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NPR US News

Remembering Chris Goeke, A Young U.S. Army Officer Killed In Afghanistan In 2009

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

America's longest war may be over, but among the lingering questions is the full scope of its toll, especially in lives lost. That includes the many Afghans killed, of course - over 100,000 at least - and the more than 2,400 U.S. service members who died in the war. Jay Price of member station WUNC has this remembrance of one.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: I met Chris Goeke in 2009 at his tiny forward operating base, a desert fort made of mud and straw in a place called Naw Bahar in the far south of Afghanistan. The 40 U.S. paratroopers under him and Afghan soldiers they were mentoring had outwitted a heavily armed group of Taliban fighters. His words and thinking were so sharp and fresh that when he answered my question about his age, I lowered my notebook and looked at him carefully - 23. Chris Goeke was just 23 years old. I thought, I need to keep track of this guy. He's going places.

RICK FERRERA: When I get these questions about what he was like, they're hard to answer in a lot of ways because everything is sort of inadequate.

PRICE: A few months after I met him, Goeke was killed. Rick Ferrera, a high school friend from the Minneapolis suburb of Apple Valley, still struggles to describe him. There is, of course, a story behind every death in war. But with the chaotic end of the American involvement in Afghanistan, I wanted to get some sense of why his death haunted me, even though we'd only talked for a few minutes. I spoke with Goeke's friends and family, who described a startling list of interests, including...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Books.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Religion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Leadership.

UNIDENTIFEID PERSON #2: Fitness.

PAM SCHULTZ: Astronomy.

UNIDENTIFEID PERSON #2: Being a soldier.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Shakespeare.

SCHULTZ: Electricity.

UNIDENTIFEID PERSON #2: Ultimate Frisbee.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Philosophy.

SCHULTZ: Bonsai trees.

PRICE: Yes, even bonsai trees, says his mom, Pam Schultz. By all accounts, Goeke was driven by an almost unquenchable need to learn about almost everything. And by high school, he was famous for escalating even casual conversations into a dissection of big ideas. Kevin Kniery, a West Point classmate, is now an Army surgeon in Baghdad.

KEVIN KNIERY: No matter what it was, Chris would ask to the core of the debate or, like, of why and how, and is this - like, why do we trust this? Why do we believe in this?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHRIS GOEKE: (Singing) Color...

PRICE: I was startled to hear Goeke's voice again in songs he composed for friends and family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOEKE: (Singing) Breathe in the air.

CYNTHIA LINDENMEYER: And I think he was really searching for a deeper theology than what he had grown up with and then what he was experiencing at West Point.

PRICE: Cynthia Lindenmeyer, a chaplain at West Point, was a mentor. Goeke studied English and philosophy but also aced honors courses in physics and calculus. He met many of his friends at West Point through faith groups.

LINDENMEYER: And our last conversations, he was wanting to know more about Buddhism and also Islam. Of course, going to Afghanistan, he wanted to know a lot more about Muslims and their beliefs.

PRICE: After graduating sixth in his class, Goeke went through the Army's elite Ranger School. He got married not long before getting orders for Afghanistan. A few months into the deployment, he sent an email to his friend Kniery, who was then in training to be a doctor. Goeke warned one day he'd be responsible for lives, too.

KNIERY: And that is no joke. My battalion has been taking a lot of casualties in these first six months. I think we're at 20 right now. And my CO was killed a couple of weeks ago. The more doctors, the better. I miss you, my friend.

PRICE: He died in an attack on an Afghan police base in Kandahar. A bomb hidden in a handcart blew a hole in a wall. Then insurgents wearing suicide vests poured in. Goeke and a handful of others went straight at the breach. His commander then, Scott Haran, who now teaches at West Point, was at his side when an insurgent's vest detonated. Both went down. Goeke didn't get back up.

SCOTT HARAN: You know, it's super-brave. And unfortunately, you know, he died in the attack. But if you think about it, he saved a ton of people's lives with his act.

PRICE: Friends say Chris Goeke's potential was unlimited, that he could have become almost anything - a social worker, senator, writer, minister, college professor, or, if he'd stayed in the army, a general - and that he'd surely have made a great dad. But he's gone, in a war that claimed thousands of American lives and those of well over 100,000 Afghan troops and civilians. This leaves Rick Ferrera wondering how to put his friend's death in context.

FERRERA: He was this influential person. You know, every one of these people that lose their lives in a war, or any person who loses their life in any way, is a person, just like all the rest of them. And so I've often really struggled to describe Chris without feeling like I'm criticizing other people who have passed. And I don't have an answer for it.

PRICE: Another big question Chris Goeke left for his friends to think about, along with homemade songs celebrating being alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOEKE: (Singing) Worth chasing after...

PRICE: For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Apple Valley, Minn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOEKE: (Singing) Sleeping and waking up so early. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.