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Bin Laden's death closes a long open chapter for Afghan vet

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 3, 2011 - Army veteran Phillip Baldwin, who was seriously wounded in Afghanistan in June 2006, watched television with his family Sunday night as President Barack Obama announced the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

After they went to bed, he was up until 3 a.m., following the story on the internet and messaging 100 or so fellow veterans and soldiers on Facebook.

"The guys in the service have got to be extremely happy right now. Extremely proud," Baldwin said Monday afternoon as he reflected on the news at his home in Roxana filled with the play of his two youngest daughters -- Bella, 5, and Sarah, 4.

Baldwin, 39, said he is relieved that the decade-long hunt is finally over for the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America that killed nearly 3,000.

"Death -- killing people -- whether it's state-sponsored or an act of war is a terrible, ugly business," Baldwin said, speaking slowly, thoughtfully. "I would rather have seen him captured and tried and punished for a long, long period of time. I cannot say that I am disappointed that he is no longer on this planet. I am relieved because I have felt that there was an aspect of my service that was incomplete because he had managed to evade justice for so long -- and that we weren't able to get him while I was there."

Baldwin said bin Laden's death is important for the families of the 9/11 victims and also for the families of soldiers killed in the war.

"They know that at least the public face of the organization responsible for the deaths of their family members has been held accountable," he said. "And that's a big deal to me. That's something that I think is very important. No victim of crime wants the perpetrator to get away with that crime."

'She Knew Why Daddy Was Going'

Like most Americans 10 years ago, Baldwin spent 9/11 watching the aftermath of the attacks on TV. In the weeks following, he couldn't shake the feeling that he needed to do something to help.

At age 30, the married father of two took a leave of absence from his job with the railroad and joined the Army to fight bin Laden and the terrorists who had attacked the United States.

It was during his second deployment to Afghanistan that Baldwin -- a staff sergeant -- was shot twice in a firefight with enemy combatants. Five years later, his left leg remains paralyzed below the knee, and he is in constant pain from his spinal injury -- pain that is muted by a morphine pump that doctors embedded in his abdomen.

Baldwin is one of 11,110 U.S. military wounded in action in Afghanistan since Operation Enduring Freedom began in October 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Defense; 1,448 have died in the war.

Baldwin said that his service to his country was an amazing experience, despite the personal sacrifice and the physical pain that he now lives with. But he regrets the stress and worry that it has caused his family.

"It's hard to explain the intangibles -- the feeling of being involved in something important," he said. "Following in the footsteps of family before me. Going to church and being part of the Veterans Day ceremonies. Having the sense of camaraderie with the men that I served with. The actual experience of traveling to a foreign nation with a rifle and fighting to make the world a safer place for your family. I wouldn't give it up for anything."

And, Baldwin said, he would do it all over again.

"I would," he said, his answer interrupted by his wife, Regina.

"Oh, he would," she said, with a knowing smile. "Would I let him?"

But then she shares a story about her husband -- they first met at a church camp when he was 15, and she was 13 -- and it's seems clear that she, indeed, would.

Just last week, Regina Baldwin said she found a memento she'd saved from her husband's basic training in March 2002. Paige, their oldest child, then 8, had drawn a picture for her dad: a U.S. soldier in a camouflage uniform shooting at a skinny figure with a long, grey beard -- bin Laden.

"She knew why her daddy was going," said Regina Baldwin who moved to New York with their children -- Paige, now 17, and Caleb, now 15 -- while her husband was stationed at Fort Drum for basic training.

'You're Not Too Old to Do Anything'

Since 9/11, Baldwin said, he has "re-set" his life numerous times. After his discharge from the Army, he returned to his former employer -- the Terminal Railroad Association -- but his war injuries eventually forced him to take a disability retirement. He is now enrolled at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, a political science major making plans to attend law school.

"I learned something in the Army at 30," he said. "You're not too old to do anything. You can accomplish amazing things if you try. There were things that I went through from basic training until my last day in the Army where I thought there is no way we're going to be able to do that. And constantly I was proven wrong."

This is finals week at the university, and Baldwin had been taking a study break Sunday night when the wife of an Army buddy called to make sure that he'd heard about bin Laden's death.

"Like any time you hear big news, it takes a minute to grasp it," he said. Initially, he was concerned that the story might be a hoax.

As he learned the details of the operation by U.S. Navy SEALS, Baldwin said he looked up the city of Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was killed. He discovered that it was just about 80 miles east of where his unit had been stationed in Afghanistan.

"Bin Laden was in and around that area routinely while we were there," Baldwin said. "He's been there for years, almost within sight of our forces, and sometimes directly in sight of our forces, I am sure, but managing to hide under the protection of the sovereignty of the Pakistani government."

Baldwin said that during his second tour in Afghanistan his unit entered Pakistan on various occasions while chasing enemy combatants, though they were not deep incursions.

"It's not like the border between Missouri and Illinois that's demarked by the Mississippi River. It's not a border that is laid out with barricades. It's a mountain range with a lot of winding roads through creek beds and wadi systems. And sometimes you're following a road and you look at your GPS and you realize the coordinates show you to be on the Pakistani side of the map."

Baldwin, who served with the 10th Mountain Division, said that he was wounded in eastern Afghanistan, about a quarter of a mile from the Pakistani border. He has described the attack as "a scene straight out of the movies" -- a chaotic assault by Taliban and al-Qaida fighters armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Baldwin was shot first in his left foot and then in his back by a bullet that passed first through another soldier's wrist. As he lay on the ground, he knew that he could not feel his legs, and he feared that he would never see his wife and kids again. He underwent surgery at the Bagram Air Base before being airlifted to a military hospital in Germany. He arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington on Father's Day.

Just a little more than a month later, he was welcomed home to Roxana by a parade of police cruisers and firetrucks, their lights flashing and sirens blaring. During the weeks after he was wounded, family and friends had pitched in to convert the Baldwins' garage into a first-floor master bedroom so that he wouldn't have to climb stairs.

'A Significant Moment'

On Monday, boisterous crowds gathered outside the White House and in New York at Times Square and at Ground Zero where thousands died in the World Trade Center. There were also quieter gatherings outside the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa., the site of the United Flight 93 crash.

But it was a quiet day for Baldwin, as he wrote a paper and studied for final exams. He hosted a study group for fellow students, all in their early 20s, in his study area -- the second floor of his garage, which doubles as his wife's scrapbooking room.

Baldwin understands the excitement sparked by the news of bin Laden's death. His 22-year-old nephew -- who is living with the Baldwins while he attends a local community college -- told his uncle that there should have been a parade.

"I said you don't really hold a parade for killing someone," Baldwin said. "But it is a significant moment in the nation's history."

Baldwin said that the war on terrorism doesn't offer people the sense of closure that they often need. In that sense, bin Laden's killing may be comparable to a surrender.

"When you're fighting an ideology, you're not facing off with a nation-state that can surrender," he said. "The only way we can beat them is to stop them from conducting their actions. And we do that by showing them that they will pay an ultimate price."

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.