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Forgetting Afghan war, until death brings it home

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Staring out the window of his pickup, slowly trailing the hearse bearing his brother's body, Will Copes' eyes blurred with tears. In a few minutes he and his brother would be home, back to a town preoccupied with the first week of school and plans for weekend barbecues. A place far removed from an unrelenting, but all too easily forgotten war. Until now.

"It looked like people were lined up for the Christmas parade, but they were there for my brother — and for us," Copes says, his voice breaking as he recounts the Aug. 24 procession down Main Street in Altavista, Va. A week after Staff Sgt. Greg Copes, 36, and a fellow American Marine were killed by an Afghan police officer they'd been training, his casket was met by firefighters flying the Stars and Stripes from atop a ladder truck. Hundreds in the town of 3,500 lined the curb to pay respects. At Altavista's high school, students and teachers filed from their classrooms, framing the parking lot in a corridor of honor.

"I saw kids waving flags. I saw kids crying," Will Copes says. "If they had forgotten, they had been woken up by a lightning bolt. ... And I think that happens around the country, every day."

Eleven years after the U.S. began battling to rid Afghanistan of al-Qaida and the Taliban, the war has ebbed from the headlines. The question of just how to end it is rarely mentioned in the speeches of this year's presidential campaign. Polls find most Americans just want it over. Families of soldiers killed in action despair that many of their fellow citizens have neither the time nor the patience to grapple with the complexities of the conflict or to appreciate the sacrifice of the soldiers fighting it.

"People don't understand. We're not fighting it on our soil," says Geraldine McClain of Rochester Hills, Mich., whose son, Army Spc. Kyle McClain, was killed Aug. 1 when an improvised explosive device detonated in Kandahar Province. He'd been in Afghanistan just six weeks. "They're enjoying their life, eating out, going to soccer. They fill up their car and gripe about gas. Unless they've been touched by a soldier's life, they take it for granted."

That is, until a community must welcome a dead soldier home.

So far, 1,980 American fighters have been killed in Afghanistan. A recent surge of insider attacks by Afghan security forces has claimed the lives of 40 allied combatants, according to a report by the Brookings Institution. Americans may have pushed the war from their everyday consciousness. But losing neighbors and classmates, losing a Greg Copes or a Kyle McClain, keeps turning a distant war into an anguished and very personal reality.

Until Pfc. Dustin Gross of Jeffersonville, Ky., was killed by an IED on May 7, most people in the area had matters other than the war on their minds. "Seems like times are getting harder and I think that's what most people are focused on, just everyday living," says his mother, Angie Brown.

But Gross was just 19 when he died, only a year from the graduation stage at Montgomery County High School, where many people still remembered him as the football team's running back. More than 2,000 people came to his funeral, held in the high school gymnasium and most businesses in Mt. Sterling, including the local Walmart, closed for at least an hour, to pay respect.

"This community here was in so much shock," Brown says. "They're, like, this could've been my son or my daughter. And now they feel like they need to do something besides just sit and wait. It's opened their eyes up."

Brown had been sending her son care packages filled with favorites like Jolly Ranchers candy and beef jerky. After his death, his hometown embraced the idea, organizing Project Dustin Gross to assemble and send packages to military units. In the next few weeks, a third wave of more than 1,500 packages will be shipped to Afghanistan from this community east of Lexington.

The county has always sent a number of its young people to the military, but Gross' death reminded people and made the war real, his mother says. McClain's mother would understand.

Even before Kyle McClain was killed at 25, she tried to build awareness of the war. Dozens of children come to Geraldine McClain's home for piano lessons and she took care to explain the flag hanging in the dining room window — one with a blue star to remember a soldier serving overseas, replaced by another with a gold star, to grieve for a soldier who had given his life. At her students' June recital, McClain purposely included "The Star Spangled Banner" and other patriotic songs.

"We don't just talk about Mozart and Bach," she says.

Some families of the dead say they're troubled as news coverage has shifted away Afghanistan. But they try to make peace with it.

"Yes, it bothers me, but in a way, I understand. ... It's just been so long and everybody else is tired of hearing about it," says Cynthia Holcomb of Columbus, Ohio, whose son, paratrooper Russell R. Bell, was killed Aug. 2 in Kandahar Province from wounds inflicted by an IED. Bell, father of a year-old son, was nearing the end of his fourth tour of duty.

"I think people would rather not focus on it because it's painful, it's hard to hear," says Earl Copes, a second brother of the Virginia Marine killed last month. "When things are uncomfortable, it's easier not to think about it."

But losing a local soldier hammers home the war's impact. Now people stop Angie Brown in the supermarket aisles to offer comfort. When she goes to the cemetery to visit her son's grave, she often finds someone else there to pay respects. Will Copes says his family has received cards and letters of support from around the world. But he starts crying only when he begins to talk about his hometown, and the many, many people who may not have known his brother, but stopped their lives to stand along a curb and raise a flag in his honor.

"It's just a small town," he says. "But it's good people."


AP writers Betsy Blaney, Kristin M. Hall, Larry O'Dell and Ed White contributed to this story. Adam Geller, a New York-based national writer, can be reached at features(at)ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AdGeller.