Forgotten War

It Wasn’t Just Bergdahl. On Afghanistan, All of America Is AWOL.

Five more American troops are dead in Afghanistan, and we’re still not talking about the war, just Bowe Bergdahl—a dispute that seems to have more to do with politics than patriotism.

Justin Helton/Facebook

With word that five American soldiers had been killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan came a reminder that we are at war, even though most of us walk around as if we were not.

Yes, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl seems to have walked off his post.

But back home, most of the country has gone AWOL, walking away from our responsibility to keep those who risk all in our hearts and minds.

You can go around all day and not hear anybody even mention Afghanistan.

At least people talked about Vietnam.

Too many of us have all but forgotten our present war, even as some of our finest Americans are being killed.

After we watched the video of Bergdahl being released, there was much talk about whether he was a deserter and whether we should have exchanged five Taliban commanders for him.

But little thought was paid to the soldiers who actually made the exchange and then no doubt proceeded on to other missions against the Taliban who are presently in the field.

There are 38,000 other Americans doing the same.

As of early Tuesday evening, the latest fatalities had not been officially identified, but the sister of a 19-year-old soldier from Illinois named Aaron Toppen had gone on Facebook to say her brother was among them.

“At midnight last night my mom’s doorbell rang and we received the news that my little brother was one of the five involved in friendly fire in Afghanistan,” reported the sister, Amanda Gralewski.

She went on: “My brother lost his life doing what he always wanted to do since he was a little boy. He’s my biggest hero and the bravest man I know.”

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He had departed for his final pre-deployment preparation on January 9, and his father, Ronald Toppen, had posted a Facebook tribute.

“Today is one of the hardest days of my life,” the father wrote. “My son Aaron Toppen leaves today to return to Colorado to prepare for his deployment to Afghanistan in February. I would ask everyone to keep Aaron in your prayers. He is doing what he has wanted for a long time and for that I am so proud. We’ve made it through basic training and relocation to Colorado, but it now becomes real. Thank you soldier, you make me proud. God is with you, we are all with you. Please hurry home.”

The son posted a comment: “Thank you and love.”

Less than a month later, on February 7, the father died. The son’s deployment was delayed until exactly a month later, March 7. His mother, Pam Toppen, was then the one to post a farewell as her son flew off to a war that had begun when he was just 6 years old.

“It’s been one month since the loss of a great husband, loving father, and good friend to many,” she wrote. “Thanks everyone for the prayers and kind words, As Aaron boards the plane today, I could not be prouder and I know his father is too! Be safe son. We love you.”

The son’s comment this time read: “Thank you mom love you.”

On Tuesday, the sister reported on Facebook that the family had been struck by a second, unimaginable tragedy.

“Now my family is left trying to figure out how to handle this,” she wrote. “As much as I’m questioning my faith at this point all I can do is rely on prayer and hopefully it can get us through this.”

She went on to say of her brother: “Aaron Toppen, you are the most amazing man I know. I will forever hold you in my heart and never forget the man you were. 19 yrs old making choices in life that are nothing but courageous. I love you Bud.”

She proved to be made of much the same stuff as her fallen brother, taking a moment in her own grief to think of what others were suffering.

“My deepest sympathies to the other 4 families who received this news this morning,” she said.

An Ohio family then reported that emissaries from the Army had arrived at their door at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday to report that 25-year-old Justin Helton also had been among the dead. He also had deployed in March. He was engaged to be married.

Helton was an explosive ordinance disposal, or EOD specialist, one of those remarkably brave souls portrayed in the movie The Hurt Locker. There was a cruel irony in him being killed from above by an errant bomb dropped by an American B-1 bomber.

“He loved life, his family and his country,” a cousin said.

Other names would follow, joining those of more than 2,000 Americans who have been killed in Afghanistan. They include the six who are said by some to have been killed while searching for Bergdahl.

Among them was Lt. Darryn Andrews, who is credited with saving six fellow soldiers at the cost of his own life. His courage received little public attention then and does so now in the midst of a dispute that seems to have more to do with politics than with patriotism.

Meanwhile, the country remains AWOL.

Even as we rightly made so much of the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the bravery of those who landed there, too many of us gave not a thought to the continuing war in Afghanistan and the 38,000 Americans who remain in harm’s way.

The soldiers who landed at Normandy knew that the whole country was thinking of them.