echoes in today’s news.
“We tried to save those people. We tried to bring freedom to them, that’s what we tried to do,” Sandy Miller said. “I just pray for those people.”
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.