Editorial: ‘It was friendly. Until then.’ Remembering who we lost on this Memorial Day.

·2 min read

A park bench might seem an underrated token of appreciation and gratitude for a lost soldier.

But this one carries a presence about it.

The unassuming bench fastened to a concrete slab at Midlothian Memorial Park has held up well, considering Chicago’s damaging snow, ice, heat, humidity. It’s made not of wood but of a fiberglass material made to look like wood. It can seat three small people comfortably. It faces 145th Street. If you sit there in the spring, you’ll hear birds chirping from nearby trees. Or the crack of a bat from a baseball diamond behind you. Mostly, you’ll hear traffic roaring from Interstate 294, which curves around the park in this working-class southwest suburb.

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The park bench sits alone along a walking path with nothing to shade or obscure it. It should be so. It encourages visitors to stop, sit and notice the carving into the back slats of the bench: “In Loving Memory of Sgt. Christopher Paul Abeyta.”

From a July 30, 2009, Tribune story, “Not everyone comes home” by Tribune reporter James Janega, who embedded with Illinois National Guard troops in Afghanistan:

The four-Humvee convoy bounced down the mountain road, one Afghan village blending into another on a routine mission for Delta Company of the Illinois National Guard. The troops were scouting for the best location to build a school. Then the bomb went off.

In that instant, the day became the deadliest in the Illinois Guard’s yearlong deployment in Afghanistan — one that will be painfully remembered Thursday as Delta Company returns to a heroes’ welcome from family and friends in northwest suburban Woodstock.

Since last fall, more than 2,900 “citizen soldiers” from Illinois — nurses, police officers and chemical engineers — have performed the ground-level work to help Afghanistan’s beleaguered government fend off an extremist Islamic insurgency. Illinois guardsmen have trained police officers. They have protected road-building crews. They have stood guard for hours in the sun as civil affairs officers tried to connect Afghanistan’s government with an alienated and frustrated populace. Even as Delta Company celebrates those accomplishments, it returns without four of its 60 soldiers, three of whom were killed in that single, sudden blast on a March afternoon in the mountains.

In all, 17 Illinois Guard troops have died during the deployment, and the losses weigh heavily as the troops head home and their families and friends prepare to welcome them with hugs and homemade signs. For Delta, the bombing was the only attack they faced during their entire time in Afghanistan. The story of that day — as described by the soldiers, their commanders and their families — is a window into the grinding duties and constant risks they faced.

For Sgt. 1st Class Matt Burleson, 33, a big paramedic from Waukegan in charge of the convoy, the horrible events of the day changed everything.

“It was friendly,” Burleson said. “Until then.”

10 a.m., March 15 Anar Khel, Afghanistan

The Humvees turned right off the highway, snaking through haze and gravel roads toward snow-capped mountains. It was warm and sunny after days of chilly rains.

On such missions, the only distractions are the soldiers’ conversation over radio headsets, the creak of Humvees after sudden lurches and the feel of barely cushioned seats that only seem to get harder the more troops bounce on them.

For the troops, it was boring, a day on the assembly line.

“It felt routine,” Burleson said.

The convoy pulled to a halt at a meager collection of houses called Anar Khel. The Illinois soldiers fanned out into a wide protective circle, facing out as civil affairs officers from the U.S. Air Force met with the locals to discuss the need to build schools.

The Illinois troops seldom joined the conversation. The guardsmen were present at some of the most important meetings over the last year in Jalalabad province along the volatile border with Pakistan. But they rarely knew exactly what was going on. They were there for security.

On this day, the commander of “Vic One” — vehicle one, the lead Humvee — was Sgt. Christopher Abeyta, 23, an outgoing soldier from Midlothian who usually manned the vehicle’s gun turret. The regular leader, Sgt. Richard Davis of Harvard, had gone home on leave the day before. Abeyta eagerly guided the column from the right front seat.

With Abeyta was a mechanic for the reconstruction team, Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy Bowles of Arizona. From Illinois came an Iraq War vet from Round Lake Beach, Spec. Robert Weinger, 24, and a young father, Spec. Norman Cain III, 22, of Mt. Morris. The men were all friends.

Delta is a remarkably tight unit. Burleson’s brother, Spec. William Burleson, reenlisted after eight years out of the Army to come to Afghanistan with Matt. Delta soldiers hang out with each other in Chicago between Guard assignments. Even soldiers in sister companies would later say they were good friends with all three of the Illinois soldiers in “Vic One.”

11:15 a.m., Laghurji

The convoy stopped again at a collection of government buildings and waited outside again as civil affairs officers talked to local education ministers.

