A sign posted on a vacant lot in Danville announces the future site of the Middle East Conflicts Veterans Memorial, including an artist's depiction of the design.
(Courtesy of Carl Carpenter)
August 10, 2014

Danville Vets To Build Mideast Conflicts Memorial

Fundraising is under way for a new veterans’ memorial in Danville, remembering Americans who served in the Gulf War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Area veterans from those conflicts worked on the memorial’s design. The August 23rd Finest Vs. Bravest Charity Charity Annual Softball Event will raise money for the memorial's construction.

Illinois Public Media’s Jim Meadows spoke with Air Force veteran Carl Carpenter. He's a past commander of the Danville American Legion Post 210, whose own service was during the Cold War era.

Carpenter says veterans of Mideast conflicts came up with a design that keeps living veterans in mind.

Listen

June 21, 2014

Crowds Honor Ill. Soldier Killed In Afghanistan

The body of a 19-year-old soldier killed in Afghanistan has been brought back to his Illinois hometown.

Dozens of cars and motorcycles decked with American flags took part in a procession Saturday to accompany the remains of Army Pfc. Aaron Toppen after his casket arrived at Chicago's Midway International Airport.
 
Along the 20-mile route to Mokena, crowds of people stood saluting and waving flags.
 
Toppen was one of five American service members killed this month by a U.S. airstrike called in to help defend against a Taliban ambush. He deployed in March.
 
The soldier was the youngest of three children.
 
Visitation for Toppen is scheduled from 1-9 p.m. Monday at Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park.
 
Funeral services will follow on Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the church.


Bowe R. Bergdahl, seen on a Taliban-affiliated website sometime after his capture by Taliban militants in 2009.
June 13, 2014

Bergdahl Back In The U.S. To Continue Recovery

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdhal, who was freed May 31 by his Taliban captors in exchange for five of the group's members in Guantanamo Bay, arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio Friday after a flight from Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

He will continue his treatment at the center.

Bergdahl, who was held by the Taliban for five years, has not yet spoken to his parents. But they are expected to have a reunion at the facility in San Antonio. He's been at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany since the day after his release.

Here's more from The Associated Press:

"Before his departure from Germany on Thursday, officials in Washington said Bergdahl will not receive the automatic Army promotion that would have taken effect this month if he were still in captivity. Now that he is back in U.S. military control, any future promotions would depend on his performance and achievement of certain training and education milestones."

The circumstances of Bergdahl's capture in 2009 are still unclear. As we've reported, "He's said that he lagged behind while on patrol. U.S. officials have said he walked off the base with three Afghans; there have been reports that he was captured during an attack on his post; and the Taliban have said they captured a 'drunken American soldier.' Many service members say they believe Bergdahl is a deserter."

The Army has said it hasn't formally begun a review of Bergdahl's capture. The AP notes, "The answers to those questions will be key to whether Bergdahl will receive more than $300,000 in back pay owed to him since he disappeared. If he was determined to have been a prisoner of war, he also could receive roughly another $300,000 or more, if recommended and approved by Army leaders."

Congressional critics say that the cost of Bergdahl's freedom was too high, and that the Taliban prisoners may end up back on the battlefield.  The Obama administration has not disputed that assertion, but noted that Qatar, which mediated the deal with the Taliban, had provided assurances that the five men will remain in the country for one year, and given additional security guarantees.

At a news conference in San Antonio on Friday afternoon, Maj. Gen. Joseph P. DiSalvo said he'd seen Bergdahl for "about 60 seconds. He was in uniform. ... We exchanged salutes.  "He appeared just like any sergeant would when he saw a two-star general — a little nervous," DiSalvo said.

The general said Bergdahl's family was not at the hospital and that his parents do not intend to make their travel plans public for reasons of privacy.

Col. Donald Wool said of Bergdahl's condition: "Overall, we're pleased with his physical state."

Asked whether Bergdahl wanted to return to duty, Col. Bradley Poppen, a specialist on reintegration, said: "The goal of reintegration is to return a soldier to duty."


June 11, 2014

Illinois Soldier Killed By Friendly Fire

Family members are remembering a 19-year-old Illinois soldier who was among five Americans killed this week in Afghanistan as a classy young man who dreamed of a career in the military or law enforcement.

A Pentagon spokesman says the five soldiers were killed Monday during a security operation in southern Afghanistan.
 
Family members identified one of the soldiers on Tuesday as Aaron Toppen. His uncle, Jack Winter, tells The Associated Press that Toppen, a recent high school graduate, was set to leave for Afghanistan in February but his father died that month. He was deployed in March.
 
Winter says the family is heartbroken. He spoke from the family home in Mokena, which is about 40 miles southwest of Chicago.

