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Veterans Day: 'We need to be there for veterans'

In 2019, Army Green Beret Sgt. 1st Class Dustin Ard, a 31-year-old Idaho native, was killed in Afghanistan.

Shortly after Ard's death, Dan McKnight, an Idaho Army National Guard veteran and assistant football coach at Rocky Mountain High School, hosted a Veterans Appreciate Night at one of the team’s games to honor him. 

Before the game, McKnight brought a local Green Beret to speak with the players.

“The kids had this look on their face, like they didn’t quite understand,” McKnight said. “One of them said, I didn’t even realize we were at war.”

Another told McKnight, "I don’t have a memory of America not being at war.”

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and former President George W. Bush began the War on Terror in response, U.S. troops have been deployed countless times to the Middle East.

Forty-four percent of respondents to a YouGov poll conducted in August said they strongly support pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, and 46% said the same of Afghanistan. The poll was commissioned by the Charles Koch Institute, a research institute that advocates noninterventionist foreign policy, and surveyed 2,000 U.S. adults, The Hill reported that month.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who ran for her party's 2020 presidential nomination, made ending regime-change wars a large part of her platform. As a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard, Gabbard served in the Iraq War.

Many veterans — but not all — are included in that public opinion shift.

As public opinion had changed, so have many veterans’ views on the topic. To mark Veterans Day this year, the Idaho Press spoke with three Treasure Valley veterans about their experience serving, their thoughts on the ongoing conflict and how that affects their interpretation of the holiday.

‘WE’RE NOT FIGHTING A WAR’

Nine months after graduating from Capital High School, McKnight walked from his apartment in Boise's North End to the Marine Corp recruiter’s office and signed up. He started in the Marines, and a short time later, transferred to active-duty Army for three years. After coming back to Idaho, McKnight transferred into the Idaho National Guard. McKnight, now in his 40s, served for 13 years total.

“I was part of something that meant something,” he said.

While in the National Guard, McKnight deployed to Louisiana as part of the response to Hurricane Katrina. On the way home to Idaho, his unit received its orders to leave for Afghanistan.

He described his time in Afghanistan as 1% engagement, 99% wasting time. Sometimes, there were extra challenges, like trying to find basic gear.

“Using the National Guard in war is a new thing. We had trouble getting basic gear, boots, goggles. Chain of command failed us,” he said.

At a friend’s urging, McKnight called then-Governor of Idaho Jim Risch for help. 

“I climbed to the top of a hill on this mountain, you could see mortars and artillery going off, helicopters going by,” he said. “It was like a movie.”

The new governor picked up the phone. McKnight explained the situation, and Risch told him he'd see what he could do.

Forty-eight hours later, McKnight received a call from his chain of command: the supplies were on the way.

“He delivered. Not many people in the world would do that,” McKnight said.

McKnight was injured in Afghanistan and returned to Idaho in February 2007. He was medically retired in August that year.

McKnight watched as Risch, elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008, became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2019. He appeared to support bringing troops home, then voted to keep troops in Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen last year.

“Some say fighting a war over there is better than fighting a war over here,” McKnight told the Idaho Press in 2019. “But we’re not fighting a war over there — we are policing, peacekeeping and nation-building, disrupting things that aren’t a threat to the U.S. at this point in time.”

After that and a few disappointing meetings with other members of Congress, McKnight decided to try to influence Risch from home, and harness the power of the states. He founded Bring Our Troops Home (BOTH) in 2019.

The organization has about 30,000 members in 26 states, most of whom served in the War on Terror. BOTH is currently focusing on legislation at the state level called “Defend The Guard," which would require a congressional declaration of war before state National Guard troops could be deployed by the governor. 

“From a constitutional standpoint, Congress hasn’t done their job,” McKnight said. “We believe there is a time and place for war. If it’s so important we use the military, Congress should put their name on the line.”

McKnight said his deployment in response to Hurricane Katrina was a result of the Louisiana National Guard’s absence.

“Their National Guard is civil engineers, they build dams and levies and bridges. They were in Iraq fighting the war; they needed to be in Louisiana building dams and levies and bridges,” he said.

