Imperfect answers: A son killed in action and his parents ask why

BERTHOUD, Colo. – Ten days since Gabe was killed. Bob and Donna Conde were sitting on a couch in their basement in surrounded by relatives, close friends and 16 of the soldiers who fought alongside their son in Afghanistan.

The soldiers had been back in the United States for just a few days – exhausted from their nine-month deployment and relieved to be home. They had come to this small farming town an hour’s drive from Denver to help bury Spec. Gabriel Conde.

He was a kindergartner on the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and 22 when shot in a firefight – the 2,264th member of the U.S. military to die in Afghanistan and the 16th since Donald Trump became commander in chief.

By the time Gabe deployed in September, the war had fallen so far out of the headlines that Bob found it hard to figure out why the U.S. military was still in Afghanistan. He tried to read up on the war, but the news accounts of suicide bombings, civilian deaths and political infighting never really made sense. They didn’t explain what Gabe was fighting for. They never seemed to have enough detail. Now Bob wanted to hear directly from the men who had been there.

So he balanced a notebook on his lap, ready to write down everything they said about Gabe and his death on April 30. The soldiers told Bob and Donna about their son’s skill with a machine gun. They praised his work ethic, his smarts and his courage under fire.

“How eager are you to go back?” asked Gabe’s uncle, a Vietnam War veteran.

“Very,” said one soldier.

“I’d go back next week,” added another.

“Why?” the uncle asked. “What’s your reason?”

Bob raised his pen.

“I’ll be honest, revenge,” said a sergeant from Gabe’s platoon. “We had to go home right after what happened and we didn’t get a chance to …”

“… kill the cancer,” another soldier finished.

The room was quiet. Bob clutched Donna’s hand. “That’s not a good reason,” he said.

– – –

Gabe had joined the military for all the unsurprising reasons: He wanted a test, an adventure, a chance to battle the bad guys. “Every little boy wants to be the hero of his own story,” Bob said.

For most boys, such certainty gives way to skepticism and self-doubt. In Gabe, it seemed to grow more intense. He was the sort of teenager who wore a cowboy hat, boots and a western duster to high school and showed up on poker night eager to share a poem he had written.

“I can’t remember exactly what it was about,” said one of his friends, “but it definitely involved climbing mountains and shooting guns into the air.”

He lasted only a year as a college student at Colorado School of Mines, where he studied engineering, before he called his father to say that he was “bored.”

“Would you be offended if I dropped out and joined the military?” he asked in May 2015.

His father, a mechanical engineer, encouraged him to finish college and when that failed gave his blessing. The Army assigned him to an airborne infantry unit in Alaska that was on tap to go to Afghanistan.

Bob had his doubts about the war, but his son was exactly where he wanted to be. “I find myself increasingly excited as the date of my departure for Afghanistan draws closer; probably because I don’t see this deployment as being about work or a career,” he wrote to a high school friend. “It’s about trials and learning, tests and growth, and of course striking fear into the hearts of evil men. It’s a step along the path God has called me to.”

Gabe shipped off to Afghanistan in September 2017, only a few weeks after President Donald Trump announced yet another Afghan war strategy. He was the third commander in chief to oversee the war and the third president to call for a surge of U.S. forces. Troop levels under the new plan would increase to about 15,000, double what they had been when Trump took office. President Barack Obama had tried to end the United States’ longest war by gradually withdrawing and handing off the fight to Afghan troops. Trump promised that U.S. forces would stay until the battle was won.

“When I became president, I was given a bad and very complex hand, but I fully knew what I was getting into,” Trump said on the night he announced his troop surge from Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, outside Washington. As the president described it that evening, his new strategy for ending the war would be straightforward and brutal: more troops, more airstrikes, more dead insurgents and less interference from Washington.

“We are killing terrorists,” he said. “Retribution will be fast and powerful.”

In Afghanistan, Gabe’s unit was assigned to provide extra firepower to U.S. Special Operations forces and Afghan commandos conducting raids to capture or kill Islamic State or Taliban leaders hiding along the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The first few weeks were dominated by training and guard-tower duty. “I’m surprised by how normal it all seems,” he wrote in a September email to one of his best friends back home in Berthoud. “Any nervousness I had coming out here is long gone and excitement for the missions has taken its place.”

The month of November brought Gabe’s first real firefight: “In the end we got to do some pretty cool shit. Didn’t stack any bodies though,” he wrote. “I’m still irked that I haven’t got to drop the bad guys yet. All in due time I suppose.”

