Last month, Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pinned Purple Hearts on four fellow Marines at a remote outpost in northern Iraq. They and four others were wounded in an attack by the Islamic State group that killed their buddy, Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin.
Less than a week later, Dunford was seated before the Senate Armed Services Committee, serving as a lightning rod for lawmakers' frustration with the White House's refusal to recognize that U.S. troops deployed to help in the fight against the ISIS were on a "combat" mission.
Dunford wouldn't answer for the White House, but he didn't mince words in expressing his view: Cardin "was killed in combat, senator," he told the Republican from Alaska, Dan Sullivan. So, too, was Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, a Special Forces soldier killed in Iraq last October as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter had his chairman's back, also telling lawmakers the U.S. troops were killed in combat.
"Why," Sullivan asked during the back and forth, "can't we level with the American people" and say that U.S. troops in harm's way in the Middle East are in combat?
Tragically, the danger facing American personnel in Iraq and Syria were made clear again on Tuesday, when Navy SEAL Charlie Keating was killed on a quick-reaction mission to aid U.S. military advisers under attack by large, coordinated ISIS force.
Carter has tried to defend the administration's position on troops deployed in the fight against ISIS, saying that although troops have been killed in combat, the mission was to train and equip local forces so they can repel the terrorist group without U.S. support.
That's a valid if extremely challenging strategy, one driven by numerous realities. Not the least of those is the American public's weariness with sending its men and women into combat after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which remain volatile despite great sacrifices of life and treasure.
But the administration is trying to have it both ways and appear to be keeping the U.S. out of war while steadily building up forces in the region, increasing the number of troops deployed to combat zones, dropping bombs on enemy forces and, when necessary, engaging them in direct action.
The U.S. now has 300 troops in Syria, where the fight against ISIS is intensifying. The Pentagon also is sending more troops to Iraq, boosting the total number there to more than 4,000. The Pentagon has even created an Operation Inherent Resolve campaign medal for troops who have deployed as part of the mission to crush ISIS.
Where those fights are being waged, American forces are targets from the moment they arrive. That they are tasked to train local forces to defeat ISIS and other enemies makes U.S. forces all the more vulnerable.
Calling it a training mission is cold comfort to the parents, spouses and children of the deployed troops. They know what happened to Keating, Cardin and Wheeler. They've seen the reports on how ISIS militants treat those captured. They know hostilities are growing and sense, rightly or wrongly, that a greater showdown may be in the offing and that U.S. forces very well may be in the middle of it.
The more the White House insists these troops are not part of a combat mission, the more distrust it breeds in the ranks and among the public. It's viewed as the sort of condescending semantics Washington plays to deny the obvious. That can serve only to erode support for the mission.
Staff Sgt. Cardin's unit, Task Force Spartan of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit — about 100 to 200 troops — is staying behind in Iraq as the rest of their expeditionary unit, about 2,000 others, has returned home.
Task Force Spartan could be at its firebase outside Mosul for as long as four more months. It's entirely possible that ISIS fighters will again infiltrate the area in an attempt to kill or injure more Marines, and once again have to be fought off.
When U.S. and allied troops are on Islamic State turf with the mission of wiping it from existence, they are on a combat mission.
Calling it anything else is wrong.