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New Mexico couple reflect on daughter who died in Afghanistan

A family member receiving a folded flag. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jamarius Fortson)

Richard and Cindy Long were watching television at their home in the village of Adelino on a Sunday night in March 2003 when they heard a knock at the door.

Two male U.S. Air Force officers in full dress uniform and a female Air Force chaplain were on the porch.

“When you see that, you know,” Long said.

Earlier that day, the Valencia County couple had seen television news reports about a noncombat helicopter crash in Afghanistan that killed some military personnel. But they didn’t want to believe their daughter, Tamara “Tammy” Long-Archuleta, an Air Force lieutenant who flew helicopter rescue missions in Afghanistan, could be involved.

She was.

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So were the five U.S. soldiers trying to save two injured Afghan children stranded in a remote mountain area on a pitch-black night.

On that dark Sunday evening, near the beginning of a war that never seemed to end, the cost of the conflict in Afghanistan came home to the Longs’ doorstep.

Now, since the U.S. and Taliban signed a peace deal Feb. 29, those who served and those who grieve are coming to terms with the human price tag in a war where the beginning, middle and end are, like the combat itself, asymmetrical.

The Longs, who operate a long-running karate studio in downtown Belen, said they cope with their daughter’s loss by trying to help children and teens through an array of causes — including a college scholarship in Tammy’s name awarded to University of New Mexico students.

Still, the years that pass don’t lessen the pain as much as they would like.

“There’s no moving on from losing a child,” Richard Long said. “You’re just frozen in time.”

“We have friends who have lost a child and they never got over it,” Cindy Long said. “Grief can eat you up inside.”

The Longs said they work hard to offset that possibility, finding comfort in the memory of their precocious child and the role she played in their lives for “23 lucky years,” as Richard Long put it.

At their studio in Belen, they surround themselves with her image, her words — she liked to write — and her artwork, including a painting of a female angel with a military chopper. It was a piece their daughter created just before deploying to Afghanistan.

“Was it a premonition?” Cindy Long asked as she stared at the painting.

If nothing else, Long-Archuleta seemed destined for the skies. Born May 12, 1979, she knew what she wanted at an early age. In fifth grade, she wrote an essay that told the world she dreamed of becoming president.

“You didn’t have to motivate Tammy,” her father said with a smile.

She began martial arts training at age 6; by 12 she was a black belt. At 15, she was taking flying lessons in small airplanes in Los Lunas. By 16, she had her high school diploma and was off to college at UNM’s Valencia campus.

If possible, the pace quickened. At 20, she had earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a commission as an officer in the Air Force — a career move she decided upon years earlier, after taking a field trip to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque to watch pararescuers in action.

“I would like to make my life fruitful by helping others,” she wrote in an essay explaining her choice at the time.

The fact that both her grandfathers and one of her uncles had served in the military encouraged her as well, the Longs said.

Once Long-Archuleta began training in helicopters, her parents said, she fell in love with the way they took to the air and glided through space. The sound of chopper blades sang to her — their whump-whump-whump told downed servicemen awaiting rescue that help was coming, her parents said.

She was already married and divorced and had given birth to a son, Donaciano “Donnie” Archuleta, by the time she was deployed to Afghanistan late in 2002, about a year after the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

She told her parents her plan was to stay in the military for at least 20 years, to become what’s known as “a lifer.”

And she would not shy away from serving in a combat zone, telling her folks she would make it back alive. Yes, she said, she had to send a last will and testament per military regulations, but that didn’t mean anything. It was simply a formality, she assured them.

Once overseas, she sent letters and emails in which she only hinted at the reality of combat. In one email she simply wrote: “It’s gruesome here, I’ll tell you about it when I come home.”

In another, she used dark humor to shield them from worry.

“They’re shooting at us all the time,” she wrote. “But don’t worry — they’re bad shots.”

As their daughter’s tour in Afghanistan moved toward its end — Long-Archuleta was less than a week away from returning home when she died — the Longs were planning for Donnie’s fourth birthday party on April 4, 2003.

The crash, of course, changed everything, though the little boy’s party would go on. A Star Wars toy Tammy bought online for Donnie arrived in time. But it was a gathering with little cheer.

Cindy Long tried to brighten her grandson’s spirits by asking what type of decoration he wanted on his cake.

“A big red heart,” he replied. “Because my mommy loves me.”

After the funeral service in Belen, the family invited mourners to their home for a gathering. Someone started a bonfire outside. Richard Long took off the suit he had worn for both his father and daughter’s funerals and threw it in the fire.

“I never wanted to wear it again,” he said.

Like generations of military parents before them, the Longs have found ways to cope with death. Every autumn, they hold a memorial karate championship in their daughter’s honor, using the money raised in it to fund the scholarship program. To date, it has raised $32,500. They plan another event in October.

Last year, the White House invited the Longs to meet President Donald Trump at an event honoring Gold Star families — parents who have lost a child who died while serving in the military.

Asked for their thoughts about the potential end of the war after all these years, the Longs don’t deflect, but they also note they aren’t politicians.

“What has been going on over there has been going on for generations, and that’s something we can’t change,” Cindy Long said.

As for the way their daughter died, Richard simply said, “It shouldn’t have happened, and yet that’s how we lose so many in war.”

And there it is: 17 years after that terrible knock on the door, Richard Long gamely described how he and his wife try to cope.

Finally, it’s not about words or politics or peace treaties. As the father looked up, his eyes revealed a father’s tears, a father’s pain.

“I just keeping telling myself, ‘She’s not gone,’ ” he said. “ ‘She’s just in the next room.’ ”

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© 2020 The Santa Fe New Mexican