The pace of combat missions increased. Gabe killed his first enemy fighter – an act of bravery that his platoon leader credited with saving several members of the Special Operations team that he was supporting. The insurgent was about to fire on U.S. troops before Gabe shot him.

By March, he was preparing to come home. His time in Afghanistan had been rewarding, “an experience I will remember fondly,” he wrote. “I will miss it even.” But the frustrations of Army life – “the waiting, the pointless training, the lack of freedom” – still grated, even in a war zone.

Sometimes he talked about going back to college when his enlistment was done. “I’ll be coming to you for advice on how to handle the quantity of work,” he wrote to one high school friend. At other moments, he spoke to his parents in grand, but vague, terms about trying to establish a nonprofit organization that could rescue child victims of sexual abuse, a problem in Afghanistan that enraged him.

In late April, he sent a final text message to Bob and Donna, letting them know he would be heading out on one more mission – “a great quest,” he called it – before he returned to the United States.

“Please pray that it will be lively,” he said, “and that God is glorified.”

– – –

On May 9, nine days after their son was killed, Bob and Donna sat at the kitchen table at their home in Berthoud. “Oh, it’s been a hard morning already,” Donna said. In front of them was a three-inch-thick binder, issued by the Department of the Army, “The Days Ahead: Essential Papers for the Families of Fallen Soldiers.”

Gabe’s body was scheduled to arrive home on Friday, just two days away. There was still so much to plan.

Their Army casualty assistance officer, who had been assigned to help them, was on the phone with the county sheriff arranging an escort from the airport to the funeral home. “We’ll make sure we have sufficient police presence,” the sheriff was saying.

The governor’s office wanted to schedule a phone call and a reporter from a television station in Denver was stopping by the house for an interview in about an hour. Bob and Donna still needed to order food for their family – aunts, uncles, cousins – who would be gathering at the house on Friday night after the funeral home viewing.

“Do you want the soldiers from Gabe’s platoon to come over as well?” the casualty assistance officer asked.

“If they knew Gabe, we want them,” Bob replied.

In Washington that morning, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was fending off questions from frustrated members of the Senate Appropriations Committee who pressed him on when, if ever, the Afghan war would end.

“I don’t refute that this has been a long fight,” replied Mattis, a battle-hardened retired Marine. “I first landed there in November 2001. I recognize how long it’s been.”

In Berthoud, Bob and Donna were discussing headstones. Military headstones – small, white, marble tablets – can accommodate only two lines of text each consisting of 15 characters. Bob chose “Chazak Amats” for the top line, which was short for an ancient Hebrew battle cry that loosely translated to “Be good and courageous.” This was the final text that he sent to Gabe before he went on his last mission.

“What do you want to do for the second line?” Donna asked Bob.

“That’s your line,” Bob said. “What do you want to say?”

“I don’t have enough characters,” she cried.

She had wanted a Bible verse: “Well done, good and faithful servant,” but it was too long. So she settled simply on “Well done.”

“Well done?” Bob asked.

“I’m proud of him and he did well … right?” Donna replied.

They headed out to their back deck where the television reporter and her cameraman were waiting. The conversation turned to Afghanistan. Maybe it was time to bring the troops home, the television interviewer suggested.

“A year ago … I was thinking why are we there?” Bob said.

Now Bob and Donna were determined to impart a meaning to the war that seemed worthy of Gabe’s death. “I know Gabe was sent there by God. He was protecting these innocent people from bad guys and training the Afghan warriors,” Bob said.

Donna continued: “He was not fighting for our freedom. He was fighting for the freedom of the Afghan people.”

– – –

Two days later, Bob and Donna were standing on the tarmac of a small, civilian airport where the plane carrying Gabe’s body was scheduled to land at 10 a.m. The sky was a brilliant blue. The snow-capped Rockies stretched across the horizon.

Fifteen soldiers from Gabe’s platoon were lined up on the edge of the airfield in their formal Army uniforms and maroon airborne berets. The 16th member of the group was on the plane, accompanying Gabe’s casket from the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

“Ma’am, incredibly sorry for your loss,” the platoon sergeant said to Donna when she and Bob approached. They hugged each of the soldiers and walked back to the spot on the tarmac that was closest to the runway.

“What time is it?” Donna asked, and before Bob could answer she grabbed his wrist and turned it so that she could see his watch. “He’ll be here in 10 minutes,” she said.

The platoon sergeant ordered the soldiers to move into formation next to the hearse. A few minutes passed.

“Plane!” someone yelled and all heads spun to the runway where a small white jet was now taxiing toward a ceremonial archway of water formed by two firetrucks.

