'This generation’s Vietnam': Gold star families react to U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

Sean McDonnell
Akron Beacon Journal
View Comments
Robert Gilbert Sr., of Richfield, and his daughter, Ruth Ann Green, of Toledo, follow the casket of Marine Gunnery Sgt. Robert Gilbert II after a public funeral service March 28, 2010, at Revere High School in Richfield.

Derek Wyatt was 25 when he made the ultimate sacrifice. Robert Gilbert II was 28.  

Both Summit County men died in 2010, fighting in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.  

Their family members said recent events in the country don't tarnish their legacies. Both died fighting for what they believed in.   

But when the Taliban retook Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Sunday, those families watched the enemy Wyatt and Gilbert fought claim victory.  

“This generation’s Vietnam is Afghanistan,” said Robert Gilbert Sr., Robert’s father. 

“It feels like Vietnam 2.0,” D.J. Wyatt, Derek’s younger brother, said. “It’s a war that can’t be won.” 

Wyatt and Gilbert were two of 11 soldiers who lost their lives in the war on terror.  

According to the Department of Defense, 7,041 American soldiers have died since Sept. 11, 2001. The national death toll includes 283 soldiers from Ohio: including 13 from Stark County; 11 from Summit; seven from Portage; and one each from Medina and Wayne. 

In addition to the dead, the U.S. military lists 53,283 American soldiers as wounded in action, including 2,056 from Ohio. 

Both Wyatt and Gilbert fought to help others and to give the Afghans freedom, their families said. The Taliban retaking Kabul “doesn’t tarnish that in any way,” said Andrew Wyatt, Derek’s older brother. 

“I think my brother, if he had the choice to do it, he’d go now,” Andrew Wyatt said.  

Joshua, left, and D.J. Wyatt, brothers of Marine Cpl. Derek Wyatt, who was killed in Afghanistan, present a photo of President George W. Bush with Derek and their father, Allen Wyatt, to Master Sgt. John MacLean, right, a Junior ROTC instructor at East Community Learning Center, on Dec. 9, 2010, in Akron.

Derek Wyatt ‘saw wrong and wanted to do something about it’  

Cpl. Derek Allen Wyatt would have turned 36 this October. He was killed in Afghanistan on Dec. 6, 2010, a few months after he began his combat mission. 

Wyatt graduated from East High School in 2004. He had a job offer and the chance to play baseball in college, but his brother Andrew says Derek chose to serve instead.  

Andrew Wyatt said Derek would always try to help people, whether they were down the street or 10,000 miles away. The war on terror was an extension of that, he said. 

“He saw wrong and wanted to do something about it,” Andrew Wyatt, 37, said.   

Derek Wyatt signed up for a second term in the Marines and was deployed on his first combat mission to Afghanistan in October 2010. He died two months later on the day before his son was born, killed by sniper fire while leading Marines in combat operations in Helmand province. 

Marine Cpl. Derek Wyatt of Akron was 25 when he was killed in Afghanistan.

Andrew and D.J. describe their brother as the best guy they have ever met. Derek could talk to anybody, make anybody laugh. Andrew said some of the best jokes he has ever heard came from his brother. 

D.J. said he and his older brother were in high school on Sept. 11, 2001. He remembers watching the TV at home, and Derek saying this was the war he would fight in. He was already in his high school’s ROTC. 

When he died, they said, he died trying to make things right. Andrew Wyatt said even with recent events, he’s still fully behind his brother’s choice to serve, adding that if he were alive, he’d probably make the choice to do it again,  

“I knew he was happy,” Wyatt said. “That he was doing what he loved. It wasn’t just a job for him. I think he was just meant to be there.”  

Both brothers said it’s easy to feel anger about what’s currently happening in Afghanistan, but they also don’t forget the good their brother created.  

“There were kids going to school again,” D.J. Wyatt said. “People were not afraid to leave their houses anymore.” 

Both Wyatts expressed frustration with how the Taliban act and that no one is standing up to them. They said it shouldn’t only be the United States fighting in the country. 

“It’s frustrating that more of the world isn't doing more,” Andrew Wyatt said. 

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Robert Gilbert II, shown with Afghan children, was 28 when he was killed in 2010 in Afghanistan.

Robert Gilbert II’s valor ‘is something you can't take away’ 

Robert Gilbert II used to tell people that we would either “fight the people in your backyard, or I’ll fight them in their backyard.”  

His father, Robert Gilbert Sr., said his son wanted to join the military from an early age. A Richfield policeman and former firefighter, he said both of his children had a strong sense of public service.  

In a letter he had left for his family in case he ever died or was wounded in combat, Robert Gilbert II wrote that fighting for his country was his dream.  

