Success at a Cost: Soldiers Reflect on Afghanistan as Drawdown Announcement Nears

WATCH 2011: Mission Afghanistan

Those 33,000 troops that a senior U.S. official today said would leave Afghanistan by the end of next summer have made a real difference in the country, though the cost has been enormous.

The U.S. has accomplished much in the country. It can be seen during a walk in the villages and while looking at faces. With thousands of troops protecting them, Afghans have seen their lives return to normal. Health clinics and schools are open. Young girls have freedoms that their mothers never had.

"They are grateful for the Americans coming here," said Spc. Jordan Fulton, "because they have no way to either defend themselves a lot of times or any way to have work and jobs. So us being here has helped create some of those opportunities for them."

Still, President Obama is expected to announce tonight a reduction of 5,000 to 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, and as many as 33,000 "surge" troops next year. The decrease of 30,000 troops could save the U.S. at least $30 billion.

In the south, in Helmand and Kandahar, where surge troops are concentrated, security has improved significantly. Thousands of insurgents have been captured or killed. More weapons have been been turned in than ever before.

"We are making a difference," Sgt. Eric Mendez said. "We are taking it to the enemy now."

But the price has been high. In the 18 months since the surge began, the U.S. has spent more than $118 billion and more than 670 Americans have been killed. Matthew Henigan, 20, was one of them. He was 11 years old when the war started.

Sgt. Paul Crawford told ABC News that Henigan was the first soldier he'd lost. He said he spoke to a picture of Henigan during a ceremony for the fallen soldier. "I said I'd miss him and going out will never be the same," Crawford said.

"It was really tough to get through," Spc. Alexis Corke said. "He was a good guy with a big heart. We miss him a lot."

On the homefront, Alex Volesky, 13, has spent 4½ years without his father, Gary Volesky. The elder Volesky left for Iraq in 2004, as a young lieutenant colonel, and has been deployed to the country three times. He is now in Afghanistan and will be there for an additional year.

Volesky of the 1st Cavalry Division said his son Alex did not like his father's absence.

"When I told him why I was coming here and why it was so important, that great little man said, 'You go help those people over there. Get rid of those bad guys and then you come home," Volesky said.