In pictures on Facebook, Aaron Prescott appears like many 24-year-old men—healthy, tanned and smiling. On April 16, he posted a picture of a gleaming electric guitar in a plush case with the title, "my new girlfriend." Two days later, he added a photograph of his dog in a car's passenger seat, tongue lolling; the caption reads, "best co-pilot."
But in early May, the tone of those postings turns somber: On May 4, his twin brother, Brandon, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. In December, Brandon, who had already served one three-year tour, re-enlisted to serve three more years with his unit from the cruelly named Fort Bliss in Texas. Brandon had grown up in Southern California; he moved to Bend with his mother, twin brother and another set of younger twin brothers in 2006. He attended Central Oregon Community College for two years before enlisting in the Army. Brandon was killed with six others from his unit.
The Facebook postings describe a sincere, energetic and serious young man. There are photos of the twin brothers as young boys, an adorable mix of a cherubic Ron Howard and a playfully mischievous River Phoenix. There is also a more recent photograph showing Brandon, standing stoically in fatigues and wrap-around sunglasses as a medal is pinned to his chest.
As of press time, Brandon Prescott is the latest Oregonian killed in active military duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, one of nearly 7,000 men and women killed since fighting began in those countries more than a decade ago, a number that doesn't include military contractors or the alarming number of suicides among war veterans; 138 of the dead were from Oregon, a number disproportionately high for the state's population. What makes these deaths keenly painful is that they have happened in wars largely ignored by most Americans.
Providing a painful reminder of Americans' disinterest in and emotional disconnect from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, some American flags in Bend, Redmond and Madras have flown at half-staff for Brandon Prescott over the past three weeks, while others have remained full-staff, indicating ignorance of Gov. John Kitzhaber's order that flags be lowered in respect for the dead soldier.
Such visual reminders mark Americans' interest in and connection with our military engagements: Inconsistent with our past, we have increasingly forgotten about the wars—and, along with them, the men and women who are dying overseas.
In a year-end survey conducted by the Associate Press, editors and publishers across the country did not note either Iraq or the continuing war in Afghanistan as a top concern. Likewise, the Pew Charitable Trust surveyed newspaper readers and found that neither topic registered among the top 15 most important stories of 2012, even though 58,000 American troops remain deployed in Afghanistan. And in a survey of millions of Yahoo searches, "Afghanistan" didn't register enough hits to even make a list of significant news stories.
To return attention to the soldiers who are dying in Afghanistan and have died in Iraq, Tracy Miller five years ago started what has become an annual tradition in Bend: publicly reading the names of the men and women killed in military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. When she started the commemorative event at Riverbend Park in 2008, Miller explains, both of the wars had stretched past five years—longer than any other foreign wars America had engaged in, excluding Vietnam—and the number of U.S. service men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan was approaching 4,000.
"You could still catch every episode of "'Dancing With the Stars,'" Miller explains, "but you weren't getting the real stories about what the cost of the conflicts were. We wanted to do something simple to bring reality to what was happening."
She pauses before adding, "We never expected to be doing this six years later."
Miller, a fit fortysomething, had completed the Pole Pedal Paddle a day earlier; a tightly wound blond braid hangs over her left shoulder. Although it is sunny outside, she is sitting inside at a back table at Bellatazza. On her table are two scrolls, one with the girth of a birch tree, with teletyped names of service people, along with their hometowns and the dates on which they were killed; the second roll, which bears the names of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, is about half the size.
"There is no pomp and circumstance," says Miller, explaining that the annual ceremony is a somber and apolitical event, yet emotionally impactful. "Name, age, hometown, drumbeat," she explains; the drumbeat a somber punctuation for each life.
"When people celebrate Memorial Day," Miller explains, "often they do it with flyovers and what I call the John Wayne approach." She adds, "when we say 'hero,' it allows us to separate from the reality and to remove ourselves."
Last year, the reading lasted more than 13 hours. She expects this year's to last longer than 14 hours; the event begins at 8 am Monday, and the organizers have requested a special allowance from the city to read past 10 pm, the hour when amplified sound normally isn't permitted by the noise ordinance.
