Throughout the history of war in this country, fallen soldiers have returned home to be buried, and then honored by ordinary Americans every Memorial Day. Morris, a one-stoplight town in northwest Connecticut, has a small parade each year. Before the music starts and the marching begins, the few remaining war veterans congregate in the town's two cemeteries. Then, in a somber ceremony with color guard provided by the all-volunteer fire department, they decorate the graves of their fellow servicemen with flags and carnations. Next May, the aging vets will duly honor Captain Benjamin Sklaver, the only casualty of Operation Enduring Freedom to rest in the tiny Jewish cemetery several miles from the town where he was raised. He died on October 2 in Murcheh, Afghanistan when a suicide bomber dressed in an Afghan policeman's uniform walked right up to him and Pfc. Alan H. Newton, Jr. and blew the three men up. They were the 785th and 786th American combat deaths from that war. Since then, there have been 27 more US casualties. Newton was 26, Sklaver, 32.
Occasionally, a military death captures wide public attention and Capt. Sklaver's - Ben, to his many friends and colleagues - has done just that. He was a large and handsome man, a devout Jew who died in a Moslem land. Yes, the more we learn about this remarkable and by unanimous account, larger-than-life young man, the more his story forces us to reframe our own personal debate on the legitimacy of continuing this war. But perhaps more permanently, and usefully, Ben's death has shed light on the invisible work the US military is doing in underserved parts of the world, on missions vastly overshadowed by costly, controversial conflicts. For those of us searching for the meaning of a post-Cold War national defense, Ben's military service and subsequent civilian legacy, providing fresh drinking water to the people of Northern Uganda, reminds us that the men and women of our armed forces are fighting battles all over the world every day, and some of them are winnable.
Ben graduated from Tufts University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, also at Tufts, where he enrolled in ROTC the year before he graduated. His roommate and close friend there, David Abraham, recalled how Ben not only finished his senior thesis six months before it was due, but then got it published in one of the leading journals in the humanitarian field. He was already committed to a lifetime of public and international service, having chosen as his research topic an analysis of the effectiveness of HDR's, or humanitarian daily (food) rations, which are distributed by the U.S. government in conflict zones, and which may conflate humanitarian and military roles in such areas. He worked with AIDS orphans in Malawi, then with the CDC in Atlanta, and in 2006 was called up and sent to Djibouti, with CJTF-HOA (Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa). From there, he was deployed with Bravo Company 489th Civil Affairs Battalion to Northern Uganda to provide humanitarian assistance in an area ravaged from twenty years of conflict with Joseph Kony's murderous Lord's Resistance Army.
According to a CJTF-HOA press release from June 18, 2007, the purpose of the mission was to repair and drill boreholes on wells for people who had fled their villages and were forced to relocate to Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. Capt. Sklaver was quoted saying, "We look forward to working with the communities and providing them with fresh water, which is really important in this part of the world." And later, he continued, "These actions promote peace and stability and it shows that the American people are interested in helping the people of Northern Uganda as they come out of a difficult period."
Sklaver understood that safe, clean drinking water is an essential element for human security and after his first tour of duty, he refused to relinquish his commitment to the people of Northern Uganda. Inspired, he returned home and started a non-profit organization, Clearwater Initiative ( www.clearwaterinitiative.org ) to maintain these efforts on the civilian side. David Abraham says, "His mission, and the mission of Clearwater, was to build wells and protected springs, believing that fresh drinking water was a way to give people hope. He wanted to make peoples' lives better or give them the tools to do it themselves. Spreading hope - that's what he did wherever he went."
Another of his Fletcher classmates and Clearwater board member, Elaina Loizou, says that Ben had an innate passion for humanitarian work, and was able to pinpoint who had the most need and where, then distill what needed to be done there. "He felt a call to duty to give help where it was needed, post-conflict. Africa was the place he felt he needed to go."
With Ben's death, Clearwater's board members are faced with the monumental task of starting over, at the same time as forwarding his vision. Ben's goal was to build capacity and help reconstruct a small and desperate corner of the world, one he got to know when he was deployed there with the US Army. He is a great loss for the people there, but his work will carry on both because and in honor of him. What can't be overstated, however, is what can't be replaced. His family, parents, and fiance, whom he was due to marry next June, will all be coping with this deeply personal tragedy.
But the loss may be all of ours as well. Ben believed his purpose in life was to serve, and, according to Elaina Loizou, he planned one day to run for senator in Connecticut. He knew that military service was critical to his own experience in building his knowledge and credentials. In only two weeks, he had made his mark at FEMA, where he had just begun working when he was sent to Afghanistan. Four months later, this man who comfortably straddled liberal academia and the US military, and who motivated those who were lucky enough to know him, was killed.
Atop Ben Sklaver's grave in Morris are fading bouquets of white roses, which were placed there at his burial, done with full military honors. On a rainy Saturday, a stranger visiting his resting place can barely fathom the road that brought him here. By next Memorial Day, the small, typewritten plaque will most likely have been replaced by a headstone. By then, it is impossible to know where the public debate and policy quandary on Afghanistan will stand. But US soldiers like Ben will be contributing greatly in all kinds of ways, all over the world - some of them permanently.
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