Last Tuesday, flags at North Carolina’s state office buildings flew at half-staff.
Few noticed. Fewer asked why.
The solemn symbolism and the public’s obliviousness tell the story of America’s misbegotten – and now all but forgotten – war in Afghanistan.
The lowered flags honored the sacrifice of North Carolina Army National Guard Sgt. James Allen Slape, 23, of Morehead City. He died in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on Oct. 4 from wounds sustained from an improvised explosive device.
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Between Slape’s death and the lowering of flags in North Carolina, the war in Afghanistan passed the milestone of Oct. 7, the day 17 years ago when the U.S. entered the “graveyard of empires.” Slape was 6 years old.
More than 1,800 U.S service members have died from hostile fire since the war began following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, though the rate of casualties has slowed in recent years as the U.S. and coalition forces have taken up a more limited and defensive posture.
But for the people of Afghanistan, the war has intensified. Scores of Afghan soldiers, police and civilians are dying weekly as the Taliban, now in control of most of the country, strikes with military attacks and suicide bombers. For all the U.S. has spent in treasure and in blood, the war seems to have accomplished little. And for those who loved James Allen Slape, it feels like it has taken everything.
The family requested privacy, but family members released statements through the National Guard.
Slape’s wife, Shawn, said, “James and I would always argue who loved the other person more. Though it was playful, I can say that he loved me more, as he literally put his life on the line for myself and the rest of our country.”
His brother, William, a private in the U.S. Army, said, “I have seen that some people’s reaction to a loss like this is to back down from the fight. I believe that instead of being discouraged, it should create a spark in everyone to continue the fight. After experiencing this loss first hand, it has instilled a greater feeling of responsibility to complete the mission that my brother has fought and died for.”
In their sorrow, Slape’s wife and brother take solace in his patriotism. He made a courageous choice and gave the ultimate sacrifice for a cause larger than himself.
But it’s also fair to ask how many more must follow him and how many more family members must draw on their own and their lost loved one’s patriotism to give meaning to an American’s death halfway around the world in a war that’s entering its 18th year.
Sgt. James Allen Slape died at 23 in a war that goes on largely unnoticed. That should draw our attention. It is time for civilians to fight for such soldiers to end this endless war and bring the 14,000 U.S. troops still there home to flags flying not in mourning, but in gratitude.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com