His war was almost over. Or so Marina Buckley thought when her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Gregory T. Buckley Jr., told her that he would be returning home from southern Afghanistan 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 Spc. James A. Justice of the Army 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 Department of Defense records.
(Another organization that tracks war casualties reports a higher number. As of Tuesday, at least 2,101 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan since the late-2001 invasion, according to statistics compiled by the website icasualties.org.)
The calculation by The Times 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 Barack Obama’s decision to send 33,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2010.
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 over all 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.
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.
This year, a new threat has emerged: attacks by Afghans dressed in the uniforms of Afghan security forces. In the past two weeks, at least nine Americans have been killed in such insider attacks. It has increased concerns about NATO’s ability to turn security operations over to Afghan forces by 2014.
For families, the deaths have raised hard questions about whether the Pentagon is doing enough to protect its troops from their own allies.
As Marina Buckley of Oceanside, N.Y., recounted things her son loved – basketball, girls, movies, the beach – bitterness choked her words.
“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.”
Lewis-McChord casualties rise
The sharp increase in American deaths in Afghanistan over the last 27 months is reflected at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. A total of 75 service members from the base south of Tacoma have died in that period, compared to the 13 who died in the nine years before that.
To see The News Tribune’s searchable database of Washington state war casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, go to www.thenewstribune.com/soundinfo.