A Small Pennsylvania Town Lost A Son In Combat. We Saw How They Remembered Him Firsthand

Will Racke | Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter

BEAVER COUNTY, Pa. — Air Force Staff Sgt. Dylan J. Elchin, the special tactics airman who was killed along with three other U.S. troops in Afghanistan late last month, reflected the place he was raised as much as a person could.

He hailed from Beaver County, Pennsylvania, a region of tough, practical people about 10 miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh. It bears the scars of industrial decline, but it’s still a place where people work with their hands to make things like metal, glass, chemicals and energy — the unheralded but essential.

In Beaver County, patriotism isn’t just a cynical affectation for political gain, and respect for military service is more than a fleeting display at a professional football game. Here, these things are woven into the fabric of civic life.

It’s evident in the prevalence of American flags displayed over front yards and porches. They’re often flown in tandem with a black and white POW-MIA flag, a testament to the region’s deep ties to the military.

In this county of about 170,000 people, many of the towns tucked between rocky hillsides or stretched along the banks of the Ohio River — places like Midland, Beaver Falls and Hookstown — have an American Legion post or VFW hall. Some have one of each.

These clubs anchor social life in the smaller towns, hosting dinners and parties for both veterans and the wider public.

An American flag flies at half staff in the yard of a house in Hookstown, Pennsylvania on Dec. 5, 2018. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all United States and Commonwealth flags to fly at half-staff at the Capitol Complex and at all Commonwealth facilities in honor of Air Force Staff Sgt. Dylan Elchin. (Will Racke/TheDCNF)

An American flag flies at half staff in the yard of a house in Hookstown, Pennsylvania on Dec. 5, 2018. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all United States and Commonwealth flags to fly at half-staff at the Capitol Complex and at all Commonwealth facilities in honor of Air Force Staff Sgt. Dylan Elchin. (Will Racke/TheDCNF)

This is where, as a student at Hopewell Area High School, Elchin decided he would join the Air Force to become a combat controller, one of the most demanding jobs in special operations. It’s where he returned on Dec. 6 — in spirit if not in body — to be celebrated at a memorial service attended by more than 500 family, friends and fellow airmen.

And it’s where friends and strangers alike offered an “outpouring of love” in the dark days after the Air Force delivered the worst news a military family can hear, Elchin’s grandfather Ron Bogolea recalled.

“Until you’re in a situation like this, you’ll never understand how important the simple statement ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ is,” he said. “It says it all.”

In his eulogy on behalf of the family, Bogolea remembered the passion for military service that was apparent in his grandson even as a boy.

“It’s a spark that most of us don’t have,” he said. “When he was 15 or so, he started reading books about special operations in Vietnam, the Gulf War and other incursions. The spark that was ignited in his youth, was fanned into a flame by the Air Force training and the super-close brotherhood of men he was serving with.”

The flame burned until Nov. 27, when a remote-detonated Taliban bomb exploded next to Elchin’s armored vehicle as it was traveling in a convoy through Afghanistan’s Ghazni province. Elchin, who was on his first deployment after completing the grueling, two-year training pipeline to earn the scarlet beret of an Air Force combat controller, was killed instantly. He was 25 years old.

Also killed that day were Army Capt. Andrew P. Ross and Sgt. 1st Class Eric M. Emond, both Green Berets with the 3rd Special Forces Group. Five days later, Army Sgt. Jason M. McClary of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division died at a military hospital in Germany from wounds sustained in the same blast.

It was the deadliest combat incident for American troops in Afghanistan since 2015.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Dylan J. Elchin (Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

Air Force Staff Sgt. Dylan J. Elchin (Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

Four combat deaths in a single attack were enough to revive, at least for a few days, the debate over America’s ongoing war in Afghanistan. Well into its 17th year, the war is widely seen as a stalemate with no prospect of military victory, even among senior military brass.

Successive administrations have searched in vain for a strategy that will finally tip the war in favor of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. But the question of whether an outcome resembling victory in Afghanistan is even possible has never been answered, and America’s national security leadership doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to try.

Last week, the military news website Task & Purpose published an audio recording of Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, telling Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that his best option is probably to “muddle along” with a small number of troops. It was a revealing bit of advice that perfectly captured Washington’s approach to Afghanistan  — do more of the same until it’s time for someone else to take over.

Under President Donald Trump, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has risen to about 15,000 from the 10,000 that were there at the end of the Obama administration. About half are trainers and logistics troops, but there are hundreds of special operators like Elchin embedded with Afghan combat patrols at the front lines of the fight against the Taliban.

