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Grieving One of the Last U.S. Soldiers Killed in Afghanistan

Sergeant First Class Javier Jaguar Gutierrez is buried in Grave 104B of Section 14A on the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio. The white marble gravestone is shaded by a willowy oak and adorned with a miniature American flag and a fistful of crimson, white and blue flowers.

On Aug. 27, Sylvia and Javier Gutierrez make the 29-mile journey to their son’s grave website, simply as they’ve executed dozens of instances since his demise 18 months earlier. Time and once more, they’ve come right here carrying images and contemporary bouquets and household gossip. They’ve additionally carried a burden inside, one no mother or father ought to must bear: their son was one of many final two American troopers to die preventing in Afghanistan.

Jaguar, 28, and an Army Ranger had been shot and killed on Feb. 8, 2020. An Afghan service member turned his gun on them simply three weeks earlier than the U.S. signed a landmark peace deal with the Taliban. Despite the tragedy, the Gutierrez household managed to take a measure of solace in the truth that Jaguar could be one of many final troopers to die within the nation’s longest war. The ache, they thought, would cease with them.

But now they had been passing on their burden. The day earlier than their go to to the cemetery, a suicide bomber had killed greater than 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members on the Kabul airport. The grief Sylvia and Javier had endured over the previous 12 months and a half would now be felt by yet one more group of shattered U.S. households, a brand new set of bereaved mother and father.

Photograph by Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME

Becoming a Gold Star household is an honor that no person seeks. No one can fathom the heartache endured by the moms, fathers, wives, husbands, daughters and sons of the fallen. “There’s an emptiness,” Sylvia says. “I feel like I’ll never be whole again. This war—although it’s coming to an end—will not end for me.”

The Taliban’s sudden takeover of Afghanistan is a bitter actuality for all Americans after a era of warfare. But the jarring spectacle hit especially hard for veterans, active-duty service and the households of the two,461 service members who’ve died in Afghanistan since 2001. Many questioned whether or not their sacrifices mattered. The Department of Veterans Affairs and navy vet teams reported an uptick in calls to suicide hotlines because the catastrophic collapse of the Afghan authorities and rushed U.S. exit from the nation unfolded on nationwide tv. “My son and those that have spilled blood there, or come back with missing limbs, they gave everything,” says Javier, a former Marine. “We’re better than this.”

Sylvia and Javier hearken to satellite tv for pc radio in the course of the trip to the cemetery. Images of the ignominious withdrawal flip by their minds like a slide deck. The frantic airlift in Kabul. The determined pleas of Afghans turned away on the airport gates. The bloody wreckage of a terror attack. The youthful faces of 11 males and two ladies who gave their lives to avoid wasting full strangers.

They discover Jaguar’s grave alongside the cemetery’s major street, amid a sea of different headstones inscribed with the names of people that fought in conflicts many a long time in the past. Sylvia and Javier sit on the manicured grass and converse softly to their firstborn son. Through tears, they describe the most recent information the most effective they’ll. They reveal their shared emotions of helplessness. They inform him they love him and miss him. They make certain to remind him they’re happy with his sacrifice. And then they head residence.

The sunroom in the Gutierrez family’s two-story brick home in San Antonio is decorated with remembrances of their fallen son.

The sunroom within the Gutierrez household’s two-story brick residence in San Antonio is embellished with remembrances of their fallen son.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME

The center identify Jaguar got here from his father. A Desert Storm veteran with shoulder-length black hair and a ardour for heavy steel, Javier had visions of his child boy sooner or later standing earlier than sold-out arenas with a Stratocaster guitar. Jaguar didn’t share his father’s affinity for music. But he did love the identify. “He was Jaguar from the start,” Sylvia says.

It was clear early on that Jaguar would observe his dad into navy service. As a toddler, he’d watch outdated warfare films, learn navy historical past books and play video video games like Call of Duty. “He’d arrange toy soldiers around the rim of the bathtub and put on goggles,” Sylvia remembers. “I’d see him in there splashing like he was caught in a battle.”