The need for schools in the area was critical. As it is now, teachers set up easels in the baking heat outside and have students, usually boys, recite back to them. To civil affairs teams, these outside schools are natural places to erect or expand school buildings.

Along the Pakistan frontier, schools and other development projects carry strategic importance. The local population hasn’t decided whether it supports the Afghan government over Taliban insurgents, who move in and out of an arid wasteland where the most viable cash crop is the opium poppy.

Throughout the course of the spring, engaging Afghans in villages like this grew even more central to U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, as the emphasis shifted from directly attacking insurgents to winning over the public.

In the village of Laghurji, with the Illinois Guard protecting the perimeter, the meeting with the elders in March was over in only half an hour, to the troops’ relief.

Abeyta assured Matt Burleson that he knew the route home. There was only one road; they had to leave the same way they came.

12:45 p.m., Dawani

By now, the squad had been grinding through an irrigated landscape of mud brick shanties, wraithlike men and ancient legend. Alexander the Great marched half his army within a day’s walk of this valley. Not 20 miles away are the Tora Bora mountains, where intelligence experts believe Osama bin Laden escaped U.S. troops and their allies and fled into Pakistan in late 2001.

The explosion that engulfed the lead Humvee caught everyone by surprise.

Two Humvees back, Burleson’s head snapped up. The squad leader couldn’t see the Humvee at the front of the column. He heaved open his Humvee’s armored door and sprinted forward, his body armor rattling. An Air Force medic was running, too, as were other civil affairs officers, who were nurses in civilian life.

Burleson knew he had to call in an airlift but wanted to assess the injuries.

It was his duty, and the victims in the Humvee were also his friends.

After 12:45 p.m., Forward Operating Base Finley-Shields, Jalalabad

The black phone rang beside the door in Delta Company’s plywood platoon headquarters. Second Lt. Kenneth Engberg, 24, of Grayslake, who led the Delta soldiers in Jalalabad, navigated office chairs, footlockers and drink coolers to pick it up. The caller ID showed a call from the base’s Joint Operations Center.

“Hey, did you hear what happened?” an officer asked. Engberg had no idea.

“You’d better come up to the JOC.” The connection ended.

Engberg hustled up the hill, through the landscaped grounds of a commandeered hotel once used by Russian soldiers for R & R and through a heavy plywood door. Inside, there are maps, radios and busy soldiers gulping coffee from Styrofoam cups. Eyes followed him in. Engberg asked what was happening.

A patrol had hit an improvised explosive device.

“And we think they might be yours.”

Someone pointed to the spot on a map. Engberg knew right away. But who? How many? How bad? No one had answers.

After 12:45 p.m., Dawani

All four men had been removed from the Humvee. Burleson looked at his ruined friends.

The medic and civil affairs officers only needed to work on two of them. The other two were beyond saving.

Burleson hurried to his Humvee and called for a medevac from Jalalabad Air Field, the base a mile from Delta’s home on Finley-Shields.

A dot in the sky became a Blackhawk helicopter with a red cross on its nose, thundering up the valley to settle on the rocky ground. All four victims were loaded through the sliding doors. With a blast of dust, the helicopter lifted, banked and raced away to Jalalabad, leaving the surviving Delta soldiers in silence.

“It was like water rushing through an inlet, and then it pools,” Burleson said. “Everything was so fast. Then nothing happened.”

5:30 p.m., Jalalabad Air Field

Surgery for the two wounded soldiers had not gone well.

Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Guyot, 45, of Lake Villa, the soldiers’ platoon sergeant, heard a call for blood donations over the base loudspeakers and stuck his head outside to look. Two hundred people were standing in line outside the hospital, he recalled.

A short time later, after the wounded soldiers died, another line formed. This time, the troops stood in groups near the airfield’s flight line — flight crews and mechanics, Marines and soldiers, including 14 men from Delta. An unmarked Blackhawk helicopter idled on the runway in front of them.

Solemnly, the flight line saluted as, one stretcher at a time, the Delta soldiers carried their comrades to the waiting helicopter and passed them aboard.

Engberg remembers carrying a stretcher as if he were in a dream. When he turned around at the helicopter door, he could see the other Americans looking at the helicopter, still saluting.

The Blackhawk lifted off the cement runway, leaned into the air and motored into the night, carrying the bodies of his men to Bagram Airfield, the first leg of a journey to their families back home.

On this Memorial Day, thank a soldier. Remember those we have lost, including Sgt. Abeyta who gave his life to protect yours. Sit on a bench. And give thanks.

Editor’s note: The “Hoist a glass for Red” editorial that has appeared on this page on Memorial Day since 2001 will instead be published on Veterans Day.

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