Memorial to Marine killed in Afghanistan prompts calls to remember ‘forgotten war’

Robert McCartney
Columnist April 17, 2013

A veteran Pentagon reporter broke down in tears as she described the fallen Marine.

A choir of fourth- and fifth-graders sang an Irish blessing.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

A childhood friend who is a professional musician performed a song he’d written following the poet-sniper’s death last year in Afghanistan:

“I’m too weak to hurt without it showing. . . . I’m too young to see my friends start going.”

Emotions flowed strongly at Tuesday’s tribute at John Eaton Elementary School in the District for Lance Cpl. Niall W. Coti-Sears. He was killed in June in Helmand province when he stepped on a roadside bomb.

In a tightly knit Cleveland Park community unused to such sacrifice, it was a moving reminder that we continue to lose neighbors in a war that several participants described as “forgotten.”

Niall, as everyone called him, listed his residence as Arlington County at the time of his death but graduated from John Eaton in 2001. His mother, Susan Coti, teaches fourth grade there.

About 150 school staff members, parents, students and friends gathered to dedicate a small memorial peace garden honoring Niall at a corner of the school, just off busy 34th Street NW.

It was the morning after the Boston Marathon bombings, but people didn’t talk about terrorism or politics. They wanted to honor a gifted young man who studied music and Buddhism as well as marksmanship.

They did, however, make the point repeatedly that Americans should keep in mind the human cost of the conflict in Afghanistan, now in its 12th year.

“I think people want to honor Niall and other young men and women who have lost their lives in this forgotten war, and bring it more into public consciousness,” Susan Coti said in an interview.

The community is well aware that it, like many around the country, has suffered little direct impact from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D), who represents Ward 3, where the school is located, said she couldn’t think of a previous combat fatality in the ward.

Jennifer Griffin, national security correspondent for Fox News, said it is “unfortunate that there are communities that have perhaps forgotten that we have 28,500 troops serving in Afghanistan. . . . It’s still stunning that only 1 percent of this nation has served in these wars.”

The reporter’s gentle sobs while addressing the crowd were perhaps the most affecting moment of the ceremony. She didn’t know Niall personally but is friends with his mother.

Griffin’s daughter, fifth-grader Amelia Myre, was one of 50 kids wowed by Niall last year when he visited the school to teach them Marine-style physical training exercises.

“I’ve covered a lot of war. I’ve covered a lot of death, and it’s always hard when it strikes home and it strikes your community,” Griffin said. “We should never forget that there is an individual behind every notice we receive about every loss in this war.”

In Niall’s case, the degree of individuality was especially high. Friends said he was always a bit of a rebel, and his own mother laughingly dubbed him “an outlier.” He wrote poetry and music, and he studied composition in Britain before enlisting in the Marines.

He was inspired to do so largely by the example of his grandfather, William Coti, who rose from the enlisted ranks to retire as a colonel in a 36-year Marine career. He fought in Vietnam and in Korea’s famous Chosin Reservoir battle.

Niall was so bright that the Marines urged him to go into communication or counterintelligence. He insisted on infantry, where his grandfather served, and asked to go to one of Afghanistan’s most violent sectors.

“He told me: ‘I want to put my training into practice. I want to be in the most dangerous places,’ ” his mother said. “I think he felt immortal.”

Niall was killed two days after his 23rd birthday. His childhood friend, singer-songwriter Owen Danoff, is also 23. The Afghan war began when he was 11. He said he tended to take it for granted, but Niall’s death disturbed that complacency.

“It’s easy to forget the reality, so there was certainly a shock element,” he said.

Michael Ross, a Bethesda artist and custom carpenter, designed and built the two benches for the memorial garden. The task offered a welcome way to get involved.

“I don’t personally know any soldiers. At least in the most affluent parts of the country, the only way we know about [the war] is to read about it in the paper,” he said. “It was an honor to be a piece of history that way, of that tragedy.”

To read Robert McCartney’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
mccartney
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