Casualties of the forgotten war

Maryland, U.S. deaths in Afghanistan reach new highs as Americans focus elsewhere

May 29, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley and Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

When 6-year-old Connor Johns visits Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens on Monday, he will be wearing the combat fatigues that his half-brother, Jordan, picked out for him before he was deployed in Afghanistan.

"He wears that outfit constantly," said Kandy Poole Johns, the boys' mother. "Connor loved Jordan, looked up to him as his hero and will always remember him as a Marine."

Twenty-four-year-old Lance Cpl. Jordan Chrobot of Frederick, who died last Sept. 26 during a firefight in Helmand province, was one of 10 Marylanders killed in Afghanistan since last Memorial Day.

The state's 12-month toll is the highest since the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and a number that reflects the escalating U.S. military involvement in the Central Asian nation.

In what has been by far the bloodiest year in the conflict for U.S. troops, 400 soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen have been killed in Afghanistan since last Memorial Day. Total American deaths in what is now the longest U.S. war began reached 1,000 last week.

But as Taps is played Monday at Dulaney Valley and cemeteries across the nation, war-weary Americans appear to be focusing elsewhere.

Lynn Coffland wonders whether people will even think of soldiers such as her brother.

Forty-three-year-old Spec. Christopher Coffland of Baltimore died last Nov. 13 when a makeshift bomb exploded in Wardak province.

"The media barely speaks of the sacrifices soldiers are making in Afghanistan," she says. "Most of them are in remote locations, far from any comforts. … People have become immune."

In addition to Chrobot and Coffland, Marylanders killed in Afghanistan during the last year included Sgt. Bradley S. Bohle, 29, of Glen Burnie; Sgt. Charles I. Cartwright, 26, of Union Bridge; Sgt. Michael W. Heede Jr., 22, of Edgewood; Sgt. Rodrigo A. Munguia Rivas, 27, of Germantown; Spc. Anthony A. Paci, 30, of Rockville; Sgt. Matthew A. Pucino, 34, of Cockeysville; Cpl. Kurt S. Shea, 21, of Frederick; and Sgt. David J. Smith, 25, of Frederick.

For the first year since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, no Marylanders were killed in that country — another reflection of the nation's changing military focus. The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has now exceeded the number in Iraq, and is expected to grow to more than 100,000 over the summer.

"Not only are the numbers changing, but the nature of our mission in Afghanistan continues to involve combat operations to capture insurgents," said Maj. Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the Defense Department.

"In Iraq, we are transitioning to the role of advisors to Iraqi security forces. There is a lot less combat involvement. Afghanistan is a more kinetic operation, involving more lethal activities."

Operation Enduring Freedom is reaching a pair of sad signposts. A soldier killed by a roadside bomb on Friday became the 1,000th U.S. war death in Afghanistan. Next week, the war will complete its 104th month, surpassing the 103-month Vietnam War as America's longest military conflict.

Chrobot had served one tour in Iraq in 2007, but he told his family the fighting was not so intense. When he told his mother last summer that he would be deploying to Afghanistan, Kandy Poole Johns said, "the fear set in."

"There was a sense this would be more dangerous," she said. "He sent his wife a text the day before he died. He was in great spirits, joking around, but he said that he was getting ready for a big offensive. He wanted all of us to know how much he loved us."

It grieves Johns that most Americans seem oblivious to the dangers that her son and his fellow soldiers face in Afghanistan.

There's a reason that soldiers call the country 'Forgetistan." In a telephone survey in January, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press asked Americans whether more U.S. troops had died in Iraq or Afghanistan in 2009. A majority of the respondents — 57 percent — either guessed wrong or didn't know.

A subsequent poll, also conducted by Pew, indicated that Americans have grown less concerned about the war.

For several years after 2001, a plurality of respondents had ranked "defending the U.S. against terrorism" as their most significant national concern. But since 2008, the war on terror has slipped to third among the list of 21 issues, behind strengthening the economy and job creation. (The survey does not differentiate between the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.)

"The American public is more disengaged with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than they ever have been before," said Army veteran Tom Tarantino, now a legislative associate with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

"Unlike generations past, we're a lot less connected to our military as a culture. The nature of modern war is that it's not a traditional front-line battle, and therefore it's fought with far fewer people."

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