By Craig Whitlock, Greg Jaffe and Julie Tate
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; A01
More than eight years after the Taliban was toppled from power, the number of U.S. military fatalities in the war in Afghanistan is nearing 1,000, a grim milestone in a resurgent conflict that is claiming the lives of an increasing number of troops who had survived previous combat tours in Iraq.
As of Tuesday, 996 U.S. military personnel had died while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom. The roll call of the fallen began on Oct. 10, 2001, when Air Force Master Sgt. Evander E. Andrews was killed in a forklift accident in Qatar while building an airstrip in preparation for the invasion of Afghanistan. The latest confirmed addition came Sunday, when Army Pfc. J.R. Salvacion, 27, of Ewa Beach, Hawaii, died of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit near Kandahar.
The number of dead is small in comparison with U.S. casualties in Iraq, where 4,366 uniformed personnel have died since 2003. But as operations intensify in Afghanistan, the war is killing more and more service members who came home safely after serving in Iraq, only to return to the battlefield in another theater.
Since Dec. 1, at least 30 percent of the American military personnel who have died in Afghanistan have been veterans of the Iraq war, according to a Washington Post analysis.
Among them: Marine Staff Sgt. Chris Eckard, 30, who was killed Saturday in Helmand province, the site of a major NATO offensive targeting Taliban-held territory. Eckard, an explosives specialist from Hickory, N.C., had disarmed hundreds of makeshift bombs during four tours in Iraq. It was his first assignment to Afghanistan. He leaves behind a wife and two sons, ages 4 and 18 months.
"Chris loved the Marines. He was all about the Marines," said his sister-in-law, Chastity Eckard. "This was going to be his last tour."
The impending milestone of 1,000 deaths hasn't drawn much notice in the United States or in Afghanistan, despite the Obama administration's focus on the war and the launch this month of the largest U.S.-NATO military operation in the country since 2001.
When the United States crossed the threshold of 1,000 deaths in the Iraq war in September 2004, there was widespread concern in Washington that public support for the conflict would collapse. To some, the relatively quiet approach of the new benchmark is a sign that the country has grown more sober-minded in the way it perceives the war. "We've learned that the public doesn't react reflexively to the tote board of [war deaths]," said Peter Feaver, who served in George W. Bush's administration and teaches political science at Duke University.
Others see a fundamental change in American foreign policy after almost nine years of combat. "The American people and the governing class have accepted that war has become a permanent condition," said retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, a history professor at Boston University whose son was killed in Iraq in 2007. "Protracted war has become a widely accepted part of our politics." Even before his son's death, Bacevich spoke out forcefully against the wars.
More than 600 troops from NATO allies and other countries have died in Afghanistan since 2001. Thousands of Afghan civilians, soldiers and police officers have also died in the war, although the precise number is unknown.Back to the front, again
For many Americans, what is most striking is that so many Marines and soldiers have died during their second or third combat tours. Of the 73 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan since Dec. 1, at least 23 had previously served in Iraq, according to The Post's analysis.
"It affirms what we already knew, which is that the burden of this very long war is being borne by a small percentage of the population," Bacevich said.
Both the Obama and Bush administrations have wrestled with how to highlight the sacrifices of the troops and, to the extent possible, share the burden with the rest of the country. During the debate last year over the Afghanistan strategy, President Obama made high-profile visits to Arlington National Cemetery and Dover Air Force Base to witness the return of fallen U.S. troops. Lawmakers, meanwhile, have repeatedly boosted pay and benefits for service members, sometimes to the consternation of the Pentagon, which has become concerned that the surging personnel costs are squeezing out money for new weapons.
But the White House, Congress and the military seem broadly comfortable with the notion that a relatively small number of professional soldiers and Marines should be expected to fight multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"There are enormous and disturbing moral implications in the tacit agreement we have made to have such a small percentage of our population bear so great a burden," Bacevich said. "But there is no recognition of it or desire to raise questions about it."For families, questions
White House officials said they do not want to draw special attention to what they described as an arbitrary figure. "We mourn the loss of each and every serviceman and woman," said National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer. "The nation is indebted to them and their families for making the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country."
But as the casualty count rises, so does the number of grieving relatives who can't help question why their sons and daughters, or their spouses or parents, had to keep returning to the battlefield, tempting fate again and again.
Adam K. Ginett, a 29-year-old Air Force tech sergeant from eastern North Carolina, told his family that he felt compelled by a sense of public service to serve two tours in Iraq, followed by two more in Afghanistan. An explosives and ordinance disposal specialist, he had extensive experience in the highly risky job of defusing makeshift bombs, the insurgents' weapon of choice in both war zones.
When Ginett was a teenager, "I told him he'd be safer going into the Air Force, that at least he'd get a clean bed to sleep in every night," said his grandfather James Haslam, 80, a former Marine. "But he chose perhaps the most dangerous job in the military."
When he was last home in July, visiting his parents in tiny Coats, N.C., Ginett was gently challenged by his mother, who wanted to know: Why do you keep volunteering to go back to the war? "It just seemed like he was always going," said his mother, Christina Kazakavage. "He said: 'Mom, it's just my turn. I gotta go.' "
As he departed for the airport to return to Afghanistan, he left behind a book for his mother. Titled "Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives," it tells the story of a Marine major assigned to knock on the doors of military spouses and parents and deliver the tragic news that their loved ones had sacrificed their lives for their country.
"After I read that book, I looked at my husband and said, 'He's not going to come home.' After reading that book, I just knew," Kazakavage said. "I think it was just Adam's way of preparing me."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.