This is how his household remembers Jaguar: childlike, eccentric, adventurous. His sisters, Janea, 35, and Jordan, 28, keep in mind their brother as a goofball—a man who would lick the distant management to maintain them from altering the channel; a man who as soon as borrowed Janea’s three-day-old Mazda Tribute to go choose up a Gatorade, solely to return half-hour later, drenched in sweat, having locked the keys within the automobile, which had additionally acquired a bunch of scratches. He had a contagious giggle, which may very well be triggered by virtually something. He performed soccer, however he wasn’t loopy about it. He didn’t care a lot for college both, sustaining a C common, which his father believes was seemingly due to untreated dyslexia and a spotlight deficit dysfunction.

A stack of photos from throughout Jaguar's life.

A stack of pictures from all through Jaguar’s life.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME

Jaguar’s intelligence emerged, nonetheless, when he utilized himself within the armed forces. He enlisted in 2009 at age 17, throughout his senior 12 months of highschool. Much to his father’s chagrin, he selected the Army like his great-grandfather Thomas Ortiz, who served throughout World War II, over Javier’s beloved Marine Corps. Jaguar discovered rapid success as an infantryman. After finishing fundamental coaching at Fort Benning, Ga., he certified for airborne faculty and obtained assigned to the storied 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, N.C. There he met Gabby, a daughter of Honduran immigrants, who labored as a waitress at an IHOP restaurant close to base that he frequented. The two started courting and married a month later.

After a nine-month deployment to Iraq in 2010, he attended Special Forces evaluation and choice in 2013 at Fort Bragg. He graduated two years later from the Q course, an excruciating coaching program that troopers should cross to earn a inexperienced beret. When he handed, Jaguar didn’t need his mom to go to the ceremony or put up pictures to her Facebook feed. His reservedness about his accomplishments made Sylvia really feel responsible about speaking so brazenly about him, even after his demise. But she is aware of what she’ll reply when she sees him within the afterlife. “I’m going to tell him that he should’ve done something else with his career,” she says, “something that people were less interested in knowing about.”

A Godzilla toy that was shipped home with Jaguar’s remains. He loved Godzilla from the time he was a boy.

A Godzilla toy that was shipped residence with Jaguar’s stays. He liked Godzilla from the time he was a boy.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME

One of Jaguar's Bibles, among the mementos kept by the family since his death.

One of Jaguar’s Bibles, among the many mementos saved by the household since his demise.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME

Jaguar was assigned to third Battalion, seventh Special Forces Group at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., as a Special Forces communications sergeant. He and Gabby settled right into a three-bedroom, ranch-style residence close to base within the Florida panhandle. They had 4 youngsters: Gabriel, Eden, Helen and Emee, who now vary in age from 4 to eight. He was a doting and loving father who learn the Lord of the Rings books aloud to his youngsters every night time earlier than they went to sleep. He liked the fantasy trilogy a lot, he would watch the films earlier than each deployment.

Seventh Group is a extremely skilled unit that primarily conducts missions in Latin America. Its members converse fluent Spanish and work with native forces in distant jungles to fight international threats. Yet every of the previous three administrations has additionally deployed the elite group around the globe, utilizing it as a substitute for sending hundreds of standard navy forces and risking the political blowback that comes with it.

In January, Jaguar’s 12-man staff of Green Berets, named Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 7313, launched into a brand new set of orders: deploy to Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province below a so-called prepare, advise and help mission, accompanying Afghan forces who had been supposedly within the lead. But that was simply semantics. The “assist” half was troublesome to differentiate from a standard American fight mission. It definitely had the identical dangers, and the identical penalties.

Left: Gabby, Jaguar and the Gutierrez children in Stone Mountain, Ga., in the fall of 2019; outside their church in Crestview, Fla., in the summer of 2018.

Left: Gabby, Jaguar and the Gutierrez youngsters in Stone Mountain, Ga., within the fall of 2019; outdoors their church in Crestview, Fla., in the summertime of 2018.

Courtesy Gabby Gutierrez

The name that without end modified the Gutierrez household’s lives got here on a Saturday night a little bit after 5:45 p.m. Sylvia and Javier had been getting dressed to make a 6 p.m. Valentine’s Day social gathering at their Baptist church. As common, Javier was lagging, rapidly buttoning his black shirt and tucking it into black slacks, when Sylvia’s telephone lit up with a name from Gabby. When she picked up, she couldn’t perceive her daughter-in-law. The phrases appeared jumbled. She punched the speaker button: “Me mataron mi esposo. Me mataron mi esposo. Me mataron mi esposo,” she repeated. “They killed my husband.”

