The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan last week came too late for U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Edward Balli and Navy Lt. Francis Toner.
Both Balli and Toner were killed in separate combat actions years ago in war-torn Afghanistan, where U.S. forces fought for 20 years before the final withdrawal last week.
Their mothers, who live at the Gold Star Manor in Long Beach, said last week in separate interviews that they were glad to see the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan — but both were still grieving that it came too late for their sons.
“If we had done this earlier, my son would be home with us now,” said Catherine Trevino, mother of Edward Balli, 42, who was killed in action at Pasab, Afghanistan, on Jan. 20, 2014.
Rebecca Toner, mother of Francis “Frankie” Toner, who was killed on Sept 23, 2011, in Mazur-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, said the same.
Both mothers agreed that the U.S. forces stayed far too long in Afghanistan.
“We should not have been there all these years,” said Trevino, who moved from Salinas, California, to the Gold Star Manor three years ago. “We should have gotten out much faster. It would have saved so many lives.”
Toner, who moved from Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley to the Gold Star Manor a year ago, called it “such a waste.”
Both of the mothers supported President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and bring America’s longest war to an end.
“I liked what he had to say in his talk to the nation,” Trevino said. “We had to get out. We stayed too long.”
Yet, they also recognized that the attack on the airport, which left 13 service members dead, was a tragedy.
“I just wanted to cry about the disaster at the airport in Kabul when people were trying to leave,” Toner said. “That could have been planned better, but I’m glad we’re out finally.”
Francis Toner and Edward Balli took different paths to Afghanistan.
Toner was born on Sept. 26, 1982, in Panorama City, and attended elementary school and middle school in Thousand Oaks. In 2001, he graduated from Westlake High School, where he was a star on the school’s championship football team. A popular kid, he also was voted prom king in his senior year.
Rebecca Toner with her son, Lt. j.g. Francis “Frankie” Toner from a few years ago before he was sent to Afghanistan. (Courtesy photo)
In 2002, he entered the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in marine engineering and shipyard management and where he played on the football team. He was commissioned an ensign in the Navy in 2006 and graduated from Navy Civil Engineer Corps Officer School in Port Hueneme, California.
In October 2008, he was assigned as a member of a military training team to Camp Mike Spann, a NATO compound within Camp Shaheen, an Afghan military base in northern Afghanistan near Mazar-E-Sharif, the nation’s fourth largest city.
He was assigned there to oversee reconstruction projects.
He was in Afghanistan for only five months when he and other officers were attacked on March 27, 2009, while they were conducting physical training around the perimeter of Camp Shaheen.
Toner posthumously received the Silver Star.
“A gunman who had infiltrated the Afghan National Army” shot and wounded officers, the Silver Star citation reads. “Lieutenant Junior Grade Toner, unarmed, verbally challenged the insurgent and continued to advance until he was fatally wounded.”
Toner’s action distracted the gunman and saved the life of another officer who was able to escape and perhaps others in the camp. Toner was scheduled to come home on a leave five days after the attack.
A bridge connecting Coasters Harbor Island with Coddington Point at National Station Newport, in Rhode Island, was dedicated as the Toner Memorial Bridge in 2011. Toner’s mother said he liked the Afghan people, especially the children who he would try to help with clothes and shoes.
“He was such a special kid,” she told me. “I miss my son like crazy.”
Balli, 42, was born and raised in Salinas, California. After high school, he enlisted in the Army, wanting it to be a career. He was killed in action at Pasab, in southern Afghanistan, on Jan. 20, 2014, in an attack by an insurgent driving a truck bomb and eight others dressed in military fatigues and suicide vests.
He had two tours of duty in Iraq and three in Afghanistan and was only 2.5 years away from retirement when he was killed, his mother said.
A biography described Balli as “an outstanding leader with a kind heart and smile who loved his job as an unmanned aerial system operations officer platoon leader, providing the eyes in the sky for soldiers on the ground.”
The drone school in Watuka, Arizona, the only one in the United States, and a highway in Salinas are named after Balli. He also was awarded the Bronze Star posthumously. His mother said her son was “very patriotic” and was doing what he wanted to do to help his country.
“I’m not bitter about the war and losing my son,” she said. “We have learned something after all this time and, hopefully, it won’t happen again. My son was a hero. I will always remember his laughter and kindness. I miss him every single day.”