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.
By contrast, in April, the Pentagon reported that 135 American troops died in Iraq, all but nine of them in combat.
Richard H. Kohn, chairman of curriculum in peace, war and defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a former Pentagon chief of Air Force history, said Afghanistan has not been "forgotten, but I'd say it's been pushed to the back of people's minds."
Although the invasion of Afghanistan failed to capture or kill bin Laden, Kohn said, the United States did succeed in disrupting al Qaeda's base of operations and routing the Taliban. He argues that the effort in Afghanistan is more important in the war against terrorism than the campaign in Iraq is.
"The campaign in Afghanistan does not require tens of thousands of American troops. The level of operation is very low and very small and very dependent on intelligence and our allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan and so it's just not as visible or dramatic" as Iraq, he said.
Michael Donovan, a research analyst for the Center for Defense Information, a liberal think tank based in Washington, agrees that the war in Afghanistan has been eclipsed by Iraq, but he argues that it is because it is not a priority with the Bush administration.
Afghanistan "doesn't have any oil; it's not strategically located," he said. " . . . If it's fallen off the radar screen, it's because the stakes are not there for the administration."
He warned that the lack of attention to Afghanistan, which never recovered politically and economically from its decade-long war with the former Soviet Union and ensuing civil war, has led to rising instability in recent months, and said it was in the United States' interest not to let Afghanistan fail again.
"We found out that it was not so much a case of state-sponsored terrorism, but a terrorism-sponsored state in Afghanistan, and that could come back to haunt us," Donovan said.
The Pentagon's Romley dismissed suggestions that Afghanistan is heading for a new round of trouble. "The reality is the security situation in Afghanistan has dramatically gotten better over time," he said. The United States and its allies have "killed or captured two-thirds of the al Qaeda organization." He also acknowledged that "there are still terrorist elements in Afghanistan" and that "the war against terrorism is going to be long."
The rugged topography that was once home to al Qaeda poses different kinds of risks to the troops there than those in Iraq. Five men died during a mission in November when their helicopter stalled as it climbed in mountainous terrain east of Bagram Air Base. Seven Marines were killed in March 2003 when their Hercules air tanker grazed a peak and caught fire in Pakistan. One Special Forces soldier fell 25 feet while descending by rope from a helicopter into an enemy cave complex.
From the ground, the troops draw their own comparisons and conclusions. "Urban terrain is about the toughest terrain to fight in," Maj. Michael Stefanchik e-mailed last week from Afghanistan. "Afghanistan doesn't have a whole lot of urban terrain -- a la Najaf -- for terrorists to operate in," he explained. "The firefight in Falluja will no doubt get more notice than the same type engagement on a remote mountain in Afghanistan -- though it is without doubt every bit as dangerous."
A hostile mission in either place always holds danger. Dawn Esposito told Newsday that her son had called her a few days before he was killed to tell her that he was headed out on a "bad mission." Lagman also called his mother shortly before taking off, but did not let on that he was embarking on a dangerous assignment, said his father, Joaquin Lagman.
Lagman said his son never complained about military life.
"He liked it; he loves adventure," said Lagman, whose older son also served in the Army. "He told me he wanted to finish his career in the military and then become a recruiter. He would say, 'Ma, we will retire in Hawaii and buy a house.' " Lagman said his son was supposed to return from Afghanistan in January, but his tour was extended to May.
Eleven soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division have died in Operation Enduring Freedom, said Maj. Daniel Bohr, public affairs officer for the division. The remaining members began arriving home last month. The Pentagon recently announced that 2,000 soldiers from the 10th were being deployed to Iraq.
During his six months in Afghanistan, Golding earned commendations for finding and securing a weapons cache in an enemy cave. He also was cited for helping to remove his squad and then securing their helicopter after it was forced to land in hostile territory. He received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
"He did some pretty amazing things," Coffin said after reading his letter of commendation aloud.
Golding was married with two young children, including a daughter born last September whom he had never met. For his birthday on Jan. 30, Coffin made a card, a five-page collage of pictures from his childhood. She sent it to him in mid-January.
Golding was killed two weeks after his birthday.
"I didn't know whether he got it or not," Coffin said.
Several days after she buried her son, Coffin received a letter from him, postmarked Feb. 7.
It read, in part: "I have to say I just love the card you sent. It's funny, I can remember all those pictures. It takes me back to the past that's so full of memories."
The parents of Army Staff Sgt. Anthony S. Lagman watch as Army pallbearers carry their son's body from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Yonkers, N.Y. Lagman was killed when his unit came under fire in Afghanistan.