Kyle Griffeth doesn’t remember the names of all the combat outposts he was stationed at in Afghanistan, but he can’t forget the Tangi Valley.
Tangi Valley “was the worst,” said Griffeth. “I was there for three months. Before we got there, they had stopped taking vehicles on the roads because of so many IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and they quit doing day missions because we were losing so many people. So we ran strictly night missions the whole time we were there. Towards the end, they realized we just needed to pull out because we weren’t gaining any ground.”
Griffeth, who grew up in Iola and played basketball for Allen Community College upon graduating from high school in 2003, joined the military when he was 23 years old. He served six years in the Army as part of the 89D Explosive Ordnance Disposal. In layman’s terms: a bomb tech. He was stationed in Afghanistan with the 705th company from November 2010 to November 2011.
Nine years later, his memories of his time in the Tangi Valley seem as clear as yesterday.
Once it was decided troops were abandoning their outpost there, Griffeth was called to participate in “a huge operation to clear all the IEDs on one route.”
“We would go out on foot every night to walk the sides of the road to find all of the IEDs and clear them. Towards the end, they had already removed the kitchen. We were living off of MREs (field rations) and water bottles,” said Griffeth.
And then, misfortune struck. “Our last month’s rations that were flown in, they missed the drop and they fell down the side of the mountain,” explained Griffeth. “For the last month we got one MRE and one water bottle a day. And we still went out every single night. I dropped down to around 130 pounds.” Griffeth now weighs 175.
The last day is what he won’t forget. “On our last day there, they sent us out in the day. No one had gone out in the day in over a year,” Griffeth stressed.
On patrol, “We found a command wire, and it went to a choke point between two rivers,” said Griffeth. “Usually when you find an IED, the infantry breaks off and provides security for the front. Well, we didn’t have any infantry in the front, so my team member Devin Colvin and I had to get fairly close to our leader, Joe Czikalla.”
Griffeth takes a moment to watch the memory play itself back to him. “Joe goes down to cut the wire, and we watch his body lift up. He disappears in the dust.”
“After my team member and I stopped rolling backwards from the blast, we both jumped up and went running down to find him,” said Griffeth. “And then all of a sudden we hear him. He was 30 yards behind us. All he had was two cracked vertebrae and ruptured eardrums.”
How? “The Taliban had just blown someone up there the night before, and the IED they replaced it with that morning didn’t have any frag in it,” explained Griffeth. “They had also buried it too deep in the dirt, so it just launched him. Pretty crazy. Pretty crappy day.”
Talk about an understatement. You’d think that’d be enough, too, that the fates would have, in some nod to mercy or justice, lifted Griffeth from that valley forever. But Griffeth was destined for another round.
TANGI VALLEY occupies a particularly horrid place in the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan, which has focused on eliminating the Taliban, the military organization and political movement that has raised a near-constant insurgency against the Afghani government since the mid 1990s.
In August 2011, Taliban insurgents shot down a Chinook helicopter, killing 31 Americans, including some Navy Seal commandos from the famous Seal Team 6 — the same unit that killed Osama bin Laden — as well as eight Afghans. There were no survivors. To this day, it remains the deadliest day for American forces stationed in Afghanistan.
After the crash, Griffeth was one of the soldiers sent to the site to destroy the remains of the helicopter. Troops that had arrived before Griffeth were supplied with C4 and torches, but the torches “ran out of oxygen or acetylene, one of the two,” recalls Griffeth, and so a pallet of C4 was flown in “and we blew the rest of it apart.”
That wasn’t all. “We got the bodies on stretchers and humped them out of the ravine,” Griffeth said. “Then, we finished blowing up the Chinook, and then humped all the pieces of the Chinook out of the ravine, too. We couldn’t leave anything for them, so the Taliban couldn’t have any intel or use any of it for frag for their IEDs.”
At this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Tangi Valley was cursed, or that Griffeth was waging some sort of cosmic battle out there in the mountains of Afghanistan, amid the snow and wind and cold, with silent and indifferent stars shining down. He sure was a long way from home.