Thus far, neither additional troops nor increased airstrikes has put Washington closer to the goal of standing up an Afghan security force that can defeat the Taliban without American assistance. Afghan army and police units sustained terrible casualties this year, particularly during the summer fighting season that saw an average of 30 to 40 security forces killed every day. It was also a deadly year for Afghan civilians, with about 2,800 noncombatants killed in the fighting through the first nine months of the year, the second-highest total of the war.

Grim as it is, the status quo in Afghanistan was not of much concern in Beaver County in the days after Elchin’s death. The more urgent question was how to help Elchin’s family cope with personal tragedy made public by his being one of 13 American service members killed in Afghanistan this year.

At American Legion Post 952 in Hookstown, where a sign above the bar warns patrons to refrain from discussing politics or religion, talk turned to how the local veteran community was responding to the tragedy. Blaine Hess, the president of Post 952’s Legion Riders, said veterans’ organizations would make a strong showing in honor of the fallen airman.

“We’ve done this too many times,” Hess said, referring to funeral escorts, gun salutes, and emergency pallbearer duties the post has performed for dozens of area veterans over the years.

Snow falls outside American Legion Post 952 in Hookstown, Beaver County, Pennsylvania on Dec. 5, 2018. (Will Racke/TheDCNF)

Snow falls outside American Legion Post 952 in Hookstown, Beaver County, Pennsylvania on Dec. 5, 2018. (Will Racke/TheDCNF)

That kind of solidarity was on display when area veterans formed a motorcycle honor guard for Elchin’s family, escorting them nearly 30 miles — in the face of raw winter winds — from Chippewa Township to the service at Impact Christian Church in Moon Township. At highway speeds, the cold cuts deep, piercing through layers of leather and denim until it settles deep in a rider’s bones and stays there long after the ride ends.

For the Patriot Guard Riders of Western Pennsylvania, a bit of shivering was a small price to pay to support a Gold Star family in its time of need. It’s the kind of thing the group has been doing since 2005, when it formed in Kansas as a way to shield grieving military families from the Westboro Baptist cult that had taken to protesting gay marriage at troops’ funerals.

Like the American Legion riders, the Patriot Guard today does most of its escorts for veterans of past wars who die without family or whose remains have been identified after decades unknown. Those occasions tend to be sparsely attended, if only because the deceased’s friends and family are no longer living.

Patriot Guard Riders ride captain Randy Ruff (maroon bandana) shakes the hand of a fellow rider as they line up at the entrance to the Impact Christian Church in Moon Township, Pennsylvania on Dec. 6, 2018. (Will Racke/TheDCNF)

Patriot Guard Riders ride captain Randy Ruff (maroon bandana) shakes the hand of a fellow rider as they line up at the entrance to the Impact Christian Church in Moon Township, Pennsylvania on Dec. 6, 2018. (Will Racke/TheDCNF)

It’s a different story when a young service member is killed in Afghanistan, a war that has largely slipped out of the public consciousness but still claims the lives of young Americans every month. In Beaver County, Elchin’s death stirred an unprecedented communal response among both area veterans and those who haven’t served in uniform, according to Lewis Winnecour, the senior ride captain of Patriot Guard’s Region 11.

“What did you see along the highway? People got out of their cars in the [cold] standing and saluting or with their hand over their heart for a procession that had to last 20 minutes from start to finish,” said Winnecour, an 86-year-old Korean War veteran from nearby Scott Township.

“This looks like the entire community turned out, plus so many of his fellow Air Force people,” he added.

 

Members of the Patriot Guard Riders, volunteers firemen, and law enforcement officers gather in prayer before escorting the family of Staff Sgt. Dylan Elchin to a memorial service on Dec. 6, 2018. (Will Racke/TheDCNF)

Members of the Patriot Guard Riders, volunteer firemen, and law enforcement officers gather in prayer before escorting the family of Air Force Staff Sgt. Dylan Elchin to a memorial service on Dec. 6, 2018. (Will Racke/TheDCNF)

Winnecour wasn’t exaggerating when he described the outpouring of support from local residents. All along the procession route, people gathered on pedestrian bridges and overpasses, offramps and highway shoulders, to pay respects to Elchin’s family as they drove the 26-mile route.

