JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: An Army post in Colorado copes with casualties, first from the Iraq war, and now from Afghanistan. “NewsHour” correspondent Tom Bearden reports.
TOM BEARDEN: Earlier this week, soldiers at Fort Carson, Colorado, gathered for what has become an all-too-frequent ceremony, remembering those who have been killed during combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
MAJ. DANIEL CHANDLER, U.S. Army: Today, we honored six brave soldiers who were fighting in Afghanistan. All of these soldiers joined the military after the attacks on 9/11. They joined because they wanted to serve their country.
MAN: Aim. Fire.
TOM BEARDEN: The wars have inflicted a particularly heavy toll on units stationed at Fort Carson. Since the fighting began in 2002, 279 soldiers from the Mountain Post have been killed. Most have been in Iraq.
But more and more troops from here are being redirected to Afghanistan, and the death toll from that conflict is beginning to mount.
First Lieutenant Tyler Parten, a West Point graduate from Greensboro, Arkansas, was killed on September 10, when insurgents attacked his unit with grenades and small-arms fire.
His mother said she knew from the beginning of his deployment that she might have to face this day.
LONA PARTEN, mother of fallen soldier: He told me of his assignment and what he was going to be doing. He was going to be in the front, fast reaction. He was a scout. And I remember looking at him, going: “Son, you’re a 1st lieutenant. You know, you don’t have to go — you don’t have to — you know, don’t go first.”
And he said, “Mom, they’re not going to follow me if I don’t go first.”
And I knew then — I knew then there was a chance he wasn’t going to come back, because Tyler was the kind that would always step in front of anything and charge like a bull in anything that he believed in.
TOM BEARDEN: Fort Carson and the nearby civilian communities suffered an unusually large loss earlier this month, when eight soldiers were killed in a single firefight at a remote outpost in the Nuristan Province.
Colorado Springs Gazette reporter Tom Roeder.
TOM ROEDER, Colorado Springs Gazette: And that was a real body blow to this city. You talked to people on the streets, everybody wanted to know how they could help these families. You know, talking to anybody around town, and you run into this emotion of — just this sense of loss was huge.
I don’t think people were prepared for — for this kind of duration or the sacrifice that this town has had to give. And you watch these families who are deploying for the third or fourth time, the spouse, and it’s really taken a punishing toll.
TOM BEARDEN: But commanders at Fort Carson say the casualties haven’t affected morale.
Major David Meyer.
MAJ. DAVID MEYER, U.S. Army: One of the things that comes with the experience of, you know, six years in Iraq and eight years in Afghanistan, is, we all — we have all lost somebody. Everyone has lost a friend.
So, it doesn’t make it easier. You certainly empathize with the families. But it gives you focus. It reminds you that what we’re doing every day is not for play. It is deadly serious. So, we mourn the loss of those soldiers and — and we grieve for their families. But, in a lot of ways, it helps focus what we’re doing, because we’re reminded that the stakes are so high.
Stakes getting higher
TOM BEARDEN: And the stakes may be getting higher. Just last week, the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division here learned it will be sending 3,500 soldiers to Afghanistan next summer. The mechanized brigade will have a brand-new mission, one that could be more dangerous.
MAJ. DAVID MEYER: First Brigade is a heavy brigade. It means we primarily operate off tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
For our upcoming mission in Afghanistan, we're really going to leave all that behind. Really, the focus of our mission is going to be to assist the Afghan forces. So, we're really going to be dismounted. You know, if they walk, we're going to walk, which is a pretty big change for a brigade that is used to being mounted on, you know, multi-ton armored vehicles.
TOM BEARDEN: As the soldiers begin training for their new assignment, their spouses are also being trained to help each other in times of need.
JILL NUGIN, Fort Carson family advocacy coordinator: When you're filling out your forms for Valerie, I want you to think real globally about what you're good at, what are those things that you can handle and not handle.
TOM BEARDEN: Jill Nugin is the family advocacy coordinator at Fort Carson. She is in charge of organizing spouses who volunteer to assist families who lose a loved one.
JILL NUGIN: We train folks to be part of care teams that help families when there's a crisis, that can go in and just do all those kinds of things that you don't think about when you're trying to deal with some grief. And we do support for families. There's emergency child care, lots of folks on call if people need to talk about things. So, we just try to be as prepared as we can for when these kind of things happen.
TOM BEARDEN: Lona Parten said, one of the things that has comforted her in her time of grief is rereading e-mails from her son, especially his encounters with Afghan children.
LONA PARTEN: He said, "I don't want the children to be afraid of American soldiers." And it was his mission -- he would take out a harmonica, and he would play for the children. A guy like that, a guy like Tyler, you do not expect him to go down in battle. But he did.
TOM BEARDEN: A memorial service for the eight soldiers killed in the Afghan firefight is expected in a few weeks.