The remains of two US troops killed in Afghanistan returned to Dover Air Force base Friday.
Spc. Christopher M. Harris, 25, of Jackson Springs, N.C., and Sgt. Jonathon M. Hunter, 23, of Columbus, Ind. died Wednesday in Kandahar when their convoy was hit by a vehicle packed with explosives.
They are the 8th and 9th US troops to be killed in combat in Afghanistan so far this year, the same number of troops killed in hostilities all of 2016. When the war in Afghanistan began in October 2001, Hunter and Harris were 8 and 10 years old, respectively.
War has always been fought by the young, but never have Americans gone not knowing anything else in their lives but war. Both Harris and Hunter were on their first deployment. According to Hunter’s father, he had been deployed for just 32 days.
"Jonathon loved his unit and serving his country and was excited about the opportunity to go to Afghanistan to do his part in fighting injustice,” the family’s statement read.
Their deaths come as the Trump administration is reviewing the strategy in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has acknowledged that among the questions the administration is asking are what political objectives the US hopes to achieve in the longest war in its history. As Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman explained Friday, the administration is seeking to determine its “strategic desired end state.”
“You get the problem statement, define one. Then you look at what is the political, the policy end state. Then you put the end ways and means together. And again, I realize this probably looks easy, but it is not easy,” Mattis told reporters July 21 during a gaggle with reporters.
All the while, at least 8,400 troops are currently deployed in Afghanistan as part of Operation Resolute Support, the advice and training mission that was meant to be the end of the US’s combat role. But those troops are, as it stands, in harm’s way to carry out a strategy that the administration has said is not working since it took office seven months ago. Pentagon officials have repeatedly called war a “stalemate.”
A dignified transfer is the solemn ceremony at Dover Air Force base during which the remains of the fallen are carried off the cargo plane bringing them home. The remains are in a flag-draped transfer case, as the military calls it, which is like a casket but not called such as the remains are often not properly identified.
Friends and family are allowed to attend and public officials, at times, will stand before the plane and either salute or place their hands on their hearts as the remain leave the plane, carried by troops on either side of the transfer case.
Acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Gen. James McConville, the US Army’s vice chief of staff, were the highest-ranking Pentagon and Army officials to attend Friday’s dignified transfer, tasked to salute as the two transfer cases came off the C-130 and were carried before him. Vice President Mike Pence was also in attendance.
Harris and Hunter were assigned to 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.
Trump reportedly is unhappy with the performance of the latest general to lead the US effort, Army Gen. John Nicholson. Nicholson’s defenders note that he has asked in January for more than 3,000 troops to carry out the only strategy he has been given so far -- and that request has yet to be met. The Pentagon has said it doesn’t want to deploy more troops without a clear strategy. Privately, some military officials worry that Nicholson will become a political casualty of a war with a strategy everyone concedes is not working but so far are unwilling to change.
But the families of the fallen have no choice but to own the decisions behind the war. Harris’ wife wrote on Facebook that she recently found out she is pregnant with their first child. A friend of Hunter’s wife, Whitney, quoted her saying: "He sacrificed his life [for our country] and in turn I sacrificed my husband."
In all, there have been 1,857 combat deaths in Afghanistan, according to department statistics.
The Pentagon, not Operation Resolute Support, announced Harris and Hunter’s death as the commander on the ground feels it spares military families to not hear anything about US troops deaths in Afghanistan until the knock at the door telling them their loved one was returning home – by way of Dover.