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Lives altered by 10 years of war in Afghanistan

By Sharon Cohen

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 5 2011 1:36 p.m. MDT

ADVANCE FOR USE THURSDAY, OCT. 6, 2011 AND THEREAFTER - In this Saturday, Jan. 5, 2002 photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, a flag-draped casket containing the remains of U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman, 31, is carried off a U.S. Air Force C-5 aircraft by a U.S. Army honor guard detail at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Chapman, a 31-year-old career Special Forces soldier was the first American to die in Afghanistan from enemy fire. He was shot in January 2002 after meeting with tribal leaders near the Pakistan border.

U.S. Air Force, Airman 1st Class Tia Deatrick, Associated Press

Ten years after America began its war in Afghanistan, the decade can be measured by different yardsticks: Dollars. Deployments. Deaths.

Or maybe this striking fact: Some soldiers have childhood memories of when the fighting began.

A decade is longer than the time ground troops were in Vietnam, longer than the Revolutionary War (both eight years). The invasion of Afghanistan — launched about four weeks after the 9/11 attacks — introduced the nation to a new enemy, the Taliban, and a seemingly endless mission, the global war on terror.

For most of the decade, the war in Afghanistan was eclipsed by Iraq, where there were more troops, more deaths, more headlines. That situation has reversed in recent years as Afghanistan has captured the spotlight, with a surge in U.S. forces, a spike in violence and the killing of Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan — which generated new debate about the rationale for the war.

While there are plans to wind down the war, the costs already have been staggering. Hundreds of billions of dollars. Thousands of U.S. troops injured and nearly 1,700 dead, not counting the deaths of Afghan civilians and U.S. coalition partners.

But no war can be reduced to numbers on a ledger. The real impact is measured in the widows left behind, the children who will never know fathers or mothers, the names of the fallen etched in marble memorials and a new generation of veterans with wounds, memories and lives forever changed.

THE DEPLOYED: Since the war began, more than 2.3 million troops have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, as of the end of July, according to military statistics. Of those, more than 977,000 have served more than one tour and about 300,000 have been deployed more than twice.

Maj. Jeff Pickler ticks off the years one by one: 2002, 2003, 2004 ... until he reaches 2009.

For parts of eight straight years, he was at war. Four tours in Afghanistan. One in Iraq. On his first, he met some Afghans in remote villages who didn't even know U.S. forces were there — or why. On his last, he spent a grueling 15 months facing an experienced, organized enemy and on average, more than three firefights a day.

A decade into the war, Pickler says he always expected a long haul.

"When people asked me what it was like when I was going back, I'd say, 'Hey, this is something that we're not going to fix immediately'," he says. "I began to understand this is a very, very complex battlefield ... and appreciate we've got our work cut out for us."

Pickler, a West Point graduate of the Class of 2001, was in gunnery class in Fort Sill, Okla., on 9/11. When the Pentagon was attacked, he rushed to call his father, who was director of the Army staff there; the elder Pickler was not injured.

As an Army Ranger for three tours, Pickler expected frequent deployments. He spent about three years away from home and didn't hold his first-born, Everett, until he was 5 months old.

Through it all, the 32-year-old soldier says he always leaned on his faith.

"I remember a couple of operations clearing out caves ... I'm literally crawling through with a pistol in my hand. I would stop and I would say a prayer," he recalls. "That's how I handled it."

Pickler's last tour — in rugged, mountainous northeastern Afghanistan — was the toughest. "You have soldiers fighting for their lives in just really, really austere conditions," he says. His battalion lost 26 soldiers.

Returning home, he was greeted at the plane by one of his soldiers who'd lost both legs and was in a wheelchair. "You just don't forget something like that," he says.

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