The headline in The Washington Post March 2, 2011 read: “Lt. Gen. John Kelly, who lost his son to war, says U.S. largely unaware of sacrifice.”
No truer words have been spoken. Until recently, I could stand on one side of that statement and hang my head in shame because it’s clear he was speaking to me. On February 27, 2011, Corporal Andrew Wilfarht, cousin to my husband, and son to Jeff and Lori Wilfahrt of Rosemount, Minn., was killed in Afghanistan.
This begins a story I did not know needed to be told.
An uncle of mine served in Vietnam. He survived, came home to receive a purple heart for his efforts, and rarely spoke of it. Later, he would enter counseling, conquer alcoholism, and forgo having his own family because he didn’t trust himself. He has spent an entire lifetime battling the demons we civilians won’t know by becoming a counselor himself. He made several return trips to Vietnam, and later produced a video for returning soldiers called, “Coming Home.”
My own cousin was a Marine and later became a part of The Green Berets, a special forces unit of the Army. He served as the medic in his team and the trials he endured go untold. We know he served the Bosnian refugees during their plight. Stories are rumored to be told of babies delivered in fields en route to escape. But he’s always come home.
I have friends with relatives in the service; other relatives who’ve served; and I was shuffled along as a kid to the Memorial Day Parades and patriotic concerts around the 4th of July; and like anyone, can describe in great detail what I was doing when the towers fell.
What I can’t explain is why I did nothing after the towers fell.
So enter Andrew Wilfahrt, a young man I met at various family gatherings with the Wilfahrt crew. They are a silly bunch with a bit of a musical streak. Andrew was by far the most gifted; composing and mastering the piano and clarinet and any other instrument he touched. A stand-out memory includes my husband on guitar, mother-in-law on accordion, uncle on guitar, and Andrew on clarinet. It was Christmas and they were “performing," but it was so ridiculous that Andrew honked his clarinet consistently throughout due to laughter. He didn’t show off and gamely participated in mediocrity with the rest of the family band while we held our lighters aloft in delight. Later, this same young man’s eyes would sparkle as he played with my kids in a way that suggested enjoyment rather than endurance.
When Andrew joined the Army, it was a surprise move made at the age of 29. He’d done many things and gone many places and battled some of his own demons. His mother, Lori Wilfahrt, told Minnesota Public Radio her son was an “interesting, wonderful young man” who joined the service because he was “looking for a purpose.” Andrew wanted to be with a “group of people that would be working together toward something.”
Still, our thoughts weren’t firmly in place as to the enormity of the decision. Besides, Afghanistan and Iraq were like old wallpaper in the guest bathroom. It’s there; no one likes it; yet no one really pays attention to it. This is not to say I didn’t worry about his safety, but for months he was in Hawaii—bored, sick of it, and then…deployment to Afghanistan. Our ears perked as we rigorously paid attention to the news, but we would soon learn the price to pay for complacency. I wouldn’t consider myself a peace activist, yet who admits to being “for war”? But I learned, through a shocking introduction to icasualites.org—which tracks the deaths of all of our fallen soldiers—that I have been living foolishly under the assumption that “they” doesn’t really mean “me."
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said it best in this email to a reporter from The Washington Post: “I worry that we could wake up one day and the American people will no longer know us, and we won't know them.”
Later, in a speech given by Lt. General Kelly, he said, “We are in a life-and-death struggle, but not our whole country. One percent of Americans are touched by this war. Then there is a much smaller club of families who have given all." He spoke of the anger that some combat veterans feel toward the war's opponents. "They hold in disdain those who claim to support them but not the cause that takes their innocence, their limbs and even their lives.”
Lt. General Kelly then clarified in an interview that he is opposed to indifference, not dissent. "I just think if you are against the war, you should somehow try to change it," he said. "Fight to bring us home."
And this is where I am left. I can no longer be indifferent after attending Andrew’s funeral, which was executed in full-on military style. Andrew would be the first to claim that his life was no more important than another’s, but the Army clearly felt differently. There were high ranking military officials in attendance along with Governor Dayton. To look at that small box of Andrew’s remains surrounded by grieving family on a crisp winter day where 154 “Patriot Riders” stood at attention with a firm grasp on their flag is to be touched in a way that changes the shape of the heart. The guns fired, Taps played, and sobs echoed throughout Fort Snelling.
I looked SPC Kevin Gill, Andrew’s platoon mate, in the eyes as he told me the story of Andrew’s last patrol. Andrew was handing out candy to some Afghani children; children he loved as much as any children he’s met, and shooed them away. Platoon 3 marched over 100 meters of control wire where three IED’s were remotely triggered. SPC Gill walked over one and Andrew another. Only one of the three detonated—Andrew’s. I soaked in SPC Gill’s pride and pain, and felt his tears while realizing this man is forever changed.
It seems disrespectful to return to life as we know when a bright, colorful, articulate, gentle soul, is gone simply because he wanted to be part of something bigger.
I, too, want to be a part of something bigger. I want to be a part of a country that doesn’t let those who are fighting for an idea that we take for granted every single day go unnoticed. I want them to be remembered and respected and I want them to come home. We, I think, have done our time in Afghanistan. We have sacrificed too many to those who clearly can’t find their way even with our help. Ten years is long enough and every day the number of families and soldiers who will never be the same increases.
Andrew’s platoon members went back to work within 36 hours of his death.
It’s time for us to join those who have been trying to no avail. Contact your representatives. Attend a peace rally. Send an e-mail. Start a letter writing campaign. As Jeff, Andrew’s father said, “Prayers aren’t cutting it. Prayer has been going on since the beginning of time and clearly, it’s not enough.” Join in being part of the message to our leaders that says it is time bring our soldiers home.
Please don’t look away from the next headline. That wall paper is someone’s life. The next name you see is also Andrew’s; his family’s; my family; yours. These are people whose hearts are in complete disrepair, and we owe them nothing less than our willingness to speak out on their behalf. Andrew did it; I am trying. I need more to join me. To not do so is nothing less than shameful.
To further educate yourself, please consider these resources:
1. The article from the Washington Post in its entirety can be found here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/01/AR2011030106355.html?sid=ST2011030106452
2. Icasualties.org tracks the loss of life from Iraq and Afghanistan.
3. Lori Wilfahrt was interviewed by Cathy Wurzer and the audio can be found here: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/03/04/mother-remembers-soldier-killed-in-afghanistan/
4. Jeff Wilfahrt was interviewed for the CNN news blog about viral celebrity tweets versus our interest in the war here:
5. Contact your local representatives from Winona and area districts: https://writerep.house.gov/htbin/wrep_findrep
6. Please take one minute to seek out this website where your name will be added to a petition seeking to bring our soldiers home from Afghanistan: http://act.credoaction.com/campaign/july11_withdrawal/