The stench of decaying flesh hung heavy in the air as soldiers passed blown-up bunkers and caves. As they moved down an L-shaped corridor, the stiffened limbs of a Taliban soldier jutted from beneath piles of rock and dust in the sweltering afternoon air. Ripped-up pages from the Koran, and booklets describing ways to kill Americans, littered the tree-lined valley that had been bombarded by U.S. air strikes before their arrival.
These recollections, marking the intensity of every hour of every day felt in combat, typify the memories that resurface for veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and other military combat this Memorial Day weekend. For Army Private Matt Guckenheimer, who recently returned home to Tompkins County after two missions in Eastern Afghanistan, processing these memories and readjusting to American life has just begun. Guckenheimer, who helped clear the L-shaped valley near the border of Pakistan whose twists and turns are burned into his memory, explained the nature of his company's mission. In doing so, he spoke candidly about the reality of war. In an April interview with The Ithaca Journal at his family's Cayuga Heights home, Guckenheimer, 22, shared his experiences during Operation Anaconda. He was sent on March 6 in a company of more than 100 soldiers to participate in the largest U.S.-led ground engagement in Eastern Afghanistan. "We were told there were no friendly forces," said Guckenheimer, an assistant gunner with the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum. "If there was anybody there, they were the enemy. We were told specifically that if there were women and children to kill them."
Taliban al-Qaida soldiers had already been given about two weeks to surrender when U.S. soldiers were ordered to demolish their last strongholds and finish the operation, he said. Guckenheimer said he loved learning about tanks and guns and watching battle scenes on TV when he was young. As a teen-ager, he said, his desire to prepare himself to confront the challenges of war intensified despite his family's disapproval. After attending Ithaca High School his freshman year, he transferred to a boarding school in Bath, Maine. His parents, Meredith Kusch and John Guckenheimer, attended Oberlin College in Ohio and the University of California at Berkeley during the Vietnam era. They used to joke that they would disown him if he ever joined the military, he said.
"They're just about the most passive people you could want," he said with a smile. "I just ended up not being that way." Guckenheimer said he believed his parents had been indoctrinated with a skewed view of the Vietnam War that led them to undervalue war's place in defending the United States. But he said he has noticed a shift in their outlook since Sept. 11. John Guckenheimer agreed, to an extent, with his son's assessment. "I think it was necessary for the U.S. to respond militarily to the events of Sept. 11, but I don't feel completely comfortable with the way the war in Afghanistan is being conducted," he said. He thinks that the United States is settling into a long and entrenched war in the region, and might repeat the mistakes the Russians made there.
As a Cornell math professor, he said, he has worked with members of the armed forces and has held them in high regard. Regarding the U.S. military as an institution, and his and his wife's opinion of it, he said, "I don't know that our attitudes in general have changed since Matt joined." Matt Guckenheimer said his first combat experience in Afghanistan was enough. "I know that I can get through it, so the challenge is gone," Guckenheimer said. "I don't think wanting to put yourself in that position is really healthy to begin with." Because of the effectiveness of earlier U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, the number of Taliban soldiers killed during Guckenheimer's missions was minimal, he said. He knew of only about 10 enemy fighters who were killed, he said. "Most of it (the difficulty of the missions) wasn't as much the enemy as it was the elements," he said. Adjusting to the high altitude and low oxygen levels of the region was a struggle. Layers of Gortex and fleece couldn't shield them from the cold nights. They would wake up to find their canteens covered in ice, he said.
When he returned to the United States after spending a month either on missions or at the Bagram military base, Guckenheimer said, he remembered how alienated Americans are from each other. After living in a Third World country, where people he didn't know would smile or say hello to him on the streets, it was jarring to return home, where contact among strangers is mostly shunned. "These people who lived through life, they seemed to be more grounded," he said. Coming home was like walking back into a "clueless" society where over-consumption is commonly regarded as the route to happiness, he said. He said although he only interacted with Afghan men, those he spoke to looked forward to women re-entering public life. On the whole, he said, residents of the towns attached to the Bagram base had been able to achieve a measure of happiness despite living amid constant war. Guckenheimer returned to Fort Drum on April 24. He said he looked forward to their next assignment and would like to serve in Sinai, Egypt.
Kandea Mosley Journal Staff