Slain Marine's anguished father speaks out

Greg Buckley with a portrait of his eldest

Greg Buckley with a portrait of his eldest son, Marine Lance Cpl. Greg Buckley Jr., who was fatally shot on Aug. 10 in Afghanistan. Authorities said the Marine and two others were shot by a teenager who served as an aide to a local Afghan police commander. (Aug. 24, 2012) (Credit: Craig Ruttle)

Greg Buckley Sr. never wanted his son to go to war.

When a Marine recruiting officer came to the family's Oceanside home four years ago, he told him to leave.

For a month, the son begged his father to meet with the recruiter. When he finally did, the recruiter said that just because his eldest boy would be in the military, that didn't mean he'd see combat. The father's fears were soothed. At age 17, his son enlisted as a U.S. Marine.

On Aug. 18, Buckley buried that son. Lance Cpl. Greg Buckley Jr., 21, was shot and killed, along with two other Marines, by a teenager who served as an aide to a local Afghan police commander. Buckley was five days from coming home when he died.

The father's anguish is raw. His hurt is profound.

Now, he questions the purpose of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. He said he wants American troops home by Nov. 1, just before Election Day, not the end of 2014, as called for under the current timetable for withdrawal.

"This young man was assassinated over there for nothing, for no purpose," he said in an interview at the Oceanside home. "And there has to be somebody out there to help me, help me make sense of it, and help me get these young men out of there."

The shooting of three Marines was one of about 40 attacks this year on American and NATO troops by Afghan security forces or local nationals employed by the United States, according to the office of Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford).

Such "insider" attacks account for a growing number of American service casualties, King said, including 11 in the past few weeks. He said untangling a motive for these attacks is difficult. Some may be the result of Taliban infiltration; others personal schism.

 

Investigation sought

Last week, King asked the director of national intelligence, Gen. James Clapper, to investigate the attacks, and the secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, to disclose all details.

King is concerned that as American troops continue to cede power to Afghan forces, such attacks will increase. But he also believes that a more abrupt withdrawal would compromise national security interests and further imperil U.S. troops. He said he has constituents who, unlike Buckley, strongly support the military effort.

Michele McNaughton, president of the Long Island chapter of American Gold Star Mothers, which represents relatives of U.S. troops who die in service, said members can hold resolutely opposed views on Afghanistan.

"My opinions are mine alone, but our son felt he was doing his job, so the bottom line is you support your son even if you don't support war," said McNaughton, whose son James D. McNaughton, a New York City police officer, died in the Iraq War in 2005. "If President Obama, like President Bush before him, says he thinks we still need to be there, I will trust him to make an honest judgment."

King said he understands those different perspectives. "He is more than entitled to express his strong opinions," he said of Buckley, who is in his district. "He's gone through a suffering that I can't begin to imagine."

Two months after graduating from Oceanside High School in 2009, Greg Buckley Jr. left for his Marine base command in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.

He would later say he enlisted to make his family proud.

He worked in a warehouse, driving a forklift. There was time to chase girls, sneak a beer now and then and play basketball, a game he loved.

Playing on base, he once backed up from a three-point jumper and collided with a tall guy in shorts and a T-shirt. It was President Barack Obama, who was on vacation with his family, Greg Buckley Sr. said.

"Good shot, kid," Obama said, according to Buckley Sr. His son, he said, pointed and winked at his commander-in-chief.

 

Choosing to deploy

Roughly four months ago, a deployment to Afghanistan opened up. Buckley volunteered, said Col. Nathan Nastase, his regiment commander.

He kept his decision from his family, leaving them to believe he'd been ordered.

"He didn't have to go," said Buckley Sr. "That's what's ripping me apart. But he wanted to do it because his friends all did it and they served their time."

After a brief stop in Kabul, Buckley was sent to a Marine outpost in Garmsir, Helmand province. He served in an embedded unit that advised and mentored Afghan police forces.

He wanted out almost immediately, his father said.

"He said, 'There's no women here . . . you can't even see them, they are all covered up, there is no basketball and there is no beer and it's just disgusting.' And I said, 'What did you expect, that you were going to be in paradise?' And he said, 'I wasn't expecting this.' "

Early in his deployment, Buckley spent a night on sentry duty with an older Afghan police officer. For the entire night, he later told his family, the man tormented him, repeating over and over that he and other American troops were not wanted in his country. His son got angry, Buckley Sr. said. Words were exchanged and a commanding officer ordered Buckley to apologize. His father said he tried to, but the Afghan would not shake his hand.

Since that night, Buckley Sr. said, his son, whom he spoke with once a week, had a gut feeling that he was in danger.

