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Missouri soldiers, family look back on leaving Afghanistan

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Posted at 6:04 PM, Jul 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-30 00:25:11-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Almost two decades after the United States went to war in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden said the last U.S. and NATO troops will be gone by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks this year.

In recent weeks, as soldiers leave, the Taliban has quickly captured more territory. A UN report shows civilian deaths have surged.

Seven years ago, KSHB 41 News sent a crew including Lindsay Shively and Garret Haake to Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan to follow soldiers from the Missouri National Guard as part of a documentary.

In 2014, The 276th Engineering Company was sent to deconstruct what the military had built over more than a decade of war.

Also in 2014, government officials said American and NATO troops would officially end their combat mission, staying to support and train.

Seven years later and almost twenty years since it began, "we’re ending America’s longest war,” President Biden said in an update on the troop withdrawal in July.

“The United States did what we went to do in Afghanistan, to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and deliver justice to Osama Bin Laden,” he said.

More than 2,400 U.S. Military personnel have lost their lives in the war.

In 2014, we met the wife of a fallen U.S. Army Ranger.

“Twenty-six years old and about to bury my husband. It’s like in that moment, I hadn’t just lost him, I lost a future,” Colleen Katzenberger told Shively seven years ago.

KSHB 41 News came back to visit her in her Northland home where she and her son, Everett, live. Sitting on his bed, they flipped through a photo album.

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Colleen and Everett Katzenberger remember their husband and father, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Katzenberger. He was killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan in 2011.

“He took you down the slide and you went swinging,” she said, pointing to pictures of an infant Everett with his father, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Katzenberger.

He was killed in Afghanistan in 2011 when Everett was seven months old. Several mementos of his life and service are placed around their home.

“To just be able to talk about him is so, just, nice,” she said.

She talks about him often — publicly, now, through an organization called Folds of Honor — and also to Everett.

“Learning to live with joy and sadness like, that is most definitely the journey I’ve taken the last 10 years,” she said. “Some days sadness wins, but most days it’s joy. You know, some days it’s anger.”

Her inability to change what happened can be a trigger for anger, she said.

“I have to check my anger when Everett gets sad because I just feel so helpless and then I think my initial reaction to that is just anger that I can’t protect my child from this story,” Colleen said.

Colleen said the attacks on 9/11 were the reason Jeremy enlisted.

“I distinctly remember when 9/11 happened, and I teach juniors and seniors in high school now, and they weren’t even born,” she said.

Another person KSHB 41 News met in Afghanistan was around that age when the 9/11 attacks happened.

“When that happened, I was a senior, junior in high school,” said Missouri National Guard 1st Sgt. Cesar Martinez. “I wanted to do something for my country.”

When we first met him in 2014, then-Staff Sgt. Martinez was on his second deployment to Afghanistan, where part of the experienced soldier and combat expert’s duties were to train other soldiers for battle.

That training was put to use when a forward operation base, FOB Walton, was attacked during their deployment.

“The shakes came back and the adrenaline came back,” he said in 2014 in Afghanistan later during the deployment.

“I remember my soldiers, how well they reacted,” he told us seven years later, back in Missouri.

In 2014, he thought he was ready for civilian life and perhaps a chance to work with animals.

“I wanted to go ahead and hang up the boots and uniform,” he said then.

But with opportunity to advance, he decided to stay in the military and is now a First Sergeant in the Missouri National Guard.

While he can’t comment on policy, he did tell us about his experience working with the people of Afghanistan, particularly during his first deployment.

“Everybody that we talked to were just, reminded me like of people back home,” he said. “Farmers that want to just work and have a job. A lot of them were teachers, nurses, that wanted to just get back to work.”

Veteran Keith Riggins has since left the military to pursue his dream job. The travel, he said, didn’t allow him to continue being a part of the Missouri National Guard. Instead, he is now a topside and underwater welding instructor and living in Seattle. He admits he does miss the military.

“Every day. Yeah, of course I miss it,” Riggins told Shively

Seven years ago, former Sgt. Riggins was also on his second deployment to Afghanistan. His first was spent operating a Huskie and hunting for IEDs to protect his fellow soldiers. Once, an IED found him. On another mission, he said his equipment that scans for IEDs broke and couldn’t be fixed. Two soldiers lost their lives.

“I still relive it till this day, I mean there’s some nights where I will dream about it,” he told us in 2014, adding that he struggled with his mental health and at one point, contemplated suicide. “It was very close. The amount of stress I felt, that’s what I felt like I needed to do, but my dad and my wife and kids saved my life.”

Looking back seven years later, he said he struggled when he came home from Kandahar in 2014, too.

“I think I just bottled it up so much that whenever I got back on my second tour that it just all just hit me all at once and my anxiety and depression just got so much worse,” he said.

He sought help including from the Department of Veterans Affairs and said he is now five months sober.

“I’ve been to more funerals for soldiers that have committed suicide than I have for guys that have died overseas so it’s huge to not only recognize that these guys are going through something but to help and support them and point them in the right direction to get help,” he said.

New research shows four times as many U.S. service members and veterans have died by suicide than have been killed in combat in post 9/11 wars.

“It doesn’t make you weak — talking to somebody. It makes you a stronger, better person,” Riggins said.

In 2014, Riggins wasn’t sure the war was ending.

“I feel like five to 10 years from now, they’ll be wanting us to come back,” he said then.

“In 2014, some argued ‘one more year’ so we kept fighting. We kept taking casualties in 2015 the same and on and on," President Biden said a few weeks ago. “One more year of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution.”

For some who have sacrificed, the decision brings mixed emotions.

“It just doesn’t necessarily feel like a victory, if that makes sense,” Colleen said. “I think there’s parts of it that were absolutely worth it.”

“I think it’s great that we’re handing it over to them, but I still think that the Taliban is going to take over everything that we’ve worked so hard to accomplish over there,” Riggins said.

For Colleen, one thing is for certain.

“Do I wish I still had Jeremy with me every day? Absolutely. But am I so thankful for the men and women that have prevented another massive attack and kept the war away from us? Yeah. And that gratitude runs deep,” she said.

We reached out to Veterans of Foreign Wars, which has their national headquarters in Kansas City, and they provided a link to their mental health resources.

They also said the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line is one of the best resources for veterans in crisis.

Former KSHB 41 News reporter Garret Haake contributed to our 2014 reporting.