Six Airmen in a Forgotten War

Jan. 27, 2016

Just over a year ago, the US supposedly ended its combat mission in Afghanistan and replaced it with noncombat successor operations. The NATO advise-and-assist mission meant to build up indigenous Afghan military forces is now known as Operation Resolute Support. The US component of this is Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.

The US is not just developing the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), however. Freedom’s Sentinel includes an explicit mission to destroy al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan. Much of what the US forces have been doing over the past year has been combat under another name.

It is beyond the scope of this magazine to explain the intricate history and levels of trouble in Afghanistan. Books will continue to be written on these topics. But suffice to say, the last year was not peaceful or secure in Afghanistan.

“In the second half of 2015, the overall security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated with an increase in effective insurgent attacks,” read a December 2015 DOD report on security and stability in Afghanistan. “Insurgents are improving in their ability to find and exploit ANDSF vulnerabilities.”

How bad is it? With nearly 10,000 US forces and additional NATO troops backing up the ANDSF, the Taliban still launched roughly 1,000 successful attacks every month in 2015, with “successful” being defined by DOD as an attack that caused friendly casualties. Last summer, the number of enemy-initiated attacks hovered around 1,100 per month—more than 35 effective attacks per day.

The war in Afghanistan has consistently been in the background of the American public’s consciousness since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Even after Operation Iraqi Freedom ended, Afghanistan was frequently overshadowed by newer battles in Libya and against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. And as the DOD report noted, “Very few … attacks involved coalition or US forces.”

But the war is not without US cost. That fact was tragically driven home four days before Christmas, when a Taliban terrorist drove an explosive-laden motorcycle into a group of airmen on patrol near Bagram Air Base. Six airmen died in the blast, while two others and an interpreter were injured.

Dec. 21 was “the deadliest day in our command’s history,” said Brig. Gen. Keith M. Givens, Air Force Office of Special Investigations commander. “We lost four brave special agents and two patriotic security forces on a joint patrol outside of Bagram.”

The group performing a routine counterterrorism investigation on foot was as diverse as America.

Maj. Adrianna M. Vorderbruggen, of Plymouth, Minn., was an OSI agent deployed from Eglin AFB, Fla. Previously an outspoken critic of DOD’s old “Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell” policy banning homosexuals from openly serving in the military, she was one of the first service members to marry her partner when the policy was lifted. She is survived by her wife, Heather Lamb, and their young son, Jacob.

TSgt. Joseph G. Lemm, of Bronx, New York, was an Air National Guard security forces airman and was deployed from Stewart Air National Guard Base north of New York City. In civilian life, Lemm was a police detective with 15 years’ experience with the NYPD. He had deployed twice to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. He is survived by his wife, Christine, teenage daughter Brooke, and a four-year-old son, Ryan.

SSgt. Louis M. Bonacasa, of Coram on Long Island, N.Y., was also a security forces airman from Stewart. According to New York’s Newsday, Bonacasa enlisted in the Air Force two days after graduating from high school and met his future wife, Deborah, at basic training. The two were later stationed together at Hill AFB, Utah. He is survived by Deborah and a five-year-old daughter, Lilianna.

SSgt. Michael A. Cinco, of Mercedes, Texas, near Brownsville, was an OSI agent from JBSA-Randolph. At a memorial service at Bagram, OSI Special Agent Heather Garver described Cinco as a “California guy” at heart. Stars and Stripes reported that “his laid-back nature belied a sharp intelligence that always kept him ‘one step ahead,’?” in Garver’s words. Cinco is survived by his wife, Veronica.

SSgt. Chester J. McBride, of Statesboro, Ga., was an OSI agent out of Maxwell AFB, Ala. McBride physically shielded the Afghan linguist accompanying the patrol “when the bomb went off, saving the linguist’s life,” the Statesboro Herald reported. McBride earned a master’s degree from Valdosta State University just last year and was to begin training at the FBI Academy this summer.

SSgt. Peter W. Taub, of Philadelphia, an OSI agent from Ellsworth AFB, S.D., “had an uncanny ability to make even the toughest situations tolerable” with humor, said OSI’s Garver. Taub “recently mused about how to sneak a live sheep onto base to prepare for Thanksgiving dinner,” Stripes reported. He is survived by his wife, Christina, pregnant at the time of his death, and three-year-old daughter Penelope.

“How do we honor these six heroes?” asked Lt. Col. David Kelly, the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing chaplain, at the Dec. 23 Bagram memorial service where the six airmen’s rifles, boots, and helmets were placed in the traditional battlefield cross arrangement. “We honor them by pressing on with the mission. The same mission they were willing to give their lives for.”

The timing of the attack meant the news was somewhat lost in the end-of-year shuffle, while most peoples’ attention was elsewhere, but the families of these six airmen just went through what may be the worst imaginable holiday season.

Let us then take this opportunity to honor the memory of the six airmen who died that day, as a way to remember the 9,800 US troops that are still fighting to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.