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Three service members killed by roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan are identified

An American flag hangs at half mast. (Wikimedia)

Described as a daredevil who was driven to succeed in the Air Force and the toughest person his family knew, Staff Sgt. Dylan Elchin was planning to marry his fiancée when he returned home from Afghanistan in January.

“They had their whole life ahead of them,” Dawna Duez, Elchin’s mother, said Tuesday, fighting back tears in a phone interview from her home in Pennsylvania.

Her son, a 25-year-old combat controller assigned to the 26th Special Tactics Squadron at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., was one of three American service members killed Tuesday in a roadside bomb blast that struck a convoy of U.S. and Afghan forces en route to battle Taliban fighters in southeastern Afghanistan.

Army Capt. Andrew Patrick Ross, 29, of Lexington, Va., and Army Sgt. 1st Class Eric Michael Emond, 39, of Brush Prairie, Wash., were the other service members who died in the attack in Ghazni province, about 100 miles from Kabul. Ross and Emond were assigned to 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, N.C.

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Three more troops and a contractor were wounded in the attack, which was the deadliest this year for Americans. The wounded were evacuated and were being treated, officials said.

Ross had served more than seven years in the Army and was on his second tour, said Lt. Col. Loren Bymer, a spokesman for Army Special Operations Command spokesman. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal and the Combat Infantry Badge.

Emond, a Boston native and 21-year veteran of the Army and Marine Corps, was on his seventh overseas tour when he died. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart and Meritorious Service Medal.

Both soldiers were invaluable leaders, Col. Nathan Prussian, 3rd Group commander, said in a prepared statement. Ross is survived by his wife and parents. Emond leaves behind a wife and three children.

Elchin, who was on his first deployment, was the first airman killed in the country this year. His awards and decorations include a Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal with Valor, Air Force Commendation Medal and Air Force Combat Action Medal.

“He’s the whole family’s hero,” said his brother, Aaron. “He was the strongest man I’ve ever known, not just physically, but mentally. And the part that hurts me the most is that I’ll never know what he could have become.”

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The Taliban quickly claimed credit for the deadly attack, saying it was targeted at the foreign invaders. The group has waged a 17-year insurgency against the Kabul government and its foreign backers, but U.S. officials contend they are working on peace talks aimed at ending America’s longest war.

Despite a short-lived overlap of holiday cease-fires this summer that for the first time saw both sides of the conflict lay down their weapons, the Taliban have continued to mount stunning attacks. Afghan forces are battling the militants in most of the country’s provinces, but their offensives in Ghazni have provoked recent demonstrations in the Afghan capital.

The group swept into Ghazni’s provincial capital, leading to days of fighting in August, as U.S. and Afghan forces scrambled to defend the city. Last month, violence forced officials to delay elections in the province, and advances on outlying districts earlier this month forced thousands of civilians to flee.

Last week, the top U.S. general in the country visited the provincial capital to discuss the security there. The provincial governor told local media that he and the general had discussed launching a large-scale offensive to oust the militants from the area.

In photos from Gen. Scott Miller’s visit, he was shown carrying an M4 rifle, a visible sign of the instability there. As Kabul and its international backers seek to convince the Taliban to stop fighting, they will go wherever they are needed to support Afghan security forces, Army Maj. Bariki Mallya, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, wrote Saturday in an email.

“In some of these areas, it is appropriate to carry a long gun,” he wrote. “Like all our forces, Gen. Miller will carry what is appropriate for the environment.”

Most of the 15,000 American troops in the country rarely go into combat or serve on the front lines of the war because most combat troops were withdrawn in 2014, when the main American mission shifted to a training-and-advising role. However, special operations troops are among the few who regularly accompany their Afghan counterparts into battle. This week has been an especially bloody one for the elite troops, with four special operations members killed in as many days.

The deaths on Tuesday came just days after Sgt. Leandro Jasso, a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment, was shot accidentally while battling to clear al-Qaida fighters from barricaded positions during an assault in the southern province of Nimruz.

While fewer Americans are dying in the war these days, members of the relatively small and tight-knit special operations community — and especially Army Rangers and Green Berets — disproportionately number among the American deaths in recent years.

More than half of the 13 Americans who died in Afghanistan this year — 12 in combat — have been special operations troops. In 2017, Rangers and Green Berets accounted for five of 11 U.S. combat fatalities and special operations soldiers constituted half of the four noncombat deaths.

The Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which supports the families of special-ops troops and other troops within Special Operations Command, estimates elite troops and their support personnel make up about 5 percent of the military but half of the casualties.

Last year, they began supporting 90 children of fallen troops, the most since their founding in 1980, said Aly Olson, the organization’s business relations manager.

As a combat controller, Dylan Elchin was among the Air Force’s most elite special operations troops, trained for two years to qualify in air traffic control, parachuting, diving and rappelling, so he could hold his own while attached to Special Forces teams to direct guided munitions, strafing fires and other air-to-ground weaponry. Less than 25 percent of airmen who take the rigorous training complete it.

Elchin had wanted to join the Air Force from a young age and enlisted as a special tactics combat controller on Aug. 7, 2012, shortly after graduating from Hopewell High School in Pennsylvania. While he faced setbacks during his training, he pushed his way through, his brother recalled.

“When he did his first parachute jump, he broke his foot,” Aaron Elchin said. “He rehabilitated himself, went back, redid the course and continued and finished it. He was determined he was going to do it.”

But Elchin’s mother said she didn’t want him to deploy to Afghanistan, she said.

“I was so afraid, but he said, ‘Mom, I’ll be OK, I’ll be fine, I’ll be back in January,’” she recalled. “We were getting so close to him coming back.”

Elchin’s death marks the first in combat for an airman in Afghanistan since 2015. Seven airmen died from enemy actions that year, including two special tactics airmen who were killed in an insider attack in Helmand province, and eight died in aircraft crashes.

Last week, Elchin’s mother reached out to let him know how much she admired him.

“I just sent him a text sometime last week and I told him, ‘You’re just awesome,’” she recalled. “He just amazed me. He’s my hero. My son is my hero.”

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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