A bomb, a death, a war's painful legacy: Remembering the first Californian killed in Afghanistan

20 years ago, Cody Prosser became the first Californian killed in Afghanistan. His death became emblematic of the war that followed, one friend says.

12/6/2021 9:29:00 AM

Today is the 20th anniversary of the bombing that killed U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brian “Cody” Prosser, the first Californian to die in Afghanistan. If 20 years have eased the pain, the last six months have only reawakened it.

20 years ago, Cody Prosser became the first Californian killed in Afghanistan. His death became emblematic of the war that followed, one friend says.

PrintThe 2,000-pound bomb followed its instructions as it raced through the cold December sky above the small Afghan village of Shawali Kowt.At more than 1,000 mph, it pierced the northwestern slope of a small hill. Cody Prosser had seen a contrail coming out of the northeast and for a split second heard a roar, then an explosion. His eardrums ruptured.

A wind exceeding a tornado’s strongest gust blew him off his feet as the air around him caught fire. Airborne, he floated through an avalanche of sand and earth. A shard of fragmenting steel struck his head.He crumpled to the ground.Twenty years later, the life and memory of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brian Cody Prosser are still mourned.

, he lies in Arlington National Cemetery.AdvertisementBrian Cody Prosser was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Dec. 17, 2001, less than two weeks after an error caused a U.S. bomb to target his position in Afghanistan. Three soldiers injured in the bombing attended the ceremony. headtopics.com

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(Doug Mills / Associated Press)Cody, 28, had boarded a helicopter for a predawn flight into Afghanistan on Dec. 5, 2001. He and 13 other soldiers and airmen from Ft. Campbell, Ky., had been chosen to join a small contingent of Green Berets who had been fighting on the ground for three weeks.

“We must support our nation. We must avenge our brother and sisters,” he wrote to his family not long after the attacks on Sept. 11. “Remember that our nation’s symbol is the eagle. … Different parts of the country make up different parts of this glorious bird. I am proud to say that I stand ready to do my part as I am in an organization that makes up the balls of the eagle.”

Cody’s swagger reflected a moment in American history when the currents of patriotism and belligerence ran together. After his death, his family and friends kept his story and their grief private. Twenty years later, they speak more openly about their loss and the frustrations they have felt as

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the country’s longest war ground to an end.The bomb that killed Cody was released from a U.S. Air Force B-52. It had followed its instructions, but those instructions were wrong. Cody died by friendly fire.After 9/11, Cody, right, and other soldiers from Ft. Campbell, Ky., were deployed first to Jordan. His friend Capt. Jeff Leopold is third from right. headtopics.com

(Courtesy of Jeff Leopold)Advertisement“Cody’s death was emblematic of the war to follow,” said Jason Amerine, who stood near Cody that morning in Shawali Kowt. “Soldiers and civilians died, and the war dragged on without the fundamental questions being answered: What are we doing here? What does success mean, and how do we achieve that?”

::Growing up in Riverside and Kern counties, Cody was a young man whose childhood never suggested the heroics or moral clarity ascribed to acts of bravery.Limited opportunities fostered a rebelliousness that bordered on delinquency.He reminded his mother, Ingrid Solhaug, of Dennis the Menace with his towheaded, blue-eyed charm that could get him out of any jam. She had come to Los Angeles from Sweden to be a model. A few years later, a mother

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at 24, with an 8-month-old child and separated from Cody’s father, she headed to Bakersfield to work as a waitress.Cody, age 5, and his mother, Ingrid Solhaug, at their home in Bakersfield.(Courtesy of Ingrid Solhaug)Money was tight, but Cody seldom let its absence get in the way of what he wanted.

Shoplifting was the thrill, candy bars the reward.When his half sister Lisa Donato was born, Cody, then 7, helped take care of her. She adored him, and Cody and Lisa made the most of their time.“We used to go next door to the apartment complex when it was being built and pretend we were camping,” she said. “We would build a little fire to heat up some soup — a classic ‘Don’t tell Mom’ moment.” headtopics.com

Their time together ended when Cody, 13, stole $100 from a neighbor. Ingrid, by then living in Indio, knew that she needed help raising him.“Do you want to live with your father?” she asked.AdvertisementYes, he said, and Ingrid agreed. Saying goodbye, she never thought she would feel such pain again.

A college football player who served briefly in the Army before becoming a Los Angeles firefighter, Brian Prosser knew the meaning of discipline. After a career-ending injury, he opened a welding shop, and his wife, Juliana, ran a nail and hair salon next door.

Pops wasted no time putting Cody in his place. After a shoplifting incident in Bakersfield, Cody spent the afternoon confined to a hot car with his brother Jarudd. After another incident, Cody spent the night in juvenile hall.“That dude was big trouble,” said Ruben Gonzalez, one of Cody’s oldest friends. The two played baseball and football at Maricopa High School. “He could have been a straight-A student if he wanted to, but he loved to get into fights. He was kind of a bully.”

Cody, left, and friend Ruben Gonzalez in Haiti in 1994 for Operation Uphold Democracy. They entered the Army after graduating from high school.(Courtesy of Ruben Gonzalez)Sports helped channel that energy. Not even a dislocated shoulder could stop him, Gonzalez said.