From throughout the room, Javier heard what Gabby was saying, nevertheless it didn’t make any sense. What was she speaking about? “My first thought was, ‘No, no, no, that couldn’t be true,’” Sylvia says. “Then I remembered that I had seen a report on social media earlier in the day of an insider attack. I put it out of my head because it wasn’t like Jaguar was the only soldier in Afghanistan.”

About two hours later, an Army officer appeared of their doorway. He informed Sylvia and Javier that Jaguar’s Green Beret staff had been ambushed by one of many Afghan troops they had been serving to. The navy’s investigation into the assault—greater than 100 pages of which was reviewed by TIME—is closely redacted. The unit was assigned to assist a gathering between Afghan officers to assist clear the way in which for the peace accord that will be signed three weeks later. ODA 7313 and Afghan forces returned from the assembly to a small navy base and requested a U.S. helicopter evacuation at 3:20 p.m. native time. The request was pushed again 3 times by greater command. The investigation doesn’t clarify why.

‘Was This All Worth It?’ Grieving the Death of One of the Last U.S. Soldiers Killed in Afghanistan

A folder containing Jaguar’s post-mortem report.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME

A stack of Jaguar's letters.

A stack of Jaguar’s letters.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME

Around 6 p.m., the combined group of U.S. and Afghan troopers had been unwinding and shedding their bulletproof vests after sundown prayers. It was then that Sergeant Mohamad Jawid, 23, fired two or three bursts from his machine gun into the resting troops, many with their backs turned. Jaguar was shot 9 instances. The deadly bullet tore by the again of his helmet and lodged in his mind, killing him immediately, in response to the report. Army Ranger Sergeant First Class Antonio Rodriguez, 28, was additionally killed, and 7 different U.S. troopers, two Afghan troopers and an Afghan interpreter had been wounded. Within 47 seconds, Jawid sprayed 75 to 150 bullets into the group earlier than he was shot and killed by safety forces.

Investigators decided Jawid was “likely self-radicalized and influenced by Taliban ideology.” Their report doesn’t join his assault with one other that occurred on the identical base lower than an hour later, through which U.S. troopers reported being shot at from not less than two positions, together with a guard tower, when helicopters arrived. Javier discovered the report suspicious, believing the occasions will need to have been linked. He thought the U.S. authorities didn’t wish to publicly acknowledge the assault was coordinated by the Taliban for concern of shedding help for the upcoming peace deal. But he admits he’ll by no means know for certain.

Javier Gutierrez at his son's grave.  You look at what’s happening now and ask yourself, 'Was this all worth it?'

Javier Gutierrez at his son’s grave. “You look at what’s happening now and ask yourself, ‘Was this all worth it?'”

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME

Two days after Jaguar’s demise, his stays arrived on a C-17 cargo jet at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had proven up unannounced to face with the Gutierrez household within the winter darkness. As a lightweight mist started to fall, the airplane’s cargo maintain yawned open. Six troopers with white gloves emerged carrying Jaguar’s flag-draped switch case off the again of the airplane.

Overcome with grief, Gabby sprinted down the tarmac towards her husband’s casket. She was wailing, repeating his identify, as she threw herself onto the C-17’s ramp. Two troopers helped consolation her and carry her away. “The only thing that I was thinking was, I need to see my husband,” Gabby says. “I didn’t care about anything else or who else was there.”

The mortuary staff at Dover ready Jaguar for burial. They cleaned his 211-lb. physique and washed his black hair. They placed on his costume uniform teeming with medals and ribbons, together with a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and knowledgeable infantry and parachutist badges. His Special Forces tab was stitched to his higher left sleeve. A sergeant top quality chevron was stitched to the proper sleeve.

A lock of Jaguar’s hair.

A lock of Jaguar’s hair.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME

Javier selected to see his son one final time. He kissed him and touched the injuries that the morticians had labored to shut. Then he checked out his boy’s face and requested a lock of his hair. “It was the only part of him that looked real to me,” Javier says.

