When Forrest Ewens and his wife, Megan, went to visit Ewens’ twin brother, Oaken, at West Point shortly before Forrest deployed to Afghanistan more than 15 years ago, he was adamant about visiting the military cemetery.
“At (Lt. Col. George Armstrong) Custer’s headstone, next to it is a very modest headstone of a soldier,” said Megan Poss. “Forrest said, ‘If I die, I want something like this.’ ”
Poss and Ewens had been married for about two years at the time, after having met in ROTC training at Gonzaga University. Poss, herself a platoon leader, told her husband, jokingly, to knock off that talk.
The memory still brings Poss to tears, 15 years after her first husband died in an improvised explosive device detonation in eastern Afghanistan.
“Time is a funny thing; it takes the edge off,” she said, composing herself. “It doesn’t make it go away.”
1st Lt. Forrest P. Ewens, of Chewelah, was 25 when he died. He’s one of at least a dozen and a half local soldiers killed in service of this country’s military efforts in Afghanistan launched in response to the terrorist attacks 20 years ago this weekend.
Carol Pinkerton, Ewens’ mother, saw three of her other sons enlist to fight in Afghanistan. Images of American soldiers, and Afghan civilians, leaving the country after this nation’s longest war fill her with complicated emotions, she said.
“I hate the internet right now,” said Pinkerton, who recently moved to Arizona. “I combat all those things, because I refuse to believe that his life was, you know, that he died in vain. That it was a waste. I refuse to believe that.”
Pinkerton acknowledges her son’s death caused fissures in the family. Poss said there were tense moments after her first husband’s death between her and other members of the family. Some of Ewens’ brothers still won’t talk about their time in the country, Pinkerton said.
But their belief that Forrest’s story, and the stories of all the men and women who served, should be remembered was a theme among the local families who’ve lost loved ones in the conflict.
“When people say what was it all for, it’s obviously very frustrating,” Poss said, “because I see so much of the good that happened.”
Doing what they loved
Nicole Goldsmith still keeps a scrap of paper with her brother Wyatt’s storage unit combination scribbled on it.
Army Staff Sgt. 1st Class Wyatt Goldsmith left it with his sister before his third deployment overseas. When previously leaving the country, Goldsmith typically told his sister, nine years his senior, that he’d see her later.
“I just remember him in the entryway and hugging me, and saying, ‘Goodbye. I love you, sis,’ ” Nicole Goldsmith said. “And he doesn’t usually say that.”
The two had grown closer after Goldsmith had finished at Colville High School. He’d kicked around trying to decide what he wanted to do for a couple of years, said his father, John Goldsmith. Wyatt seemed drawn to medical work, acting as ski patrolman at 49 Degrees North. He ended up a Green Beret medic.
“He had an amazing memory,” John Goldsmith said. After he died, in July 2011, the family received the books Wyatt was reading, all texts John Goldsmith said were way above his head. “Sophocles, Shakespeare, a ton of medical books and the Bible,” his dad said.
While Goldsmith took some time to figure out that the military was where he wanted to be, others from the area who signed up knew their path sooner.
“He asked us to sign papers before he was even 18, when he was still in high school,” said Terri Stiltz, whose son, Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Stiltz, graduated from Shadle Park High School in 2005 before enlisting.
Stiltz served two tours in Iraq before his assignment in Afghanistan. In between those deployments, he bought a yellow Mustang in town that he drove the 1,500 miles back to Fort Riley in Manhattan, Kansas, where he was stationed. Father Mark Stiltz joined him in the car with a roaring engine.
“I wore earplugs the whole trip,” Mark Stiltz said.
The Stiltzes kept a photo of their son during a peacekeeping tour in Iraq, where he’s grasping the hand of a teenage Iraqi as the two grin.
“He was always really, really good with kids. And old people,” Terri Stiltz said. “He had a tender heart.”
Megan Poss, too, remembers a story of Forrest Ewens, before he died, sharing a drink with a village elder in the Pech River Valley, where he was stationed and where he was eventually killed.
“It was probably warm goat milk,” she said. “But I’ll never forget how he talked about the kindness of the people. It was just in their culture, if you were a stranger and you knocked on the door, they would give you whatever they had.”
Ewens eventually helped the man get a power generator for his remote village, Poss said. It was indicative of his calling.
“One of the other things he said before he went, ‘If I die, I’m dying doing the thing I love,’” Poss said. “I don’t think he necessarily meant service to the Army. I just think he meant serving others.”
Army Cpl. Justin Clouse bought his fiancée a fixer-upper that allowed the two to spend more time together.
“He bought me this … amazing – it was a hunk of junk – but real gorgeous truck. It was a ’76 Ford Ranger, and we actually started fixing it up together,” said Alexandra Garritson, Clouse’s fiancee.
Clouse was from Sprague, but the two met when he was based at Fort Carson outside Colorado Springs. They were back in Sprague during the holidays in 2013, before Clouse shipped out for his second tour in Afghanistan after graduating from Sprague High School in 2010.
