Afghanistan exit: Counting the days, and the cost, in St. Paul

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 23, 2011 - 6:47 AM
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Jennifer Borgert watched Obama's speech at her St. Paul home. “I have a family member serving, but this affects everyone,” she said.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Jennifer Borgert quickly learned the sacrifices the American military and their families are making in Afghanistan, in the first week of her husband's deployment.

Now the family will have a chance to reflect on whether it has been worth it. In a nationally televised speech Wednesday evening, President Obama said he will order the withdrawal of 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year and 20,000 additional troops, the remainder of the 2009 "surge," by the end of next summer.

The drawdown was portrayed in Washington as reflecting mounting political and economic pressure on Obama to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan, especially after 10 years of fighting and an economy faltering. At the couple's home on Berkeley Avenue in St. Paul, the announcement was greeted on a more personal level: an understanding that 10,000 families might soon sleep easier at night.

Obama was vague about the 68,000 troops that would remain after the departures, indicating the United States would turn over control to the Afghans by 2014. After listening to Obama's speech, Jennifer said she recognized the value of a process but would have liked to have heard more immediacy in reducing troop levels.

"I know the value in having a plan but after having someone over there for the last four months, I want people back sooner rather than later," she said. "Sitting here with a little boy, I can't imagine what it's like to send a son to war."

Borgert's husband, Brian Bergson, who is stationed at an Afghan air base with the U.S. Air Force Reserve, left in February for a four-month deployment. He assured Jennifer that he would be in a safe place, largely responsible for logistics of moving personnel and equipment from one place to another. For the most part, she has felt secure knowing he is unlikely to be in harm's way. But there have been tense times, like the phone call a few weeks into it when Brian described a particularly bad day: His crew spent their shift loading coffins for transport.

'It's really brought it home'

Jennifer, a 37-year-old first-time mother who works full time at the University of Minnesota, admits to having been a little lazy about following events in Afghanistan before her husband's departure.

"I didn't pay as much attention. But people I know are there. It's really brought it close to home," she said. "Any steps that we can take to get our troops home are good steps. Having a plan for a future and a plan to get everyone home is in the best interest of everybody."

In civilian life, Brian is a contract lobbyist working at the State Capitol and has worked for Attorney General Lori Swanson and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees. He is accustomed to the rough-and-tumble world of politics. But in his role as an airman, he deflects discussions of the larger political implications of the war and focuses on the personal sacrifices his family has made. His son, Owen, was 7 months old when he left; the week before he left there were ice dams on the house; the dryer has died in his absence.

"The consequences of war are equally shared between husband and wife. I think it has been harder on her than me and I will have to live with that for the rest of my life," he wrote in an e-mail from Afghanistan on Wednesday. "My wife is a very strong woman. She does not complain, and she hasn't wavered in her support of me. I am very proud of her and I can't come up with enough words to tell you how much I love her."

Effect of withdrawal unclear

While the 10,000 figure that Obama mentioned will be seen as important as a possible change of course in Washington, there are other figures that can't be forgotten at home: like the 22 Minnesotans who have been killed in Afghanistan since February 2002 and the 135 from Minnesota who are officially listed as having been wounded; or the 140 soldiers from the Minnesota National Guard currently deployed in Afghanistan or the 80 training to go there. It is unclear whether the announcement will have any immediate effect on future Minnesota deployments.

Brian, who is 46, is scheduled to return home in July, so he will be back in St. Paul by the time any significant drawdown occurs. He joined the Air Force Reserve several years ago after a career in the Army, and hopes to retire with 20 years of military service. He had never deployed before Afghanistan. When he and Jennifer married, they knew the possibility of a deployment hung over their heads and she agreed to let him remain in the Air Force Reserves, which, he told her, would be a safer place to be.

But that was before they had the baby.

"Then I said, 'Gosh, maybe I shouldn't have agreed to this,'" she said. "But it has made our family stronger."

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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