CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — When news came that a 20-year-old Wyoming soldier was one of the last casualties of the two-decade-long U.S. war in Afghanistan, it arrived as a tragic bookend: A 20-year-old soldier from Wyoming was among the first to die in the same war.
Army Ranger Spc. Jonn Edmunds, of Cheyenne, was one of the war's first two casualties when a Black Hawk helicopter on a search-and-rescue mission crashed in Pakistan on Oct. 19, 2001.
Last month, the family of Marine Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, of Bondurant just outside Jackson, got word he was among 13 U.S. soldiers killed in a suicide bombing Aug. 26 at the Kabul airport.
Edmunds and McCollum were both killed on their first deployments. In between, almost 2,500 U.S. troops died in the Afghanistan war, most with far less attention than the two Wyoming men got.
As with Edmunds’ death in the chaotic aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, McCollum’s strikes an especially sad chord as Americans struggle to process what good — if any — has come from their nation’s longest war.
“That was a totally senseless death," Edmunds’ father, Donn Edmunds, said of McCollum. “Seeing the other people losing their loved ones, all that does is bring back bad memories for my family."
A 25-year U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam, Edmunds remembers how two officers knocked on his door on the outskirts of Cheyenne before sunrise on Oct. 20, 2001, bringing word of his son’s death.
“I looked out the window, I saw them standing there and all I could think was ‘Oh my God, I know what they’re here for.’ I’ve done notifications so I knew,” said Edmunds, who as a military police officer participated in telling relatives of loved ones' deaths. He got choked up and quiet while looking at a display of his son’s medals and the folded American flag presented to him and other families of fallen soldiers.
“They came in and gave us the ‘Regret to inform you’ speech. My wife had been up by then, and I watched her melt into this carpet right here on the floor," Edmunds recalled. "And they asked, ‘Is there anything we can do?’ and we said, ‘No, just let us absorb this, and we have to be able to accept this.’”
Wyoming is the least populated state and one that values tradition: rodeo and county fairs in summer, elk hunting in fall, calving season in spring and military service.
Jonn Edmunds and his friends grew up playing with water guns, then laser tag in the family’s big yard. Eventually the honors student moved up to paintball, Donn Edmunds recalled.
“We used to have the guys from the Air Force come out here. And they’d knock on the door and say, ‘Can Jonn come out and play paintball with us?’” he said.
On the opposite side of Cheyenne, F.E. Warren Air Force Base has overseen nuclear missiles in silos beneath the Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska plains since the 1960s. Each July, the city hosts its massive Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo festival but Cheyenne has always been a military town at heart.
Like Edmunds, McCollum seemed born with soldiering in his blood.
He grew up in the Jackson Hole area, a region of rugged, forested mountains and big-time outdoors culture on the other side of Wyoming from Cheyenne. Even as a toddler, McCollum played with toy rifles, pretending he was a soldier or hunter, relatives said.
As a high school wrestler, he distinguished himself by training intensely. At school, in 2017, he and his father spoke out publicly when a multiple-choice quiz for a reading assignment facetiously offered “shooting at Trump” as an answer.
On Friday, hundreds of people lined the streets of Jackson to honor McCollum as his remains returned home from Afghanistan. Many people drove from surrounding towns, some multiple hours away, to pay their respects, and law enforcement saluted as the hearse passed by.
“I wrestled with him all my life. He was a senior when I was a freshman,” said Colter Dawson of Jackson. “He died for our country. There’s not that many people who get to make that kind of honorable sacrifice, and that’s something this town and this country need to recognize more.”
Jackson, where McCollum graduated from high school, is a wealthy ski and summer tourism enclave near Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks that many in Wyoming view as socioeconomically out of step and politically more moderate than the rest of the state.
Yet the town of 10,000 has shown no less respect for veterans and military service, especially over the past 20 years, said Joseph Burke, commander of the local American Legion post.
“It was around 9/11 that people started to recognize veterans, the sacrifices they and their families really made,” Burke said. “We've got kids who go in the service from here all the time.”
McCollum’s widow, Jiennah Crayton, is due to deliver a baby in a couple of weeks and the family plans a memorial service sometime after. Meanwhile, three online fundraising efforts have brought in over $900,000 for Crayton and the child’s education.
After Jonn Edmunds’ death, television trucks lined up outside the family's home. Reporters gathered at their daughter’s school, Donn Edmunds recalled, and the family lived like “hermits” for a few weeks.
At a memorial service that filled a 4,500-seat gym, Jonn Edmunds’ commanding officer remembered him as a gritty soldier who still had “that intense look on his face” even after other soldiers looked tired.
Such crowds wouldn’t always show up, however, at services for soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq over the next two decades.
“Yeah, people got numb. But the families that were affected never got numb,” Edmunds said.
The Edmunds family received about $24,000 in donations which they gave away to causes including the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity for troops wounded since 2001, Edmunds said.
He has spent the years since his son’s death riding his Harley-Davidson with the Patriot Guard Riders, a biker group that helps maintain decorum at military funerals, running unsuccessfully for the Wyoming Legislature and trying to raise interest in establishing a veterans memorial park. Now he’s thinking about suing the U.S. government over its withdrawal from Afghanistan, which he criticized as poorly organized.
“All of these people’s sons were great. Every one of them was a traumatic loss for their family. And the thing about it is, what for?” Edmunds said. “We have abandoned their mission.”
The work of consoling and counseling grief-stricken relatives, however, was therapeutic both for him and for relatives, said Edmunds, 72, who runs a security business.
A woman once asked at an event held by the Army’s Survivor Outreach Services family support group whether losing a loved one ever got easier, Edmunds recalled.
“I said ‘Ma’am, it will never get easier. The only thing that will happen to you is time will separate you from the event,’” Edmunds said.
AP journalist Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Montana and photographer Amber Baesler in Jackson, Wyoming contributed to this report.