Tyler Oxendine for Reader's Digest
While his men patrolled the farmland of southern Afghanistan, Sgt. First Class Carlos Santos-Silva came home to his wife, Kristen Santos-Silva, who had bought a new blue sundress embroidered with pink flowers to greet him at the airport. They’d planned to celebrate their 12th wedding anniversary in Washington, DC, during his two weeks of leave from the war zone. They would tour the capital and visit some of Carlos’s men as they recovered from injuries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Instead, Kristen wore her new dress to Dover Air Force Base and watched six soldiers carry Carlos off a plane in an aluminum box draped in the American flag.
“We’re here together,” she said the night before the funeral—and their anniversary: April 11. “This just isn’t how I thought it would be.”
Outside the funeral home in Arlington, Virginia, she gathered with friends and family and handed out balloons, 12 blue and 12 white, for each of their 12 years together. At the signal, the others released theirs on cue, but Kristen wouldn’t let go. She gazed skyward, and her lips trembled. After a long moment, she opened her hand and watched the balloons rise. “I love you, Carlos, forever and ever and ever,” she said, then covered her face with her hands and shook with sobs. Cameron, their 11-year-old son, stood next to her and pressed his face to her hip. This mom who died in Afghanistan’s final gift to her daughter will melt your heart.
The next day, under a cloudless sky, she buried Carlos, 32, in Arlington National Cemetery. A horse-drawn caisson carried his casket down a road lined with tall shade trees to Section 60, where the headstones chart the histories of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Sgt. First Class Raul Davila stepped to the casket. He and I had known Carlos for years, having both served two deployments with him in Iraq. Carlos had gone on to become a drill sergeant, training new soldiers, and then a platoon sergeant with the 82nd Airborne Division, leading 40 men in the Arghandab River Valley, a violent swath of southern Afghanistan. “I will forever be honored to call him my friend,” Sergeant Davila said, his voice steady and solemn. “Rest easy, Brother.”
Gunshots cracked the warm morning air, a bugler played taps, and in crisp movements practiced countless times, the burial detail pulled the flag tight and folded it into a neat triangle of stars on a field of blue. A general knelt beside Kristen and handed her the flag. I looked at the crowd, at those who had known Carlos at so many points during his life.
But what about those who weren’t there, those who’d known him best over the past seven months, those with him the day his truck had rolled over a massive bomb buried in a dirt road snaking through farmers’ fields? Carlos’s men were still working in a lush, dangerous corridor of orchards and grape furrows outside Kandahar. As has happened thousands of times during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, when soldiers are killed and their bodies sent home, their friends stay behind, to mourn and remember—and fight. I wanted to meet those men.
Flying into Afghanistan, I peered out the window at the vast stretches of brown interrupted by jagged mountains, scored by rivers, and dotted with villages. I would be staying with Carlos’s platoon at Combat Outpost Tynes along the edge of the Arghandab River Valley, northwest of Kandahar. The post was named for another lost soldier, Pfc. Marcus Tynes, who was killed November 22, 2009. To get there, I rode in the last truck of a five-vehicle convoy. Looking through the windshield from the back seat, I watched a giant fountain of dirt shoot into the air 200 yards ahead. The concussion rattled my chest. “IED! IED! IED!” crackled over the radio, the same call made when Carlos’s truck was hit. An improvised explosive device planted in the same spot near the bridge had just exploded. But this time, the insurgents were too hasty. The bomb went off too early, and the target truck rolled on, its crew uninjured.
At Combat Outpost Tynes, a former school, Carlos’s legacy was immediately apparent. When the platoon had moved into the compound, in December 2009, soldiers slept in the few small classrooms or outside, until Carlos coordinated a construction project. The platoon then extended the structure and built small rooms for each soldier.
During the slow, hard work of building up the rooms and the outpost’s outer defenses, Carlos had been beside his men, filling sandbags and lugging materials. “He was always hands-on with us,” S.Sgt. Edward Rosa, the platoon’s senior squad leader, told me. “He was always out there with us working. He did everything with us. He was about the guys.”
He organized movie nights with a wide-screen television powered by a gun truck’s battery. At Christmas, after Kristen and the platoon’s family support group sent stockings from Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Carlos played Santa at the outpost. He made each man sit on his lap before he’d give him a stocking.
Carlos was born in Germany to an Army family and bounced around bases as he grew up. He enlisted in 1996 and trained as a mechanic in an aviation unit at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he met Kristen, who was also in the Army. But he soon switched to the infantry, where he excelled.
I served with him at Fort Drum, New York, for three years, and he impressed me as the most knowledgeable but laid-back soldier I knew. He could answer any question on tactics, weapon systems, or Army regulations, but he was also quick with wisecracks and constantly concerned about his men. We bet you didn’t know that these common words and phrases originated in the military.
The soldiers at Combat Outpost Tynes told me the same. He played video games with them, gave professional guidance, and counseled them on problems at home. And he often made jokes when his men faced danger, to put them at ease and remind them that good could be found even during dark and fearful times.
“I heard stories about how tight people get when they deploy, but I never knew it could be like this,” said Spc. Clayton “Doc” Taylor, the platoon’s medic. “I called him Dad.”
So did many of his men. Sgt. Adam Lachance had never had a male friend like Carlos. They had planned a couple of trips to Las Vegas, and Carlos and Kristen had visited Lachance and his wife in New Hampshire. Lachance had even turned down a promotion to staff sergeant in February because it would have meant switching platoons and leaving Carlos.
