Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Senior Airman Jason Cunningham was a medic in Afghanistan searching for two servicemen stranded in rugged terrain when the MH-47E Chinook helicopter his team was on was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed on March 4, 2002.
Three in the helicopter died immediately and five were seriously injured. In the chaotic moments that followed, the quick reaction force team hastily tried to mount a defense while Cunningham tended to the injured. He was gravely injured as he braved enemy fire to move wounded troops to safety.
As he was dying, the troops with him said, “he continued to direct patient movement and transferred care to another medic.” He helped save 10 wounded Americans in his final moments.
Cunningham, a 26-year-old Farmington High School graduate, was the first New Mexican to die in the wars launched after Sept. 11. Carried out by Al Qaeda terrorists granted refuge in Afghanistan by the Taliban, the attacks ushered in two decades of war for the U.S. — war that would end up claiming the lives of 90 men and women from New Mexico.
There were 27 from the state to die in Afghanistan before the final troops left the country last month, and another 58 servicemen with ties to New Mexico died in Iraq. Five servicemen died outside of Iraq and Afghanistan but are still considered casualties of the war on terror.
The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks marks the first anniversary that America isn’t at war. But the toll of the wars, in terms of human and financial loss, and the lingering effects on the service members who fought them, and their families, won’t be fully realized for years to come.
Cunningham’s heroism is chronicled in the citation accompanying the Air Force Cross, which he received posthumously.
Nearly 20 years after his death, Cunningham’s parents are still grieving. They’re proud of their son’s actions but say the loss devastated their family.
They spoke to the Journal by phone last month from their home outside of Farmington as the last U.S. troops departed the country where their son died. Afghanistan quickly fell back to Taliban rule, snuffing out a 20-year effort to build a nation under a new government.
“Well, honestly, it’s kind of like a kick in the gut. Why did we have to lose our kids over there? And now they’re just, you know, they’re pulling us out, like we weren’t never there,” said Jackie Cunningham, Cunningham’s mother. “And it’s kind of a bittersweet feeling.”
Since 9/11, 24,430 New Mexicans have served in a branch of the armed services, according to the New Mexico Department of Veterans Services.
For Jacinto-Temilotzin Sanchez, a 45-year-old Albuquerque man who was deployed to Iraq twice, his first concern upon hearing that U.S. troops had left Afghanistan was about Americans and their allies still in the country.
“I can’t even imagine for the ones who were abandoned, the ones who are still there,” he said. “That’s just horrible. It’s hard to comprehend that we pulled out so quickly.”
Sanchez served in the Army from 1998 until 2018. He was first deployed in 2007 as part of a surge during the conflict. It was one of the worst years in terms of American casualties.
Sanchez was attached to an infantry company, and his job was to provide those troops with internet and communications. He was stationed at Combat Outpost Apache, which was in the heart of an Iraqi city and was routinely attacked by gunfire and mortars.
“There was always a sense, intel coming in, that we were going to get hit,” he said.
The tension during his time at the outpost was palpable. He described stepping outside to try to relax with a cigarette only to have a bullet whiz over his head. The walls on the inside of the outpost were lined with pictures of dead service members, which grew throughout his deployment. He narrowly avoided a mortar round during one firefight at the outpost. He has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and retired from the Army while in a treatment center for soldiers with PTSD.
“It starts to eat at you,” he said of the tension at that outpost. “You normalize it.” He thinks his PTSD is a result of living under constant anxiety at that outpost. At the time he had two children under 2 years old, and he worried he wouldn’t be around for them.
“I felt like I wouldn’t have been there for my kids,” he said. “So, you carry that anxiety, that’s what I carried.”
Sanchez, who is working on a master’s degree at the University of New Mexico, said he had an epiphany of sorts recently when he was in class and saw a student in his ROTC uniform.
“We’re actually a country not at war anymore, and I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” he said. “For most of my career, we were at war.”
How did his deployments change him? Sanchez said before the wars he was outgoing. Now he’s more reserved and lives more cautiously, including spending time with fewer people.
He said he tells his story as a way to help other veterans know that they should reach out for resources, such as help with PTSD. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 15.7% of veterans who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan have PTSD.
All but one member of Congress voted to authorize military force against the people believed to be behind the Sept. 11 attacks, including New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation.
“The decision to get out of Afghanistan, in my opinion, was the right decision. And in fact, I don’t think (President) Biden had any choice … given what he inherited,” said former Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. “But I think obviously, there have been real problems in the execution of the decision to withdraw.”
Bingaman, who retired in 2013, said going to war in Afghanistan after the attacks was the right decision.
“It was a time when there was near unanimous opinion that we needed to go ahead and eliminate Afghanistan as a safe harbor for that kind of terrorist attack,” he said. “The main mistake, which many have pointed to, is the decision to begin the Iraq War.”
But Bingaman said there were problems with the execution of the Afghanistan war, as evidenced by the quick collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government in a matter of weeks leading up to the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
“So, I think if we had thought harder about it, at the very beginning, we might well have decided that nation building in the case of Afghanistan was not part of what had to be done in order to properly respond to the 9/11 attacks,” he said.
In addition to the human cost of war, the Associated Press estimates the United States debt-financed $2 trillion as of 2020 to pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and that the interest on that debt will reach $6.5 trillion by 2050.
Paula Gonzalez said she hadn’t given much thought to U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan until news that 13 American troops were killed in an Islamic State suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport last month.
“It just brings it all back. You know, the flood of emotion surrounding the death of a loved one over there, knowing exactly what the families are going through, and the process behind it,” she said. “I felt bad for those families.”
Gonzalez knows all about that process, because she’s lived it. Her son, Jesse Zamora, died on Feb. 3, 2006, in Iraq during his second deployment. Zamora, a Mayfield High School graduate, was 22 when he was killed. His brother, Tyrel, was also in Iraq at the time and had previously been injured during the conflict.
Gonzalez said 15 years after her son’s death, she and her family are still wounded from the loss. There are thousands of families like hers across the country.
The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University estimates that more than 7,000 service members and 8,000 U.S. contractors have died in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict areas since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It scabs over, but the wound never heals. It scabs over a little bit and then it gets opened up occasionally,” she said. “I don’t know how to explain that. But that’s for the whole family.”
Gonzalez said she feels for the families of the soldiers who died in Afghanistan because of how quickly the country fell back to Taliban control.
For Jackie Cunningham, the recent American deaths near the Kabul airport affected her because she knows the long road ahead for the families.
“These people that are burying their kids, I wouldn’t trade places with them for $1 million,” she said. “Grief just sneaks up on you in waves.”
Her husband, Red Cunningham, said the situation in Afghanistan makes him angry.
“Because basically, if you want to face the facts about this, we lost that war,” he said. “… When we killed Osama bin Laden, we should have packed up and left. Instead, we decided to do this nation building thing again. And it never works. And here we are with dead soldiers just trying to save people escaping.
“I cannot get over being angry about it.”
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to change the day that Jesse Zamora died in Iraq, which was Feb. 3, 2006.