When A Soldier Dies, The Troops Who Served With Them Mourn, Too
A bittersweet smile flashes across the face of Sgt. Thomas Simpson as he talks about his good friend, Joey, who was one of everyone's favorites at Fort Carson.
"He just had a way about him of lifting everybody up," Simpson said. "You know, everybody was better from having him around."
Joey is Spc. Joseph Collette, who lost his life on March 22 during a firefight in Afghanistan's Kunduz province.
Simpson talks about Collette in an office on the Army post in Colorado Springs. He said it is important for everyone -- the soldiers who served with Collette -- to share their stories about him, as it was with the others lost during the country's long war on terror. It helps the grieving process.
"As long as you're continuing to speak their names and continuing to share stories about them, they're not truly gone anymore," Simpson said.
Last week, troops gathered at the post's main gate for a memorial service. Brig. Gen. William Thigpen, deputy commander of the 4th Infantry Division, said 405 soldiers from Fort Carson have lost their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere since the war on terror was launched in the the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
"These great Americans answered the call to serve and put themselves in harm's way to protect the nation, our way of life, and the families and friends whom they love," Thigpen said. "They instilled in their fellow soldiers traits like courage, selflessness, and determination to complete the mission for which they gave their lives."
Standing at the post's circular arrangement of stones, the memorial where the names of the fallen are engraved, Thigpen called the names of Collette, aged 29, and three other soldiers who died in the past year.
Lena Scott, Collette's young daughter, traced her finger along the inscription of her father's name.
Since 2001, 6,975 U.S. troops from across the country have died in the war on terror, according to Department of Defense data. As the flow of losses has slowed, top defense administrators wonder if average Americans are still paying attention to the plight of those who volunteer to serve.
"There are signs that our military and our society are increasingly disconnected," said Anthony Kurta, who is currently performing the duties of the Defense Department's deputy undersecretary for personnel and readiness.
Kurta testified earlier this month to the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service to raise awareness about what many experts say is a divide that needs to be bridged. Many Americans lack a basic understanding of what the military is doing, he said, especially young people.
"Half of them rate themselves as having little or no knowledge about active-duty service," Kurta said. "We know that serving in uniform is a family game. Those who choose to serve today most often have family members who serve or who have served."
Two decades ago, 40% of young Americans had a parent who'd served, he added. Today, just 15% can say that.
The commission is in the process of holding hearings to engage the country in the issue and plans next year to make formal recommendations on a host of related issues to the president, Congress and American public.
In the meantime, troops like Sgt. Simpson feel the divide.
"We've been at war so long that a lot of people have kind of forgotten that we're in active combat overseas in several theaters," Simpson said.
Simpson knows that's not true across the board. There were, for instance, several memorials for Collette, including a large turnout in his hometown of Lancaster, Ohio. Other memorials have been more private, more for the military and families. Even Collette's unit, the 71st Ordnance Group, which dismantles explosives, will remember him when it calls the names of all the fallen that unit has seen over the years.
"Memorial Day is a definitely a somber holiday for us," Simpson said.
Collette was posthumously promoted to sergeant, news Simpson was glad to hear. Collette, he said, wanted to serve in combat for his country and for his fellow troops. So Collette volunteered for the mission that ultimately took his life.
Simpson said he and other troops will have a picnic on Memorial Day, if the sunny weather holds. The mindset, he said, is reflective, meant to build community and support each other in a time of loss. He plans to raise a glass to Collette, though he's not yet sure what he'll say.
"We'll probably share a few stories from back in the day and try and remember him, remember his family, remember his sacrifice, and what he gave up," Simpson said.
Memorial Day ceremonies are planned for 11 a.m. Monday at Colorado's three national veterans cemeteries: Fort Logan in Denver, Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, and Fort Lyon in Las Animas.