Lisa Freeman was cradling her 6-day-old grandson in her left arm and watching the news on her iPad while her daughter and son-in-law caught some much needed sleep. The retired teacher was taking notes with her free hand when she heard the news: The nation had suffered its 2,000th casualty in the Afghan war.
On Sept. 29, Army Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Metcalfe was on patrol in the country’s rugged Wardak Province when his unit came under small-arms fire.
As the announcer droned on, all Freeman could do was shake her head and stare at little Matthew – named for an uncle he would never know. Marine Capt. Matthew C. Freeman fell to a sniper’s bullet on Aug. 7, 2009, northeast of Kabul, not far from where Metcalfe perished.
It is almost certain that Metcalfe and Freeman – both 29 when they died – never met. Freeman grew up in the Savannah suburb of Richmond Hill, Ga.; Metcalfe was from the village of Liverpool, N.Y., population about 2,400, a few miles north of Syracuse.
Nonetheless, they were brothers, casualties in what has become America’s longest war.
Looking at the number 2,000 on the small, glass screen, Lisa Freeman felt as if she’d lost her son all over again.
“I just sat here, reliving the pain and wondering: Where is America’s outrage? Where is America’s concern that we’re still at war?”
“I walk around this country and look in faces that don’t even know we’re at war anymore. People that are going about their everyday lives, not realizing that they’ve been kept safe by this amazing group of young men and women who have been willing to sacrifice so much.”
She has reason to be bitter. And yet, her son’s story is a shining example of how each life – and death – touches so many others. She and all who loved him are bound to others in a spreading web of loss and grief, and they do not mourn alone.
Matthew Freeman excelled at everything he set his mind to. Eagle Scout, honor roll, student council president. So no one was surprised when he won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, following in his father’s footsteps. After graduation in 2002, the son and grandson of naval aviators took his commission in the Marine Corps and went for jets.
Freeman was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, in the summer of 2009 when a resurgent Taliban began retaking areas once thought pacified. When officers asked for volunteers to shore up the thin lines, the young pilot with the striking blue eyes stepped forward.
In July 2009, Freeman made a secret trip home to marry his high school sweetheart, Theresa Hess. He wanted to make sure she would be notified – and taken care of – should anything happen to him.
They were married on July 10, 2009. Thirteen days later, he shipped out.
Barely two weeks into his deployment, Freeman and a fire support team set out to do reconnaissance in the Shpee Valley when they came under almost immediate enemy attack and became pinned down. According to an official account, Freeman fought his way into a nearby building and up to the roof to get a better angle on the enemy position.
Once atop, he spotted an insurgent with a rocket-propelled grenade and was firing at the man when he was shot in the back of the head. A comrade told Lisa Freeman her son was found with his finger on the trigger of his rifle; its magazine was nearly empty.
The following January, Mrs. Freeman was visiting the Pennsylvania home of a woman whose son, an Army second lieutenant, had been killed in 2006 by an improvised explosive device in Iraq. On the wall, she noticed an amazingly lifelike pencil sketch of the fallen soldier and asked the woman who drew it.
Retired Marine Cpl. Michael Reagan knows something about long, unpopular wars.
When asked about his tour in Vietnam, he says simply, “I survived Con Thien.” Translated as “Hill of Angels,” the remote Marine fire base just south of the North Vietnamese border was the site of fierce fighting for a year beginning February 1967.
While there, Reagan sketched many of his buddies – some of whom didn’t make it home alive.
The Edmonds, Wash., man has since done portraits of dozens of celebrities, 137 Playboy playmates, six presidents, three prime ministers, even a pope. Using pre-autographed picture boards, he’s helped raise millions for children’s charities and cancer research.
In 2004, a national news show aired a piece on Reagan’s work. The next day, an Iraq War widow from Boise, Idaho, called him and asked how much he would charge to do a portrait of her late husband.
He told her there would be no charge; just send him a photo. When the woman called back to thank him for the sketch, he was overcome with emotion.
Reagan turned to his wife and said, “We need to do them all.”
Thus was born the Fallen Heroes Project. At the beginning, a general asked whether Reagan understood what he had gotten himself in for. Reagan replied that he figured the wars would last five years, and that he would have to no more than 1,500 portraits.
He has done 3,100 so far. And every day, he gets at least one e-mail, requesting another.
“I haven’t drawn 3,100 portraits,” he says. “I’ve drawn one. … Every one is too many for me.”
The 65-year-old artist wakes around 4 a.m. each morning. He “cooks” his coffee, feeds his cats and sits down at his drawing table.
Each portrait takes about five hours, though some take longer and he has done as many as four in one day to have them ready in time for funerals or memorial services. He walks five miles each night, “to just be able to get air back in me.”
Reagan works from videos and favorite photos – some showing the person in civilian life. People send him letters and diary entries from the deceased.
“So when I draw,” he says, “I feel like I’m having a conversation.”
When Lisa Freeman wrote to ask that he draw her son – in his Marine dress blues – she passed along a note from one of Matthew’s high school classmates, who recalled the young man who listened so well he made you feel “like you were the most important person in the world.”
“I believe the world and the lives he touched are better for him being here,” she wrote.
Joshua Welle was president of the Annapolis Class of 2002. But there were 980 midshipmen, and though he had heard of Freeman, he did not know him – until after his death.
