Two American service members were killed and two others were wounded Saturday morning by an improvised explosive device (IED) blast in southern Afghanistan, according to the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan.
The two soldiers killed were identified on Sunday as Staff Sgt. Ian Paul McLaughlin of Newport News, Virginia, and Pfc. Miguel Angel Villalon of Joliet, Illinois. The two paratroopers were assigned to Company B, 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, according to a news release.
"These paratroopers represent the very best of our Nation and our Army. Three time volunteers, they went when our Nation called and paid the ultimate sacrifice," Col. Art Sellers, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division said in the news release. "They will be honored, mourned, but never forgotten and we are committed to taking care of their families for life."
The two U.S. military deaths are the first this year in Afghanistan and continue a trend of increasing violence against American troops in that country that made 2019 the deadliest for U.S. forces there in five years.
The service members were conducting operations in the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan as part of a NATO training and advisory mission when the explosion occurred, according to a statement from Resolute Support.
The Taliban have claimed credit for the explosion, according to an intelligence firm that monitors the social media of extremist groups.
In an English version of the Talibanâ€™s Jan. 11 report, the Taliban claimed it destroyed an enemy tank and killed its occupants just west of the Kandahar air base. The message said the explosion left "all invaders killed and wounded."
McLaughlin is survived by his wife and four children.
He joined the Army in 2012 and, after completing basic combat training and advanced individual training, was assigned to the 68th Engineer Company, 62nd Engineer Battalion at Fort Hood in Texas. In 2016, he was assigned to Fort Bragg where he worked again as a horizontal construction engineer and later as a squad leader.
McLaughlin's awards and decorations include the Purple Heart, Bronze Star Medal, the Army Commendation Medal with "C" Device, the Army Commendation Medal, the Army Achievement Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Army Good Conduct Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, the Combat Action Badge and the Basic Parachutist Badge. He was a 2018 graduate of the U.S. Army Advanced Airborne School Jumpmaster Course.
Villalon is survived by his mother and father.
He joined the Army in 2018 and, after completing basic combat training and advanced individual training in 2019, at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, he was assigned to Fort Bragg where he served as a combat engineer. His awards and decorations include the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Army Achievement Medal with "C" Device, the Army Achievement Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal and the Combat Action Badge.
This was the first combat deployment for both soldiers.
Prior to 2019, the number of American military fatalities had been comparatively low since the end of 2014 when the U.S. switched from a combat mission to a training and advisory mission. Last year, there were 20 U.S. military fatalities in Afghanistan, making it the deadliest year for U.S. troops in that country in five years.
There are about 13,000 American troops in Afghanistan, most of whom are involved in the training and advisory mission to help the Afghan security forces in their fight against the Taliban and the Islamic State affiliate. The remainder are engaged in a counter-terrorism mission against those two groups.
The Trump administration restarted peace talks in December with the Taliban that had broken down in September following the death of a U.S. soldier in Kabul.
U.S. officials have said that the administration is considering a unilateral reduction in American forces down to 8,600 but that no presidential decision has been made.