State and local police blocked traffic at every highway entrance, causing lines to back up for a hundred yards or more down the on-ramps. On any other day, it would have been the kind of traffic annoyance that sets drivers cursing and pounding their steering wheels in frustration. That day, they stepped outside into the frigid air, waving and saluting and taking pictures to capture the moment when a whole community stopped to say goodbye to one of its own.

More than 20 volunteer and paid fire departments participated in the procession for Elchin’s family, according to Nate Beam, the assistant chief of the Independence Township volunteer fire department. In a matter of a few days, Beam and his mother, Independence fire chief Jeri New, arranged for departments across the county to be present along the procession route.

Indeed, a local fire crew was posted at every single overpass across I-376 as the honor escort made its way from Chippewa to Moon, marking the way with raised ladders and American flags hung from railings.

“It’s just really our honor, we want to pay respects to the military service members as they come in,” Beam, 31, said. “We started shooting out messages through text, phone calls, Facebook, to guys we know at different departments, and everybody was immediately on board.”

Beam drew a connection between the military and the community fire departments throughout Beaver County, where the spirit of volunteerism runs deep.

“Beaver County has a great tradition of having military service members. I know in Independence Township, we have [what seems like] one per family,” he said. “And we’ve got a lot of military members that come back and decide they want to join the fire department and continue to serve on a local basis. It’s just a very close-knit community.”

Ladder trucks from volunteer fire departments hoist a giant American flag above the honor escort for the family of Staff Sgt. Dylan Elchin as it merges on to Interstate 376 in Chippewa, Pennsylvania on Dec. 6, 2018. (Will Racke/TheDCNF)

Ladder trucks from volunteer fire departments hoist a giant American flag above the honor escort for the family of Staff Sgt. Dylan Elchin as it merges on to Interstate 376 in Chippewa, Pennsylvania on Dec. 6, 2018. (Will Racke/TheDCNF)

In his short life, Elchin knew that sense of community intimately. He lived it with his family in Beaver County, and he found it again with his special tactics comrades, more than 100 of whom traveled from units in Florida and New Mexico to attend the memorial service.

One special tactics officer who oversaw Elchin’s training in the combat controller pipeline recalled how Elchin had a natural ability to bring his teammates closer together.

“What made Dylan special was that he was not an overt leader, not the kind of guy that came out and said ‘Hooah, follow me,'” the officer said. “His ability to lead through difficult times through use of his humor and his resiliency to get through those difficult periods — people kind of clung to that.”

“You’d see [guys who were] maybe more natural leaders, they would lean on him, because when they had those tough times, Dylan was the person who could overcome obstacles … and he was a leader in that sense,” the officer added. “He didn’t need to say it. Everyone could just look to him and they knew it.”

A Special Tactics combat controller with the 24th Special Operations Wing speaks with the parents of U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Dylan Elchin during a memorial service in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, Dec. 6, 2018. Elchin was killed alongside two U.S. Army Special Forces members when their vehicle struck an improvised explosive device in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, Nov. 27. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joseph Pick)

A Special Tactics combat controller with the 24th Special Operations Wing speaks with the parents of U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Dylan Elchin during a memorial service in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, Dec. 6, 2018. Elchin was killed alongside two U.S. Army Special Forces members when their vehicle struck an improvised explosive device in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, Nov. 27. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joseph Pick)

Elchin’s sense of humor under intense pressure was a recurring theme of the memorial service, infusing the otherwise somber event with laughter. In his eulogy, Air Force Maj. Alexander Nell, commander of the 26th Special Tactics Squadron, recounted how Elchin handled his introduction to combat, which came in the form of four straight days of firefights.

When Elchin’s field commanders reached him via satellite phone to check on his status, the sleep-starved operator was quick with a characteristic joke.

“When Dylan answered the phone, the first thing he said was, ‘Am I crushing it?'” Nell recalled the Army commander as saying.

The moment of levity captured Elchin as his family and friends had always known him. It was a fitting requiem for a young man who died as he lived — embraced by people whom he loved, and who loved him back.

Airmen and family members perform memorial pushups in honor of U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Dylan Elchin, a Special Tactics combat controller with the 26th Special Tactics Squadron, during a memorial service in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, Dec. 6, 2018. Elchin was killed alongside two U.S. Army Special Forces members when their vehicle struck an improvised explosive device in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, Nov. 27. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joseph Pick)

Airmen and family members perform memorial pushups in honor of U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Dylan Elchin, a Special Tactics combat controller with the 26th Special Tactics Squadron, during a memorial service in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, Dec. 6, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joseph Pick)

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