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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
BOISE — The Idaho State Veterans Home in Boise reported nine more residents infected with COVID-19 on Tuesday, for a total of 43, which is roughly half the population of the skilled nursing home.
Six veterans who lived in the home have died in the outbreak there that started three weeks ago, and four are hospitalized; the home, which has 88 residents, also had a smaller outbreak in July in which three were infected and one died.
Marv Hagedorn, Idaho State Veterans Division administrator, said lessons learned in other states have shown that it’d be worse to move the remaining veterans out of the home in an effort to prevent further spread.
“That actually causes spread, or has a greater potential to cause spread,” he said.
Residents at the state Veterans Home who are infected with COVID-19 are being isolated in their rooms, Hagedorn said, and specialized air-cleaning systems are being used in the facility.
Asked about the mood in the home as Veterans Day approached this year, Hagedorn said, “It’s kind of become our normal. Our direct-care staff have done amazing work, they’re just amazing people. They work for the residents that are here, not because it’s their job, but residents become part of their family.”
Good news about progress toward a COVID-19 vaccine on Monday lifted the mood in the Boise home, Hagedorn said. “Everybody’s talking about it,” he said. “Everybody’s step is just a little bit lighter.”
Prior to the pandemic, residents of the home, many of whom use wheelchairs or walkers, ate together in a common dining area, and frequently went on excursions to sporting events, museums or other attractions. “But since the pandemic, things have significantly changed,” Hagedorn said.
Residents now eat in their rooms, and have done so since March, he said. Volunteers who typically put in enough hours at the Boise home to equal 21 full-time staff positions have been barred, leaving a big gap.
“They made the place a happy place to live, because they would come in and bring smiles and gifts and help take veterans to the venues and do things outside,” Hagedorn said. “The staff has had to pick up … and try to keep this going.”
He said the average age of veterans living in the Boise facility is around 80. They include men and women who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, along with more recent conflicts.
“They’re here because they all need some type of skilled nursing services,” Hagedorn said. “So they are the most vulnerable of our veterans right now.”
On Monday, Gov. Brad Little sent out a guest opinion to Idaho newspapers urging Idahoans to wear masks and take other preventive measures to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in order to protect Idaho’s veterans. He noted that at least half of Idaho’s veterans are at risk of serious health complications or death if they contract COVID-19.
“This year, in addition to offering prayers and kind words to our veterans on Veterans Day, make this minor sacrifice: Help slow the spread of this dangerous virus by keeping your distance from others, wearing a mask, and washing your hands frequently,” the governor wrote. “Our veterans need us to get tough and put up with these minor inconveniences for a relatively short period of time so they can have a fighting chance against the COVID-19 enemy that is rapidly advancing on them. Our veterans have more life to live. We need to keep them alive so we can continue to honor them and learn from their sacrifices.”
Idaho operates three state veterans homes, including homes in Pocatello and Lewiston as well as the Boise home, which is the largest. Thus far, only the Boise home has seen COVID-19 outbreaks among residents, though the other homes have seen some exposures and infections among employees. As of Tuesday, the state Division of Veterans Services was reporting eight active COVID-19 cases among employees, seven of those at the Boise home and one in Lewiston. It also reported that dating back to the start of the pandemic, 29 Boise staffers, six in Lewiston and six in Pocatello had been diagnosed with the virus.
Hagedorn said since the pandemic began, visits from family to veterans in the homes have been heavily restricted. “I see people every day, families that come to the windows in the homes and visit with veterans,” he said. “Usually they’re on their cell phone with a veteran on the inside, and they’ll bring their lawn chair and they’ll sit and chat with their loved one inside. It’s been pretty tough.”
Construction is currently under way at all three homes to build both permanent screening and changing areas for staff, to replace current temporary ones; and to add a family visiting room with separate air systems from the home where families will be able to visit with their loved ones indoors. “That should be done by the middle of December for all three homes,” Hagedorn said.
He said many of the veterans in the homes use social media or are on Facebook, including the Boise home’s Facebook page, which he encouraged well-wishers to visit at facebook.com/BoiseVeteransHome.