The Chicago Tribune reports family members were informed of Toppen's death late Monday night.


June 10, 2014

Possible Friendly-Fire Incident Kills 5 Americans In Afghanistan

Five U.S. service members have died in southern Afghanistan, in a possible case of friendly fire. Afghan media are citing a local official who says the troops' air support mistakenly bombed their position. The attack is still under investigation.

From Kabul, NPR's Sean Carberry reports:

"Afghan officials claim that the five American troops and one Afghan Army soldier were killed by a NATO airstrike in southern Zabul Province. NATO would not provide outright confirmation, but in a statement said that fratricide might have been involved and the incident is under investigation.

"Officials say the U.S. and Afghan forces were conducting a joint operation to clear out militants in advance of Saturday's presidential election. While returning to their base, the forces came under attack and called in the air support.

"Counting these deaths, there have now been 40 NATO service members killed in Afghanistan this year. More than 40 percent of them died as a result of non-battle related injuries."

The International Security Assistance Force released its statement about the deaths today.

The Pajhwok Afghan news agency cites an official in Zabul who "said ISAF aircrafts mistakenly bombed international troops after they called in air support during an operation in Gizee area of Arghandab district."

The agency adds that a Taliban spokesman says the troops had been in a gun battle with a Taliban force when the airstrike occurred.


Sgt. Bowe Bergdhal in image from video
(Associated Press)
June 08, 2014

Reports: Bergdahl Tells Medical Officials Taliban Kept Him In A Cage

The New York Times and the Associated Press are reporting details about how Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was treated by his Taliban captors.

The AP reports that Bergdahl, who was freed after almost five years when the U.S. agreed to trade five Taliban prisoners in exchange for the U.S. soldier, was tortured and beaten and held in a cage in Afghanistan.

The New York Times adds that Bergdahl is still receiving medical treatment in a military hospital in Germany. He has not been allowed to consume media coverage, so he is oblivious to the debate his release has unleashed in the United States.

The paper adds:

"He has received a letter from his sister but has not yet responded, and objects when hospital staff address him as sergeant instead of private first class, his rank when he was captured nearly five years ago after walking off a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan, the official said.

"While medical officials are pressing him for details about his time in captivity to help begin repairing his medical and psychological wounds, these specialists have not yet focused on the critical questions about why he left his outpost and how he was captured by insurgents, the officials said — and there is no predetermined schedule for doing so.

"'Physically, he could be put on a plane to the U.S. tomorrow, but there are still a couple of mental criteria to address: the family unification piece and the media exposure piece,' said one American official who has been briefed on the sergeant's condition."

Meanwhile, CNN reports that the FBI is investigating threats made against Bergdahl's parents. Critics have claimed that Bergdahl deserted and that other soldiers were killed in the search for him.

The Washington Post reported earlier this week that the town of Hailey, Idaho, was planning a homecoming celebration for Bergdahl but ended up canceling. City Hall, for example, received many letters criticizing the president's decision and calling Bergdahl's father a Muslim.

Secretary of State John Kerry defended the administration decision in an interview with CNN today.

He said it would be "offensive and incomprehensible to leave an American behind." Especially, Kerry said, with captors who may "torture him, cut off his head."

Kerry also said the five Guantánamo detainees released in exchange for Bergdahl are being watched by Qatar and others.

"I'm not telling you that they don't have some ability at some point to go back and get involved (in fighting)," Kerry told CNN. "But they also have an ability to get killed doing that."


June 01, 2014

Afghan Taliban Release U.S. Soldier Taken Hostage In 2009

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the final remaining captured American soldier from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been released after almost five years of being held captive by the Afghan Taliban, The White House reported Satuday.

In exchange for Bergdahl's release, the U.S. will transfer five detainees at the Guantánamo Bay prison to Qatar.

In a statement, President Obama said he was "honored to call [Bergdahl's] parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return."

Obama thanked the Amir of Qatar for his help in the negotiations.

"While we are mindful of the challenges, it is our hope Sergeant Bergdahl's recovery could potentially open the door for broader discussions among Afghans about the future of their country by building confidence that it is possible for all sides to find common ground," Obama said.

According to a Pentagon official, the transfer happened at about 10:30 a.m. ET. somewhere in a field in eastern Afghanistan. A team of U.S. special forces met up with 18 armed Taliban fighters. Without incident, Bergdahl was allowed to walk over to the Americans and he was flown to Bagram Airfield. He'll eventually be flown to Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

"We will give him all the support he needs to help him recover from this ordeal, and we are grateful that he will soon be reunited with his family," Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon official said, the transfer of Taliban prisoners to Qatar is happening now.

Hagel added that the U.S. coordinated with Qatar to "ensure that security measures are in place and the national security of the United States will not be compromised."

