On a recent morning, Terry O’Neill’s 4-year-son TJ posed a question out of the blue that seemed to signal he realized their lives were about to change.
“’Daddy, are you going to send me things from Afghanistan?’” O’Neill said his son asked. “And I’m like, ‘Of course, bud. I’ll send you stuff.’”
O’Neill, a father of four who lives in suburban La Grange, is among an estimated 400 members of the Illinois Army National Guard who will be leaving this weekend to begin a more than yearlong deployment to Afghanistan in support of America’s “Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.”
Officials say the deployment of the 1st Battalion, 178th Infantry Regiment — headquartered on Chicago’s South Side with companies in Elgin, Woodstock, Joliet, Kankakee and downstate Bartonville, near Peoria — marks the largest mobilization of Illinois National Guardsmen and women in nearly a decade.
The soldiers will first spend a few weeks undergoing additional training in Fort Bliss, Texas, before heading to Afghanistan around the time of its planned presidential election on Sept. 28.
The deployment also comes as U.S.-led peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban continue.
But peace has been elusive: The United States has had troops in Afghanistan for 18 years, adding up to the country’s longest involvement in any war. More than 2,000 American soldiers have died in operations in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Experts estimate hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on the conflict.
And while the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has declined in the past decade, there are still about 14,000 U.S. servicemen and women there.
In Illinois, the latest deployment means the families of the hundreds of National Guard members will be disrupted. O’Neill’s family sold their home in Chicago’s western suburbs to downsize to a one-bedroom apartment to be closer to relatives who can provide support to his wife and children while he is away.
Another Guardsman, Jonathan Logemann, resigned from the Rockford City Council in anticipation of his deployment. An uncle plans to step in to help his wife with the couple’s two daughters, who are 1 and 3 years old.
“I’m not worried about me at all. I’m going to be very busy enough,” Logemann said. “But (I’m) just making sure that all the bases are covered at home because we are going from like a two-parent household to like a one-parent household. There is a lot of family support, and I think that’s what really important because it’s the whole family that kind of deploys.”
‘Not our job to do the fighting so much anymore’
For O’Neill, 39, the deployment will be his third tour of duty to the region. In 2003, he served in Iraq when the U.S. invaded. Then in the late 2000s, he was deployed to Afghanistan as then-President Barack Obama increased the number of troops on the ground.
But O’Neill expects this deployment to be different. A decade ago, the combat fighting was done by U.S. troops, but now more of that has transferred to the Afghan army. The team he was on, which worked on city reconstruction, no longer exists, he said.
Ahead of the deployment, O’Neill was part of a group from the Guard that visited Afghanistan in April, and he noticed even the logistics of U.S. troops have changed. For example, troops now generally fly rather than travel by road to get around the country.
“It’s not really our job to do the fighting so much anymore,” O’Neill said. “Our role is advising them on how to accomplish certain tasks. We are trying to empower the Afghan army and the Afghan government to defend itself and govern itself.”
Logemann said he anticipates that Guard members’ role will primarily be one of security.
“I think the tempo of the war is changing,” he said.
Uphill battle for U.S. troops
Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, which the Illinois Army National Guard is supporting, is intended to focus on counterterrorism operations against groups such as al-Qaida and ISIS-affiliated groups within Afghanistan, according to a congressional report. Troops are also in the country to train, advise and assist the Afghan army “to build their institutional capacity.”
U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, aiming to topple the Taliban regime and fight off al-Qaida. Nearly two decades later, the Taliban insurgency remains resilient, according to a 2019 Council on Foreign Relations report.
And although U.S. troops aren’t engaging in as much combat as they previously were, soldiers still face an uphill battle, said Robert Pape, the director of the University of Chicago’s project on security and threats.
The Afghan government is viewed as a “puppet government” and widely seen as corrupt, which is among the reasons the Taliban has managed to regain power and support in parts of the country, Pape said.
“This is a war that we’ve been losing,” Pape said. “We’ve haven’t just been fighting it for (nearly) 20 years, we’ve been losing it for the last 15. And that’s really the challenge that any new deployment is going to face, and the U.S. government, our political leaders and our military leaders haven’t wanted to change strategy yet. … So what that means is it makes it increasingly difficult as every year goes by for the new rotation of troops to deal with the problem because it’s worse each year.”
While the troops should be credited for fulfilling a patriotic duty, they face a daunting task because of how few American servicemen and women are serving in a country with a population of more than 34 million, Pape said. He noted that, by comparison, the Chicago Police Department has about 13,200 officers to police a city of 2.7 million people.
