CHARLOTTE, N.C. >> Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of a U.S. Navy SEALs team was met with praise and pride from military members and their families, but their relief was tempered by the worry that it will send the wrong message that the war on terrorism is finished and the troops can come home.
“We know the war on terror is not over, and we need to take a very sober look at all this and understand what we’re fighting,” said Brett Farley, whose father, Naval reservist Steven Farley, 57, died in June 2008 when a bomb tore through a municipal building where he was working in Sadr City, Iraq. “(Al Qaida) is not going to sit quietly.”
That’s what concerns Rachel Porto, whose husband, Marine Cpl. Jonathan Porto, 26, died March 14, 2010, in Afghanistan.
“Now that he’s gone, people will say, bring the troops home. But it’s not the end of terrorism and it’s not the end of al-Qaida. But it’s a start, and it’s a statement that our country’s not to be messed with,” she said.
Bin Laden was killed early Monday when Navy SEALs stormed his compound in Pakistan, capping a decade-long search for the alleged mastermind of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and others that killed Americans, including military members. It seemed that his death was the focal point of every conversation at military bases and in the homes of families with sons, daughters and spouses on active duty.
For families who lost loved ones in Iraq or Afghanistan, it was more of a bittersweet day. While they wanted to celebrate — and most did — it was tempered by the reality that their loved ones were killed in action.
“To be honest, I was kind of excited,” Porto said when she heard bin Laden was dead. “I asked my mom, ‘is it wrong to be excited?’ I feel bad to celebrate the death of anyone, of any human being. But this is a human who caused pain for so many people. And I’ve taken it personally because my husband died in the war. So it’s hard not to celebrate.”
And soldiers said they felt a sense of pride at tracking down bin Laden.
1st Sgt. Troy Bayliss, 39, of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, found out the news of the insurgent leader’s death while waiting for a flight home to Fort Campbell, Ky., after spending a year in eastern Afghanistan.
“It’s really great news considering the damage he caused and what followed,” Bayliss said Monday from Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan.
Spc. Joshua Coffman, 30, also from the 1st Brigade Combat Team and also finishing his second deployment to Afghanistan, said he hopes the news of the bin Laden’s death enhances support for the military’s efforts in Afghanistan and their sacrifices over the past nine-plus years.
“This kind of shows the American people that the soldiers here didn’t die in vain,” he said. “It may give some families some closure.”
At Fort Stewart, Ga., soldiers gathered near the front gate, and bin Laden’s death was on their mind.
“It’s good that he’s dead,” said Pfc. Caleb Kinlaw, a 20-year-old Army infantryman. “If you went through all this time and he was still living and causing trouble, it would seem like a waste. Now with bin Laden being out of the way, you feel like you accomplished something.”
While the U.S. is winding down its military presence in Iraq, it’s still fighting the Taliban and al Qaida in Afghanistan — where bin Laden set up terrorist training camps in the late 1990s. More than 4,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed in the two wars.
For some military families, bin Laden’s death triggered all the terrible emotions they felt when they lost their loved ones. They knew his actions created the timeline that put their kin in harm’s way. After 9/11, people enlisted out of a sense of patriotism. They wanted to hold bin Laden, the architect of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, accountable for the deaths of U.S. citizens.
When Robert Lootens heard the news, he turned to look at his son’s picture on the living room wall and cried out, “They got him, Junior!”
Jonathan Lootens enlisted after the Sept. 11 attacks and served his first tour in Afghanistan, often volunteering for search missions along the Pakistan border. The 25-year-old Army sergeant was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006.
His father and Vietnam veteran believes the end of the manhunt brings the world a step closer to peace “in one way or another.”
Janet Merchant, 60, of Johnson, Vt., whose son — Spc. Christopher Merchant— was killed near Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006, said she was shocked when she heard the news.
“It just brought up a lot of bad memories. That’s about all I could say. No one’s happy when anybody gets killed, good or bad,” she said. “I was glad that the United States finally finished something right.”
Spc. Christopher Merchant, a 32-year-old Vermont National Guardsman, left behind a wife and four children when he died March 1, 2006, in a coordinated attack on Iraqi police headquarters northwest of Ramadi.
“It’s a big hole in our hearts, and nothing can fill it — not even the death of a terrorist,” she said.
While some say they’re glad the hunt for bin Laden is over, they’re still struggling with their loss.
“I thought to myself, good, he deserves it,” said Jenelle Desforges, 21, of Ludlow, Mass., whose brother, Marine Sgt. Josh Deforges, 21, was killed in Afghanistan on May 12, 2010.
She said bin Laden’s death doesn’t bring any more meaning to her brother’s death or help her cope with it.
“I still have my battle that I need to fight over the death of him, and I deal with that every minute of every day,” she said. “People think it will help put closure on his death, but it doesn’t at all, because in reality, he is not the one who killed my brother.
“Bin Laden being alive or dead doesn’t bring my brother back,” she said. “It doesn’t help with closure or anything.”
Rebecca Ponder is the mother of Master Sgt. James William Ponder III, who was part of the elite Night Stalkers aviation unit. He was among 16 killed in 2005 when a U.S. helicopter was shot down in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan while trying to rescue a four-man commando team.
She had mixed reactions to bin Laden’s death. She was “glad they got him. Glad this portion is over.”
But she also had “a lot of sadness for all the troops that have been killed and for the troops that are continuously redeployed.”
If her son had been alive today, she said his reaction would have been: “‘Bout damn time.”
Martha Waggoner reported from Raleigh, N.C., Kristin Hall from Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, Russ Bynum from Fort Stewart, Ga., John Curran from Montpelier, Vt., Travis Loller from Clarksville, Tenn.