GRIFFETH now works the night shift as a utility man at Ash Grove Cement in Chanute. He’s been there two months. At 35, he is medically retired from the military. His time spent hauling a massive pack full of C4 up and down mountains, along with malnutrition and four IED blasts that leveled him to the ground, did permanent damage to his joints. His labrum, the soft cartilage that surrounds the hip socket, tore. After failed attempts to repair it and an unsuccessful surgery, Griffeth and the Army decided it was best to transfer to civilian life.
When looking back on his time in Afghanistan, Griffeth offers a sober analysis. “We spend billions of dollars to defeat them with technology,” he said, “and the Taliban can use a water bottle, or two saw blades, and beat us. We come up with sonar scanners, and they beat our billions of dollars of technology with more wire. I thought it was ridiculous how much money we spent out there.”
The United States has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001. It is America’s longest and most expensive war. Over 2,450 American soldiers have died. The U.S. has spent over $2 trillion. And yet, 19 years later, the U.S. and the Taliban are still at a stalemate. Opium production has skyrocketed. Afghan forces still cannot support themselves. All this raises the question: Why were soldiers like Griffeth there?
GRIFFETH doesn’t pay attention much to the news from Afghanistan. He used to, but now, he laughs, “All I do now is work, sleep and mess around with them two,” pointing to his two sons Wyatt, 6, and Braden, 9, as they run around his home in rural LaHarpe. We’re sitting in his living room, the sun dipping behind the horizon.
Griffeth seems at peace with his time in Afghanistan, and he’s accepted that the end result is, as with the war in Afghanistan as a whole, an open question. “What I did over there, as far as making that country a better place, I don’t think I had any effect on the Afghanis.” He reflects further, “Maybe I saved a few of their lives because they didn’t accidentally get blown up. But to know that we took care of IEDs and saved a bunch of Americans, I’m happy about that. I feel good about that.”
In some ways, the military has always been a part of Griffeth. “I probably would have joined right after high school if I didn’t get a scholarship to play basketball in college.”
Griffeth initially wanted to become a cavalry scout, but, Griffeth said, “My ASVAB score was high enough that they encouraged me to go Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD). So I did, which was better for me. The hazard pay was certainly better,” he grins.
Today, Griffeth doesn’t plan on doing anything special to commemorate Veterans Day. “Might grill out,” he says, “but I’ve got to work Wednesday at midnight. The only days I really celebrate are February 28 and July 4, the dates I lost my best friends in the military.”
The military has given Griffeth lifelong friends, one of which, Joe Czikalla, his former EOD team leader, lives in Iowa. Griffeth and he connect regularly, and Griffeth embarks on occasional hunting trips with groups of EOD veterans, which he describes as a lot of fun. It’s pretty easy to get along with guys who have been through similar experiences, Griffeth remarks. There’s an instant bond there.
And as Griffeth asks Wyatt and Braden what they’d like for dinner — pizza seems a clear winner on Sundays — he looks back on his six years in the Army with a steady eye. It has carved a clear before and after in his life. So many things he left and lost, so many things he gained and learned. He went in as a Private First Class and left as an E5 Sergeant. He made a lot of friends, and he lost some really good ones. He took a fit body to Afghanistan and returned with a scarred one. And the Tangi Valley is, sometimes, uncomfortably hard to shake.
“I was under a house working,” says Griffith, recalling a moment now several months back, “and it was really tight, and I rolled over and the wood was in front of my face. It took me right back to the Tangi, to when I had been knocked out from a vehicle-borne IED. It took me a good two hours to calm down.”
THERE ARE more than 19 million veterans in the United States. Of those, 2.7 million have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, of whom at least 970,000 have some degree of officially recognized disability as a result of the wars.
Those who serve our country have given us immeasurable offerings. Their sacrifice and devotion, one of unlimited energy, of their bodies, of their lives, is too huge to comprehend. Yet as a seemingly endless war drags on, lives lost in combat become reduced to mere background noise. It’s hard to take stock of it all, to comprehend what veterans have given up.
“I’m proud to be a veteran,” he tells me. “I’m proud to say that I went into the military because I wanted to. I made some good friends.”
May we — as individuals, as a community, as a country — be as kind to veterans like Kyle Griffeth as he has been to us. He may not think it necessary. After all, he didn’t ask for much in the first place. But it’s the least we can do.