07/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

War, The Economy And The Death of A Man

Intuitively, a lot of people understand that war and a fragile economy are related. But, nothing brought home the connection better than the death of Andrew Seabrooks. His life, and death, speak more about what we face than any politician's rhetoric.

You see, Andrew died because he had no option but to go to war. Andrew died because he could not make a decent living that would keep him from living in the streets of South Ozone Park, Queens. Instead of dying peacefully with his family of old age in Queens, Andrew died in Kandahar, Afghanistan, ripped apart by an explosive device that tore into his vehicle.

When I first read about his death a few days ago, I was struck by the circumstances. Today, a reporter from The New York Times tells the story through the eyes of his girlfriend, Gloria Hedges:

If everyone in the neighborhood already knew about Ms. Hedges's loss, it's because everyone in the neighborhood knew Mr. Seabrooks, who went by Drew. He'd lived in that house for all of his 36 years, and most people on the street couldn't remember the house without him in it, as well as his sister Melissa, who has Down syndrome. His mother had bought the house decades ago, and when she knew she was nearing the end, three years ago, she impressed upon her son just a few wishes: Look after your sister, look after your kids (three others live with their mother in Queens, and another two with his estranged wife in Virginia) and look after the house.

Mr. Seabrooks's street in Ozone Park reflects a community that's hanging on to its property, if only, in some cases, by a thread. A neighborhood association sign a few houses down from Mr. Seabrooks's asks residents to keep the street clean, but two homes are for sale, and in spots, a porch sags or a gate is falling off its hinge. It's a neighborhood where families often pass the quaint, three-story homes, many with awnings and sidewalk hedges, down to the next generation, as Mr. Seabrooks's mother did. But South Ozone Park also has one of the highest foreclosure rates in Queens, a rate significantly higher than the national average.

Mr. Seabrooks drove a cab, and sometimes he helped install car stereos, but it was never enough to pay the mortgage once his mother got sick and couldn't help out. A job he'd been hoping for last August fell through, and he could see trouble coming with the bank. "He was a worrier," Ms. Hedges said.

And because of that worrying, he made a fateful decision:

He'd already done a tour in Iraq, and when the bills started piling up, he started thinking about serving in Afghanistan, where combat pay would be relatively high. Although Ms. Hedges begged him not to, he signed up. "Where am I going to go? Live on the streets?" he used to say to her. "I'm not going to lose this house." Sure enough, in October, right as he was training to leave, the first notice of foreclosure proceedings arrived. "He wouldn't have gone if it wasn't for this house," Ms. Hedges said.

There you have it. In the United States of America, a man who wanted to work could not find enough decent-paying work to keep him from being homeless. So, he went back to war so he could make enough money to survive. And he died.

In the United States of America, a woman gets sick, and rather than living in a country where she will be taken care of and it won't be a drain on her family, a man is forced to go back to war so he could make enough money to survive. And he died.

In the United States of America, unscrupulous bankers and lenders and economic wizards like Robert Rubin allow a mortgage crisis to ignite an economic calamity for millions of people, and a man is forced to go back to war so he could make enough money to survive. And he died. And many of those who created the crisis continue to thrive and make millions.

A lot of commentators and politicians have tried to distinguish between the "bad war" -- Iraq -- and the "right war -- Afghanistan. I've not been a particular believer in that distinction -- how we ended up bombing Afghanistan and how we ended up in Iraq are closely related.

But, the point here is this:

Andrew Seabrooks died not because he wanted to serve his country but because his country did not serve him.

His country did not serve him by providing enough decent-paying work so that he could provide for himself and his family. Instead, he had to give up his life.

His country did not serve him and his family by providing decent health care. Instead, he had to give up his life.

His country did not serve him because it allowed, and allows, scammers in the economy (some of whom we call "senior economic advisors" to presidents) to strip-mine communities like South Ozone Park, sucking out every dollar possible until the only thing left for people who live in the communities is to send their sons, daughters, husbands, wives and friends to make a living by killing people.

If we want real change in this election, it won't come just from electing a leader. It will come from making sure we really change the calculus that lets people want to serve their country not because of desperation but because of inspiration.