'I will never believe my son died in vain': Gold Star families react to Afghanistan's fall

·5 min read

Alec Catherwood was 19 years old when he was deployed to Afghanistan's Helmand province as a lance corporal in the Marine Corps. Less than three weeks after his unit, the Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, known as the “Darkhorse” Battalion, arrived, he was killed in combat.

Now, 11 years later, Alec’s mom, Gretchen, was once again face to face with the reality of his passing as she watched the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan.

“The past few days have been a roller coaster of emotions for me. [I’ve] been sad, and angry, and disappointed, and scared, and numb. It’s like losing my son all over again. It’s all of those things wrapped up into one,” Catherwood told Yahoo News.

The Biden administration announced in July that all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by Aug. 31, bringing to an end America’s longest war, which began under President George W. Bush following the terrorist attacks on 9/11. As the U.S. military presence waned, the Taliban began gaining power over provincial capitals, and on Sunday, Taliban fighters took over the Afghan capital, Kabul, reclaiming control of the country after nine days.

Regardless of the Taliban's return to power, Catherwood refuses to believe that the 775,000 U.S. troops who fought in the Afghanistan War made no impact.

Bagram Airfield base after all U.S. and NATO forces evacuated in Parwan province, eastern Afghanistan on Thursday on July 8, 2021. (Ezatullah Alidost/UPI/Shutterstock)
Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on July 8 after the evacuation of U.S. and NATO forces. (Ezatullah Alidost/UPI/Shutterstock)

“I really pray that the men and women who came home don’t feel like they were there for nothing, because it wasn’t for nothing. It just wasn’t,” she said. “I will never believe that, and I will never believe my son died in vain.”

Alec, whose father fought in Desert Storm and whose grandfather fought in the Korean War, wanted to help other people gain the same privileges that he had growing up, so he enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 17.

“Before he left, my niece, who was 10 years old, asked him why he had to go, how come other people couldn’t go, and he said he had to go because he wanted to make sure little girls in Afghanistan could go to school like she could. And he believed that. He really, deep down in his heart, believed that he was going to make a difference,” Catherwood said.

She pointed out that although his actions may not have changed the outcome of the war, he was still able to make an impact. “I pray that the girls who benefited from [his service] will take that experience with them throughout their lives and hopefully make a difference because of it. I really think they will.

“He died doing what he believed in. I don’t know too many people who can say that,” she said.

Afghan girls raise their hands during english class at the Bibi Mahroo high school in Kabul, Afghanistan November 22, 2006. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Afghan girls at Bibi Mahroo High School in Kabul in 2006. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Army Ranger 1st Lt. Scott Milley was 23 years old when he was killed in Afghanistan after his unit came under attack in 2010. A high school senior during the attacks on 9/11, Milley felt compelled to join the ROTC program at the University of New Hampshire and went on to become an infantry officer.

Like Alec Catherwood, Milley was determined to fight for what he believed in. His father, Steve, told Yahoo News that his son’s stance was to bring democracy to Afghanistan and its citizens and to protect innocent people.

Steve Milley, too, emphasized that his son’s service was not for nothing.

“I don’t feel his death is in vain from this exit, because that would mean that everyone’s death would be in vain — for wars past, wars future,” he said. “We haven’t had a terrorist attack in 20 years, since 9/11, so I would like to think that his impact had something to do with that.”

“I’m still prideful of his service,” he continued. “It’s something he wanted his whole life, and he was following his dream.”

American soldiers wait on the tarmac in Logar province, Afghanistan on Nov. 30, 2017. (Rahmat Gul/AP)
U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Logar province in 2017. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

For Milley, the war was due to end, but the handling of the removal of troops is where he finds fault.

“There does come a time where we have got to leave. We cannot be the world’s policeman,” he said. “However, greater minds than I should have been thinking about an exit plan for a very long time — we’ve had 20 years to come up with one.”

Gretchen Catherwood agreed that it wasn’t the fault of a single administration but the collective mishandling across the past two decades that “snowballed into this result.”

“I’m so disappointed that so many civilians are going to suffer, and I’m excruciatingly disappointed that we have let down the interpreters who did so much for our military, who literally put their lives on the line every single day to help our military,” she said. “We left them there, we failed them, and that breaks my heart.” 

Despite their frustration with how the war is ending, Catherwood and Milley want people to remember the legacy of their children and the sacrifice they made for their country.

Catherwood hopes to keep Alec’s legacy alive through Darkhorse Lodge, a retreat for combat veterans in memory of her son and the 24 other Marines in his battalion who were killed.

“As long as his sacrifice is remembered, I’m good,” Milley said about his son. “If you’re sitting at your computer, Google 1st Lt. Scott Milley and say hi.”


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