" 'I just want to go home so bad, Dad,' " Buckley remembered his son telling him. " 'I just don't want to be here anymore. These people, they don't love us, they don't care about us and I fear they are going to do something to me or my friends.' "

 

Tension grows

He tried to connect with his Afghan partners. One day, his father recalled, he joked with an Afghan police officer, attempting to describe the game of basketball. The next day, when he saw the officer on the street, Buckley went to say hello, but the man looked at him menacingly.

The tension took a toll.

" 'I can't sleep here,' " the dad remembered his son saying. " 'I close my eyes, I open them, I close my eyes, I open them. I just don't feel right. Every time I go to bed, I feel like I am not going to get up the next day.' "

Then, in late July, Buckley called his father to say he was coming home in just 20 days, earlier than November, as he had expected. More excited calls followed: only 15 days, only 10 days, only 8 days.

Buckley Sr. said his son was ecstatic, and his worries for his safety seemed to have lifted. He talked about getting Harley-Davidsons, driving across country with his dad. Father and son made a plan for a weekend in Miami's South Beach, just the two of them would hit the bars. Buckley looked forward to being carded, as he'd turned 21 on July 17.

On Aug. 10, a 15-year-old personal assistant to an Afghan area police commander got hold of a rifle on the base, according to an account in The Washington Post, and slipped into a gymnasium where Buckley and three other Marines were working out. When the teen was done, he'd killed Buckley, who was doing bench presses, and two other Marines.

"They were laughing in the gym," said Greg Buckley Sr., who received accounts from Marines in Garmsir, "talking about going home . . . Nobody even noticed him until he was, boom, right there, he was right in their faces. It happened so fast. There was no hesitation."

A military investigation is under way. In his letter to Clapper, the national intelligence director, King pointed to why he believes the full story behind such "insider" attacks has not come out.

"I am reliably informed that reporting on counterintelligence problems in Afghan units advised and trained by U.S. forces has been suppressed out of a misplaced fear of reflecting badly upon those units' American advisers and trainers," King wrote.

 

'I could have killed them all'

Greg Buckley Sr. was at a restaurant in Roosevelt Field mall, about to cut into a pork chop, when one of his younger sons called. Three Marine officers were at the door. The drive to Oceanside was the longest of his life, he said.

The Marines delivered the news in the same kitchen where Buckley had asked the recruiter to leave four years earlier.

"I was so angry" at the officers, Buckley said. "I know that in my heart, I could have killed them all with my bare hands, that's how mad I was."

As he spoke to a reporter, Buckley Jr.'s mother, Marina Buckley, came into the room. The parents, both 48, spoke about when the dog tags their son had been wearing would be returned. The clothes he'd had on at the gym were coming, too, presumably after being washed.

On the inside of Marina's right forearm was a fresh tattoo. "Bravery is the capacity to protect, even when scared half to death," it read. She'd found the message in a fortune cookie. She thought of her son. It's beautiful, Buckley Sr. told her.

Since age 14, he has worked delivering and installing home appliances. He feels he's been a good citizen who has paid his dues. Now Buckley fears that his tax money has gone to help arm the people who killed his son and other soldiers.

He says he's not the smartest guy in the room, and that people will brush him off as just a grieving father. He's doesn't expect the world to listen to him, but said he intends to speak out. He's thinking of organizing a rally, maybe in Times Square.

"I've got to do something to stop this war from continuing," he said. "I don't want parents to have their kids come home like this. I need them to walk off a plane, not be carried off."

As Buckley struggles with the loss of his son, he knows that Greg died after realizing a great ambition. "I went to boot camp and graduated, and stood head up high and was called a Marine," Buckley Jr. wrote in a June 9 letter to his family. "My work was done . . . I made my family proud. That was my goal . . . I'll be back soon. I love all of you."

With Martin Evans

 

U.S. IN AFGHANISTAN

 

AL-QAIDA TARGETED. The United States sent troops to Afghanistan in October 2001 to eradicate the al-Qaida terrorist organization, which had used Afghanistan as a base to prepare the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. President George W. Bush also sought to oust the Taliban government, which had provided a safe haven for al-Qaida's Osama bin Laden.

NUMBERS RISE. The U.S. presence rose steadily, going from about 10,500 in 2002, to 19,500 in 2005, and to 69,000 in 2009, the Congressional Budget Office said.

TROOP SURGE. On Dec. 1, 2009, President Barack Obama announced a temporary troop surge designed to inject 30,000 additional U.S. troops to stabilize the country. By 2011 about 100,000 U.S. troops were there.

LEADER KILLED. On May 2, 2011, Obama ordered a successful strike in Pakistan in which bin Laden was killed.

WITHDRAWAL ORDERED. Obama is now implementing a troop drawdown that will reduce the number of personnel from the current 80,000 to about 68,000 by the end of the year. All combat operations are to finish by the end of 2014.

CASUALTIES. 2,103 U.S. troops have been killed, including 17 from Long Island.

-- Martin C. Evans

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