2,000 dead: Mother mourns ‘grim milestone’ in Afghanistan



This 2009 photo provided by Lisa Freeman shows her son, Marine Capt. Matthew C. Freeman, left, in Afghanistan. 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.

In this Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012 photo, artist Michael Reagan works on a portrait of Joseph A. Weems, who died after being after being hit by a train while riding his bicycle near the Ramstein Air Base in Germany as he served in the U.S. Air Force at his home in Edmonds, Wash. Since starting the Fallen Heros Project in 2004, Reagan has drawn more than 3,000 portraits and given them free-of-charge to families of fallen soldiers.

In this Oct. 29, 2011 photo made available by the U.S. Navy, Lt. Joshua Welle, chief engineer for the guided-missile destroyer USS Arleigh Burke, inspects engineering department Sailors' dress blue uniforms after an exercise in the Atlantic Ocean. As president of a class of 980 midshipmen, Welle had heard about Marine Capt. Matthew C. Freeman. But he did not come to know his classmate 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.

In this Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012 photo, former U.S. Marine Cpl. Daniel Riley, 21, walks with prosthetic legs outside his apartment in San Diego. Riley lost both legs to an IED in Afhganistan. 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.

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. She was taking notes with her free hand when she heard the news: The nation had suffered its 2,000th military 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.

“I just sat here,” said Lisa Freeman, “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.”

* * * * *

Matthew 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.

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.

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 wars. While deployed in Vietnam, he sketched many of his buddies — some of whom didn’t make it home alive.

In 2004, a national news show aired a piece on the Edmonds man’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.”

He has done 3,100 so far. And every day, he gets at least one request for another through the Fallen Heroes Project — fallenheroesproject.org.

“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 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.”

* * * * *

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, 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. “… I don’t think we can look at the wounds of battle in a body count and a death toll.”

* * * * *

Proceeds from the book help 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.

Wounded veterans like Daniel Riley.

On Dec. 16, 2010, Cpl. Riley and his infantry squad, on a dismounted patrol to clear an Afghan compound, had found and disarmed a few IEDs when Riley 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.”

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.”

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.

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 Afghan allies, Metcalfe and the others also attacked 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.

* * * * *

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.

She was discussing the first fundraiser with her eighth-grade class at Richmond Hill Middle School when the Marines arrived to inform her of his death.

His last request has since grown into the Matthew Freeman Project, “Pens & Paper for Peace.” In the past two years, the nonprofit charity — freemanproject.org — has shipped more than six tons of school supplies to military personnel for distribution in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lisa Freeman says one project volunteer 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 said.

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 hopes he’s right.