Welle, a lieutenant commander in the Navy, is back in the States for three weeks’ leave. He is using part of that time to travel the country and tell audiences about Freeman and other classmates who have sacrificed in the ongoing War on Terror.
The surface warfare officer is lead editor of a new book, “In the Shadow of Greatness: Voices of Leadership, Sacrifice, and Service from America’s Longest War.” Of the Class of 2002, four have died in combat, one lost both legs, and another won the Silver Star.
As he crisscrosses the country, Welle senses that “the American people have fatigue” about the war in Afghanistan. It has become part of his mission to remind them why our troops are still there, that the war serves to protect the United States. “Americans need to have a long view,” he says
Welle says he and his coeditors wrote the book “to tell a story of post-911 leadership and help America understand that there is a good news story coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, even though there’s no clear victory.”
He adds: “I don’t think we can look at the wounds of battle in a body count and a death toll.”
Proceeds from the book – and, by extension, from Matthew Freeman’s story – have helped causes to make a difference in the lives of Afghan War vets, including the Challenged Athlete Foundation’s “Operation Rebound,” a sports and fitness program for wounded veterans and first responders with permanent physical disabilities.
Wounded veterans like Daniel Riley.
When Riley joined the Marines in 2007 at age 21, he was “fully aware it wasn’t a question of `if’; it would be a question of when I would find myself in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
He made it unscathed through his first tour, in Iraq. And, as he’d expected, he soon found himself in Afghanistan.
On Dec. 16, 2010, Cpl. Riley and his infantry squad were on a dismounted patrol to clear a compound in the Marjah district of then-hot Helmand Province. The men had found and disarmed a couple of IEDs.
They were leaving the area when Riley took a step and felt the earth give ever so slightly beneath his right boot.
“The one thing you know in Afghanistan is that, if you’re not on solid ground, you’re not in a good place,” he says. “The minute that ground gave out a little bit, I just swore in my head and I knew exactly what had happened.”
Buried beneath a “pressure plate” was a fuel can filled with ammonium nitrate – the same explosive mix used in the Oklahoma City bombing. Riley blacked out “for a split second, but woke up flying in the air and landing.”
The blast took off both of Riley’s legs, just above the knee, and three fingers on his left hand. He had about a week left on his deployment.
“I was, excuse the pun, I was one foot out the door,” he says with a laugh. “It was probably on one of the last patrols I would have done in my deployment.”
After more than a year and a half of recovery and rehab, Riley was medically retired from the Marine Corps this summer.
Learning to walk on his prosthetic legs was “like kicking a soccer ball in a swimming pool.” But he didn’t just learn to walk; he has learned to soar. He joined “Operation Rebound,” and has graduated from competitor to mentor.
He’s 27 now, living in San Diego, and though he supports the war, he understands the frustration of many who want it to end.
“I’ve seen both sides of it,” he says. “I’ve seen good being done. I’ve seen kids going to school, roads being built, bridges being built – that kind of thing. I’ve also seen a bad side of it. You see seemingly an endless war where you’re continually fighting, and it’s hard to see progress. …
“I mean, one casualty or 2,000 casualties,” he says. “You know, it’s numbers.”
The 2,000th casualty occurred at a lonely Afghan Army checkpoint along the main road between southern Kandahar and the national capital of Kabul – an area of scrubby, rolling foothills dotted with Pashtun villages and trees bearing fist-sized, yellow apples.
According to Afghan officials, Metcalfe and his squad were on foot patrol when the checkpoint came under insurgent attack. Believing they were being fired on by their Afghan allies, Metcalfe and the others engaged the checkpoint, the officials said.
Metcalfe, a civilian contractor and at least two Afghan soldiers died in the firefight. The Pentagon is investigating.
Metcalfe, a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, was an 11-year veteran and was on his third deployment. He leaves a wife and four children, aged 11 months to 12 years.
Lisa Freeman can’t help thinking he should never have been in that “impossible place.”
“I don’t really understand why we’re there anymore,” she says. “Why are we still watching death after death, and pain after pain here at home?”
All she knows for certain is that her son would not want the United States to leave just yet.
Two days before his death, Freeman called his mother back in Georgia. He told her all about the friendly locals, and how cute the children were.
“The kids would rather have pens and paper more than anything,” he said. “Even food or water.”
He asked if she would start collecting school supplies that he and the other troops could distribute in the villages.
“Send as much as you can,” he told her. “I want to give them this.”
She was discussing the first fundraiser with her eighth-grade class at Richmond Hill Middle School when the Marines arrived to inform her of her son’s death.
His last request has since grown into the Matthew Freeman Project, “Pens & Paper for Peace.” In the past two years, the nonprofit charity has shipped more than six tons of school supplies to military personnel for distribution in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lisa Freeman says one of the project’s volunteers told her recently that it might take years, but that their efforts would bear fruit.
“Maybe one of these young men that we’re giving these school supplies to could be the future leader of a free Afghanistan,” he told her.
With one son-in-law in the field and another who could be deployed at any time, the Gold Star mother cannot see it.
But she truly hopes he’s right.
Associated Press writer Patrick Quinn in Kabul, Afghanistan, and photographer Lenny Ignelzi in San Diego also contributed to this story. Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/(hash)!/AllenGBreed