The number of US troops who died in war zones rose in 2017, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, for the first time in six years. As of Dec. 28, at least 33 military personnel had been killed in war zones overseas compared to 26 last year, according to an analysis of casualty statements released by the Pentagon. At least 21 of those died in combat, according to the Pentagon — some in places where the US presence was not widely known.
The total is a far cry from the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007, when more than 1,000 US troops were killed. But the variety of places where US troops died in combat may indicate what lies ahead under an administration that has granted the military greater authority than its predecessors had to act without consulting leaders in Washington, DC.
Former military officials and experts say 2017 also showed a worrisome trend toward less transparency about how and where US troops are killed. In June, the US military said it would no longer release immediate information about US combat deaths in Afghanistan.
The Trump administration also has been opaque about troop levels in some countries such as Syria, where US officials finally acknowledged that 2,000, not 500, US forces were operating. High-profile combat deaths in Yemen, Niger, and Somalia this year led to the first realization for many Americans — and some members of Congress — that hundreds of US troops were fighting in those countries.
The trend toward decreased transparency is also fueled by the growing reliance on US special forces, whose operations are shrouded in secrecy from the public and Congress. That is likely to mean that the circumstances of troop deaths in places like Yemen and Somalia will continue to be a mystery.
The reliance on special forces also has meant the elite troops are dying at rates higher than conventional forces. Last year, for the first time, more commandos died than conventional forces, and that trend continued in 2017 — even though special forces make up only 5% of the US armed forces.
In 2017, US special forces have served in 143 countries, or nearly three quarters of the nations in the world. There are currently 8,000 US special forces deployed in more than 80 countries — up from roughly 2,900 special forces in 2001.
The longest conflict in US history, the war in Afghanistan, is in its 17th year, with the battle expanding to include ISIS-linked militants and a resurgent Taliban. Fifteen US service members died there in 2017, with the military categorizing at least 11 of them as hostile deaths. At least five were investigated as possible friendly fire incidents, including three killed by an Afghan soldier in June. In two other episodes in March, a total of 11 American soldiers were wounded by Afghan soldiers in so-called “green-on-blue” attacks in Helmand Province. In addition, 101 US troops were wounded in Afghanistan this year, according to Defense Department data.
In August, Trump approved sending 3,000 more US troops to the country. There are now roughly 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon.
April 8 — Staff Sgt. Mark Alencar
Staff Sgt. Mark R. De Alencar, 37, an Army Green Beret, was killed on April 8 in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, when his unit clashed with ISIS-affiliated forces. The US military has not released more details. To honor his promise to his stepdaughter, after his death more than 80 of Alencar’s fellow Green Berets went to her graduation from Niceville High School in Niceville, Florida, in June.
April 27 — Sgt. Cameron Thomas
Sgt. Joshua Rodgers
Sgt. Cameron Thomas, 23, from Kettering, Ohio, and Sgt. Joshua Rodgers, 22, from Bloomington, Illinois, were killed April 27 in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, during a raid targeting an ISIS-affiliated militant leader that turned into an hours-long firefight. The two Army Rangers were on their third deployments. After the incident, the US military said it was investigating whether they were killed by friendly fire.
June 10 — Sgt. Eric M. Houck
Sgt. William M. Bays
Cpl. Dillon C. Baldridge
Sgt. Eric M. Houck, 25, from Baltimore, Maryland, Sgt. William M. Bays, 29, from Barstow, California, and Cpl. Dillon C. Baldridge, 22, from Youngsville, North Carolina, were killed in Nangahar Province when an Afghan soldier turned his weapon on them and opened fire. Houck was married to his high school sweetheart, with whom he had two children. His funeral was held on June 18, Father’s Day. Bays left behind a wife and three daughters. Baldrige’s father said his son had always wanted to be a soldier. "He'd be up at five in the morning watching the Military Channel on TV,” his father told a local news outlet. “What kind of kid does that?"
July 3 — Pfc. Hansen Kirkpatrick
Pfc. Hansen Kirkpatrick, 19, of Wasilla, Alaska, died after an attack in Helmand Province on July 3. Two other soldiers were wounded in the same attack, which the US military said it would investigate. Kirkpatrick deployed from Fort Bliss, Texas, in January with about 1,500 soldiers on a nine-month rotation in support of the NATO-led mission to train, advise, and assist Afghan security forces.
Aug. 2 — Spc. Christopher Michael Harris
Sgt. Jonathon Michael Hunter
Spc. Christopher Harris, 25, of Jackson Springs, North Carolina, and Sgt. Jonathon Hunter, 23, of Columbus, Indiana, were killed in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar on Aug. 2 when a suicide bomber attacked a NATO convoy. The Taliban took responsibility for the attack, which also injured four other US service members. Both were part of the 82nd Airborne Division based in Fort Bragg, N.C. Harris had just recently learned his wife was pregnant. Hunter had spent a year studying music at Indiana State University with dreams of becoming a recording producer before joining the Army, his family said. He was just 32 days into his first deployment when he was killed.
