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Gold Star families say their loved ones made a difference, big and small, in Afghanistan

The Department of Defense says 150 troops from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware have died in Afghanistan.

Bart and Connie Howard, whose son, Lance Cpl. Abram Howard, was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2010, in their Montoursville, Pa., home.
Bart and Connie Howard, whose son, Lance Cpl. Abram Howard, was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2010, in their Montoursville, Pa., home.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

LOYALSOCK TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Some days when Bart Howard gets home from work, he heads down to his basement bar to pour a drink, strum his guitar, and talk to fellow Marines. The Corps was a calling to the Howards, the way mining or farming was to other Pennsylvania families.

There’s his late father, Sgt. Harold L. Howard, who served in Korea; his uncle, Sgt. Samuel K. Howard, who was killed in action in the Battle of Okinawa; and his brother, Gunnery Sgt. Tom L. Howard, who died in 2013. So when the government vehicle rolled up to his home on that summer afternoon 11 years ago, and crisply dressed Marines walked up to the door, Cpl. Bart Howard knew why they’d come and for a while, at least, wouldn’t let them speak the words regret or condolences, as if he could somehow will the bad news away.

Lance Cpl. Abram LaRue Howard, 21, died from shrapnel wounds while conducting combat operations in Afghanistan’s Helmand province on July 27, 2010, and down in that bar, part sanctuary and part shrine, a father sometimes speaks to his firstborn son.

“There was some real darkness I had to go through,” Howard said Wednesday afternoon.

There’s a television down there, on the wall beside the tributes to Abram and the Marine Corps, but it’s usually tuned to music, not CNN, or Fox News, or any of the other news stations where hundreds of talking heads are currently discussing the what-ifs and should-haves of how America seemingly ended its longest war and who, if anyone, is to blame. Instead, Bart — always a Marine — chooses stoicism and duty, and his wife, Connie, holds fast to faith and a project they’ve helped spearhead to build a local memorial for Gold Star families, a distinction made for family members of troops who died in conflict. Abram Howard, a military policeman, was one of nearly 100 service members from Pennsylvania to die in Afghanistan.

The Howards said they were inspired to build a Lycoming County memorial after attending an unveiling of a similar Gold Star monument in Lovettsville, Va., on Sept. 11, 2020.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia-area Afghans wait with anxiety and hope for their loved ones’ safety: ‘This didn’t have to happen this way’

“When you go to an event like that you show up as strangers, but you leave as family,” Connie Howard said. “It gives some closure for the families. It was beautiful.”

Melinda Kane, a Cherry Hill resident and Camden County commissioner, lost her son, Lance Cpl. Jeremy M. Kane, on Jan. 23, 2010, also near Helmand province. She said news of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and swift Taliban takeover has prompted timeless questions to resurface, with some people wondering whether the troops, including her son, died for nothing.

Kane said she often doesn’t respond when people say that. Sometimes she has to.

“Usually, I’ll just say my son joined the Marines after the events of 9/11. His personal mission was hard to even put into words. He saved lives over there,” she said this week.

Kane clings to the belief that somewhere in Afghanistan, the families’ sons and daughters made some small difference, even for a moment.

“Most of the phone calls we had were about the Afghan people and things they needed,” Kane said. “We talked about what they needed that I could send in care packages, things like Beanie Babies and pencils or candy. He called to tell what people needed, what could boost morale. I hold on to that.”

» READ MORE: President Biden, get our Afghan allies on evacuation planes | Trudy Rubin

Bart Howard said Abe asked for baseball equipment, to show the Afghan children how to play.

Shannon Slutman, whose husband, Marine Staff Sgt. Christopher K.A. Slutman, was killed in Afghanistan in 2019, said his life “was not lost in vain.” His parents live in York County.

“As I try to wrap my brain around all of this and to figure out what to tell my girls when they are older ... George Bush’s quote seems to resonate the most: ‘You kept America safe from further terror attacks, provided two decades of security and opportunity for millions and made America proud.’ God Bless our Troops,” Slutman, a Delaware resident, said in a social media post she allowed The Inquirer to share.

Charles Strange, of Hatboro, had flown other Gold Star family members into the Philadelphia area for an event last weekend as news of Afghanistan’s fall was ramping up. His son, Navy Petty Officer First Class Michael J. Strange, was killed alongside 29 other U.S. military personnel and eight Afghan security forces when Taliban fighters shot down their helicopter in a valley southwest of Kabul on Aug. 6, 2011.

Strange spent years trying to get clearer details about his son’s death. On Monday, he said President Joe Biden needed to “pull up the straps” and come up with a better exit plan. He feels some relief that service members helped give Afghanistan citizens, particularly women, some peace from the Taliban but also feels the U.S. military should have left years ago.

“We got Osama bin Laden,” he said. “We should have gotten out of there after that.”

Jo Ann Maitland, president of American Gold Star Mothers Inc., said many families, and veterans, would be triggered by the recent events and discussion of Afghanistan.

“How could you ever be OK with the thought that your child died in vain?” Maitland said. “That’s what I’m trying to protect my moms from.”

» READ MORE: After years in Afghanistan, N.J. physician brothers fear for their patients and colleagues

One Gold Star mother, when reached by The Inquirer, said “How do you think we feel?” before hanging up. Another feared for future families.

“Is it going to continue? Are we going to have, God forbid, more Gold Star families coming out of this,” said Betty Zimmerman, president of American Gold Star Mothers’ Berks County chapter.

Rosalind Williams’ son, Army Pvt. Corey Michael Hadley, died by suicide in 2020 after suffering from depression and PTSD upon returning to Philadelphia after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. She said her son never talked about his three tours.

“There’s nothing good about war,” she said. “I don’t think how America chooses how and when we go into war, but the people who do that, who say yes, should have to send their children first.”

Abe Howard, a star wrestler at Williamsport High School, had aspirations for a law enforcement career. He was expected to return to Pennsylvania with his unit in September 2020 but had told his mother he was going to enlist full time when he got back from Afghanistan and focus on explosive ordinance disposal (EOD). It’s one of the more dangerous occupations in the military.

“I said, ‘Well, nothing like jumping out of the pot and into the fire,’” she said.

» READ MORE: Philly’s Vietnam success story shows why Pa. must lead today in welcoming Afghan refugees | Will Bunch

Connie Howard says many of Abe’s unit members call every year on July 27, both for her and their own peace of mind. They have camped with the Howards too.

“I often just tell them funny stories about Abe from his childhood,” she said. “I don’t want these guys to should-have, could-have for the rest of their lives. "

They’ve been down to the bar.

“This one here, Abe died in his arms,” Bart Howard said, pointing to a photo of Marines in Afghanistan that hangs beside the bar.

But sometimes Bart will be out, at a memorial event or even a store, and notice a certain look, or what he calls a “thousand-yard stare” and reach out.

“Semper Fi?” he’ll ask those people.

Often, those Marines find their way down to the bar too. One of them, Staff Sgt. Chad Thornton, showed up Wednesday afternoon and cracked a bottle of beer with Bart Howard. Thornton spent 20 years in the Marine Corps, with two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. He’s been on four death notification details.

Some parents crumbled, he said. Others got angry, even violent.

“I’m fine with both,” Thornton, 44, said. “I’m giving them the worst news of their life.”

One summer afternoon in 2010, Thornton knocked on the Howards’ door for the first time, and stood face-to-face with a fellow Marine. Now he doesn’t have to knock.