Few Americans heard of Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon before they died, but now the astronauts aboard the ill-fated shuttle Columbia are lauded as heroes.
Also heroes are Mark O'Steen, Thomas Gibbons, Gregory Frampton and Daniel Kisling Jr. Like the shuttle crew, they perished in the cause of freedom. Yet virtually nobody knows who they are.
These four members of an elite aviation regiment called the Night Stalkers died Jan. 30 when their Army helicopter crashed in Afghanistan. No one seems to know why the chopper went down, since there was no sign of enemy fire. It may have simply cracked under the strain of the forbidding climate of Afghanistan, which is equally hard on men and machines.
The Afghanistan conflict has retreated in most memories. It is a war we've supposedly won, and the focus has shifted to another war we're soon likely to begin in Iraq. But Afghanistan is still a deadly place, with hundreds, if not thousands, of armed Taliban and al-Qaida fighters still lurking in the mountain shadows ready to leap out and kill.
It is the job of special forces units like the Night Stalkers to hunt them down, and it's difficult and dangerous duty. Those who serve know their efforts are largely anonymous. They operate out of pride -- in their country, their units and themselves -- and they're willing to risk their lives for it.
So, while we mourn the Columbia astronauts, it's also appropriate to consider for a moment the sacrifices heroic Americans are still making in a struggle that has been won but refuses to end.
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