When McKnight thinks of Veterans Day, he doesn’t feel his “99% boredom, 1% fanatical craziness” is worthy of recognition. He said it’s more about reflecting and reconnecting with the men he served with.

“We tell the same bad stories, and the older we get, the better we were," he said.

McKnight said if Americans really understood the meaning of Veterans Day, there would be no need for things like discounts and free food.

“I don’t want to go to Applebee's and get a free appetizer. That’s not my thing,” he said. “I appreciate a nation that wants to honor their veterans, I just wish they would do it in a way that was more meaningful.

“People say, ‘thank you.' … What I wish they would say is ‘f--- you’ to Congress. I wish they would give their thanks through their votes and hold their elected officials accountable.”

‘A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION’

Ben Adams, 31, has understood what being an American means for a long time.

His parents were Christian missionaries, and they lived in Ukraine for eight years just after the fall of the Soviet Union.

“As an American living overseas, I had a great appreciation for what being an American means. I wanted to make sure that was still around, because it meant something,” he said.

After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2009.

“At 19, I looked and saw that war was still going. I wanted to make a difference,” he said.

He completed two combat deployments, the first in Helmand Province in Afghanistan in 2011. He spent his second deployment in 2012 working as a logistics and operations non-commissioned officer, also in Afghanistan.

Adams described his first deployment as “objective driven. We had a specific mission and we did it very well."

The second time around, it was different.

“Much more of a ‘respond’ rather than ‘engage’ mission,” he said. “There was a range of what we did, much more like policing than a military operation.”

During his service, Adams wasn’t focused on the bigger picture of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

“It came up periodically around a firepit, ‘Think we’ll ever get out of Afghanistan?’” Adams said. 

When Adams left the Marines, he started asking questions.

“When you don’t understand why something happens, you try to work through it. Why this, why this? Some people are happy with any answer,” he said. “That didn’t work for me.”

Then in 2016, Adams’ intelligence NCO, Matthew, killed himself.

Adams felt called to action.

“He wasn’t the first, but I knew him very, very well,” he said. “You have to make a choice and act. The longer you wait, the more damage you see.”

Adams connected with McKnight and his effort to get troops out of the Middle East. 

On Nov. 3, Adams won his race to represent District 13B in the Idaho Legislature. One of the first items on his agenda is co-sponsoring the “Defend the Guard” legislation with Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton. An earlier version of the bill died in committee during the 2020 session.

“Lots of people are happy to let the status quo go, even veterans. (The legislation is) a step in the right direction,” he said.

Adams said he thanks other veterans for their service.

“Even though I don’t know what he did, I know he walked down a path somewhere near mine,” he said. “(The general public thinks) this is my holiday. It’s a collectivist holiday, for all veterans. We’re all recognizing each other.”

STAY IN THE FIGHT

Kent Burns, 47, served in the Army and the National Guard in the ’90s before leaving for a “nice career in middle management."

“And then 9/11 happened,” he said. “I called the recruiter that day.”

The Parma native served in the Army from 1990-1994, and after leaving the Army, reentered as part of the Idaho National Guard in 1995.

“I missed the camaraderie between soldiers,” he said. “I did a few years and I got back out.”

After reenlisting in 2001, he first deployed to Bosnia in 2002-03 for a peacekeeping mission. A few years later, Burns was sent to Forward Operating Base Salerno (FOB Salerno) in the Khost Province of Afghanistan in 2006-07.

“It was still very active fighting,” he said.

Burns’ next deployment in 2009-2010 took him back to northeastern Afghanistan.

“This was during Obama’s surge,” he said. “We speculated that surge was going to end the war. That’s what we thought we were doing.”

Burns was the “back seater” in a fixed wing aircraft that flew across the battlefield; his job was to identify areas that needed help.

“It was boring 98% of the time and 2% of the time it got exciting. You live a lifetime in what’s happening on the ground, trying to do the right thing,” he said.

The camaraderie is what brought Burns back to military service in the ’90s, and it’s what sticks with him today.

