Gayle Lemmon: Recent death of Pfc. Hansen Kirkpatrick is a reminder of the problems with the Pentagon's new policy of delayed notification of US troop deaths
The war in Afghanistan, which began in October 2001, has become barely noticed background noise for most Americans, whose lives remain untouched in any direct way by the conflict, she writes
Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
The Afghan war may live far from the headlines, but US soldiers are not far from the battlefield.
A 19-year-old Army soldier, Pfc. Hansen Kirkpatrick, lost his life in Afghanistan due to “indirect fire” on July 3. His death marks the eighth loss this year for Americans serving in their nation’s longest war.
In a Facebook post now taken down but reported on by local media, his mother, Anngel Norkist, urged people to remember the sacrifice of her son and his fellow soldiers still serving in Afghanistan. Norkist confirmed to me by telephone that the post was hers.
“Please seriously stop! Take a moment. Realize that real actual blood dropped on a battlefield for YOU. That’s what the red symbolizes on our flag. My son just died today…over on some nasty, dry battlefield in a far off land. His life was cut short at only 19. Stop and really give thanks for all those who gave and continue to give us our freedoms we so easily take for freakin granted,” Norkist wrote.
“Do not comment and say how sorry you are! I don’t care!! Actions speak louder than words, so GO MAKE A DIFFERENCE!”
This sentiment underscores a hard reality: These losses should be our country’s losses, and right now they don’t feel like it. They feel quarantined, experienced by a grieving few instead of a nationwide many.
A fraction of the American population has fought 100% of its wars for 16 years. Precious few Americans are paying attention.
In the future, news about American battlefield losses may be even slower to reach the headlines. The Pentagon has announced a new policy stating that it will hold all information about US troop deaths until one day after notification of next-of-kin.
A spokesman for Army Gen. John Nicholson, who leads US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said there are simply too few soldiers serving in Afghanistan now for “non-identifying” announcements of US deaths to remain anonymous – especially in the age of social media.
“Gen. Nicholson is insistent that the support system for family members of our fallen and wounded warriors is in place with those families prior to public release; hence the 24-hour hold after next-of-kin notification,” said Capt. William Salvin, a spokesman for the US led coalition in Afghanistan.
“Information that we have historically released that was considered ‘non-identifying information’ has become identifiable given that we have such a limited footprint in Afghanistan.”
While the motivation to hold back potentially identifiable information is understandable, the policy should not mean that the American public hears even less than they already do about lives lost in their name.
The reality is this policy shift will make little practical difference in a war in which most every casualty has become nameless and faceless for most of the nation. But as Kirkpatrick’s mother so poignantly made clear, those names and faces should be known to Americans.
The war in Afghanistan, which began in October 2001, has become barely noticed background noise for most citizens, whose lives remain untouched in any direct way by the conflict. And the delay in notification may make the war even more remote.
As Gen. Nicholson knows better than nearly anyone, it is important for Americans to hear — quickly and in a timely manner — of the losses their nation’s fighting forces are sustaining.
It is important for those newly Gold Star families to know that their country is there for them, that it cares, that it understands the sacrifice and appreciates that some families are willing to incur unfathomable losses on behalf of their country.
What would make the biggest difference for grieving families is for Americans to sit up and pay attention to their wars and to mourn with Gold Star families once those losses are named and faces and photos are added to the stories about war casualties. This is because war is deeply personal, even if we don’t write, talk or act like it in this country.
Beyond the policy changes on notification, America’s disconnection from the Afghanistan war is about to be tested further as the Pentagon-led interagency review of the conflict launched by President Donald Trump finally draws to completion — several months later than expected. Among the issues being debated by those conducting the policy review: the number of troops, what kinds of troops and for how long would they remain committed to the Afghan theater.
Those close to the review expected an announcement in May, before that month’s NATO summit. Indeed, in February, Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters that “it shouldn’t take too long. I’ve got to integrate a fair number of issues to give a good recommendation for the way ahead.”
Three months later, Mattis said that the Afghanistan troop recommendation “is being put together by the chairman and myself, and I expect it’ll go to (a) decision very, very soon.” And in June, the defense secretary told Congress that he would be giving Trump his Afghanistan recommendation “very soon.”
Recent reports suggest that Trump, who had previously said he would defer to his generals about troop levels, would cap the number of those sent to Afghanistan at 3,900 — at least without requiring military leaders to return to him for his approval.
This was a month after news reports appeared, asserting that “the Pentagon will send almost 4,000 additional American forces to Afghanistan” and nearly immediately generated a statement from the Pentagon denying any decision had been made.
Whenever the official troop announcement comes, it likely will be around the 3,900 mark. America must pay closer attention as those service members deploy and engage with its wars not from a distance, but as if the war had personal stakes.
For the sake of families like those of Pfc. Hansen Kirkpatrick and for the sake of the country that sent him to Afghanistan in the first place, America can no longer see these fights as sterile, nameless or faceless.
They are none of the above. Every one of those losses was a father, mother, sister, wife, friend and brother. And each one should matter — in real time — to the nation.