“So we are trying to take roughly the same size police force that we have for the city of Chicago and control all of Illinois, all of Indiana and a big hunk of Wisconsin,” Pape said. “It’s just not going to happen.”
Pape authored a report and penned an opinion column for the Boston Globe arguing the U.S. should shift to an “over-the-horizon” strategy that would eventually remove U.S. troops but provide support from regional bases as well as political, intelligence and economic assistance.
O’Neill knows people have strong sentiments about the war in Afghanistan, but he doesn’t want to let that influence his work.
“There’s a lot of questions about what we are still doing there, but, see, … none of those things really mean anything to me and my job,” O’Neill said. “So it’s not my job to have an opinion one way or the another. My job is to do what I’m told as a soldier, my job is to perform my role within my unit, and I feel like to be a successful soldier in performance of our duties, we can’t really let all that into what we are doing as long as we are doing the right thing.”
‘Alexander the Great was here’
Logemann, O’Neill and the other soldiers from the Illinois Army National Guard learned in December that they were being deployed to Afghanistan in late July.
“It’s like, Merry Christmas,” Logemann said with a laugh as he recalled receiving the news.
Logemann, 32, comes from a family with military history, including his grandfather’s involvement in World War II and his uncle’s service as a chaplain during the Gulf War.
Logemann’s wife, Sarah, said her husband first saw military service as a backup plan in case he didn’t get a job after graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He ended up moving to Chicago to work as a teacher, but he was still interested in serving in some capacity.
“Since I was teaching in public schools, I thought I was doing my civic duty too,” Logemann said. “I was learning more about the National Guard, and I was like, ‘oh, I can do both.’”
After starting their family, the couple moved to Rockford to be closer to relatives. Sarah Logemann knew her husband’s participation in the Guard meant he had to be away from home some weekends, but she didn’t necessarily think he would be deployed.
“Part of it is just he’s really good on focusing on the positive,” she said, “so that was logically a possibility, but he didn’t put that much emphasis on that.”
In Rockford, Jonathan Logemann was elected to serve on the city council. He was in the middle of his first term when he received notice about the deployment.
“I just decided that I think people and democracy need to be represented, so I figured that (stepping down) was the best course, most appropriate and proper course of action for people in the 2nd Ward of Rockford,” Logemann said.
Nick Meyer, the legal director for the Rockford City Council, said a replacement for Logemann hadn’t been determined. He can’t recall in recent history any other Rockford City Council members stepping down to serve overseas.
“We are proud to have one of our elected officials serving a larger purpose,” Meyer said. “We surely wish him well in a safe return.”
Logemann also left his job at a Rockford public school earlier this year to focus on training that required him to travel to the infantry’s headquarters in Chicago.
Like O’Neill, Logemann also traveled to Afghanistan earlier this year to see where the infantry would be based. He was focused on learning how the base operates. But he did stop, for a moment, to think about the context of where he would be spending a year of his life.
“I’d take a step back and say, ‘Wow, we’re in Afghanistan. … Alexander the Great was here,’” Logemann said. “I taught history in Chicago, I taught about this stuff (and) wow, I’m here.”
‘At least I’ll be able to watch them grow up’
O’Neill was surprised to learn he was going back to Afghanistan, particularly because the deployment was only months away from when he received the notice. He’s spent the past couple of months focusing on weapon training, taking courses to refresh his knowledge of military skills and to learn about Afghanistan.
His mother-in-law plans to take a leave of absence from her job to have more time to help the couple take care of their two small boys, a 4-year-old and a 6-month-old.
His two teenage daughters from his first marriage aren’t happy about the deployment, O’Neill said.
“My oldest is going to be a junior in high school, and you know how critical that year is in a student’s high school career,” O’Neill said. “So she’s not happy about that.”
His 14-year-old daughter gave him an album of family photos, and she plans to send him more throughout his deployment, he said.
“She said, ‘Daddy, every month I’m going to send you actual pictures so you can fill the photo album up,’” O’Neill remembers his daughter telling him. “I thought that was a really cool idea.”
O’Neill is also packing Father’s Day cards and taking his cellphone with him, something he wasn’t able to do in past deployments. He thinks he might even be able to FaceTime with his family, a drastic shift from his time in Iraq when he was only able to call home twice.
“You might not have a roof over your head, you may be living in a tent, but you have internet,” O’Neill said. “It made me feel a little bit better about leaving the boys. They’ll be able to see my face, I’ll be able to see theirs. Because when you don’t get to see your loved ones for that long, it’s rough, especially when you have kids, but at least I’ll be able to watch them grow up.”
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