A senior administration official said the five detainees will face restrictions on their movements and activities.

The United States had in the past tried to broker a deal with the Afghan Taliban, but, as we reported, the Taliban broke off those talks in February.

Bergdahl was seized after finishing his guard shift in an outpost in the southeastern Paktika province on June 30, 2009. He was 23 at the time. He is 28, now. The details surrounding his capture are unclear: Some accounts have him captured during an attack on his post, others put him walking off his outpost during a counterinsurgency mission. An account in Rolling Stone implies that Bergdahl was "ashamed to even be American" and was defecting when he was captured.

Leaked WikiLeaks documents detail the intense search that took place in the hours and days following his capture.

Hagel said the U.S. never forgot Bergdahl, "nor did we stop working to bring him back."

In a statement, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said: "It is our ethos that we never leave a fallen comrade. Welcome home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl."

Speaking from the Rose Garden Saturday afternoon, President Obama, flanked by Bowe Bergdahl's parents, Bob and Jani, thanked those involved in Bergdahl's recovery and said that while he was gone, "he was never forgotten" by his community and country.

"Right now our top priority is that Bowe gets the care and support that he needs and that he can be reunited with his family as soon as possible," the president said.

Bergdahl's father thanked all those who took part in his son's recovery, saying it was difficult to put his feelings into words.

Update at 2:02 p.m. ET. A Central Part Of Reconciliation Efforts:

The release of Bergdahl was always seen as part of the larger U.S. effort toward the reconciliation process in Afghanistan, a senior administration official said.

The efforts — to reach a peace deal between the Taliban and Afghan government — began in 2010, but Bergdahl has been a piece of the puzzle since 2011.

"For all that time, our efforts have been coordinated at the highest levels of the U.S. government," the official said.

The official added that several weeks ago, another opportunity for negotiations arose and "we seized it."

"We have viewed Sgt. Bergdahl's release through diplomatic means as a vital goal in its own right because of our historic commitment to leave no soldier behind on the battlefield," the official said.

But this also marks a success of indirect talks between the U.S. and the Taliban's political arm in Qatar. The prisoner swap, the official said, "was a part of a broader reconciliation framework."

This is significant because, as you might remember, even the opening of a Taliban political office in Qatar has been a diplomatic tightrope, with plenty of fits of starts.


Sgt. Kyle Gonzales, a sniper with the 82nd Airborne, has a cigarette after a gun battle near the village of Babaker, Giro district, Ghazni province. The soldiers have engaged in gun battles every time they push into the hamlets north of their forward
(David Gilkey/NPR)
May 28, 2014

Obama Plans To Leave Residual Force Of 9,800 In Afghanistan

President Obama announced on Tuesday a plan to leave a residual force of 9,800 service members in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

By 2016, most troops will be out of the country.

"It's time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on... wars in Afghanistan and Iraq," Obama said in the White House Rose Garden.

Obama said that combat will end in America's longest-running war by the end of this year. He said after that, the American mission will be focused on two narrow objectives: Training Afghan Forces and supporting operations against the remnants of al-Qaida.

All of this, Obama said, will only be possible if the Afghan government signs a Bilateral Security Agreement.

That agreement has been elusive for the United States, because Afghan President Hamid Karzai has reneged several times. Just this February, Obama had asked the Pentagon to draw up plans to have all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of the year.

During a speech at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan over the weekend, Obama said he was hopeful a new president in Afghanistan would lead to a signed security agreement.

"With that bilateral security agreement, assuming it is signed, we can plan for a limited military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014," Obama told the troops. "Because after all the sacrifices we've made, we want to preserve the gains that you have helped to win. And we're going to make sure that Afghanistan can never again, ever, be used again to launch an attack against our country."

That number of residual forces — 9,800 — is more in line with what military officials had asked for. Back in January, Vice President Joe Biden was advocating for a smaller force in the range of 2,000 to 3,000 troops. The Wall Street Journal reported that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel supported military recommendations of a residual force of more than 9,000.

By the end of 2015, that number would be reduced by half, consolidating U.S. troops in Kabul and on Bagram Airfield. By the end of 2016, the only service members left in Afghanistan will serve as a security assistance force for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Obama said that this is the way modern wars come to an end.

"Afghanistan will not be a perfect place," Obama said. "And it is not America's responsibility to make it one."


President Obama arrives in Afghanistan.
(Evan Vucci/AP)
May 26, 2014

On Memorial Day Eve, President Obama Visits Troops In Afghanistan

Under the cover of darkness and on the eve of Memorial Day, President Obama landed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan for an unannounced visit with U.S. troops.

After a concert from country music star Brad Paisley, Obama spoke before a rally of about 3,000 American troops. Currently, there are 32,000 Americans currently serving in Afghanistan.

