Erin Vasselian left her job at Starbucks an hour early on Dec. 23, her mind swirling with thoughts of Christmas preparations and a husband stationed with the Marines half a world away in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan.
The day was gloomy, with cold rain falling in Abington. The 27-year-old glanced out the window for no special reason, she recalled, and there they were. Two Marines, their expressions grim, heading for the front door of her house.
“I knew,” she said.
Her high school sweetheart, Sergeant Daniel Vasselian, had been killed that day with a sniper’s shot to the chest while patrolling the dusty tinderbox that is Helmand Province.
Forty-seven men and women from Massachusetts, members of the military, have died in the Afghanistan conflict. Daniel Vasselian, a tough and confident squad leader, is the latest. He was killed 12 days after Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Rodriguez of Fairhaven, a 19-year-old combat engineer, also died in Helmand Province.
Only three US service members have died in the past year in the volatile southwest of Afghanistan. Two — Vasselian and Rodriguez — were from Massachusetts. The declining number of US deaths, military officials say, starkly demonstrates how the Afghan army and police, rather than American troops, are taking the fight to the Taliban.
But for two Massachusetts families, their loss is as final as the other 2,310 US military deaths that have occurred during the 12 years of America’s longest war. The timing of the casualties — two more flag-draped coffins at a time when the United States is moving toward withdrawal before 2015 — might embitter some families. But in the view of Karen Vasselian, Daniel’s mother, dying at the end of the war is no more tragic than at any other time.
Seated at the kitchen table near photos of her son, she offered this wish: “If my son could be the last one to die in the war, I would be happy, because no one else would lose their son.”
A vague, uneasy worry
Danny Vasselian was in his eighth year of service, a veteran of three deployments who had hoped to spend 2014, his final year in the Marines, continuing to work as a combat instructor in the United States.
He enjoyed being a teacher at the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va., a role that surprised him because he had long loathed public speaking. But Vasselian cared passionately about the Marines and about passing along his experience from Iraq and Afghanistan. Over time, he grew to embrace the job.
Unexpectedly, he was ordered to Afghanistan for a second time. But this time, Danny had misgivings, his family recalled. There was nothing he could put his finger on, they said, beyond a vague, uneasy sense of heightened danger.
“He felt different about this deployment. He mentioned it to all of us,” said Erin, who wears Danny’s dog tags and his wedding ring around her neck. “I think it was just a gut feeling.”
Once in Afghanistan, however, he never mentioned the peril that comes with the base-protection patrols that take Marines and soldiers outside the wire. “He called all the time, but there wasn’t one time I heard any fear from my son,” said Mark Vasselian, a 54-year-old contractor who is divorced and lives in Ashland, N.H.
“He always had it in his heart to be part of something,” Mark said. “Being from a small town, I think, Danny saw something bigger and wanted to do something more.”
The day before he died, Vasselian sat down for a video interview. “I love the Marine Corps,” he said in the video, which his family has watched repeatedly and considers his final gift to them. “It was the best thing I ever did.”
The video shows Vasselian on patrol, entering mud-wall villages with his rifle at the ready, interacting with ordinary Afghans, laughing with them, passing children in brightly colored clothes, petting a sheep, and scanning fingerprints to be stored in a vast, national database.
The experience showed him, he said in the video, that many Afghans are “trying to have a life just like my family and yours back home,” said Vasselian, who has no children.
He talked of trying to savor every day of his deployment, which he knew would be the last before he left the Marines, because “I’m not really going to get a chance to go back again.” He talked of the pride he took in the infantry, of “getting out there,” drinking chai tea with the villagers, and “getting a little taste of their culture.”
The next day, Vasselian lay dead. A sniper hit his armored vest with the first shot, but then found an unprotected spot in the upper chest with the second, the family said.
“I always knew that this was a possibility,” Erin said, “but I never, ever thought it would happen to him.”
Danny’s death transformed the holidays into a time of tears and grief, but also one of resiliency. Karen Vasselian, who had cried helplessly — “No! No! No!” — when she saw Marines at her door, became determined to serve a Christmas dinner even though Danny had died only two days before.
“You have to focus on something,” Karen said, “and I was focused on pie.”
A sense of loss remains
The homes where Danny Vasselian and Matt Rodriguez grew up are modest places near ordinary streets where small-town Massachusetts life has unfolded without fanfare for generations. They are places to raise a family and wave at the neighbors and build a lifetime of memories.
Now, a sense of loss cloaks nearly every conversation inside their walls. The proof of that loss, in working-class Abington and coastal Fairhaven, is always only a glance or an arm’s length away.
In Fairhaven, Rodriguez’s parents, Lisa and Rolando, stood side by side in the living room beside four trunks carrying their son’s belongings, shipped from Afghanistan after his death. Packed inside were dozens of items — some mundane, some painfully intimate — from a small piece of Velcro, to a love letter from his fiancee, to his sand-colored boots.
“That’s the stuff he had on him,” his father said.
A Marine Corps blanket covered the back of the couch, where Rolando, who prefers the nickname Rod, cradled Lisa’s shoulders. Names of famous Marine battles — Tarawa and Tinian from World War II, among them — were stitched into the sides of the blanket. Outside, a Marine Corps flag hung from the front of the house, just as one does at the Vasselian home.
“In this house, there’s only one branch of the service,” Lisa said.
