It means that you are responsible for this. Watch it, and let it sink in because this is just one of thousands. Don’t let this blood be on your hands.
His war was almost over. Or so Marina Buckley thought when her son, Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley Jr., told her that he would be returning from southern Afghanistan to his Marine Corps base in Hawaii in late August, three months early.
Instead, Buckley became the 1,990th U.S. service member to die in the war when, on Aug. 10, he and two other Marines were shot inside their base in Helmand Province by a man who appears to have been a member of the Afghan forces they were training.
A week later, with the death of Army Specialist James Justice in a military hospital in Germany, the U.S. military reached 2,000 dead in the nearly 11-year-old conflict, based on an analysis by the New York Times of Defense Department records. The calculation includes deaths not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan and other nations where U.S. forces are directly involved in aiding the war.
Nearly nine years passed before U.S. forces reached their first 1,000 dead in the war. The second 1,000 came just 27 months later, a testament to the intensity of fighting prompted by President Obama’s decision to send 33,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2010, a policy known as the surge.
A higher casualty rate
In more ways than his family might have imagined, Buckley, who had just turned 21 when he died, typified the troops in that second wave of 1,000. According to the Times analysis, three out of four were white, nine out of 10 were enlisted service members and one out of two died in either Kandahar Province or Helmand Province in Taliban-dominated southern Afghanistan. Their average age was 26.
The dead were also disproportionately Marines like Buckley. Though the Army overall has suffered more dead in the war, the Marine Corps, with fewer troops, has had a higher casualty rate: At the height of fighting in late 2010, two out of every 1,000 Marines in Afghanistan were dying, twice the rate of the Army.
Suffering the most casualties was the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment out of Camp Pendleton, Calif. Twenty-five of its Marines died and more than 180 were wounded, many with multiple amputations, during a seven-month deployment in Helmand that began in fall 2010.
The analysis also shows that Army casualties during the surge fell heaviest on two bases with frequently deployed units: Fort Campbell in Kentucky, home to the 101st Airborne Division, which recorded the most Army deaths in the surge, and Fort Drum in New York, home to the 10th Mountain Division.
The summer remained the peak season for fighting, with the single highest period for U.S. deaths being July, August and September 2010, when at least 143 troops died. And as has been the case since at least 2008, improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, remained a leading cause of death and injury, along with small-arms fire, the analysis showed.
But this year, a new threat emerged: attacks by Afghans dressed in the uniforms of Afghan security forces. In just the past two weeks, at least nine Americans have been killed in such insider attacks, and for the year to date, at least 39 non-Afghan troops, most of them American, have been killed by men dressed as members of the Afghan security forces, the most since the war began.
Those insider attacks have increased concerns about NATO’s ability to turn security operations over to Afghan forces by 2014, the deadline set by Obama for withdrawing the remaining U.S. forces.
For families, the deaths have raised hard questions about whether the Pentagon is doing enough to protect its troops from their own allies.
Staff Sgt. Scott Dickinson was coming home early. He was originally scheduled to remain in Helmand until November 2012, but the Pentagon was pulling Marines out of Afghanistan quickly, looking to get the surge forces out of the country by fall and shrink the U.S. footprint to about 70,000 troops. He would be home in Hawaii within a week or two, he told his father early this month.
Not long after that conversation, his father, John Dickinson, saw an article about a soldier who had died just a week before he was to come home. “I thought, ‘He’s not safe until he sets foot in Hawaii,’ ” recalled Dickinson, an architect in San Diego.
He was right. Dickinson, 29, a supply specialist who had volunteered to help train Afghan forces, died with Buckley on Aug. 10. They were among six Marines killed that day in two separate attacks by men who appeared to be Afghan security force members.
Has it made a difference?
The Pentagon asserts that most of those attacks have been the result of personal grudges, disputing Taliban claims to have widely infiltrated the Afghan security forces. But the attacks have raised anew concerns about the integrity of the Afghan forces that NATO expects to secure the entire nation after NATO troops withdraw in 2014.
More fundamentally, the continued deaths, occurring even as U.S. forces are conducting fewer combat missions, have prompted service members and military families alike to wonder: Has the decade-long U.S. presence in Afghanistan made a difference?
Lt. Col. Jason Morris, the former commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment at Camp Pendleton, who led his troops in 2010 into Helmand Province, Afghanistan’s opium-producing heartland, has little doubt that it has. After months of fierce fighting, he saw clear changes when he left in early 2011. Those improvements remain, he asserts, with residents participating in elections and going to school with less fear of Taliban intimidation.
“Every single Marine in my battalion could see the impact they had,” he said. “Things had changed so dramatically, it was a validation of everything they had sacrificed for.”
Despite his son’s death, Dickinson agrees. Marina Buckley is not so sure.
She recalled how her son watched “The Notebook” five times with her because he was a romantic. “He was the most lovable, caring human being,” she said. “He wore his heart on his sleeve. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.”
He had wanted to join the Marine Corps ever since 9/11, despite her many attempts to dissuade him. He came to relish the brotherhood of the Marines and adored his first posting, in Hawaii. But deployment was a different matter. The loneliness, the heat and the Meals Ready to Eat wore on him, Buckley said. And he never felt secure living alongside Afghans, she said.
“If they want to kill themselves, let them,” she said of the Afghan people. “But they are killing people who shouldn’t be killed, who have lives here, and family here, and brothers and sisters here.”