Obama made a bit of news, saying he was hopeful that a new president in Afghanistan would lead to a signed security agreement that would leave a small number of American troops in the country after 2014. That agreement has been elusive under the government of Hamid Karzai.

Obama, however, mostly focused on thanking the troops and reminding them about the beginning of America's longest-running war.

"To all of you, I'm here on a single mission and that is to thank you for your extraordinary service," Obama said to resounding applause.

Obama got a few laughs with references to sports and his singing, but toward the middle of the address he became serious.

He said the U.S. is at a pivotal moment in its mission in Afghanistan. At the moment, U.S. forces are playing a support role to Afghan security forces. By the end of the year, the U.S. combat mission will come to an end.

"For many of you, this will be your last tour in Afghanistan," Obama said, again receiving a raucous applause.

He then brought the story full circle. He talked about visiting the Sept. 11 memorial in New York City.

"We resolved to never forget and do everything in our power to prevent this from happening again," he said. "This is why you are here."

Obama said that it was U.S. troops and American civilians that helped put al-Qaida on "its heels in this part of the world." It was American intervention that brought democratic reform and advances in public health, literacy and education for women.

"Even with all the challenges," Obama said, "more Afghans have hope for their future and that is because of you."

NPR's Scott Horsley, who is traveling with the president, reports Obama also received an on-site briefing from his military commanders and will visit wounded servicemen on the base.

Scott continues:

"The show of support for men and women in uniform comes as Obama is trying to tamp down criticism at home over the treatment of veterans seeking care at VA hospitals. In his weekly address Saturday, the president said the nation must work harder to ensure that military veterans get the benefits they've earned. 'They've done their duty,' he said, 'and they ask nothing more than that this country does ours.'

"On Wednesday, Obama is set to deliver the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. That's the setting where in 2009 he announced a troop surge that pushed U.S. force levels in Afghanistan to a peak of 100,000, while also setting a timetable for withdrawal. The president now has to decide whether any U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, with the limited mission of supporting Afghan forces and battling terrorists. Any such residual force is contingent on agreement from the next Afghan president."

Obama made a similar trip to Afghanistan in 2012. He delivered a speech then in which he said that after more than a decade war, the U.S. was on a path toward peace.

to a "senior advisor" who gave the paper a preview of the speech Obama is expected to deliver on Wednesday.

The paper reports that Obama will outline a second-term foreign policy that is "interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral."

The paper adds:

"Obama believes that 'we need to put that to use in an international system that is sustainable and enduring,' the advisor said, 'and that can address challenges, from traditional ones like maritime and trade issues, to emerging ones like climate change.'

"Obama sees the U.S. moving out of a period of war and entering a new one marked by different global priorities, advisors say."

Update at 3:05 p.m. ET. Additional Clarity To Come:

During a press gaggle aboard Air Force One en route to Afghanistan, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said President Obama wanted to meet with his ambassador and general face-to-face before making a decision on what troop levels should look like after 2014.

Rhodes was asked if he had made a decision regarding the troop level. He said:

"He has not made the decision yet. Again, I think he wanted to — he's been consulting with his national security team. We had a NSC meeting on this topic recently. Again, he'll be meeting General Dunford and Ambassador Cunningham.

"I do think that — I'd say a number of things. Number one, of course we still need a BSA to have troops here post-2014, although, again, both candidates have expressed their support for such a BSA. Secondly, I think that you can expect to hear additional clarity from the President about his thinking on Afghanistan in the coming days. He obviously has a series of speeches and engagements on national security, and he'll certainly want to talk about Afghanistan in the context of the future of America's foreign policy and national security priorities. And there's a NATO Defense Ministerial on June 4th, where we will be coordinating with the Alliance. So you should expect to hear more from the President on Afghanistan after this trip."

It's possible, Rhodes said, that Obama would announce something during his West Point speech.


January 19, 2014

Chicago Woman Among Victims Of Kabul Restaurant Attack

Family members say a 27-year-old Chicago woman is among those killed in a Taliban attack against a popular restaurant in Afghanistan.

The Sun-Times reports Lexie Kamerman was working as a student development specialist at American University in Kabul.
 
A statement from her family released to the newspaper called Kamerman "an amazing young woman - smart, strong, beautiful, funny, stubborn and kind. And fearless.''
 
The family statement says she took the job at American University to help the women of Afghanistan "take their rightful place as leaders in Afghan society.''

The Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune report Kamerman was a graduate of Knox College in Galesburg.
 
The assault began Friday with a suicide bomber detonating explosives at the front door of the restaurant. Two other attackers entered through the kitchen and began shooting in the chaos that followed.


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