Robert Gilbert Sr. said the letter read, “I am doing what other people dream of doing, and if I die for this country, I don’t want to see you anytime soon, but I died doing what I wanted to do.”  

His son fought for what he believed in and was well-decorated, Robert Gilbert Sr. said, but he can’t help but wonder what it was all for.  

“His accomplishments and his valor is something you can't take away,” he said. “What they’re fighting for is being taken away so quickly.”  

Gilbert II, a 2000 Revere High School graduate, joined the Marines at 18 and served for his entire adult life and was deployed to Afghanistan for two of his five combat tours. He was mortally wounded by hostile gunfire while supporting combat operations in the Badghis province. He died with his father at his side at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. 

His father said he was a Marine before 9/11 and was almost immediately deployed after the attack. He was a combat engineer at the time, a job that included setting up bridges to get soldiers into combat. 

“Robert watched the warriors go and said, ‘Next time here I’ll be doing that,’ ” his father said.  

Robert Gilbert II started doing combat deployments and continued to move up the ranks; he was one of the youngest gunnery sergeants in the Marines when he died.  

His son fought side by side with Afghanistan’s military against the Taliban, Robert Gilbert Sr. said. He said the Taliban’s control was authoritarian, and people constantly lived in fear. 

But his son would often tell him that the Afghan security forces didn’t have the backbone to fight back.  

“The American soldiers tried so hard to give them that spirit to fight against the oppressive Taliban,” Gilbert II said.

After watching the Taliban take control of Kabul, Robert Gilbert Sr. compared the war to Vietnam. He said it was very sad to see that the country had been turned over. 

“We’re probably in a worse situation than we were when we went over in 2001,” the elder Gilbert said. 

Robert Gilbert Sr., right, with his son, Robert Gilbert II on vacation.

Gilbert Sr. said he thinks the United States had to go to the Middle East after 9/11. He also doesn’t think President Joe Biden pulled troops out in the right way. 

He believes former President Donald Trump would have reversed course and stopped the Taliban if he were still in office.  

“Under this administration, there’s no wrath of America, there’s just words,” he said. 

He think it's just shy of impossible to take Afghanistan back now, and sending more troops would just lead to more sacrifices.  

“It’s a shame to think that we would again start losing young American lives for this cause,” he said. 

Biden stands by withdrawal, VFW reminds vets to hold heads high

Biden stood by his decision to pull American troops out of Afghanistan on Monday. 

He said the withdrawal was far from perfect, but in the best interest of the country and troops. 

"I cannot and will not ask our troops to fight on endlessly in another country’s civil war, taking casualties, suffering life-shattering injuries, leaving families broken by grief and loss,” Biden said Monday. “This is not in our national security interest. It is not what the American people want. It is not what our troops who have sacrificed so much over the past two decades deserve.” 

Biden said there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces, but the mission was to stop al-Qaida and to keep Afghanistan from being a base for terrorism, something he says the U.S. achieved.  

More:'I stand squarely behind my decision': Biden defends handling of Afghanistan as Taliban forces seize Kabul

He also said the Afghan forces did not do enough. 

“American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” Biden said.  

The Beacon Journal reached out to five international groups that have delivered humanitarian aid to Afghans for much of the past 20 years, during which the war-torn country held its first democratic elections and women won freedoms that are now under threat by the return of the Taliban. None of the organizations responded to requests for interviews. 

The Veterans of Foreign Wars District 8, which encompasses Summit, Portage, Trumbull and Mahoning counties, released a message to veterans on its Facebook page.  

The VFW said many members know the “anger, frustration and sadness” that veterans of the Afghanistan war are felling right now.  

“From the fall of Saigon in Vietnam, to the withdraw from Somalia after the battle of Mogadishu, to the ISIS take-over of [Iraqi cities] Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, and Tikrit, far too many of us have experienced the heavy burden of loss, disappointment, and helplessness our newest generations of veterans may be feeling watching the Taliban return to power,” the statement read. 

Still, the VFW encouraged veterans to hold their heads high, and reminded them of their accomplishments.  

“Because of your vigilance, hard work, and selfless sacrifice, you dealt a tremendous blow to [al-Qaida], taking out its leader Osama Bin Laden, and disrupting its ability to plan and execute another major attack on American soil since September 11, 2001,” the statement said. “You who served in Afghanistan with honor, valor, and distinction, our nation owes you a tremendous debt of gratitude for the past twenty years of relative safety and security. Your service was not in vain.” 

Reporter Doug Livingston contributed to this article. Reach reporter Sean McDonnell at smcdonnell@thebeaconjournal.com. 

View Comments