Fighting in the Shadow of Iraq
Some Fear Afghanistan Has Become a Forgotten War
By Vanessa Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2004; Page A01
When Michael O'Neill heard about the two young soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division who were killed several weeks ago in Afghanistan, a twinge of pain tore through him. He immediately remembered the day last fall when he got a call at the firehouse to come home.
His son, Pfc. Evan W. O'Neill, was killed on Sept. 29 during a firefight with suspected al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents in Shkin, Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. Evan O'Neill also had served with the 10th Mountain Division. And even though his son was in a different battalion, and probably did not know Staff Sgt. Anthony Lagman and Sgt. Michael Esposito Jr., O'Neill considers them family.
"Those are my son's people; those are our people," said O'Neill, a lieutenant in the Andover Fire Department in Massachusetts. "And we grieve for them and their families."
It troubles O'Neill that his son's sacrifice, and those of other soldiers in the treacherous mountain terrain of Afghanistan, might have escaped the notice of much of a public transfixed on the raging conflict in Iraq.
"Not to downgrade Iraq," he said. Indeed, O'Neill, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said he agreed with the decision to invade the country and topple Saddam Hussein. "But I want people in this country to realize that the initial get-go, prior to Iraq, was Afghanistan. And it had to do with the people that attacked our country: al Qaeda, the Taliban. . . . The ongoing conflict is being overshadowed by Iraq. It shouldn't be that way."
More than two years after the fall of the Taliban, the radical Islamic government that harbored al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, about 15,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. Their primary mission, said Marine Capt. David T. Romley, a Pentagon spokesman, is to "provide security and hunt down the remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda."
In carrying out that mission, 126 service members have died since Oct. 7, 2001, when the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom, after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Seventy-seven have died in Afghanistan, including four who were killed on Saturday when their vehicle hit a land mine. Forty-nine more have died in other regions, including neighboring Pakistan, as part of the campaign to hunt down members of the al Qaeda network, which claimed responsibility for the terrorist attacks. Two CIA officers also have died.
The death of former professional athlete Patrick Tillman in April shined a brief spotlight on the war in Afghanistan. Tillman, 27, who walked away from a multimillion-dollar contract with the National Football League's Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army, was killed by "friendly fire" after his unit was ambushed by militia forces about 90 miles south of Kabul.
Tillman reportedly was moved to become an Army Ranger after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks. Many soldiers were inspired by the same emotions. Evan O'Neill, who enlisted right after graduating from high school and was 19 when he was killed, wanted to be in the battle, his father said.
"His whole goal in life was to go to Afghanistan to fight the people who attacked our country," O'Neill said. "He died doing that."
Nicholes Golding, another recent casualty, shared that goal, said his mother, Cynthia Coffin. "He said nobody was going to get away with that in our country. 'I'm going to get 'em.' . . . He was really angry."
Golding, 24, was stationed in Hawaii at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, his mother said. He immediately began applying for a transfer into a unit that would take him to the war against terrorism. "He knew if he got into the 10th Mountain Division, he would go to Afghanistan or Iraq," his mother said from her home in Steuben, Maine.
He got the transfer and was sent to eastern Afghanistan last August. He died in February when his Humvee struck a mine in Ghazni.
The two soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division killed on March 18 -- Lagman, 26, of Yonkers, N.Y., and Esposito, 22, of Brentwood, N.Y. -- were on a mission to root out enemy forces from a mountain village when their unit came under fire. They became two of the 31 soldiers who have been killed in action.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Michael O'Neill lost his only son, Pfc. Evan W. O'Neill, in Afghanistan.
(C.J. Gunther For The Washington Post)