“I wanted to see it land,” Donna said.

A stiff wind kicked up and blew a mist from the firetrucks back on Donna and Bob, who placed his hands over his wife’s ears to shield them from the jet noise. The pilot cut the engines and the plane’s cargo door opened with a soft, pneumatic hum, revealing the flag-draped casket.

“Gabe!” Donna screamed. “Gabe! Gabe!”

Her mouth was frozen open, her body shaking, her hands clutched to her chest. As she struggled for breath, Bob grabbed her shoulders to steady her.

The soldiers, their movements synchronized, placed the casket in the hearse and issued a slow salute.

“My son,” Donna said softly.

Bob, his hands still on Donna’s shoulders, guided her toward the waiting limousine.

They rolled through the airport parking lot where the staff was waiting with flags and salutes. On the main road, clumps of warehouse workers shared the sidewalk with construction road crews and collections of cubicle dwellers in button-down shirts and khakis.

Families camped out in front of their cars and held homemade signs. “Spec. Gabriel Conde: A True Hero,” read one. Bob spotted a woman bawling on the sidewalk and for the first time that day he started to cry. “Thank you,” he said to people who couldn’t see or hear him behind the limousine’s dark windows.

“I know he would scoff at this … no he wouldn’t scoff,” Bob told Donna, thinking of their son. “Just think of these folks who came out of their way.”

“So many,” Donna said, through tears.

The police closed down Interstate 25 for the convoy, which started to pick up speed. The procession passed an outlet mall sign that flashed a photo of Gabe in his military uniform next to an American flag, and turned onto Staff Sgt. Justin Bauer Memorial Highway, a two-lane road named for a Berthoud soldier killed in Iraq in 2009.

Flags fluttered from tractors, telephone poles, hay balers and farm irrigation systems. On the main stretch through town, Bob and Donna spotted friends, neighbors and Gabe’s favorite history teacher from Berthoud High School, which had delayed third period so students could watch Gabe pass.

From behind the limo’s darkened glass, Donna noticed that all eyes were trained on Gabe’s flag-draped casket, visible in the hearse directly in front of them.

“Look at all this,” she said. “They’ve come to honor you, Gabe.”

– – –

Bob and Donna knew little about Gabe’s time in combat or the mission that killed him. The first time Donna saw Gabe’s body at the mortuary, she turned to her casualty assistance officer. “What are all these?” she asked, pointing to the medals that covered his chest.

Some were related to his work as an infantryman and paratrooper. Others, such as the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with a “V” for the valor, were awarded posthumously for battlefield heroism, the officer explained.

Bob and Donna learned more when the Special Operations team that Gabe had been accompanying on the day he died called from Afghanistan. The notes from that conversation covered a piece of paper on their kitchen table.

“Heavy contact … providing cover fire … sniper,” Bob had written.

“Very brave” was underlined.

“Largest engagement since we got there… . Didn’t put down machine gun… . Definitely got some.”

At the bottom of the page: “Did not suffer.”

The barbecue at their house with family members, friends and the men from Gabe’s platoon offered another chance to piece together Gabe’s final months. Bob gathered the group for a prayer. “I thank you for the man Gabe is and the man he grew up to be,” he said, eyes closed and head bowed. “And I thank you that these men who are like him came here to hang out.”

A few minutes later, Donna found the jet-lagged soldiers clustered in a knot along the side of the house. “I’m ready to hear something about my son,” she told them.

Sgt. Zachary Roybal shared a story about Gabe spitting chewing tobacco out of the window while sitting in the front seat of an Army truck. The gobs of chew pelted Roybal, who was sitting in the back and initially mistook the spit and tobacco for mud and rain.

“He said, ‘I am so, so, so sorry,’ ” Roybal recalled.

“Oh, cute,” Donna replied. “Tell me more.”

The soldiers looked down at their shoes. Roybal kept talking. He recounted Gabe’s skill as an artist and the time his tent leaked while they were on a training exercise. Donna excused herself to fetch Bob.

“Do you guys want to chip in?” a flustered Roybal asked the rest of the platoon.

“Just keep going,” the platoon leader replied. “You’re doing fine.”

The sun was setting and the evening was turning cold and wet. Worried that the soldiers might leave, Donna herded everyone down to the basement. She and Bob sat on a couch at the front of the room. On the wall behind them was a tapestry with the Lord’s Prayer. Next to them, a bookshelf held a picture of Gabe as a toddler. Relatives and the men from Gabe’s platoon filled up the rest of the chairs and sat on the staircase.