“It was actually really eerie, looking back at it,” Garriston said. “He straight up told me he didn’t think he was going to make it.”
Clouse had gone so far as to send his fiancee and friends songs he wanted played at his funeral. Garritson still remembers the last time he held his niece that holiday, and how he cried.
Clouse was killed in a friendly fire incident in June 2014. He was 22 years old.
Garritson sold the Ranger to a friend, who is still working to restore it. She takes trips sometimes and recently moved to Texas near one of Clouse’s friends. The friend’s firstborn will be named Justin, after the late corporal.
Wyatt Goldsmith, the Army sergeant from Colville who died, has also been honored by family members.
“We’re up to 11 now, total,” his father, John Goldsmith, said.
Fallen soldiers haven’t just lent their names to children.
Army Spc. Jarrod Lallier of Mead was another enlistee who needed a parent’s signature to sign up for service.
“Even when he was growing up, he kept on saying, ‘I’m going into the Army,’ ” said Lallier’s mother, Kim. “And as his mom, I’m like, ‘Sure, OK, honey.’ But I was like, ‘No, no.’ ”
Kim Lallier relented, and Jarrod completed his training at Fort Benning in Georgia as part of the 82nd Airborne division. Upon arrival in Afghanistan, two of his close friends were quickly killed, and Jarrod Lallier lost some of his hearing in an IED blast, Kim Lallier said.
“Jarrod had struggled after Ben (Neal) and Sam (Watts); he seemed really quiet,” Kim Lallier said. She and her husband had reached out to friends and the Wounded Warrior project to come up with ways to communicate with their son.
“The blessing in all this is that the last two times we talked to him, he seemed more like himself,” she continued. “That last time we talked to him, he just sounded like our old Jared.”
That last time was just before Father’s Day 2012. Lallier was killed June 18, 2012, in an attack by men in Afghan police uniforms.
The ceremony room at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) facility in Spokane bears Lallier’s name, an effort by a friend of the family who swore Lallier into military service.
“Every person that’s sworn in, for any service, his picture and story hangs there,” Kim Lallier said. “They said they did that as a reminder that every single person that goes through those doors could be someone that doesn’t come home.”
The pleas and actions to remember also came with an urging to continue living. Megan Poss remembered Forrest Ewens telling her days before he left the country that she should not become overwhelmed in her grief if he died.
“He says to me, ‘You know I want you to remarry,’” Poss said, pausing again to collect herself.
“He had basically lived and had all the joy that he had needed,” Poss continued. “That he would not want me to go on mourning, to know that there was more joy to have.”
A complicated exit
Family members of locals killed in service in Afghanistan said they started to get calls in recent weeks from organizations and friends checking on them as troops began to leave the country, and the Taliban regained control.
“A friend reached out to me and asked, ‘How are you doing?’” Poss said. “My heart is breaking for the women and girls who are at risk of losing so much that was gained.”
“There’s not really a specific word I can place as to how I feel,” said Nicole Goldsmith, sister of Wyatt Goldsmith. “I’m just utterly heartbroken to see, 20 years ago, where we were and where we are today.”
Sadness and frustration were the most common emotions family members said they felt about the end of the war that claimed their loved ones’ lives.
“That we got out was not what offended me,” said John Goldsmith, Wyatt’s father. “But the way it was done, which was a complete disaster.”
Goldsmith and his wife received a letter issued to other Gold Star parents from a commander of the Army Special Forces group saying their son did not die in vain.
Mark Stiltz said the conclusion of the war, and the uncertainty of the country’s future, leaves him with a feeling of uneasiness about the conflict, while also being proud of Matthew’s service to America.
“It kind of makes me feel like my son was over there, and was part of a bigger picture, but somehow the bigger picture got lost,” Stiltz said.
Kim Lallier found a social media post during the Afghanistan departure that she believes sums up her feelings on the war and her son, Jarrod’s, job in it. It was written by his former captain. She read the post aloud over the phone.
“Remind them that the work we did was honorable,” she read. “We shined a light in some of the darkest places on the globe. We did our job. We supported righteous endeavors. We ensured that tens of thousands of terrorists never died of old age.”
Others have tried to focus on the memories they do have.
“I don’t think it changes how I feel about his service,” said Garritson, the fiancée of Justin Clouse. “He did what he wanted to do.”
“I try not to think of those things, like was it a waste? I don’t think it was,” she continued. “I think more about the families that are now being affected, and are going through what I’m going through. And that’s the hard part.”
Carol Pinkerton, Forrest Ewen’s mother, said she has some criticisms about the way the U.S. exited Afghanistan.
But her memories, as the 20th anniversary of the attack that prompted U.S. involvement in that country approaches, are on the lightheartedness of her son that acted as a kind of glue that held the family together, and how that was taken away so suddenly.
“Forrest was a total goofball. I called him our entertainment center. He just always was making us laugh,” Pinkerton said.
“When he left, when he died, the whole family – it affects, obviously your whole family. That whole crazy joy, happiness, goofiness, left,” she continued. “ And no one was really able to bring it back.”