Rod, who left Cuba as a 10-year-old shortly after the communist takeover, was wounded twice as a Marine in Vietnam. Blown out of a truck in the ferocious battle for Hue city in 1968, Rod was awarded the Silver Star and spent a year at the Chelsea Naval Hospital recovering from a knee injury.
Rod said he enlisted because he felt indebted to the United States, which had provided him with a new home. A generation later, Lisa said, Matt joined out of high school because he had been inspired by his father’s service.
“I tried to talk him out of it,” Rod said, recalling his own long recuperation in Chelsea.
Matt, one of four children, signed up for the Marine Corps through its delayed-entry program while still a 17-year-old senior at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School. Under the program, he did not have to report for duty until he graduated.
Matt was in a hurry, his family said, because his best friend, a year older, had just left for Marine Corps boot camp.
“I said, ‘How about the Air Force?’ ” Lisa recalled. “We were obviously very proud of him, but we were fearful.”
Those fears were hidden, however, as Matt prepared for his adventure. Shortly before his son boarded a plane for basic training, Rod offered three pieces of advice: “Take care of your buddies, do your job well, and don’t be a hero.”
Matt followed that advice, said his father, who separates questions of geopolitics from what it means to be a Marine. For him and Lisa, whatever happens in Afghanistan in the years ahead — long-term stability, or the unraveling of gains won in large part with American blood — is outside their control.
Still, Rod’s emotions can show flashes of anger.
“They’re cowards,” Rod said of the Taliban. “They hide behind women and kids, but that’s the terrorist manifesto. That’s how they fight.”
He also sees unsettling similarities to the Vietnam War.
“I understand why we had to get in there, and I agree with it,” Rod said. “But why are we still in Afghanistan? I’m not sure I understand that.”
Beyond the questions, however, is a sense of pride that coexists with deep grief since the news of their son’s death arrived Dec. 11. Lisa, an accountant, was working when she received a cellphone call from a Marine officer, who said he wanted to speak to Lisa and her husband, together, at home.
“I knew when I got a lot of ‘ma’ams’ that he was at least injured,” Rodriguez said.
The heartbreaking reality was that her son had been killed by an IED, a roadside bomb, while clearing the transportation lanes used by convoys. On the day of her son’s death, Lisa said, he had volunteered to be the lead driver.
“He was always a good driver, from the time he was a kid,” Lisa said. “He was driving a lot. The one thing he said he was concerned about was hitting an IED.”
The two deaths occurred at a time when American casualties are plummeting. In 2011, 58 US service members were killed in the allied coalition’s southwest command, which includes Helmand Province. In 2012, American deaths there fell to 36, military officials said. In 2013, three died, including Rodriguez and Vasselian.
In all of Afghanistan, 2,312 US service members have been killed during more than 12 years of war.
Now, as the United States plans for withdrawal, American troops are used almost exclusively to train and assist the Afghan army and police, according to Marine Lieutenant Colonel Clifford Gilmore, who recently served as spokesman for the southwest command.
Coalition bases in that sector have decreased from 46 in February 2013 to nine a year later, four of them American and five British, Gilmore said.
“The missions we perform remain dangerous, and even one life lost is felt throughout the command and is a deeply tragic thing for any family,” Gilmore said. “Yet, our casualty rates this year also reflect the degree to which the Afghan National Security Forces have taken the lead on security operations.”
Last year, more than 400 Afghan forces died while fighting in Helmand and the southwest, Gilmore said. Those casualties reflect a more prominent role in the battle, as well as a greater willingness to engage the insurgents, US military officials said.
American commanders said progress also is being made in areas such as education, women’s rights, and infrastructure. In the Vasselian and Rodriguez households, comfort is taken in the belief that the two Marines died trying to improve the lives of others.
“We’re there for a reason,” Lisa Rodriguez said. “I wish we hadn’t still been there, but we were and we are.”
Forty miles away in Abington, Mark Vasselian’s eyes welled with tears as he spoke of his 27-year-old son, one of four children. “I know that he died for America and for the American people,” Vasselian said.
Polls indicate that a majority of Americans support an end to US military involvement in Afghanistan. But opposition to continued war, unlike the Vietnam experience, has not deterred much of the public from acknowledging the continued sacrifice.
On Dec. 19, Rodriguez’s homecoming prompted a massive turnout. After a Marine detachment carried his coffin off a small chartered jet in New Bedford, a black hearse led a motorcade to Fairhaven, and then to a Mattapoisett funeral home, past thousands of people who stood, silent and motionless, on sidewalks and overpasses.
Many of those people did not know Rodriguez, but they ventured into the cold to the airport, or the streets of New Bedford, or the crowded grounds outside Fairhaven High School to pay their respects.
Less than two weeks later, on Jan. 2, more than 1,000 people traveled in a snowstorm to fill the wooden pews and choir loft at St. Bridget Catholic Church in Abington, where green and red holiday decorations still adorned the inside of the 19th-century wooden church.
Erin Vasselian, speaking from the altar, turned toward the coffin that held her husband of four years and friend of a lifetime. “I love you,” she said softly.
Weeks later, sitting at her mother-in-law’s kitchen table, she recalled that long, emotional funeral Mass.
“We had a blizzard on our wedding day, and it was the same kind of weather,” the new widow said with a slight, wistful smile. “That’s Danny for you.”