Nearly nine years passed before the U.S. reached its first 1,000 dead in the Afghan war. The second 1,000 came just 27 months later, leaving many more families grieving and doubting whether the sacrifice is worth it.
His war was almost over. Or so Marina Buckley thought when her son Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley Jr. told her that he would be returning from southern Afghanistan to his Marine Corps base in Hawaii in late August, three months early.
Instead, Buckley became the 1,990th U.S. service member to die in the war when, on Aug. 10, he and two other Marines were shot inside their base in Helmand province by a man who appears to have been a member of the Afghan forces they were training.
A week later, with the death of Spc. James Justice of the Army in a military hospital in Germany, the U.S. military reached 2,000 dead in the nearly 11-year-old conflict, based on an analysis by The New York Times of Department of Defense records.
Nearly nine years passed before U.S. forces reached their first 1,000 dead in the war. The second 1,000 came just 27 months later, a testament to the intensity of fighting prompted by President Obama’s decision to send 33,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2010, a policy known as the surge.
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In more ways than his family might have imagined, Buckley, who had just turned 21 when he died, typified the troops in that second wave of 1,000. According to the Times analysis, three out of four were white, nine out of 10 were enlisted service members, and one out of two died in either Kandahar province or Helmand province in Taliban-dominated southern Afghanistan. Their average age was 26.
The dead were also disproportionately Marines like Buckley. Though the Army overall has suffered more dead in the war, the Marine Corps, with fewer troops, has had a higher casualty rate: At the height of fighting in late 2010, two out of every 1,000 Marines in Afghanistan were dying, twice the rate of the Army. Marine units accounted for three of the five units hardest hit during the surge.
The summer remained the peak season for fighting, with the single highest period for U.S. deaths being July, August and September 2010, when at least 143 troops died. And as has been the case since at least 2008, improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, remained a leading cause of death and injury, along with small-arms fire, the analysis showed.
But this year, a new threat emerged: attacks by Afghans dressed in the uniforms of Afghan security forces. In just the past two weeks, at least nine Americans have been killed in such insider attacks, and for the year to date, at least 39 non-Afghan troops, most of them American, have been killed by men dressed as members of the Afghan security forces, the most since the war began.
Those insider attacks have increased concerns about NATO’s ability to turn security operations over to Afghan forces by 2014, the deadline set by Obama for withdrawing the remaining U.S. forces.
Though Afghanistan is now considered the nation’s longest war, at 128 months and counting, the number of dead is less than half the total in the Iraq war, in which more than 4,480 died in eight years. More active-duty and reserve soldiers killed themselves last year, 278, than died in combat in Afghanistan, 247.
None of that brings solace to the families of the dead.
For the Buckleys, of Oceanside, N.Y., their son’s death so near the end of his tour, so late in the long war and possibly at the hand of a purported ally, was uniquely anguishing.
“Our forces shouldn’t be there,” Marina Buckley said. “It should be over. It’s done. No more.”
The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., was emblematic of the surge. Sent into Sangin, Afghanistan’s opium-producing heartland, in 2010, the battalion faced a formidable enemy expert in the use of IEDs and lost 25 Marines in a seven-month tour, the second most of any U.S. unit in the entire war, a Times analysis shows.
Mark Moyar, an independent national-security analyst who has studied the battalion’s operations, said that the British who had preceded the Marines in Sangin, a district in Helmand, focused on economic development and political outreach to undermine the insurgency. But the Taliban also operated with near-impunity in parts of the district, he said.
The battalion took a different approach, pushing into Taliban-dominated villages and expanding the security bubble beyond combat outposts and Afghan commercial centers. Fighting was intense, with civilians often getting caught in the middle, and casualties piled up fast.
On Oct. 8, barely two weeks after the battalion landed, it lost its first Marine, Lance Cpl. John Sparks. Five days later, four Marines of the battalion died when their armored truck was decimated by a powerful bomb. Three more died the next day when they stepped on a mine during a foot patrol.
The rapid-fire deaths prompted calls in Washington for the battalion to pull back. But senior Marine commanders — including the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jason Morris — prevailed on Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to leave them in place.
“Everyone was shocked, including me, that we lost that many guys that quickly,” Morris said. “But honestly, me and most of my Marines would have rather come home in body bags than let the Taliban claim a victory.”
Deanna Giles, the mother of a squad leader from the battalion, remembers those days all too well. Amid the blur of casualty reports, Giles began watching for strange cars in her neighborhood in Kankakee, Ill., fearing the next one would bear horrible news.
Anxiously seeking information or solace, she took to Facebook and Marine Corps chat rooms, forming a powerful digital bond with other families from the battalion, whom she never met in person.
“You began to care about people in a way you could not have before the Internet age,” Giles said.
Her son, Sgt. Caleb Giles, came home alive. Patty Schumacher’s son, Lance Cpl. Victor Dew, did not.
Schumacher had begged her son to defer enlisting until the war ended. When he refused, she urged him to take a job with a presidential security detail. He again said no, determined to be an infantryman and to go to war.
“Boy, did my heart sink,” she recalled. “But I was also proud of him for following his true desires. As a parent you just suck it up, hold your heart and take a deep breath and hope all goes well.”
In late August 2010, Dew proposed to his girlfriend, then was deployed a month later. Within weeks of arriving in Helmand, he died with three other Marines in a powerful IED blast. At age 20, he became the 1,259th American to die in the war.
Schumacher maintains a Facebook page to keep his memory fresh, and occasionally toasts him at dinner with tequila. She still cries, too, though the tears are hard to predict, prompted by stray images and fleeting sounds that remind her of him: a smile, a song, a joke.
“When do you get better? You don’t ever get better,” she said.
Staff Sgt. Scott Dickinson was coming home early. He was originally scheduled to remain in Helmand until November 2012, but the Pentagon was pulling Marines out of Afghanistan quickly, looking to get the surge forces out of the country by fall and shrink the U.S. footprint to about 70,000 troops. He would be home in Hawaii within a week or two, he told his father early this month.
Not long after that conversation, his father, John Dickinson, saw an article about a soldier who had died just a week before he was to come home. “I thought, ‘He’s not safe until he sets foot in Hawaii,’ ” recalled Dickinson, an architect in San Diego.
He was right. Scott Dickinson, 29, a supply specialist who had volunteered to help train Afghan forces, died with Buckley on Aug. 10. They were among six Marines killed that day in two separate attacks by men who appeared to be Afghan security force members.
The continued deaths, occurring even as U.S. forces are conducting fewer combat missions, have prompted service members and military families alike to wonder: Has the decadelong U.S. presence in Afghanistan made a difference?
Morris, the former commander for the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, has little doubt that it has. After months of fierce fighting, he saw clear changes when he left Sangin in early 2011. Those improvements remain, he asserts, with residents participating in elections and going to school with less fear of Taliban intimidation — though such intimidation is far from gone.
“Every single Marine in my battalion could see the impact they had,” he said. “Things had changed so dramatically, it was a validation of everything they had sacrificed for.”
Despite his son’s death, Dickinson agrees. Marina Buckley is not so sure.
She recalled how her son watched “The Notebook” five times with her because he was a romantic. “He was the most lovable, caring human being,” she said. “He wore his heart on his sleeve. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.”
He never felt secure living alongside Afghans, she said.
“If they want to kill themselves, let them,” she said of the Afghan people. “But they are killing people who shouldn’t be killed, who have lives here, and family here, and brothers and sisters here.”