“Pops would come onto the field, give it a tug, and Cody would be back.”In 1991, the year the Gulf War ended whenAmerican troops drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait after 43 days of combat, the fathers in Frazier Park arranged for an Army recruiter to meet a few of the seniors.

The pitch was easy, Gonzalez recalled: “Who wouldn’t want to jump out of planes, shoot guns and get paid for it?”Profile: Special Forces fighter Brian Cody Prosser of Frazier Park followed his father into the armed services. He died under ‘friendly fire.’

Advertisement::Cody’s first assignment was at Ft. Bragg, N.C., where he unexpectedly ran into his old high school friend while working a traffic accidenton base. Gonzalez was a firefighter, and Cody was with the military police. Soon they were hanging out together, barbecuing on weekends and swapping stories.

The more Cody shared details of his life, the more Gonzalez appreciated what his friend had overcome: his parents’separation, raising himself and Lisa while Ingrid worked.Cody married when he was 21. His wife was a captain in military intelligence, nine years older and with two children. “He always wanted to have a family,” his sister said.

Cody met Shawna Glenn at a honky-tonk in Bakersfield. “He was very easy on the eyes,” she said, “and he had a great sense of humor.”(Family photo)The marriage didn’t last, but Cody had a second chance when he met Shawna Glenn at a honky-tonk in Bakersfield.

He was on Thanksgiving leave from Ft. Huachuca, Ariz., when he saw her across the crowded, smoky bar. She was celebrating her 23rd birthday and was flattered to have a handsome stranger approach her.“He was very easy on the eyes,” she said, “and he had a great sense of humor.”

They slow-danced to Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine” and exchanged phone numbers. They met again the next weekend.Cody already had been to Somalia and Haiti and had decided to go into intelligence. During his next deployment, a yearlong stint in Korea, he and Shawna grew close over phone calls, letters and a two-week leave in San Francisco.

AdvertisementWhen she met him at Los Angeles International Airport in early 1998, they hugged, and he knelt down and presented her with a ring and a poem.Five months later, they were married in Ventura and, by the end of the year, had bought a two-story home in Clarksville, Tenn., next to Ft. Campbell, where Cody was based.

They went to church, got baptized together and talked about starting a family. But Shawna, who taughtelementary school, wanted to get a master’s degree, and Cody was overseas as much as he was at home.“In our five years, we were probably apart more than we were together,” Shawna said.

Showing a focus that eluded him in high school, Cody flourished as an intelligence analyst with the 5th Special Forces Group. A friend described him as a “true believer,” devoted to the mission of Special Forces:De oppresso liber,to free the oppressed.

Cody and Shawna were married in 1998 in Ventura. By the end of the year, they were living in Clarksville, Tenn., next to Ft. Campbell. He was in Army intelligence; she taught elementary school.(Family photo)His job — intercepting and interpreting information about potential enemies — took place against a darkening backdrop of Al Qaeda attacks against the U.S.: truck-bomb explosions at the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and a suicide attack in Yemen against the USS Cole in 2000.

After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Cody spent long hours on base, but one night he and Shawna were cuddling on the couch.“If anything happens,” he told her, “I want you to know, I want to be buried in Arlington.”::Advertisement

Cody shipped out on Sept. 26, 2001, 11 days before the United States and Britain launched airstrikes against Taliban positions and Al Qaeda training camps.“I don’t know what’s going on. But something is happening, and it sounds very serious.”Shawna, wife of Cody

Cody and his battalion arrived in Jordan for a training exercise. At its conclusion, the commander requested 14 soldiers for a mission into Afghanistan. Cody’s senior officer, Capt. Jeff Leopold, didn’t hesitate to recommend an intelligence analyst.“Cody’s the guy,” he said.

Next stop was Uzbekistan, where Cody wrote Shawna a letter, filled with the wistful loneliness of a soldier reflecting on his life.“Princess,” he began, “well, today is the first of November, and by now you know that I am not coming home as expected. I was laying here on my cot thinking about how much I miss you. I want you to know how much you mean to me.”

The war was ramping up. Special Forces, fighting alongside tribal leaders on horseback, were pushing the Taliban out of northern districts. CIA officer Johnny Micheal Spann, killed during a prison uprising, becameTo the south, U.S. soldiers had joined Pashtun guerrillas opening a second front.

Cody spent Thanksgiving in Pakistan and called Shawna.“I don’t know what’s going on,” she told a friend afterward. “But something is happening, and it sounds very serious.”She never heard from him again.Advertisement::Jostling for hours through the night, Cody’s helicopter set down in Afghanistan at 3:45 a.m.

Flashlights, headlamps and high beams cut through dust as soldiers unloaded two four-wheel-drive trucks, piled in their gear and rode 20 minutes to an empty medical clinic where they tried to sleep against the pulse of their racing adrenaline.Shortly after first light, Cody and his team climbed a small hill the Americans called the Alamo. Scruffy Green Berets mingled among bearded locals armed with AK-47s. The ragged assembly smelled of sweat, camp smoke and weeks of combat.

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