Wyoming troop deaths bookend Afghan war

·5-min read

When news came that a 20-year-old Wyoming soldier was one of the last casualties of the two-decade-long US war in Afghanistan, it arrived as a tragic bookend: A 20-year-old soldier from Wyoming was among the first to die in the same war.

Army Ranger Jonn Edmunds, of Cheyenne, was one of the war's first two casualties when a Black Hawk helicopter on a search-and-rescue mission crashed in Pakistan on October 19, 2001.

Last month, the family of Marine Lance Corporal Rylee McCollum, of Bondurant just outside Jackson, got word he was among 13 US soldiers killed in a suicide bombing on August 26 at the Kabul airport.

Edmunds and McCollum were both killed on their first deployments. In between, almost 2500 US troops died in the Afghanistan war, most with far less attention than the two Wyoming men got.

As with Edmunds' death in the chaotic aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, McCollum's strikes an especially sad chord as Americans struggle to process what good - if any - has come from their nation's longest war.

"That was a totally senseless death," Edmunds' father, Donn Edmunds, said of McCollum. "Seeing the other people losing their loved ones, all that does is bring back bad memories for my family."

A 25-year US Army veteran who served in Vietnam, Edmunds remembers how two officers knocked on his door on the outskirts of Cheyenne before sunrise on October 20, 2001, bringing word of his son's death.

"I looked out the window, I saw them standing there and all I could think was 'Oh my God, I know what they're here for.' I've done notifications so I knew," said Edmunds, who as a military police officer participated in telling relatives of loved ones' deaths.

He got choked up and quiet while looking at a display of his son's medals and the folded American flag presented to him and other families of fallen soldiers.

"They came in and gave us the 'Regret to inform you' speech. My wife had been up by then, and I watched her melt into this carpet right here on the floor," Edmunds recalled. "And they asked, 'Is there anything we can do?' and we said, 'No, just let us absorb this, and we have to be able to accept this."'

Wyoming is the least populated state and one that values tradition: rodeo and county fairs in summer, elk hunting in fall, calving season in spring and military service.

Jonn Edmunds and his friends grew up playing with water guns, then laser tag in the family's big yard. Eventually the honours student moved up to paintball, Donn Edmunds recalled.

"We used to have the guys from the Air Force come out here. And they'd knock on the door and say, 'Can Jonn come out and play paintball with us?"' he said.

On the opposite side of Cheyenne, F.E. Warren Air Force Base has overseen nuclear missiles in silos beneath the Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska plains since the 1960s. Each July, the city hosts its massive Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo festival but Cheyenne has always been a military town at heart.

Like Edmunds, McCollum seemed born with soldiering in his blood.

He grew up in the Jackson Hole area, a region of rugged, forested mountains and big-time outdoors culture on the other side of Wyoming from Cheyenne. Even as a toddler, McCollum played with toy rifles, pretending he was a soldier or hunter, relatives said.

As a high school wrestler, he distinguished himself by training intensely. At school, in 2017, he and his father spoke out publicly when a multiple-choice quiz for a reading assignment facetiously offered "shooting at Trump" as an answer.

McCollum's widow, Jiennah Crayton, is due to deliver a baby in a couple of weeks and the family plans a memorial service sometime after. Meanwhile, three online fundraising efforts have brought in over $US900,000 for Crayton and the child's education.

After Jonn Edmunds' death, television trucks lined up outside the family's home. Reporters gathered at their daughter's school, Donn Edmunds recalled, and the family lived like "hermits" for a few weeks.

At a memorial service that filled a 4500-seat gym, Jonn Edmunds' commanding officer remembered him as a gritty soldier who still had "that intense look on his face" even after other soldiers looked tired.

Such crowds wouldn't always show up, however, at services for soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq over the next two decades.

"Yeah, people got numb. But the families that were affected never got numb," Edmunds said.

The Edmunds family received about $US24,000 in donations which they gave away to causes including the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity for troops wounded since 2001, Edmunds said.

He has spent the years since his son's death riding his Harley-Davidson with the Patriot Guard Riders, a biker group that helps maintain decorum at military funerals, running unsuccessfully for the Wyoming Legislature and trying to raise interest in establishing a veterans memorial park.

Now he's thinking about suing the US government over its withdrawal from Afghanistan, which he criticised as poorly organised.

"All of these people's sons were great. Every one of them was a traumatic loss for their family. And the thing about it is, what for?" Edmunds said. "We have abandoned their mission."

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