CHARLESTON — History remembers Gene Vance Jr. as a Farsi language expert and a member of the Special Forces sent to Afghanistan to help hunt down Osama bin Laden after the al-Qaida terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Nearly 20 years later, Michael Minc remembers him as “Buddy,” the soft-spoken, tall “gentle giant” brother-in-law who loved the outdoors and rock music.
Vance, 38, died May 19, 2002, in the Paktika province of eastern Afghanistan. Although mortally wounded, he helped save the lives of his team members that day. A resident of Morgantown and a graduate of Oceana High School, Vance was the first West Virginia serviceman to die fighting the Global War on Terror.
“The first thing I remember about him is how he was so tall and strong and handsome, and so quiet-spoken,” said Minc, of Marietta, Georgia, who is married to Vance’s sister, Jamie. “His presence was felt without him saying a word because not only his physical stature, but just his demeanor.”
According to a biography of Vance published by the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History, Vance and two other members of his unit were working that day with 18 Afghan soldiers to locate and eliminate al-Qaida and Taliban insurgents. A bullet from an AK-47 assault rifle bypassed Vance’s armor, hitting him in the side of his chest.
Despite his wound, he continued his job of translating and communicating battlefield intelligence to the Afghanistan Military Force, guiding them out of the kill zone.
Minc said that, after his death, Vance’s family was not surprised to hear of the heroic way he had died. Earlier in his life, Vance had been awarded a U.S. Army achievement medal for saving lives during the Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area in 1989.
“We didn’t know anything about it,” Minc said. “He never even said a word about it … nothing, not a word. His nature, like hundreds of thousands of soldiers and first responders, was always, always to help, to run toward the danger. That’s just who he was.
“I would want everybody to have a friend, a neighbor, a member of their community like Gene,” Minc said. “I would wish it on everybody. It would be a blessing. I don’t say that because of my closeness with him; I say this as a human being and as an American.”
Vance was born in Frankfurt, Germany, to a family with a strong military history. His father, Gene Sr., served in the Vietnam War and was a magistrate and sheriff of Wyoming County.
His high school class voted Vance Jr. the “most quiet” senior superlative.
Before joining the Special Forces, Vance served on active duty with the Army for seven years. He joined the Army Reserve in 1992, and then entered Company C, 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne), which is made up of different states’ National Guardsmen. Two years later, he was moved to the Support Company, 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Kenova.
While serving with the West Virginia National Guard, Vance also pursued a college degree at West Virginia University and co-managed a bike shop in Morgantown.
“He loved the outdoors and physical fitness. Mountain biking, whitewater rafting was a big thing,” Minc said. “I used to play chess with him, and I could never beat him. He was really a champion.
“I think, if he had lived, he would have really gone into the annals of history when it comes to playing chess.”
In September 2001, Vance was newly married to his wife, Lisa, and was beginning his final year of class at WVU. After the attacks of 9/11, Vance canceled his planned honeymoon in December, as his Special Forces group was put on alert and then sent to Afghanistan.
“A terrible, horrific thing had happened to our nation, and this, for him, was what needed to be done,” Minc said. “He really wanted us to carry on and live good lives. That’s what he wanted for us.
“He wanted us to carry on. And it was imperative to him that we, as a nation, and that the world should carry on, and we should recover from this. They sent him to find bin Laden, the National Security Agency. So he was going to go get the guy that had caused all this catastrophe for us.”
After Vance’s death, Minc founded the Gene Vance Jr. Foundation, a medical humanitarian organization that aims to improve the lives of catastrophically wounded veterans. The foundation is nearly 15 years old. Minc said the foundation works to address the seen wounds of war, as well as the unseen wounds, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.
“Also, we got involved in the area of legal reform, where a lot of the soldiers that have PTSD might be incarcerated for mental health issues when they should be being treated, rather than being incarcerated,” he said.
With the war in Afghanistan ending after 20 years, Minc said he’s heard from veterans associated with the foundation. Some say the war was a waste of time, while others say it was worth it, Minc said.
“I believe that for the majority of our veteran community, the objective is to focus on our mission. They’re soldiers; that was what we went there to do,” Minc said. “There was no clear objective except to fight the Taliban and eradicate al-Qaida, which we did.”
The majority of veterans knew it was inevitable that the United States would one day leave Afghanistan, he said.
“But I don’t believe many of us thought that the 300,000 troops we trained would just melt away without even a whimper,” Minc said. “You cannot give people the will to fight. And without the will, all is lost.”
Minc said he hopes Americans will remember the service members who fought and died in Afghanistan.
“We should never forget, and always be filled with gratitude to all those who served so bravely and fought hard,” Minc said. “We owe our men and women in uniform everything. We really do. And we would not have been able to carry on if it had not been for our immediate response to the 9/11 attacks.
“They gave us a sense of peace. They gave us a sense of safety.”