All told, 28 readers are scheduled; each will read names for 30 minutes. But, Miller admits, sometimes readers cannot complete an assigned time slot. Last year, the first reader stopped after 15 minutes because the emotional significance of the ritual overwhelmed him. Another reader was stunned to tears when he read the name of a small town in upstate New York near where he grew up.
Such poignancy is precisely the point: The war has been largely ambiguous, and removed from public attention. This is an opportunity to note the enormous loss. Although the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are smaller-scale than Vietnam and World War II, with causalities in those military operations numbering, respectively, around 58,000 and 418,000, that scope doesn't necessarily matter for friends and families who have lost someone in combat; the death of a son, daughter or father in the desert of Kandahar Province is just as real as that of one on the beaches of Normandy.
"When you bring it down to this element, you realize what a giant loss this is," says Miller.
In addition to reading the names, the organizers will set up placards listing the names—a makeshift version of the Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall.
But, although there are political similarities with the Vietnam War—which, unlike previous wars, divided public opinion and support—the narrative about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has been emotionally and culturally the mirror image of the war in Vietnam, which began in the mid-'50s with small deployments of advisers and CIA operatives, largely outside the public's knowledge and interest, and then crescendoed into a monstrous public debate.
Quite the opposite, in 2001, the military campaign in Afghanistan—and subsequently Iraq in 2003—began with great fanfare, and against a backdrop of riotous public dissent. In the buildup to those deployments, millions of protesters took to the streets from Paris to Portland for the largest antiwar protests in world history.
But after the first few years of those wars, the protests faded to little more than a murmur—a few holdout candlelight vigils and roadside demonstrations organized by moms like Cindy Sheehan. Likewise, media coverage of the wars has faded. During last year's presidential campaigns, the wars were a minor issue, at best; deaths like Prescott's no longer make front pages beyond the hometowns of casualties.
Even the cultural significance of the wars has been emotionally distant. In perhaps the best book about soldiers returning stateside from Afghanistan, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award, Benjamin Fountain writes about a 19-year-old soldier who returns stateside for a "Victory Tour." The novel is elegantly narrated by the confused teenager soldier, whose best friend had recently been killed in an ambush on their platoon. Although the details are never fully explained, the event is referenced routinely; in the book, the firefight is caught on film by an embedded FOX news crew and the soldiers catapult to hero status, with Hollywood agents clamoring for the movie rights and the soldiers trotted out for a halftime show with Destiny's Child at a Thanksgiving football game. It is a smart, insightful and poignantly funny story that prods at America's disconnect from the visceral reality of the ongoing war. The narrator struggles with his grief for his best friend, but is equally distracted by Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and pizza joints.
Although a few documentaries have directly addressed the wars, like Restrepo and Taxi to the Dark Side, the more popular narrative films tend to hold the wars at arm's length, such as Tommy Lee Jones as a father trying to find out what happened to his MIA son in In The Valley of Elah (2007), or the excellent movie Grace is Gone (2007), in which John Cusack is widowed by a soldier killed in action but cannot bring himself to break the news to his daughters, and instead takes them on a road trip to an amusement park. Even director Kathryn Bigelow's two Oscar-winning movies address this emotional disconnect between the homeland and war zones more than they celebrate or commemorate the soldiers; that's especially true of The Hurt Locker (2008), which emphasizes the separation soldiers feel when returning to home communities that give little more than a rat's ass about what is happening in the war zones (a theme echoed in Showtime's popular TV series "Homeland").
While such emotional distance doesn't bring the current wars any closer to understanding or empathy for Americans at home, it does provide an accurate framework for understanding the keen disconnect many returning soldiers reportedly feel—and, correspondingly, for grasping the alarmingly high suicide rates among returning soldiers. As recently as February, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that 18 war vets killed themselves daily (a number that does not separate soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq from other wars).
Miller does not have any immediate connection to a soldier fighting in Afghanistan. Her father served in World War II, and her uncles served in Vietnam.
"It is not a political event," she asserts. "I think about my dad," she explains; he served and survived. "He had a life full of love, laughter and travel," she says, recollecting family memories. "For every name on this list," she says, nodding towars the scroll of soldiers killed in action, "that will not happen."
"We Are Remembering - Not Just A Number" begins at 8 am Monday, May 27, at Riverbend Park, Columbia Avenue. It will last throughout the day, until 10 pm.