Each platoon is led by an officer, a first or second lieutenant. The platoon sergeant serves as his or her go-to person in administration and logistics. That means Carlos could have stayed behind at the outpost while his men patrolled. But he was always with them, as he was on the morning of March 22, in the front passenger seat of a hulking mine-resistant truck, driving down a dirt road alongside a vineyard, just about to cross that small bridge.
Three miles away, S.Sgt. Edwardo Loredo heard the call crackle over the radio as he led a foot patrol through the farmland south of the outpost.
“Our guys just hit an IED,” he said. Sound takes about 15 seconds to travel that far, so another moment passed before they heard the blast. Even at that distance, it rumbled through their chests. The bomb had been huge. The radio crackled again: “Four responsive. One unresponsive.”
Loredo’s patrol ran toward the sound of the explosion. They arrived just as the medevac helicopter lifted off in a wave of dust that blocked out the sun. A tan armored truck lay on its side, the bottom scorched and the rear tires blown away, next to a deep crater in the dirt road.
Sgt. Dale Knollinger, still out of breath, approached Sgt. Gregory Maher, who had been in the four-vehicle patrol.
“He’s gone,” Maher said.
“Who’s gone?” Knollinger asked.
Knollinger stood in the road and cried. For a week afterward, Combat Outpost Tynes was quiet. “There was just silence for a while,” Knollinger said. “There wasn’t joking around like there was before.” Soldiers talked to one another in quiet voices or kept to themselves. Carlos’s men felt adrift without him.
“They lost their rudder,” Capt. Jimmy Razuri, the commander with Carlos’s company, said at the time. Lachance had planned to bring Carlos a McDonald’s double cheeseburger from Kuwait on the way back from his two weeks of leave. Instead, while he sat in the Atlanta airport, his wife called with the news.
On his first patrol after his friend’s death, Lachance reached into a pouch on his body armor and pulled out a handful of Jolly Rancher candy, the small pile speckled with green apple candies. His breath caught. He always carried Jolly Ranchers on patrol, and Carlos took all the green ones, every time. Lachance stuffed the green candies back in the pouch. “I wouldn’t touch them,” he told me.
Several weeks before, Lachance, a self-trained tattoo artist, had given Carlos a tattoo. The words snaked around his right arm: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Beneath them, a date: 22 November, 2009, when Private First Class Tynes and another soldier in Carlos’s company, Sgt. James Nolen, had died.
After Carlos’s death, ten platoon members asked Lachance for a similar tattoo. One now wears the quote on his thigh, another on his biceps, another on his ribs, all followed by 22 March, 2010, and C. M. S., Carlos’s initials. These are the nicest things people have ever done to say thank you to veterans.
On September 11, 2010, I grilled chicken wings with Doc Taylor under a gray sky at a park on Fort Bragg. Country music blared from the open doors of his white Chevy pickup truck. Taylor’s wife inflated a plastic palm tree as Kristen Santos-Silva opened a box of plastic Hawaiian leis. She and Carlos had planned to throw a luau for the guys after the deployment. She figured he would have wanted her to follow through.
The pavilion filled up, and Captain Razuri stood in front of the memorial table stacked with photos of six men in the platoon who had died that year, starting with Carlos. “Nine years ago today, you know what happened,” he told the group. “It’s why we’re still doing what we’re doing today and why these guys behind me aren’t with us.”
Later, Kristen sat with a half-dozen soldiers and looked through pictures from the deployment, many of which she hadn’t seen before. Carlos walking through villages, filling sandbags at Combat Outpost Tynes, drinking tea with the Afghan police, handing out stockings for Christmas.
Kristen laughed and reached toward the laptop computer screen, as though to touch him. And then the pictures changed, from shots of a grinning Carlos to soldiers standing on a dirt road next to a truck flipped on its side, scorched by flame, two wheels blown off.
The laughter stopped, and Dale Knollinger and Edward Rosa traded nervous glances with the other soldiers. “I need to see this,” Kristen told them. She leaned closer to the screen and stared at the pictures. “Is that the truck? I need to see where it happened. I need this.”
Kristen and the soldiers told stories about Carlos, and one by one his men sat for a few moments and wrote on the big framed picture she had brought. By day’s end, the border around the photo was crowded with messages to their fallen leader.
“I want you to know you changed my life and I love you for that. The world will never be the same without you. But I will be the man I told you I would. I love you, Dad. Till we meet again.” –Doc Taylor
“Dad, I can’t even describe what it was like to work for you. I learned so much and matured because of you. You were awesome to work for and truly a great friend. I love you and think about you every day. Miss you.” –Sgt. Dale Knollinger
“You were the quiet professional. Thank you so much for your guidance. You have no idea how much you are missed. Goodbye, Brother.” –Sgt. Brian Flannery
“I’ve never been closer to another man. You were a great friend. Until we meet again, you will be thought of every day.” –Sgt. Adam Lachance
That night, after Kristen had packed up the leftovers and pulled down the decorations, she and Cameron returned to their small brick house on Fort Bragg, crowded with pictures of her husband. Cameron retreated to his bedroom to play video games, as he had often done with his father and now did alone. Beside him on the bed lay the framed picture, adorned with the memories of the men his father left behind.
Where They Are Now
Carlos’s legacy lives on with his platoon mates, his wife, and his son. The group tries to meet at least once a year to catch up and reminisce about Carlos with a round of White Russians, his favorite drink, and a toast: “For Carlos!” A year ago, Knollinger attended Cameron’s high school graduation. The 19-year-old also completed the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps program, with the highest rank. He plans to become a hospital corpsman with the U.S. Navy in the future. “It’s awesome that my dad made such an impact on his friends that they keep supporting me,” he says.