Aug.16 — Staff Sgt. Aaron R. Butler
Army Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler, 27, of Monticello, Utah, died on Aug. 16 in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, when a structure that had been booby-trapped by ISIS militants exploded during an operation. The Green Beret had been in Afghanistan since April. The first Utah resident to die in combat since 2013, Butler was a four-time state wrestling champion who served a Mormon mission in Ghana after graduating high school in 2008.
Nov. 4 — Sgt. 1st Class Stephen B. Cribben
Army SFC Stephen Cribben, 33, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, a Green Beret, died in a combat operation the details of which have still not been released. Cribben’s family said he decided to enlist after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He left behind a wife and two young children.
Nineteen US service members lost their lives this year supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, the name given to the US campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Five of those are listed as hostile deaths by the Pentagon, although few details have been released about the 14 “noncombat” casualties.
Aug. 13 — Army Spc. Allen Levi Stigler Jr.
Sgt. Roshain Euvince Brooks
Army Spc. Allen Levi Stigler Jr., 22, of Arlington, Texas, and Sgt. Roshain Euvince Brooks, 30, of Brooklyn, New York, were killed on Aug. 13 when an artillery round meant to be fired at an ISIS target exploded prematurely at an undisclosed location in Iraq. Five other soldiers were injured in the incident. Stigler was on his first combat deployment and was expected to go home in a month when he was killed. Almost 100 members of a local Jeep and Truck club showed up to honor Stigler at his funeral.
A citizen of Jamaica, Brooks moved to Brooklyn as a teenager and joined the Army in 2012. His father made headlines later in the year, when Trump claimed that unlike his predecessors he had called all families of fallen soldiers. “I said to my daughter, ‘Can you teach me to tweet, so I can tweet at the president and tell him he’s a liar?’” Brooks told the Washington Post. “You know when you hear people lying, and you want to fight? That’s the way I feel last night. He’s a damn liar.”
Oct. 1 — Spc. Alexander Missildine
Spc. Alexander Missildine, 20, of Tyler, Texas, was killed when an improvised explosive device exploded near his vehicle in Ninawa Province, Iraq. He joined the Army right after high school and had been in Iraq for less than a month, working as a motor transport operator, when he was killed.
April 29 — 1st Lt. Weston Lee
Army Lt. Weston Lee, a 25-year-old platoon leader with the US Army's 82nd Airborne Division, was killed on April 29 when an improvised explosive device exploded while he was on a patrol outside the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. A 2014 graduate of the University of North Georgia, he was on his first deployment.
US special forces, many of them highly trained and experienced veterans of several deployments, died in places where the US military expanded operations in 2017, including Yemen, Niger, and Somalia. At least five US troops were killed in action serving in US Africa Command this year, the same number that died fighting ISIS as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.
Jan. 29 — Chief Petty Officer Ryan Owens
Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens, 36, of Peoria, Illinois, a Navy SEAL, was killed in Yemen in the first military action undertaken by the Trump administration. He died when what the US military says was an intelligence-gathering operation turned into a lengthy firefight. Three other US service members were injured when an MV-22 Osprey, sent to evacuate the wounded, lost power and crash-landed. Owens had enlisted in the Navy in 1998 and had three children. His father, Bill Owens, refused to meet with President Trump at Dover Air Force Base when his son’s body was returned. In his first address to Congress, Trump lauded Ryan Owens, and the chamber gave his widow, Carryn, an emotional standing ovation.
May 5 — Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Kyle Milliken
Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Kyle Milliken, 38, a Navy SEAL from Falmouth, Maine, was killed during an operation against al-Shabaab in a remote area of Somalia, about 40 miles west of the capital Mogadishu. He was killed a month after President Trump had approved the use of aggressive military operations and expanded airstrikes to target the group. He was the first US service member to be killed in action in Somalia since the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, which led to the deaths of 18 troops and inspired Black Hawk Down. A 15-year veteran who joined the Navy in 2002, he’d also deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, where in 2007 alone, he conducted 48 combat missions. He left behind a wife and two children.
Oct. 4 — Sgt. La David Johnson
Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright
Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson
Staff Sgt. Bryan Black
Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia; Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; and Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Florida, died when they were ambushed by ISIS-linked militants in the village of Tongo Tongo, near the Niger–Mali border, on Oct. 4. Their deaths shone a spotlight on the little-known operations of the US military in Niger and are still under investigation.
Jeremiah Johnson owned his own business before he joined the Army in October 2007. He left behind his wife of 15 years, Crystal Johnson, and two teenage daughters. Wright, the third of four brothers in a military family, was on his second deployment in Africa and was making plans to move to Philadelphia afterward to be closer to his girlfriend. Black, a Special Forces medic, had learned the local dialect Hausa during a previous deployment to Niger and was in great demand because of it. “I’m not going to lie, but I was a little jealous of Bryan’s celebrity status,” one of his fellow Green Berets said. La David Johnson became the face of the attack when it took 48 hours for his body to be recovered from the site of the ambush. He left behind a pregnant wife and two children. ●
Vera Bergengruen is a Pentagon reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Vera Bergengruen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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