“That’s where I feel patriotic and still bonded to my veterans. The holiday is about the vets, it’s not about the mission and the war,” he said.

Burns left the service for good in 2014, and opened a barbershop called Broken Halo; it’s located in Payette, where he’s lived since 2000.

Burns said he has hit some rock-bottom lows, and still struggles with depression.

At one of those low points, Burns wrote “Stay in the fight” on his mirror; Burns had tattooed “SITF” on his knuckles to remind him.

“We need to be there for veterans. That’s what Veterans Day needs to mean,” he said. “My feelings regarding the war do not change my feelings toward veterans.”


Local
DMVs see long wait times amid software upgrade

TREASURE VALLEY — Residents of Canyon and Ada counties have been waiting for hours in line at the DMV. That’s not exactly unusual, but the reason it might take a while to get your vehicle registered right now is because of a software update from the Idaho Department of Transportation modernizes its entire system.

Starting in mid-October, ITD rolled out its fourth and largest computer system upgrade yet in attempts to modernize the 40-year-old apparatus. The new system has led to slowed down the process for DMV workers and patrons alike, said Canyon County Assessor Brian Stender.

At the Canyon County DMV, four workers out of the 20-person staff quit because of the stress that the software issue has brought on, Stender said.

It isn’t the first time one of ITD’s computer system modernizations, a process started in 2017, have caused issues in the state’s DMVs. In 2018, there were multiple delays caused by another upgrade rollout, prompting Ada and Canyon County sheriffs to voice frustrations with ITD’s computer system.

Stender said one of the lead workers in Canyon County’s DMV helped nine customers on Friday, and with four of them she had to call ITD to ask for assistance with the software.

ITD is fixing problems as they arise, Stender said, which sometimes makes it difficult because staff may find a workaround one day, but when the problem is fixed they have to figure out how to make it work without the workaround.

“The modernization was necessary, but it was released a little too soon,” Stender said.

In Canyon County, people are waiting up to four hours to get their vehicles registered and their driver’s licenses, while in Ada County what used to take 15 minutes ballooned to an hour and 15 minutes. While wait times are dropping as the system settles into place, the Idaho Press asked people to share their experiences dealing with the overhaul.

Eagle resident Bill Beckes recently went to the Ada County DMV to complete paperwork to register a new vehicle he purchased out of state. It was Oct. 19, a week after the new computer system went online.

“There was a line outside the door of about 25 people. One hour and 55 minutes later I was allowed inside the door where I waited another 30 minutes to complete title paperwork. There was one employee at the door limiting the number of people inside due to COVID restrictions,” Beckes wrote in an email.

After 2.5 hours, Beckes was told a paperwork error would require him to come back another time. When he came back with an appointment on Nov. 6, he was in and out lickety-split.

In Canyon County, Ashley Velasco waited for four hours to get her vehicle registered. She suggests people do their best to take care of their registration online.

“I went to the Canyon County DMV in Caldwell a few weeks ago,” Velasco wrote in an email on Nov. 6. “I got there about 8:45 AM after dropping my kids off at school. The line was already wrapped to the back of the building and into the parking lot. I wanted to go while my kids were in school. I did not have an appointment and it was for vehicle registration. They came out and said the wait time would be about two hours. This was not accurate. It took four hours and I had to have someone get my kids because they only have school three hours.”

The new vehicle registration and titling system has slowed down the process for most Idahoans and is something ITD has been working to ease over the past month, according to ITD public information officer Jillian Garrigues.

“In mid-October ITD implemented the largest phase of the state’s DMV modernization project, moving the vehicle registration and titling system from a 1980s mainframe to an updated computer program. Eight million records were integrated into what’s called a ‘one person, one record’ system. This means each Idahoan will now have one record with both their driver’s license and vehicle registration/title information linked,” Garrigues wrote in an email.

The new system is merging 40 years of data while reconciling errors, discrepancies and duplicated data. This is why the process is taking a longer time than it was before the update. ITD has seen wait times decrease as the system has been online and expects the wait times to continue to drop as county workers become more familiar with the system.