The NYPD mourned the death of yet another one of its own Monday, this time a 15-year veteran cop pulling double duty in the Air National Guard when he died in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan, police said.
Five other American service members also were killed in the bombing, and two others were wounded, a U.S. official said.
Joseph Lemm, 45, promoted to NYPD detective in January 2014, died after a motorcycle-riding attacker loaded down with explosives, slammed into a patrol unit in a village not far from Bagram Air Field, officials said.
“Earlier today, we lost one of our finest,” NYPD Commissioner William Bratton said of Lemm. “Tonight we grieve and we remember this selfless public servant who dedicated his life to protecting others.”
The attack, which occurred at a joint NATO-Afghan patrol, was believed to be the deadliest attack on international forces since August. An Afghan also was wounded in the bombing.
The soldiers were targeted as they moved through a village near Bagram Air Field, the largest U.S. military facility in Afghanistan, NATO and Afghan officials said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility.
Late Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio released a statement paying tribute to Lemm.
“There can be no greater sacrifice than the one made by a member of our military or our police force who voluntarily stand in the way of harm to protect Americans,” de Blasio said. “He gave his life, yet asked for little in return other than to serve his country and his fellow New Yorkers, who may not have known him but mourn his death nonetheless.”
“Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the families and friends of those affected in this tragic incident, especially during this holiday season,” said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William Shoffner, head of public affairs at NATO’s Resolute Support base in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
Lemm, of West Harrison and a member of the 105th Airlift Wing out of Newburgh, had been deployed twice to Afghanistan and once to Iraq since he joined the NYPD, Bratton said.
He was featured in a 2013 News 12 report on his surprise return from Afghanistan. At the time, his daughter was singing in a contest at a Rye Brook restaurant when Lemm appeared, to the delight of his wife, daughter and toddler son.
Lemm, a staff sergeant in the Guard, hadn’t seen his family in 10 months, according to the report, and he said on camera that among the things he missed during his deployment overseas besides his family were pizza and a hamburger.
“I’m spending time with the family, of course,” he said in the July 2013 report, adding “I can’t wait for pizza and a nice burger.”
Lemm chased down a stabbing suspect in the Bronx in December 2005 when he was off duty, according to news reports at the time. In January 2004, he was among several officers who burst into an apartment in the Tremont section of the Bronx to rescue a man from an intruder who had attacked him with an awl, news reports said.
In Washington, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday the nation’s thoughts and prayers were with the victims, their families and their loved ones, and that the U.S. will continue to work jointly with Afghans to promote peace and stability in their country.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in statement called the attack “a painful reminder of the dangers our troops face every day in Afghanistan.”
It was the deadliest attack on foreign troops in four months. On Aug. 22, three American contractors with NATO’s Resolute Support base were killed in a suicide attack in Kabul. On Aug. 7 and 8, Kabul was the scene of three insurgent attacks within 24 hours that left at least 35 people dead. One of the attacks, on a U.S. special operations forces base outside Kabul, killed one U.S soldier and eight Afghan civilian contractors.
In the year since the international drawdown, the Taliban insurgency has intensified. Although the combat mission ended last year, around 9,800 U.S. troops and almost 4,000 NATO forces remain in Afghanistan. They have a mandate to “train, assist and advise” their Afghan counterparts, who are now effectively fighting a battle-hardened Taliban alone.
Monday’s attack came as Taliban fighters and government forces battled for control of a strategic district in the southern province of Helmand after it was overrun by insurgents, delivering a serious blow to the government’s thinly spread and exhausted forces.
Mohammad Jan Rasulyar, Helmand’s deputy governor, said insurgents took control of Sangin district late Sunday.
Rasulyar had taken the unusual step of alerting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to the dire security situation and requesting urgent reinforcements through an open letter posted on Facebook on Sunday, saying that he had not been able to make contact through other means.
“We had to take to social media to reach you as Helmand is falling into the hands of the enemy and it requires your immediate attention,” Rasulyar wrote in his Facebook post to Ghani.
On Monday, Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said Afghan Army commandos and special forces had arrived in Sangin to push a counter-offensive. He told reporters the Afghan air force had conducted 160 combat and transport flights over Sangin in the past 48 hours.
Helmand is an important Taliban base as it produces most of the world’s opium, a crop that helps fund the insurgency.
Sangin district has bounced in and out of Taliban control for some years, and fighting there has produced some of the highest casualty counts among Afghan and international forces in 14 years of war.
British forces saw intensive fighting there at the height of the war in 2006 and 2007. Among the 450 British troops killed during the country’s combat mission in Afghanistan, more than 100 died in Sangin. In 2008, a battalion of U.S. Marines arrived in Helmand, followed a year later by the first wave of President Barack Obama’s “surge” effort against the Taliban, comprising 11,000 Marines who conducted operations across the province.
The head of Helmand’s provincial council, Muhammad Kareem Atal, said about 65 percent of Helmand is now under Taliban control. “In every district either we are stepping back or we are handing territory over to Taliban, but still, until now, no serious action has been taken,” he said, referring to a perceived lack of support from the capital.
Districts across Helmand, including Nad Ali, Kajaki, Musa Qala, Naw Zad, Gereshk and Garmser, have all been threatened by Taliban takeover in recent months. Insurgents are also believed to be dug in on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
Taliban fighters, sometimes working with other insurgent groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have managed to overrun many districts across the country this year, and also staged a three-day takeover of the major northern city of Kunduz. They rarely hold territory for more than a few hours or days, but the impact on the morale of Afghan forces and people is substantial.
Atal said more than 2,000 security forces personnel had been killed fighting in Helmand in 2015. He said a major reason Afghan forces were “losing” was the large number of soldiers and police deserting their posts in the face of the Taliban onslaught.
Fighting in Afghanistan has intensified since the announcement in late July that the founder and leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had been dead for more than two years. His deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, succeeded him, causing internal ructions and delaying the likelihood that a peace dialogue with the Afghan government, halted after the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death, will restart in the foreseeable future.
The expected winter lull in fighting has not yet taken place in the warmer southern provinces. U.S. and Afghan military leaders say they are expecting a hot winter, followed by a tough fight throughout 2016.
The Pentagon released a report last week warning that the security situation in Afghanistan would deteriorate as a “resilient Taliban-led insurgency remains an enduring threat to U.S., coalition, and Afghan forces, as well as to the Afghan people.”