It was raining on Feb. 20, 2020, when Jaguar returned residence to San Antonio. A police cruiser and motorbike unit led the silver hearse down the town streets. On both sides of the street, lots of of service members saluted and paid their respects to the native hero. Mourners later gathered at Community Bible Church, the place his sister sang in a memorial service led by his uncle, Pastor Robert Gutierrez. “You, through all of your actions, shined a great light for Christ and for this country, and that’s something that no terrorist coward will ever extinguish,” he stated.

Gabby and their 4 youngsters sat within the entrance row. “For a long time, I’ve been on a roller coaster between being angry and sad,” she says. “The thing is: I will never see my husband grow old, and my kiddos do not have him in their everyday lives. We were denied that.”

One of the letters sent to Sylvia Gutierrez by her students after Jaguar's death.

One of the letters despatched to Sylvia Gutierrez by her college students after Jaguar’s demise.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME

When their son died, it felt to Sylvia and Javier as if they’d been dropped into an alien panorama. Javier in contrast the sensation to a trip years in the past when he and Sylvia had a stopover in Turkey. Airport officers had been making an attempt to offer them instructions, however they didn’t know the language. “I didn’t have the words to help myself,” he says. The household didn’t know what they need to do, whom they might name or what they wanted to plan for. Grief gripped them in unusual locations: the aisle of a grocery retailer, midsentence in a e-book. Finding moments of levity was inconceivable; they felt like the easy act of laughter was a betrayal.

This June, Sylvia joined a bunch of Gold Star moms who meet over Zoom. She spoke with moms who had misplaced their youngsters a decade in the past, they usually swapped suggestions for coping with the ache. It made her really feel much less alone, like she was lastly on the proper path within the restoration course of. But in current weeks, the U.S. withdrawal has referred to as up troublesome feelings. The household stayed glued to the radio, listening to the information. “The whole thing could’ve been handled better,” Javier says. “I don’t think we should stay in Afghanistan forever, but the way we’re leaving seems rushed. There’s no honor to it.”

After a warfare that dragged on for years, the collapse of Afghanistan occurred rapidly. U.S. intelligence assessments initially estimated that Afghan safety forces might stave off Taliban offensives in opposition to main inhabitants facilities like Kabul for a 12 months or presumably extra. In August, the timetable was sharply downgraded to 30 days or much less, in response to two present U.S. officers. In the tip, Afghan defenses fell aside inside 11 days, the troops repeatedly acquiescing to the insurgents.

On one of the final days of the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan, Javier Gutierrez studies a photo of his son.

On one of many remaining days of the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan, Javier Gutierrez research a photograph of his son.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIME

President Joe Biden has but to elucidate why his Administration failed to anticipate an end result that navy and intelligence officers had lengthy predicted. Instead, Biden has remained defiant, blaming the Afghan navy, Afghan management and the Trump Administration for the humanitarian catastrophe now enjoying out. But regardless of the Administration’s protests, it’s not the selection to tug out of Afghanistan that critics like Javier have seized upon. Polls present most Americans agree with the decision to tug troops out of a chronically mismanaged warfare. Biden ran on that coverage, which was set into movement by his predecessor. It was the way in which through which the Biden Administration withdrew that left the households of the fallen feeling let down. “We feel betrayed,” Gabby says. “I don’t understand how the Taliban is now in power. Our soldiers deserve better.”

The Gutierrez household isn’t alone of their disappointment. Widows, veterans and navy members have spoken publicly about how the pullout was being mismanaged. The widespread indignation has prompted senior commanders and leaders on the Pentagon to talk publicly about their sacrifices. “I know that these are difficult days for those who lost loved ones in Afghanistan and for those who carry the wounds of war,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin informed reporters Aug. 18 on the Pentagon. “Let me say to their families and loved ones: Our hearts are with you.” General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, showing alongside Austin, acknowledged it extra succinctly: “Your service mattered.”

Sylvia and Javier are satisfied that it did. Jaguar’s demise has turn into a defining component of their identification. They have reworked the sunroom on the entrance of their two-story brick residence in San Antonio right into a museum of their useless son. His looking knives and patches are sealed away in a glass case. Books he learn, awards he received, hats he wore are neatly stacked on cabinets. Photos, newspaper clippings and work are tacked to the partitions. “We just try to remember the sacrifice he made,” Javier explains. “You look at what’s happening now in Afghanistan and ask yourself, ‘Was this all worth it?’” He has to imagine that it was.

Write to W.J. Hennigan at



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