Killed in Action
Heroes of a Forgotten War
Michael Daly on some of the soldiers we lost in May.
Earlier this month, the whole country was touched and cheered by the video of 9-year-old Alayna Adams throwing out the first pitch at a Tampa Bay baseball game only to discover that the man behind the catcher’s mask was her father, back from a long deployment in Afghanistan.
Among the kids who will never see their father again are the six daughters and three sons of 14 American servicemen who have died this month in a faraway war that we seem to have forgotten before it even ended. They include the two young sons of Army Staff Sgt. Michael Simpson.
Simpson was in Afghanistan on the day that two pressure cookers stuffed with fireworks and shrapnel detonated by the finish line at the Boston Marathon, and jolted the whole homeland. His wife’s stepfather had been a spectator close enough to the bombs to be shaken and Simpson emailed him, a message from a warrior who had dedicated his life to keeping us safe.
“I wish there was something I could have done better in my job to keep this evil from happening,” Simpson wrote.
Twelve days later, Simpson himself encountered a bomb, an IED. The 30-year-old was still alive when he reached an army hospital in Germany, thanks to experience that medics, trauma teams, and surgeons have acquired from thousands of such catastrophic causalities over a decade of war—the same hard-earned expertise that was credited with saving so many victims of the Boston bombing. He was joined in Landstuhl Regional Medical Center by his wife, Krista, the mother of their sons, 3-year-old Michael and 16-month-old Gabriel.
But, as in Boston, even medical miracle workers can only do so much. Simpson died of his injuries on May 1.
“He was the best dad ever,” Krista says. “When he was home he was home. He was the dad that always played dinosaurs and Legos and the husband who let me sleep in on Saturday mornings and brought me breakfast in bed.”
Three days after Michael Simpson succumbed to his wounds, five more American soldiers were killed by a bomb in Afghanistan. A Facebook photo shows four of them, 28-year-old Staff Sgt Francis Phillips, 19-year-old Spec. Kevin Cardoza, 22-year-old Spec. Thomas Murach, and 24-year-old Spec. Brandon Prescott, standing together in front of an armored vehicle that would prove no match for an IED. Also killed was 26-year-old Lt. Brandon Landrum. Phillips left a daughter. Cardoza left two daughters. Landrum left a son and a daughter.
That same day, two Marine Special Forces operators, 39-year-old Staff Sgt. Eric Christian and 23-year-old Cpl. David Sonka, were shot to death by a supposed Afghan ally in a “green on blue” incident. Sonka was a K-9 handler and his dog, Flex, was also killed. Sonka had proven himself a special son by managing to order flowers for Mother’s Day, which were delivered to his mother eight days after his death.
On May 14, four more Americans were killed by a pair of IEDs in Afghanistan. They were identified as 21-year-old Spec. Cody Towse, 29-year-old Sgt.1st Class Jeffrey Baker, 24-year-old Spec. Mitchell Daehling, and 24-year-old William Gilbert.
Towse was a combat medic who rushed to help those injured by the first bomb when he fell victim to a second device planted for that diabolical purpose. His father, Jim Towse, subsequently told a local reporter that that his son had been friends with five other soliders who had been killed—apparently the five who died on May 4—and worried they would not be remembered. The father added that the younger Towse also said that many of his fellow soldiers in the war zone felt forgotten by the public back home.
Baker was an explosive ordnance disposal expert and had saved many lives by defusing many IEDs during two tours in Afghanistan. He leaves a young daughter. Gilbert’s wife, Monica, is said to be expecting their first baby, a girl, this month. Gilbert had planned to witness the birth on Skype and return home by summer’s end.
On May 16, two more American soldiers, 23-year-old Sgt. Eugene Aguon and 23-year-old Sgt. Dwayne Flores, were killed when their convoy was rammed by a suicide car bomber. Thirteen others were also killed, including four American civilian contractors and nine Afghan civilians, two of them children.
In an implicit recognition that a bomb is a bomb, the Boston devices and the IEDs that killed 14 American servicemen along with 11 other adults and two kids in Afghanistan over the ensuing days were studied by the Terrorist Explosive Devices Analytical Center. The younger of the Tsarnaev brothers accused of the Boston bombing, Dzhokhar, allegedly wrote on the inside of the boat where he sought to hide that the attack was in retaliation for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, supposedly scrawling, "When you attack one Muslim, you attack all Muslims.”
As if there could be any possible reason for us to be in Afghanistan other than to catch those responsible for 9/11 and to prevent them from again using it as a training and staging ground for other attacks.
In that effort to keep us safe, Michael Simpson and the others deployed in Afghanistan could not have done more than he was already doing. One can only imagine the profound frustration that he and his comrades-in-arms must have felt at being so far away with the hope of keeping the homeland safe only to learn of the murdered innocents in Boston. Krista says that in his email to her stepfather after the marathon bombing, Michael said, “We have to realize that some people are just inherently evil. But God does have a plan.”
Michael kept giving his absolute all to the very end, clinging to life until Krista, his parents, and his siblings could reach his bedside in Germany. Krista now seeks comfort from her loss in all that she had.
“The time I've had with my husband has been incredible,” she says. “I have two incredible children. I can look into their faces every day and see their dad." She adds—with the sense of humor that she shared with him and is also helping to get her through—“Which means they can’t ever move out.”
She also has the extended Special Forces family, warriors as humble and big hearted as her husband who have sought to help in any way they are able.
“I really haven’t had to do much except for grieve and take care of my children,” she says. “I wish there was a way that I could repay them. But in reality I never could repay these people for what they’ve given us.”
She does worry that her sons will have no memory of their father. “We’ll always talk about him,” she says. “There’ll be videos and pictures. We’ll make memories for them.”
She sometimes thinks back five years before she met Michael, to the morning she awoke to learn of the attack on the World Trade Center. “I never in 2001 thought I would lose my soul mate because of that day, but I am so proud of him,” she says. “I am so proud of everything he was, the man he was, and the person he made me.”
Her greatest strength along with love is her faith and its promise of life everlasting. “He’ll never be sad again, he’ll always be happy and he’ll live forever,” she says. “What more could you ask for somebody you love, besides being next to you?”
In her eulogy at the funeral, Krista Simpson allowed that her husband was not completely without faults. His dirty clothes did not always make it into the laundry basket. And he sometimes took a coffee cup instead of a travel mug.
“He certainly wasn’t perfect,” she said, adding with the same breath, “But he was perfect for us.”