Vets, families experience conflicted emotions as nation ends its longest war

Jim and Leslie Groves embrace a photo of their son, US Army Chief Warrant Officer James E. Groves III. Groves was killed in Afghanistan in 2013 when he was 37, He was assigned to 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division Hunter Army Airfield, Ga.; died March 16 in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter crash.. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF
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Jim and Leslie Groves embrace a photo of their son, US Army Chief Warrant Officer James E. Groves III. Groves was killed in Afghanistan in 2013 when he was 37, He was assigned to 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division Hunter Army Airfield, Ga.; died March 16 in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter crash.. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF

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Talk to veterans and the families of those who lost loved ones in the service of their country and they will tell you that no political decision can invalidate those sacrifices.

Those who fell in battle or service have an honor that can’t be touched by politics, they say.

“You can’t look at their deaths as being in vain,” said Butler County resident and Afghanistan veteran Sarah Meeks, who served with the Ohio Army National Guard for 15 years, 11 of them active-duty. “Most people who joined wanted to serve their country, they wanted to provide for their families. So no matter how they died or where they died, it’s very honorable.”

As of last month, 2,312 U.S. military personnel serving in Afghanistan have died since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001. (Operation Enduring Freedom officially ended in December 2014, although American and allied forces continued to serve in the country.)

Still, loved ones on this Memorial Day acknowledge a sense of conflict as they watch the United States pull from a nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan, this nation’s longest on foreign soil.

‘Conflicted’

“As to the early withdrawal, I wish they had rethought that,” Kettering resident Jim Groves said.

“I just hope we aren’t going to lose all the ground we gained there by pulling out,” his wife Leslie Groves said, before adding: “I really don’t want to lose any more lives there.”

Families of troops killed in combat experience Memorial Day every day; for some seeing a war end can be bittersweet.

Jim and Leslie Groves are the parents of Army Chief Warrant Officer III James E. Groves III, who was killed in March 2013 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The younger Groves was 37.

Brittnay McCall is a Columbus-area resident who is a Gold Star spouse. She knows the Groves’ well, and she knows what they go through.

McCall lost her husband Daniel during his Army service in Iraq in 2007. As a survivor outreach services coordinator, she works with individuals and families navigating similar griefs.

Families with whom she works are often suffering; they aren’t interested in exploring global geo-politics. But they are clear on one thing, McCall said.

“They don’t want any other families to experience the loss that they experienced,” she said. “I believe they are feeling — I don’t know what the right word is — conflicted.”

Last year, President Donald Trump pledged to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by May 1 this year — before President Joe Biden pushed that date back to Sept. 11. More recently, the Biden administration has said that U.S. troops and NATO allies will be out of that country by mid-July.

The number of American troops there today hovers around 3,500, well down from the 100,000 who were assembled in Afghanistan at different points in 2010 and 2011.

‘It’s about honor’

Jim Groves recalled that he once asked his son in his high school years whether he wanted to go into the military.

“And he said, ‘Absolutely not,’” Jim Groves recalled. “His words were: ‘Hell, no.’”

In time, the younger Groves changed his mind about that, enlisting and working in intelligence before embarking on air assault training. He became a warrant officer and a pilot, serving two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Groves was six months short of coming home on his last Afghanistan tour (and 18 months shy of retirement) when the helicopter he was piloting crashed. He left a wife of 15 years and two sons, who at the time were 10 and 13 years old.

Jim Groves remembers asking his son if the United States was in Afghanistan for the right reasons.

“He said, ‘Absolutely.’ And I take him at his word that we were doing the right thing in Iraq, and that we were doing the right thing in Afghanistan at that time,” the elder Groves said.

“It’s not about the barbecues,” he said. “It’s not about the damn Memorial Day sales. It’s about honor, remembering and sacrifice.”

Families working through the loss of a relative in the military can be wary of how others can treat a “holiday” like Memorial Day, McCall said.

“I have a hard time calling it a ‘holiday,’ because when you think holiday, that’s a celebration,” she said. “If Memorial Day is going to be viewed as a celebration, then it should be to celebrate the lives of those we’ve lost and honor their families.”

She added: “And I don’t think we do that enough. It’s continuously focused on barbecues and other things.”

‘A very long war’

Reflecting on her own husband, McCall knows Daniel’s sacrifice could never be in vain.

“He chose to serve his country after 9/11, and he died doing what he loved to do,” she said.

Meeks remembers her first gut reaction when she first heard of plans to pull American forces from the theater: “Finally.”

Meeks was supposed to ship out to Army basic training on Sept. 11, 2001. The events of that day pushed her training back.

By the time Meeks served in Afghanistan, she had two young children. She was brought into a unit that needed a logistics officer, and her former husband served in an Army Ranger battalion; today, he still works in Afghanistan as a contractor. He was supposed to return to the United States last April and is now due to return this month.

When Meeks left the service, she did so as a chief warrant officer II.

“It’s obviously been a very long war,” she said in an interview.

She talked of the tremendous amount of “hard work” that American and allied forces invested in Afghanistan.

“I don’t want to say it’s all for nothing because we don’t know what it’s going to look like once we pull out,” Meeks said. “It’s just kind of one of those hopeful things.”

Added Meeks: “We could stay there forever and never complete the mission.”

Marianne Plummer, a Springboro resident, was an Army reservist who served Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010. She was served in Iraq.

“I hope if we pull out, I hope we do a proper pull out,” Plummer said.

The country is resilient one, she said.

“They tend to do OK,” she said. “There have been many countries who have gone in and invaded Afghanistan. And they all seem to pull out. Hopefully, they’ll be able to continue what we helped them start.”

U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy, is a U.S. Army veteran, but not a combat veteran or a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.

“I have friends who went there and didn’t make it home, friends who went there and came back wounded, either physically or less visibly,” Davidson said. “I’ve been critical of the way the war was waged — not by the people who waged it.”

“We could not have succeeded there without the bravery and selfless service of the men and women who went to fight there,” he added. “Frankly, they went there for noble purposes.”

But he maintains that for too long the national command authority has been unable to succinctly define the purpose or mission of American troops in that country. He called that a “failure of the political leadership.”

The United States should never enter another war that is undeclared, that does not have a defined mission and is not subject to active current reauthorizations by Congress, Davidson said.

“That should never happen again,” Davidson said. “And I think the opportunity is to look back at what went well and what hasn’t gone well there.”

Area Memorial Day events

· BEAVERCREEK: The Beavercreek Veterans Memorial will host a service to honor the memories of fallen soldiers at 2 p.m. Monday.

· MIAMISBURG: The city of Miamisburg will host its annual Memorial Day parade that will begin at 11 a.m. Monday. A memorial service followed by a picnic and a performance by the Miamisburg High School Alumni Band will occur at Veterans Memorial Park after the end of the parade.

· SPRINGBORO: The city’s annual Memorial Day parade will take place at 2 p.m. Monday, beginning on S Main St. and finishing at Wade Field.

· TROY: There will be a reception held for the Ohio Motor Pool convoy at around 1 p.m. Monday at the Miami Valley Veterans Museum. The museum’s hours of operation on that day will be from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a brief ceremony to honor America’s fallen soldiers occurring at 2 p.m.

· CENTERVILLE: The city will host its annual Memorial Day ceremony at 9 a.m. Monday at Stubbs Park. Col. Michael Phillips, vice commander of the 88th Air Base Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, will be the keynote speaker for the service.