Afghanistan is not lush or balmy or scenic, but Capt. Daniel Eggers loved it. The Citadel grad and Green Beret, fluent in Arabic, grew out his beard, wrapped his head like a native, and operated secretly for weeks on end among rugged peaks and deep gorges concealing poppy fields and terrorists. But two days after Memorial Day 2004, near Kandahar, the vehicle he was riding in struck an improvised explosive device, killing Capt. Eggers, 28, and three other soldiers.
The Army has not forgotten Daniel Eggers: In March 2005, the service renamed the military compound in Kabul, Afghanistan, "Camp Eggers" in honor of the captain's brave service.
But in some ways, America seems to have forgotten Afghanistan. With suicide bombers bent on bloodshed in Iraq, ongoing U.S. efforts two countries to the east seem relegated to backburner status in the national conscience. This though at least 79 U.S. military personnel have died there since Jan. 1, 2004-27 so far in 2005 alone.
Listening to the news, "you don't hear hardly anything about Afghanistan," said Keith Koele, who on March 16 lost his son, Army Staff Sgt. Shane Koele, 25, to injuries sustained when the soldier's Humvee struck a landmine the day before.
WORLD spoke with the Koeles and two other families who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan this year. All lamented not only their personal losses, but also their sense that a kind of national amnesia has set in: Many Americans, and the media in particular, seem to have forgotten the good works-building schools and roads, training Afghan troops, and, in the words of Staff Sgt. Koele's wife Cheryl, "giving Afghans a chance at freedom" - for which ordinary families are sacrificing their sons and daughters.
Sgt. Major Anthony Hallenbeck has not forgotten Shane Koele. The moment the freshly minted Private First Class arrived at the 300th Military Police Company at Fort Riley, Kan., Mr. Hallenbeck saw someone special.
It was spring 2000. "I remember seeing him for the first time when he arrived with the other new soldiers that day," Sgt Major Hallenbeck told mourners at his friend's memorial service in March. "Something about the way he presented himself told me, this soldier had great potential. I immediately told the First Sergeant, 'I want Koele.' And it was that day that our paths started together."
It was a path that revealed SSgt. Koele as a man who never settled for second best-or second place-and who took seriously his responsibilities as husband and father. Sgt Major Hallenbeck came to rely on his friend's gift for leadership as the pair rolled through the dusty villages of Iraq during America's initial push into Baghdad in April 2003.
SSgt Koele's mission then was to rumble miles into the desert in front of advancing U.S. troops, securing the route ahead. Along the way, some Iraqis greeted his Humvee with smiles and fresh water, others with mortar rounds and rockets.
Back home, his wife tried not worry. In letters from the front lines, "Shane always told me he was 10 feet tall and bulletproof," Mrs. Koele said.
He stands at least that tall in the memory of the people of Hartley, Iowa, where he grew up wowing the hometown crowd as a letterman in football, basketball, and track. When Sgt. Koele died just a week after arriving in Afghanistan with the 212th Military Police Company, the heartland town of 1,700 closed Main Street to honor him. Uniformed policemen, firemen, soldiers, along with hundreds of ordinary citizens, on March 25 lined both sides of the street and waved American flags as his funeral procession crept by. At the end of Main, the procession passed under a giant American flag suspended between two firetruck ladders, fully extended for the purpose.
Keith Koele, of Fonda, Iowa, is proud of his son's sacrifice, as is Mrs. Koele, Shane's wife of 18 months. But she wonders now what she will tell their daughter Kylie, who was only three months old when her daddy died.
"I've never seen a more proud dad," Mrs. Koele said. "He would parade Kylie around everywhere, showing her off. She'll grow up knowing who he was, how he sacrificed his life for her and for us. But words cannot replace him. It's just hard knowing she's . . . not going to be able to come home and say, 'Daddy, I love you,' and give him a hug. That's going to be tough."
The Stout family also faces a tough road, and Jeremiah Stout is on a mission: to make his sister Chrystal proud. On April 6, Spc. Chrystal Stout, 23, was among 15 U.S. service members and three government contractors killed when their CH-47 helicopter crashed near Ghazni, Afghanistan.
