As the United States winds down its commitment of troops to Afghanistan and decreases deployments to Iraq, the number of those who have died in service to the country overseas has reached its lowest level since the initial military response to 9/11.
In the year since Memorial Day, 2020, 18 U.S. service members have died while supporting overseas operations, including Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, Operation Inherent Resolve, and NATO’s Kosovo Force. In 2001, 11 servicemembers died, but by 2003, numbers had soared to more than 500 deaths. The death toll peaked in 2007 at 1,020. And, as of May 27, there have been three deaths in 2021.
None of the deaths were caused by hostile forces, and most were attributable to vehicle accidents. A U.S. servicemember has not been killed in action since March 11, 2020, when a rocket attack on Camp Taji in Iraq killed Army Spc. Juan Covarrubias and Air Force Staff Sgt. Marshal Roberts.
At 13 deaths, soldiers accounted for a majority of those killed overseas in the past year. Three airmen, one sailor and one Marine were also among those who died, according to Military Time’s “Honor the Fallen” database.
Of the total 18 deaths in the past year, five took place in Kuwait and five were the result of a helicopter crash in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Alongside the five U.S. soldiers killed in the helicopter crash were a French and Czech service member.
Other deaths took place in the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Jordan, Bahrain, the North Arabian Sea, and Kosovo.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, at least 7,047 service members have given their lives in support of overseas operations, including deaths by hostile forces, accidents, illness and suicide.
The Pentagon declined to comment on service member deaths in the past year, and instead pointed to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s upcoming Memorial Day message — a tradition normally published on Memorial Day.
Recent decreases in overseas deaths are in part due to force drawdowns in the Middle East. By mid January 2021, the Pentagon announced that it had reduced troops to 2,500 each in Iraq and Afghanistan, as opposed to peak numbers of 100,000 troops in Afghanistan in August 2010 and 170,000 in Iraq in 2007.
President Joe Biden announced on April 14 plans to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 of this year.
“I’m immensely grateful for the bravery and backbone that [U.S. service members] have shown through nearly two decades of combat deployments,” Biden said at the time. “We as a nation are forever indebted to them and to their families.”
For the families of many current service members, force drawdowns are seen as a relief. But for the families of fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, it can be a reminder that their loved ones won’t be coming home.
“I won’t lie, it hurts to watch them all come home when my husband cannot. However, I am very happy because other families do not have to go through what I am going through,” Kathleen Sherman told Military Times. “No one should have to risk their life, but these men and women do. They are so noble and honorable.”
Her husband, Sgt. Jeremy Cain Sherman, 23, was one of the five soldiers killed on a peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Desert when their UH-60 Black Hawk experienced a technical failure and crashed. Kathleen Sherman remembers her husband as a selfless and kind person who had joined the Army to make a career as part of something greater than himself.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dallas Gerald Garza, 34, was on board the same helicopter when it crashed on Nov. 12, 2020. His parents, both former paratroopers in the Army, said there was never any doubt that their son would join the Army, too. Garza’s two loves in life were the Army and flying. He left behind a fiancé and three children. After the peacekeeping mission to Egypt, he was to report to Fort Campbell, Kentucky to fly with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
“People who are not involved in the military like we are, rarely understand what it is like,” said mother Maria De Jesus Garza. “As service members, we understand in the back of our mind that there’s always that possibility, but at the same time, we feel invincible and say it’s not going to happen to us, we’re going to be okay.”
Among the resources made available to the Garzas and Kathleen Sherman after the accident was the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, the nation’s leading organization providing care and support to families of fallen service members.
“While there have been fewer combat losses overseas, we continue to see steep increases in military and veteran deaths at home due to suicide and illnesses as a result of exposures to toxins,” TAPS spokesperson Leigh Edmonds told Military Times. “More than 50 percent of newly bereaved survivors who connect with TAPS have lost a military loved one to suicide or illness loss.”
TAPS sees almost 23 new enrollees every day to its services like emotional support groups, casework assistance, and a 24/7 survivor hotline.
Also available to the families of those who die on active duty are Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance, a DoD death gratuity payment, eligibility for some military loans and scholarships, and Tricare For Life medical care—small compensation for what they’ve lost.
“It’s not just the service member that serves, it’s the whole family because the whole family makes sacrifices and, in some cases like us, we make the ultimate sacrifice,” said Maria De Jesus Garza.
Survivors of a fallen service member in need of support can reach TAPS 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 800-959-8277.
These are the 18 service members who died in overseas incidents since last Memorial Day. Take a moment to remember them and the sacrifice made by they and their loved ones:
- Army Spc. Nick Bravo-Regules; Jordan; June 23, 2020
- Army Spc. Vincent Ibarria; Farah, Afghanistan; July 3, 2020
- Army Pfc. Alexander Klass; Camp Novo Selo, Kosovo; July 4, 2020
- Army 1st Lt. Joseph Allbaugh; Kandahar Province, Afghanistan; July 12, 2020
- Army Sgt. Bryan Mount; Syria; July 21, 2020
- Marine Corps Sgt. Trevor Goldyn; Bahrain; Aug. 11, 2020
- Navy Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Ian McKnight; North Arabian Sea; Sept. 6, 2020
- Air Force Senior Airman Jason Phan; Ali Al Salem Airbase, Kuwait; Sept. 12, 2020
- Air Force Staff Sgt. Ronald Ouellette; Ali Al Salem Airbase, Kuwait; Sept. 14, 2020
- Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dallas Garza; Sinai Peninsula, Egypt; Nov. 12, 2020
- Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Marwan Ghabour; Sinai Peninsula, Egypt; Nov. 12, 2020
- Army Staff Sgt. Kyle McKee; Sinai Peninsula, Egypt; Nov. 12, 2020
- Army Sgt. Jeremy Sherman; Sinai Peninsula, Egypt; Nov. 12, 2020
- Army Capt. Seth Vandekamp; Sinai Peninsula, Egypt; Nov. 12, 2020
- Air Force Capt. Kelliann Leli; Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates; Nov. 27, 2020
- Army Staff Sgt. Anthony Bermudez; Camp Buehring, Kuwait; Jan. 11, 2021
- Army Staff Sgt. Timothy Manchester; Camp Arifjan, Kuwait; Jan. 20, 2021
- Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Pantos; Ali Al Salem Airbase, Kuwait; April 26, 2021
Harm Venhuizen is an editorial intern at Military Times. He is studying political science and philosophy at Calvin University, where he's also in the Army ROTC program.