Last week, Laura and Gary Sklaver buried their oldest boy, Ben, who was 32 when killed by a suicide bomber in the remote village of Murcheh in the distant land of Afghanistan. Ben was a captain in the U.S. Army. Now he has become one of 804 Americans, 37 from Connecticut, to lose their lives in an expanding war that belongs mostly to the parents and families of those who serve a nation preoccupied by a wounded economy and political polarization.
"He didn't have to go," Laura Sklaver said the other day. "His obligation was up in May."
"But he was recalled in March," Gary Sklaver added. "And he didn't want to leave his men."
Ben Sklaver grew up drawn to service. He admired his grandfather, who served with George Patton's Army in World War II. He joined ROTC at Tufts, received a master's in international relations from the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, was commissioned as an officer in the Army Reserve in 2003 and became convinced that a world consumed with conflict and terrorism might be changed by Americans bringing clean water, medicine and food as much as by drones, missiles and military might.
"This was his second tour overseas," said Laura while sitting at her dining-room table. "His unit went to Uganda for a year in 2007. That's where he created his nonprofit, the ClearWater Initiative, so people there would have something we all take for granted clean water."
In a dangerous and divided world, Ben's principal weapon was idealism. In Uganda, he helped bring the simplest of things clean drinking water and a bit of hope to thousands who often saw sunrise as just one more dawn in a country where death can seem as common as drawing a breath. After his tour in Uganda ended, he came home seeking other ways to help those most in need.
"Ben had just started a new job with FEMA in New York when his unit was recalled," Gary Sklaver said. "They were supposed to go to Iraq, but then the strategy changed along with his orders, and they were sent to Afghanistan."
He shipped out July 6. His fiancée, Beth Segaloff, drove him to the airport. They set a wedding date for next June, when his tour of duty in Afghanistan was to end. "I cried every day he was there," his mother, a lawyer, says. "I took long walks every day, worried every minute, avoided reading the papers or listening to news about the war, wondered how my son could tell the difference between people over there who wanted peace and people who wanted to kill him."
On the day Ben died, four other Americans were also killed in the nearly medieval land that has exposed the folly of empires for centuries. At the final moment of his young and accomplished life when he stood talking to a village leader in Murcheh he wore the colors of a country nobly represented by an all-volunteer Army; he fought on behalf of a dangerously self-absorbed people back home and the politicians who represent them, many of whom are unable to see beyond the next election.
"When did you last hear from him?" I asked his parents.
"The last time we spoke was on Yom Kippur," Laura said. "He called to wish us well."
"We didn't talk long," said Gary. "Ben said he wanted to let his men use the phone while they had one. That's who Ben was: generous, kind, always looking out for others."
And here is how war too often ends for those who serve and the families left behind, the uncounted casualties among us: a knock on the door of a home located on a small-town street where fallen leaves glisten in Autumn sun. Two soldiers on the stoop bearing the bitter details of death. A mother and father driving to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to stand on a tarmac while their oldest boy, a lost treasure to his family and his nation, is carried gently to a hearse. A crowded service last Tuesday at Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden. A dining-room table filled with pictures of his life, letters of condolence, medals awarded for bravery, a folded flag and young Ben's parents Gary and Laura Sklaver left with a permanent hole in the heart, two more casualties of a war waged by the forgotten few.