“Don’t think about yourself as soldiers,” Donna told them. “Think of yourself as Gabe’s friends and don’t worry about language.”

Roybal filled the awkward silence with a few more stories. Gabe’s platoon leader recalled making fun of his terrible haircuts.

“He got this really bad haircut in Afghanistan,” said First Lt. Lucas Behler.

“He still has it,” said Bob, thinking of his son in the casket.

In phone calls home, Gabe had spoken fondly about some of the Afghan soldiers and Bob asked what it was like to work with them. Almost every article he read about the war touted training the Afghan military as the key to victory.

A couple of the soldiers laughed dismissively.

“Did they feel reluctant to fight for their country?” Donna pressed.

Before the soldiers could answer, the platoon leader explained that the cultural and language barriers sometimes created tensions.

“They aren’t reluctant,” he said of the Afghans. “They’re not forced.”

The soldiers talked about their desire to avenge Gabe’s death and about his nickname, “Stitches,” which he earned by turning his machine gun on a Taliban fighter who was just seconds away from firing a rocket-propelled grenade.

“He stitched him up?” Bob asked.

“You could put it that way,” the platoon leader said. “Everybody came home safe.”

The soldiers stifled yawns and the silence between stories grew longer. Before the soldiers left, they handed Bob a box with Gabe’s cowboy boots, his favorite cowboy hat and journals from Alaska. Bob had planned on reading just a few entries, but stayed up late into the night until he had finished them all.

– – –

At Gabe’s May 12 memorial service, his high school friends spoke of the time in his life when his world was his home town and hunting and fishing in the nearby mountains. His military superiors from Afghanistan spoke of his reliability, his courage and his skill with a machine gun.

Then Bob and Donna rose. “Those who knew Gabe well knew he pretty much had a strong dislike for people,” Bob said. “Not everybody. He loved people, but he hated people. You know what I mean? … You probably don’t.”

He read one of Gabe’s poems railing against the “false, sinister and fake.”

Donna recalled her son’s “masculine intensity” and anger at “the injustices of the world.”

“Gabe’s frustration with people came through in his writings, but I have to say that since his death, I have only seen beauty,” she said, looking out at the packed sanctuary. “Everyone has been so caring and loving. I thank you for proving him wrong and letting me see your absolute beauty.”

She began to cry. “I love you, Gabriel David Conde,” she said.

– – –

Two days later, the men from Gabe’s platoon gathered at Fort Logan National Cemetery, near Denver. They arrived several hours before the burial so that they would have time to practice with a team of soldiers from Fort Carson, who had been sent to help them.

“Do you guys do mostly old folks?” Roybal asked one of the sergeants from Fort Carson.

“We did an active duty last week,” the sergeant replied. “Those are the worst ones.”

That funeral had been for a combat veteran who committed suicide. At the end of the ceremony, the sergeant said that he had lowered himself onto one knee and presented the folded flag from the soldier’s casket to his children, ages 5 and 6.

“No wife or ex-wife?” Roybal asked.

“He must’ve had them,” the sergeant replied, “but they didn’t show up.”

On this morning, the soldiers practiced loading and unloading the casket from a horse-drawn caisson, the 21-gun salute and folding the flag into a tight triangle for Gabe’s parents. They checked their uniforms one last time in a storage-shed window before the funeral began at precisely 2 p.m.

Two black Percherons pulled the caisson slowly up to the top of the hill as Gabe’s fellow soldiers walked alongside. Behind it was a quarter horse, its saddle empty except for cavalry boots inserted backward in the stirrups. Bob and Donna followed in a limousine.

The funeral cortège halted at “Commitment Shelter C,” a small structure with just enough room for Gabe’s immediate family, the pallbearers and an Army chaplain.

The chaplain praised Gabe as a soldier who had served his nation “faithfully and well.” A general with a dozen hash marks on his sleeve, indicating six years in combat zones, handed the folded flag from the casket to Bob and whispered thanks “on behalf of a grateful nation.”

Bob found solace not in the war’s aims or military ceremony, but in Gabe’s last moments. Many of the soldiers Gabe fought with that day were still in Afghanistan, and Bob’s knowledge of the firefight was still somewhat sketchy. But this much he knew: Gabe put himself at risk in those final minutes so that the Afghan and American soldiers fighting alongside him might live.

“In that moment when he decided not to put down the machine gun and seek cover, he was fighting for them,” Bob said. “I’m good with that. That’s a noble thing to do.”

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