The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is the longest period without a U.S. military combat-zone death since 9/11

Army Pfc. Jose Vazquez places an American flag in front of a gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery for Memorial Day weekend in 2012. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew Coffee/ U.S. Army)

At the end of an hour-long panel discussion in Washington on Wednesday, a middle-aged man raised his hand. Fred J. Boenig, the father of a U.S. airman who died in Afghanistan, had a question for Rep. Adam D. Kinzinger, who called himself “hawkish” on using U.S. military power against the Islamic State.

“This is no disrespect, but when you said that, the only thing I can hear is a knock on my door again,” said Boenig, dressed in a red tie and blue blazer with a Gold Star pin on it. “I have one question: Do know how many days it has been since the last U.S. casualty? The last military casualty?”

Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said that he wasn’t sure, and estimated that it had been a month or so. Boenig interrupted, and said it had been 75 days — the longest since 2001.

“When you talk about being a hawk, maybe that is something that you’d really want to keep track of, because 75 days does seem like a long time,” Boenig said, as the room around him sat silently.

Watch the exchange here:

Boenig’s figure is accurate. According to a Washington Post tally, Wednesday marked 75 days since the last U.S. military fatalities in a combat zone. Two soldiers — Sgt. 1st Class Ramon S. Morris, 37, and Spec. Wyatt J. Martin, 22 — died Dec. 12 after their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan’s Parwan province.

Previously, the longest periods that the United States has gone without a fatal military casualty since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, all occurred in 2002, before the United States invaded Iraq. Those periods lasted 56 days, 48 days and 43 days, respectively.

Kinzinger responded to Boenig by offering his condolences and sympathy. But he added that “when the United States retreats, chaos follows,” noting the downward spiral of Iraq’s security situation after the Pentagon withdrew its forces in 2011.

“You see what is going on in the Middle East right now, and you see 21 Coptic Christians beheaded, and you see Americans beheaded,” said Kinzinger, who served in Iraq as an Air Force pilot. “I was in Iraq five months ago. When I left in [2009], we had won the war. I went back five months ago, and met with a girl in a refugee camp whose parents were killed by [the Islamic State], and she ran away with her brother with cerebral palsy and two other kids, and now lives in a refugee camp that she doesn’t know.”

The conversation occurred during a discussion at New York University’s campus in Washington in which Kinzinger and several others who served in the military discussed how veterans can affect public policy. It was moderated by Checkpoint, and can be seen here in its entirety.

Kinzinger told Checkpoint on Thursday that he has a lot of compassion for Boenig’s family. He said “nobody makes a decision about warfare without taking into account that human costs,” and that lawmakers must grapple with that when weighing national security options.

“It’s very important to note that it has been 76 days, but we also have to look at this soberly and know that we still live in a very dangerous world, and that American is still engaged currently and may have to step up that engagement,” said Kinzinger, who is now a major in the Air Force Reserve.

Boenig’s son, Airman 1st Class Austin H. Gates Benson, 19, committed suicide in Afghanistan on May 3, 2010. The Gold Star father has shared the story with other service members in the past while urging them to seek help if they need it. He uses the name Chance Austin as a radio host in Bethlehem, Pa., and talks about his son on air often, he said. He also started the Web site The Daily Ripple to encourage peace.

Boenig said he did not intend to embarrass Kinzinger.

“I just wanted him to know that I hold the people that vote to reenter this war responsible for the care and safety of our kids,” Boenig said. “Maybe now that he and others are aware, they will do their very best to keep the number of days without a casualty growing — a goal we should all want our congressmen to be working toward.”

Jacqueline Dupree and Julie Tate contributed to this report.