Afghan war then and now, and a fallen guardsman

The main reason for a Pennsylvania Army National Guard ceremony Friday in Allentown was to salute volunteer soldiers from another era – the First Defenders, the state’s militiamen of 150 years ago who responded to President Abraham Lincoln’s call to defend Washington at the outset of the Civil War.

But there was also a heartfelt nod to a local volunteer of the 21st century who lost
his life eight years ago in the Afghanistan war. For me, the ceremony brought back the early days of the “war on terror,” just as we’re getting ready to mark the catastrophic event that started it.

First were speeches of tribute to the First Defenders, five companies of Pennsylvanians that included the Allen Infantry from Allentown
who hurried to the nation’s capital in April 1861. The crowd of about 125 at
the Curtis Armory heard from politicians – U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski – and from National Guard brass – Col. Glenn Nissley, commander of the Allentown-based 213th Area Support Group; and Maj. Gen. James Joseph, assistant adjutant general-Army, Pennsylvania National Guard.

The guardsmen then honored one of their – the late Sgt. Christopher Geiger, who died of a heart attack in 2003 while serving with the Headquarters Company of the 213th in Afghanistan. Geiger, who was 38 and from the Kreidersville section of Northampton County’s Allen Township, died while sleeping in his tent at Bagram Air Base, about 30 miles north of Kabul.  He had been in Afghanistan only two weeks out of what was to be a more-than-one-year deployment for his non-combat unit, which was assigned to run base operations at four locations, one in Uzbekistan.

Geiger had spent that day, July 9, happily escorting young Afghan boys along Disney Drive at Bagram. He was to guard the kids as they pulled weeds, just as all locals who work on the military base are under armed watch, wrote reporter Wendy Solomon of The Morning Call, who was with the 213th Support Group for six weeks. A photo taken by Maj. Pamela McGaha on the day Geiger died was on display in the armory. It shows the big bear of a man in desert camouflage, sunglasses on, standing with two grinning Afghan boys hauling bags of weeds. The photo ran on The Morning Call’s front page the next day, with Wendy’s story about Geiger’s death.

At the armory, about 125 guardsmen, politicians, members of the Honorary First Defenders patriotic organization and others saw the unveiling of a portrait of Geiger and its presentation to his parents, Patricia and George Geiger. (I know George from his days at The Morning Call, when he was a sports copy editor.) The painting, by JoAnne Seifert of Springfield Township, Bucks County, shows Geiger in desert camouflage uniform with a cap. His family members were visibly moved.

Later, I looked up Wendy’s dispatches from Afghanistan, which took me back to an earlier time in the global fight against terror, when most of the action was in Iraq. We were led to believe that, with the Taliban already handily routed, the
threat in Afghanistan had been defused, though our forces were still in hot pursuit of Osama bin Laden. In one story from July 2003, Wendy – who has since left the newspaper — reported that a rocket that landed on Bagram Air Base’s perimeter was the first attack on the American military post in three months. It caused no injuries or damage.

How different Afghanistan is today, as we near the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The 19,000-member Pennsylvania National Guard knows firsthand that it is a far more violent place. In July, three soldiers with the
131st Transportation Company were killed by a roadside bomb outside Bagram. That brought the number of Pennsylvania guardsmen killed in action in Afghanistan to seven – out of 39 deaths overall since Sept. 11, 2001.

In the last decade, more than 6,000 Americans who have taken up the fight worldwide are dead. That number will surely grow. We can only hope their sacrifice is worth it.

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