by nathan oster
Mabry Anders may be gone, but he hasn’t been forgotten.
Earlier this month, a group of motorcyclists on a 2,000-mile trek that stretched from the West Coast to Mount Rushmore made a stop in Greybull to honor Mabry’s ultimate sacrifice and the family that he left behind, including his father, Dan Anders, who still resides here.
Wednesday — Aug. 27 — will mark the two-year anniversary of Mabry’s death, and while much more is known today about how Mabry died in the line of duty in Afghanistan, it hasn’t eased the pain of his father. On his wrist, Dan wears a bracelet bearing his son’s name, an ever-present reminder of who he was and what he did for the country that he loved.
“It means something, the way he died,” said Dan. “Not everybody has that with a dead child. But at least there was some meaning to it. Even if you don’t believe in the war, Mabry was doing what America wanted him to do. He died a hero.”
Mabry grew up in Big Horn County, attending school in Basin and Greybull between 1993 and 2004. He started high school in Greybull, but three quarters of the way through his freshman year, he moved to Baker City, Ore. In 2009, he graduated.
Mabry was determined to follow in his family’s footsteps.
Dan, his father, had been in the U.S. Marines from 1985-90, serving as a mechanic, and with the Army working as a civilian before returning to his roots in Big Horn County. His service continues, as for the past 16 years, he’s been on the south-end search-and-rescue team.
Mabry’s mother Genevieve, was in the Army.
Both his grandfathers served — Gary Anders was in the Navy, Ken Loecker the Army.
Interestingly, Ken, Dan and Mabry all spent time on the same base in Korea.
Mabry landed in Afghanistan in March of 2012. His primary role was as a mechanic and recovery wrecker operator.
Through Facebook and other forms of messaging, Mabry and his father remained close.
“With the time difference, he’d be going to bed when I was getting up,” said Dan.
Dan said he treasured those interactions with his son halfway around the globe.
But almost from the start, he sensed that things weren’t going well.
“He was worried,” Dan recalls. “They would get hit with mortar attacks. There were Afghans on the base — and the mortars would never hit where the Afghans were on the base.”
Dan said several attacks on the base never made the news. In one, a base was burned to the ground and Mabry lost all of his possessions — clothing, computer, everything. That happened about two months after he arrived. In another, a suicide bomber killed one of his brigade’s most revered leaders.
As the calendar turned to August, Mabry found himself going out on route clearance missions, looking for IEDs left by the terrorists. A Reuters story that was published in September of 2012 described how, on Aug. 27, 2014, young Mabry lost his life.
According to that story — which can be read in its entirety online — Anders and Christopher Birdwell of Windsor, Colo. “were part of an early morning clearance mission near the Afghan town of Kalagush when the lead vehicle in their convoy hit a bomb.
“Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are hardly a novelty … and troops know how to respond. Soldiers in the convoy quickly secured the area and Anders went to help load the damaged vehicle for transport.
“The American patrol had the road blocked to ensure security. But the Afghan soldiers approaching in another convoy were not seen as a potential threat, and were allowed to pass. On board that convoy was Welayat Khan.”
Anders and Birdwell had been trained to trust Afghan soldiers.
The story continued: “Khan was sitting in his gun turret mounted on a vehicle in the Afghan convoy. At 8:10 in the morning, as his vehicle passed Anders and Birdwell, Khan took aim at the Americans and fired.”
Khan jumped out of the Afghan vehicle and started to run. He didn’t make it very far. An American helicopter arrived in minutes and shot Khan dead less than a kilometer away, according to a U.S. Army spokesman.
Unaware of what had happened, Dan said he awoke one morning to read that two soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan. The initial story from the Karzai government was that an Afghan solder had dropped his gun and that it had discharged, killing two Americans.
It was about midday when Anders got the call. His ex-wife in Oregon was on the line, informing him of his son’s death. Through news accounts and first-hand accounts from people who were serving with his son, Dan has been able to piece it all together.
Khan was raised in a deeply religious family in the mountain range of Shor Khil, a collection of about 100 mud-built houses near the Tora Bora mountains not far from the Pakistan border. In that same Reuters story, family members described Khan as unstable and prone to fits of rage.
After his death, the Taliban made claims that Khan was embedded, working for them the entire time, waiting for the right opportunity to strike. Khan’s family members offered a different account. While celebrating him as a martyr, they placed blame on the Americans for an incident at the border a short time earlier that may have incited him to shoot.
Two years later, the struggle continues.
According to a U.S. Today article from late June, the U.S. still has more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan. The force is scheduled to be trimmed to less than 10,000 next year — that is, if the Afgan government signs a security agreement with the United States.
As of late June, 14 U.S. soldiers had died in combat in Afghanistan in 2014.
The peak came in 2010, when 439 American troops died in combat there.
The conditions, however, remain tense. “Soldiers are allowed to do less…they’re just hunkered down, staying on their bases and not doing much,” said Anders. Two days before he sat down for an interview, two soldiers from Fort Carson lost their lives in combat. “I wish they’d be more aggressive and try to root them out a little bit more instead of just playing around.”
Dan said he would never forget the tribute that was paid to his son when he returned home.
It was held in Oregon, where Mabry’s mother resides. Two to three thousand people turned out for it. Waving flags, they welcomed Mabry home, forming a line from the airport all the way to the funeral home. The Patriot Guard Riders turned out in force. Dan, himself a Rider, has done the same for other families since his son’s passing. “It’s a way of paying them back,” he said.
When the Tribute to Fallen Soldiers motorcycles roared into downtown one morning earlier this month, more than 100 flag-waving local residents were lining Greybull Avenue to greet them.
Among the items presented to the Anders family was a plaque. It read: “In remembrance of his everlasting call to bravery, honor and sacrifice in the name of country and duty. We as everyday Americans will always be grateful for your fallen hero’s dedication to country and family. With this plaque it is our solemn promise to never forget your fallen soldier and what he has given in the name of honor, duty and freedom.”
With his wife Gretchen at his side, Dan rang a bell inside the Elks in his son’s honor.
“He was an outgoing kid, into motorcycles, dirt bikes, that sort of thing,” said Dan. “There’s a memorial page on Facebook, “Pray for Mabry Anders,” and a lot of his friends have posted on there.”
Dan has no doubt that if Mabry had made it back to the United States, that he’d be in Oregon, flying helicopters and living life to the fullest. “He was training to be a helicopter pilot,” he said. “And he would have been a good one.”