In Afghanistan, the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present

A call to honor our troops, veterans and their families during America's 16th consecutive winter at war.

By Tom Sileo Published on December 15, 2016

For most Americans, Dec. 25, 2016, will be Christmas Day. For Nikki Altmann, it is also the fifth anniversary of her husband’s death in Afghanistan.

“Everything we were planning was gone in a moment’s notice,” Nikki told me less than six months after her husband was killed in action.

As many listen to the festive sounds of holiday cheer on Christmas Eve, a military widow will likely recall the sound of her husband’s voice. That’s because the last time Nikki and U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Altmann spoke to one another was on Christmas Eve 2011.

“We talked about everything … all of our dreams,” Nikki said. “(Joe) said that February or March was when he hoped to be home.”

About 24 hours later, Nikki, who was spending her holiday in Ireland while working as a flight attendant, was notified that her 27-year-old husband’s life had tragically ended in the mountains of Afghanistan’s Kunar Province. While the news itself was devastating, hearing that Joe died on Christmas Day was unimaginable.

“Every day is a constant reminder of what I had, what I was going to have, and what is no more,” the young military widow said in 2012.

Every day since our phone conversation, I have been inspired by the strength I heard in Nikki’s voice. I also remember something else she said.

“Six months from now, people won’t be calling to see how I’m doing,” she said.

Nikki’s husband is one of 2,392 American heroes to lose his or her life during America’s longest war.  For those too young to remember, a U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, in response to the 9/11 attacks, which were launched by al Qaeda terrorists being harbored by the Taliban. The war continues to this very day.

In recent years, some have spearheaded an ill-conceived effort to stop calling Afghanistan a war. That hasn’t changed the little-discussed fact that 91 U.S. troops have been killed there since New Year’s Day in 2014, including 14 so far this year. To call a conflict where courageous Americans are still being killed and wounded anything other than a war dishonors the valiant men and women who have sacrificed so much in Afghanistan over the past 15-plus years.

Diminishing the harsh reality of war also does a disservice to the approximately 8,400 U.S. troops who will be stationed in Afghanistan when President Obama passes the baton to President-elect Trump, who will be the 45th commander-in-chief of our nation’s Armed Forces. Until a president decides otherwise, thousands of American troops will continue putting their lives on the line as their families wait and worry at home.

Afghanistan isn’t some faraway footnote on Google Earth. It’s the war zone where Nikki’s husband gave all while proudly wearing our country’s uniform. Afghanistan isn’t just a news story (though many journalists have spent the last decade ignoring it), it’s where my Fire in My Eyes co-author, U.S. Navy LT Brad Snyder (Ret.), was permanently blinded by a bomb blast while courageously helping wounded Afghans.

Afghanistan is also where U.S. Army Capt. Florent Groberg (Ret.), with whom I’m writing a new book called 8 Seconds of Courage, charged a suicide bomber who was trying to wipe out the soldier’s entire patrol. Captain Groberg — America’s first foreign-born Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War — saved dozens of American lives in those eight crucial seconds. More than four years later, he wears a bracelet bearing the names of four friends who did not survive the attack: U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin Griffin, U.S. Army Maj. Thomas Kennedy, U.S. Air Force Maj. Walter David Gray and USAID Foreign Service Officer Ragaei Abdelfattah. Flo has dedicated the rest of his life to sharing their stories.

On Dec. 7 — the 75th Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor — the Pentagon announced that U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Allan Brown, 46, died the previous day at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He had suffered devastating wounds during an enemy attack on Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan during a Veterans Day-themed event. Private First Class Tyler Iubelt, 20, and Sgt. John Perry, 30, were killed in the same terrorist attack.

Did you hear a single word about Sgt. 1st Class Brown’s ultimate sacrifice when he died less than two weeks ago? I saw the story on a local news broadcast while visiting Washington, D.C., which is near the departed warrior’s Takoma Park, Md., home. Yet as far as national news was concerned, the brave soldier’s story was barely a blip on the radar screen, which serves as yet another sad example of media malpractice.

For 16 straight Christmases, American warriors have spent their holiday seasons far from their families in a cold, desolate land. Five years ago, the day Christians celebrate Jesus Christ’s birthday was also the day that Staff Sgt. Joe Altmann went to heaven after making the ultimate sacrifice.

Regardless of our religious or political beliefs, we are all Americans. As the holidays approach, shouldn’t we be setting aside our differences and uniting around our troops fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and around the world, as well as their families and our nation’s veterans?

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Altmann and his wife, Nikki.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Altmann and his wife, Nikki.

As Nikki so candidly predicted during our phone call, people would eventually stop calling to check in. Fifteen years and 16 Christmases after the war in Afghanistan was launched in the shadows of the Twin Towers, too many of us — especially those who work in journalism and politics — have moved on from Afghanistan.

For my part, I will not move on until the very last U.S. service member leaves Afghanistan and every single veteran and fallen hero of the conflict is appropriately honored. To do anything less would dishonor the service and sacrifice of patriots like the remarkable men and women mentioned in this column, who dedicated their lives to protecting their families and ours.

As your family sits down for dinner on Dec. 24, think about Joe and Nikki Altmann saying their final goodbyes five Christmas Eves earlier. As their story fills your mind, perhaps you will briefly interrupt the festivities to share it with others.

When looking at the smiles of your kids on Christmas morning, think about how much Joe and Nikki would probably have loved to raise children of their own. Then, perhaps you will tell your kids that as they open their presents, thousands of moms and dads aren’t spending Christmas with their children because they are serving overseas and protecting others.

Afghanistan, where Staff Sgt. Joe Altmann gave his last full measure of devotion five Christmases ago, is filled with the ghosts of Christmas past and present. As Americans fortunate enough to live in freedom, we must join together in honoring the heroes who gave us this precious holiday gift.


Tom Sileo is co-author of Brothers Forever, Fire in My Eyes and the forthcoming 8 Seconds of Courage. He is also a recipient of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s General Oliver P. Smith Award for distinguished reporting. Follow him on Twitter.

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