OPINION | A Ga. soldier’s dad: What do we have for all the lives lost?

Ric Stonesifer attaches the shoulder cord to the uniform of his son Kristofor after graduating from infantry school at Fort Benning. (Courtesy of Stonesifer family)
Caption
Ric Stonesifer attaches the shoulder cord to the uniform of his son Kristofor after graduating from infantry school at Fort Benning. (Courtesy of Stonesifer family)

Credit: Courtesy of Stonesifer family

Ric Stonesifer, the father of one of the first two soldiers killed in America’s 20-year war on terror, says the idea of coming to some sort of closure is a myth.

“It’s just longer times between the tears,” said Stonesifer. “They still can come up anytime, like when something comes up on TV or if I hear a song he liked.”

They welled up just the other day, he said.

His son, Kristofor, or Kris, was killed along with fellow Army Ranger Jonn Edmunds in October 2001 near the Afghanistan border when their Blackhawk helicopter crashed. The soldiers, based at Georgia’s Fort Benning, were the first combat-related deaths in the war. Stonesifer’s boots, beret, helmet and camouflage uniform were put on display at the National Infantry Museum at the base.

Kris was 28, a vegan philosophy student and later-in-life recruit. Jonn was 20, having enlisted as quickly as he could out of high school.

The families of the two men have been soaking in memories of their sons recently, with the 20th anniversaries of 9/11 and their deaths in the offing, as well as the calamitous and disastrous end of the long fight in Afghanistan.

Ric Stonesifer, who lives in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, said it was coincidental that I had called because he recently thought of our encounter. In October 2001, I was sent to the Philadelphia area to talk with Kris Stonesifer’s family. When I arrived, I grabbed copies of The New York Times, The Washington Post and the local Philadelphia Inquirer. All carried prominent stories about the soldiers’ deaths. All had passages saying the families declined to comment.

Still, I drove to Ric’s house and, as sunset loomed, took a breath and knocked on the door. A stern man with a military bearing (he was a Naval aviator) answered. I told him who I was. He responded, “I know who you are; come in.”

Jonn Edmunds was one of the first two soldiers killed in the war on terror starting in 2001. (Courtesy of the Edmunds family)
Caption
Jonn Edmunds was one of the first two soldiers killed in the war on terror starting in 2001. (Courtesy of the Edmunds family)

Credit: Courtesy of the Edmunds family

Credit: Courtesy of the Edmunds family

We spoke for several hours over the next two days about who Kris was and why he served.

Recently, I asked why he answered the door back then. “It was something you wrote me ahead of time in an email,” he said.

As I recall, I noted in that email that each generation thinks those coming behind them are more soft and not as deserving. However, each new generation has potential greatness in them and this one was now proving itself worthy.

Now, here we are, a generation later. Last month, 13 U.S. troops were killed in suicide bombings outside the airport in Kabul. They were the last U.S. military deaths in the generation-long war in Afghanistan. Almost all of those dead were babies when Kris and Jonn were killed.

More than 2,400 U.S. troops were killed and almost 21,000 were wounded in the Afghanistan War and the follow-up police action, which is largely the last five-plus years. A military ceremony was held in December 2014 marking the Afghanistan War’s “end,” even though the fighting continued.

The Iraq War saw more than 4,400 killed and 32,000 wounded before it ended in December 2011.

A decade earlier, in October 2001, President George W. Bush told the families of the fallen soldiers, “They did not die in vain.”

Donn Edmunds, Jonn’s father, a Vietnam veteran, thinks those words sound hollow now. “My problem right now is they kind of did (die in vain). I’m justified in thinking that because the Taliban is running the country now.”

In 2011, I spoke with Edmunds right after Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALS. He said the war in Afghanistan was necessary and was going to have to be a marathon to turn things around in that nation. At the time, he told me: “I see you calling me in 10 years and asking me, ‘How do you feel about it now?’”

Asked about that remark, he said: “I’m really proud of my son; I’m not proud of my country. What was the sacrifice for? Everyone who lost someone has been slapped in the face.”

Edmunds said that at a ceremony at Fort Benning in 2003, he met Ric Stonesifer, who “seemed a bit bitter.” During our recent conversation, Edmunds apologized at one point, saying, “Sorry to sound like I’m bitter. This is exactly what we did to the people in Vietnam. We abandoned them and the Communists killed them.”

Edmunds, who lives in Wyoming, has become a Patriot Guard Rider, the group of motorcyclists who attend service members’ funerals. He has attended 185. He has also thrown himself into politics, running almost every two years for the state House of Representatives. He has yet to win.

Ric Stonesifer said, “Initially, it was a righteous kind of thing we were doing. In 2001 we were all for it and waving American flags. But I don’t think there was much good out of the 20 years. What do we have for all the lives lost? We have terrorists in power over there.”

Ruth Stonesifer and son Kristofor. He was one of the first two combat-related deaths in the war on terror. (Courtesy of the Stonesifer family)
Caption
Ruth Stonesifer and son Kristofor. He was one of the first two combat-related deaths in the war on terror. (Courtesy of the Stonesifer family)

Credit: Courtesy of the Stonesifer family

Credit: Courtesy of the Stonesifer family

In 2001, 90% of a reeling and angry U.S. public was behind military action in Afghanistan. In 2011, a Gallup Poll found Americans pretty evenly split when asked if the Afghanistan War was a mistake, with 49% saying it was and 48% saying it wasn’t.

Last month, 62% of Americans said the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting. Just 35% said it was.

And now the two fathers of the first two soldiers killed in that war on terror have ultimately joined the 62%.

I called Ruth Stonesifer, Kris’ mom and Ric’s ex-wife. Not long after her son’s death, she joined the Gold Star Mothers, an organization of women whose children have been killed in military service. She ultimately became the national president of that organization and gave a speech at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. She has attended dozens of funerals and memorial services and tried to console countless grieving parents.

“Volunteering was a way to get out of my own head,” she said. “It was a relief valve to stay active.”

In a 2003 interview she told me “the smiles of American soldiers are inspirational” and that the U.S. was performing a service to the world in trying to establish a better way of life in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’m hoping on the History Channel, before I die, we will see positive results from all this,” she said back them.

Reminded of those sentiments, she laughed and said, “Wow. Silly me.”

Asked about her thoughts, she said, “Dealing with this for 20 years, you learn when to keep quiet and not say something. It has been hard to watch all the chaos” in Afghanistan.

Ruth Stonesifer said she received Kris’ computer after his death. “The very last thing he looked at before he got on that helicopter was he had Googled ‘The Afghanistan-Russian wars,’“ she said. “He wanted to learn the history of the struggles of that dusty land.”

In his last letter to his family, he wrote: “I don’t know if you’ll ever get an explanation of how or why I died. I’d like to think I died for something important or vital to the mission here. But I don’t think it is. It’s just a ‘gravy’ mission and I fully expect to come back without firing a shot. So if you are reading this something went horribly wrong or it was just a bad luck Murphy’s Law type fluke. All of you are in my thoughts. I’ve had a good life and I’m happy to have spent it with all of you. Love Kris”

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