Growing up together, first in Hillsville, Va., then in Easley, S.C., Jeremiah and Chrystal took different paths. Chrystal, known as a devout and outspoken Christian, finished high school, joined the Army National Guard, and was attending night courses when her unit was activated and sent to Afghanistan. But Jeremiah dropped out of school halfway through the 9th grade and embarked on a series of scrapes with the law, some serious.
Now 20, he aims to do what Chrystal always wanted him to do: straighten himself out. "I rebelled really bad, but she was like a second mom to me," said Jeremiah, whose parents divorced several years ago. "She was there whenever I needed her, but also always ready to jump on me whenever she felt like I needed to be jumped on."
But Chrystal's jumping, while firm, was also gentle, said her grandfather, John Henry Stout, Jr.. When the two visited him in Hillsville, Mr. Stout said, the siblings would talk, sometimes for hours, while ambling along familiar roads in their Mayberry-like hometown.
Mr. Stout most treasures his granddaughter's level-headedness. "She had a lot of common sense. She knew what she wanted." But generosity and a ready smile softened her solid side, and "radiated like a beacon," former co-worker Sgt. Mike Alexander told The Greenville News. Sgt. Alexander was stationed with Spc. Stout at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. "Even in the darkest moments, she would give people an escape from the war," he said.
That Chrystal never saw him escape his own downward spiral weighs on her brother's heart. Since her death, "I've been feeling so bad because . . . the last time I saw her she had just found out I was looking at some jail time," said Jeremiah, who is awaiting a court date on felony charges.
But though his freedom now hangs in the balance, he still hopes to honor his sister's memory. Through a home school program he will complete his high school diploma in June, "because that was the one thing Chrystal always wanted me to do, to get into college so I could have a good future."
It breaks his heart, he says, "that she never knew I was even trying. I will do whatever it takes to be able to see her again one day."
The men of Sigma Chi are going to make sure people do not forget Spc. Brett Michael Hershey of the Army National Guard's 76th Infantry Brigade. In memory of their fraternity brother, members of the Indiana University (IU) chapter have ordered 5,000 memorial bracelets: on one side, Brett's initials; on the other, the Bible verse John 11:25 -"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies."
Sigma Chi will donate the proceeds from the bracelets to IU's Campus Crusade for Christ, where Brett had planned to come on staff before he was killed when the vehicle he was riding in hit a landmine-leftover from another war-on March 26.
Friends knew Spc. Hershey, of State College, Penn., as a man both full of faith and full of fun, who lit up a room when he entered it, and sometimes donned a crazy black wig just to spice up fraternity chapter meetings. A multi-sport athlete, "he was constantly making new friends," said his mother Roxanne Hershey, who with her husband Roger serves with Campus Crusade at Penn State University. "He was able to make people feel loved, accepted and comfortable around him. He could just accept people however they were."
Mrs. Hershey said she believes that's what enabled him to "have a ministry" in the Greek system at IU. "Brett would go around and invite the guys to Bible study every week, then go to frat parties, dance, and have a good time" without compromising his biblical ethics. After his death, some Sigma Chi brothers told the Hersheys they respected Brett for living out his faith in a way that attracted others without condemning them.
For Spc. Hershey there were other attractions, in particular a young IU student named Elizabeth Keller with whom he had fallen in love. While he was in Afghanistan, the couple agreed to marry, chose a church for the wedding, and picked the Bahamas for their honeymoon. But even with those plans in place, Brett still wanted to get down on one knee and propose when he returned to the states. With the help of an aunt, he secretly bought Miss Keller an engagement ring and entrusted it to her parents for safekeeping. After learning of Brett's death, Miss Keller's parents gave her the ring he had in his daydreams given her himself.
For Valentine's Day, Miss Keller sent Spc. Hershey a journal. His first entry: "My first prayer in this journal is that God would give me a heart like His," he wrote. "God, I'm asking for the kind of compassion that brings tears upon seeing sin or unbelief. I don't know how to get to this point, but I want to feel deeply-for Christ and a love for others."