WASHINGTON – It was another week at war in Afghanistan, another string of American casualties, and another collective shrug by a nation weary of a faraway conflict whose hallmark is its grinding inconclusiveness.
After nearly 11 years, many by now have grown numb to the sting of losing soldiers like Pfc. Shane W. Cantu of Corunna, Mich. He died of shrapnel wounds in the remoteness of eastern Afghanistan, not far from the getaway route that Osama bin Laden took when U.S. forces invaded after Sept. 11, 2001, and began America's longest war.
Cantu was 10 back then.
Nearly every day the Pentagon posts another formulaic death notice, each one brief and unadorned, revealing the barest of facts - name, age and military unit - but no words that might capture the meaning of the loss.
Cantu, who joined the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade on Sept. 11 last year and went to Afghanistan last month, was among five U.S. deaths announced this past week, as the Democrats and Republicans wrapped up back-to-back presidential nominating conventions.
American troops are still dying in Afghanistan at a pace that doesn't often register beyond their hometowns. So far this year, it's 31 a month on average, or one per day. National attention is drawn, briefly, to grim and arbitrary milestones such as the 1,000th and 2,000th war deaths. But days, weeks and months pass with little focus by the general public or its political leaders on the individuals behind the statistics.
Each week at war has a certain sameness for those not fighting it, yet every week brings distinct pain and sorrow to the families who learn that their son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother was killed or wounded.
Cantu died Aug. 28, but the Pentagon did not publicly release his name until Wednesday. He was memorialized by his paratrooper "sky soldier" comrades in Italy on Thursday and honored in his hometown of Corunna, where the high school football coach, Mike Sullivan, was quoted in local news reports as saying the energetic and athletic Cantu had been "the toughest kid I've ever coached — ever known."
He would have turned 21 next month.
His roommate in Afghanistan, Pfc. Cameron Richards, 23, remembers Cantu as a larger-than-life figure, a guy with an infectious smile who took pride in whipping up spaghetti, tacos and other dinners on his portable skillet. It was a knack he attributed to having grown up with five sisters with whom he shared family meal duties.
"He was the type of person you wanted to be around every day," Richards said in a teleephone interview Friday from the brigade's headquarters in Italy, where he returned after being wounded by shrapnel from a hand grenade two weeks before Cantu was killed.
"When he was in the room you knew he was in the room. He'd be the loudest one laughing," he added. "He impacted everybody."
As the war drags on, it remains a faraway puzzle for many Americans. Max Boot, a military historian and defense analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, has called Afghanistan the "Who Cares?" war. "Few, it seems, do, except for service personnel and their families," he wrote recently. "It is almost as if the war isn't happening at all."
One measure of how far the war has receded into the background in America is the fact that it was not even mentioned by Mitt Romney in his speech last week accepting the Republican presidential nomination. President Obama has pledged to end the main U.S. combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but current plans call for some thousands of U.S. troops to remain long after that to train Afghans and hunt terrorists.
The war remains at the forefront, naturally, for members of the military such as Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly, whose son, 2nd Lt. Robert M. Kelly, was killed by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan in November 2010.
"America as a whole today is certainly not at war, not as a country, not as a people," Kelly said in a speech Aug. 28 at the American Legion's national convention. Kelly is Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's senior military assistant.
"Only a tiny fraction of American families fear all day and every day a knock at the door that will shatter their lives," Kelly said.
That knock came this past week for more families, including that of Jeremie S. Border, a 28-year-old Army Special Forces staff sergeant from Mesquite, Texas. His alma mater, McMurry University, said he graduated in 2006 with degrees in sociology and communications. He played four seasons for the school's football team, whose players will wear a helmet decal bearing his uniform number, 28, for the remainder of this season.
The Pentagon said Tuesday that he was killed by small arms fire last Saturday, along with Army Staff Sgt. Jonathan P. Schmidt, 28, of Petersburg, Va., a graduate of Thomas Dale High School outside Richmond. Schmidt was an explosive ordnance disposal expert assigned to a unit based at Fort Bragg, N.C. The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer reported that he joined the Army in 2003 and is survived by his wife and one son.
Marine Lance Cpl. Alec R. Terwiske, 21, of Dubois, Ind., was killed in combat last Monday in Helmand province. He was a reservist with a tank battalion based at Fort Knox, Ky., but in Afghanistan he was assigned to a combat engineer battalion. The Pentagon provided no details about the circumstances of his death.
Army Spc. Kyle R. Rookey, 23, of Oswego, N.Y., died last Sunday in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan in a noncombat incident. As is standard with noncombat deaths the Pentagon offered no other details pending an investigation. Rookey is survived by his wife, Victoria, and a daughter, Flora, according to a report by CNYCentral.com in Syracuse, which said Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered that flags at all state buildings fly at half-staff Friday in Rookey's honor.