Gold Star families share relief, worry, on leaving Afghanistan

Aircrew assigned to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, carry their gear into a C-17 Globemaster III assigned to Joint Base Charleston, SC, April 27, 2021, at Al Udeid AB. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kylee Gardner)

The Biden administration’s plan to bring all American troops home from Afghanistan by September was cause for both relief and worry for three New Hampshire mothers whose sons were killed in combat overseas.

“For me, it’s 15 years too late,” Jean Durgin of Henniker said last week.

Her son, Army Sgt. Russell Durgin, was killed in action on June 13, 2006, on a mountainside in Afghanistan.

Durgin, 23, had already served a tour in Iraq when he deployed to Afghanistan in March of that year. When his unit came under fire, Durgin, an expert sniper, sent his men on and diverted fire away from them before he was killed.

“I pray every day that Afghanistan will know peace, and that our men will come home,” Jean Durgin said. “So when I heard that Biden was going to bring them home, yes, I was happy. I was happy for the fact that families will not have to go through what we went through.”

But, she said, “There are no winners in this war. We’ve lost so many people.”

On April 14, President Joe Biden announced that after consulting with allies, military and intelligence leaders, diplomats and development experts, he had decided: “It’s time to end the forever war.”

“I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan: two Republicans, two Democrats,” Biden said. “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”

“It’s time,” agreed Denise Gionet of Pelham, a past president of New Hampshire Gold Star Mothers, an organization of those whose children died while serving in the military.

“I would like to believe that we’ve done what we could, and that hopefully they can stand on their own two feet and get by without us,” Gionet said.

Her son, Daniel, served in Afghanistan in 2003-04, then reenlisted and became an Army medic. He was killed in Iraq on June 4, 2006, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his tank weeks before he was due to come home. He was 23 years old and a newlywed.

‘He would want us to leave’

Natalie Healy of Exeter said she has felt a mix of emotions since hearing the news, but one is relief.

Healy said she had been talking with another Gold Star mother a few nights before the president’s announcement. “We were both saying it’s time for them to leave. We both felt we’ve been there long enough,” she said. “They just don’t seem to be making any progress.”

Healy’s son, Navy SEAL Daniel Healy, died in Afghanistan on June 28, 2005, when his helicopter was shot down during a mission to rescue other members of his unit. The harrowing incident was recounted in the book “Lone Survivor” and the movie of the same name.

Healy, a father of four, is buried in an oceanside cemetery in San Diego. “You just know the next stop is heaven, it’s so beautiful,” his mother said.

The day he was buried, mourners stood silently on the hillside overlooking the bay. “You could hear a pin drop,” Healy recalled. “All of a sudden, you heard one seal bark from down in the bay.

“Everybody was like: That’s got to be Dan.”

Healy believes her son would agree that it’s time to leave Afghanistan.

“I think he also would regret that some of the things that we could have done, that maybe would have given us a victory, weren’t done in the early stages. It’s hard to say,” she said. “But I think he would definitely want us to leave.”

“Throughout history, many people have tried to conquer Afghanistan,” Healy said. “The Russians couldn’t do it. The English couldn’t do it. Alexander the Great couldn’t do it.”

Only Genghis Khan managed to, she said. “I think we thought with our technology, we could do it, and maybe we could have if we used all our power and might.”

‘Still a chance’

There’s still a chance for peace in Afghanistan, Healy said, “if they have the will to have the freedom that they have enjoyed since we’ve been there.

“If they can remain strong, then maybe Afghanistan can withstand the Taliban.”

But Durgin said she fears what will happen once the Americans leave. “The Afghanis have been at war for so long, do they know any different? Will they know what to do?” she asked. “I do not believe that their war will be over.”

Her son had befriended some of the Afghani army soldiers, she said. “They honored him … when he was killed because they found him a positive force,” she said. “And that was nice to hear.”

Asked if the decision to withdraw the troops brings her any peace, Durgin said, “It will bring me a little bit of peace when I see it happen.”

“They’re not coming home ’til September, and what’s going to happen between now and then?” she asked. “I’m praying for peace.”

Healy said her biggest concern is for the troops to get out safely. “I hope the president will live up to the announcement he made, that if anyone attacks our troops, we will hit them very heavily,” she said.

She’s also worried about what will befall the women and girls of Afghanistan after U.S. troops leave. “In the outlying towns, where the Taliban has a lot of power, they won’t be able to get an education or even go out,” she said.

Still, Healy said Americans can return “if it looks like it’s falling apart.”

“We can always do something so they don’t get to be the place where terrorists are harbored, to plan attacks on us and other countries in the free world,” she said.

Even as America’s longest war has continued, New Hampshire has taken steps to make sure the warriors who gave their lives are not forgotten.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Dan Healy’s service is memorialized in a mural inside New Hampshire Catholic Charities’ new Liberty House home for veterans in Manchester.

A “Hometown Heroes” banner honoring Sgt. Russ Durgin will be installed next month in his hometown of Henniker, where a bridge is also named for him.

Likewise, in Sgt. Dan Gionet’s hometown of Pelham, a bridge was dedicated in his memory.

Last week, Denise Gionet found herself thinking of some photographs her son had sent home from Afghanistan, showing American soldiers surrounded by grinning children. Included was a request: “Send more candy.”

“These kids deserve to grow up like I did: free and unafraid,” he told his mother.

“I hope those kids that I have pictures of can grow up knowing at least that we cared,” Gionet said. “And that they can survive and live the life that we went out there hoping for them.”


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