LOWER WINDSOR, Pa. — On Monday night, two men drove up a twisting road in York County, past sun-bleached barns and flats of pansies, and parked by a small, dark farmhouse with American flags pegged into the mulch.
They walked past last year’s tomato plants, climbed the steps in unison, and knocked hard on the old wooden door. When Fletcher Slutman turned on the lights, he saw them standing straight as timber on his front porch and knew they were Marines. A blue star banner hung in the window.
“Don’t make me get my wife,” Slutman pleaded.
Slutman’s son, Staff Sgt. Christopher K. A. Slutman, 43, of Newark, Del., and Sgt. Benjamin S. Hines, 31, who grew up in York and attended Dallastown Area High School, were killed in Afghanistan earlier that day when a bomb struck their vehicle near Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul. A third Marine, Cpl. Robert A. Hendriks, 25, of Locust Valley, N.Y., also was killed.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
Slutman and Hines were set to return home by the end of the month.
Their deaths brought the number of U.S. service member fatalities in Afghanistan to seven in 2019, and a total of 68 since January 2015, according to government and NATO reports. The conflict has stretched on for 17 years, the longest war in U.S. history.
While it takes up less space on the nightly news in 2019, or in the collective consciousness of America, for some war remains one knock away.
“We have never forgotten we’re at war,” Mary Slutman, Christopher’s mother, said Friday afternoon in the Lower Windsor Township farmhouse.
The family had just returned home from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where they watched their son’s casket, draped in a U.S. flag, be taken off a military plane. A bouquet of white roses sat by the kitchen counter.
Slutman, a decorated New York City firefighter, was a married father of three young girls. Hines proposed to his fiancee the day before he deployed last year. Both were assigned to Echo Company, Second Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Fourth Marine Division, Marines Forces Reserve in Harrisburg.
The unit’s headquarters resembles an elementary school, one with sand-colored Humvees in the parking lot. It sits among stately brick homes on a bucolic street by the Susquehanna River.
Few people went in and out of the building Friday morning, and a woman who answered an intercom at the door said no one was available to talk about the Marines. Across the street, a sleek black SUV sat parked against the curb, with a crisply folded flag on the dashboard.
The flag was for Hines’ family, and he would have loved it. In Facebook pictures, he stands with his fiancee in a blue dress coat with white stars. Hines, who joined ROTC at Dallastown and played defensive back for the Wildcats, worked in cyber security in Northern Virginia. On May 31, he proposed at Bluemont Winery. He was activated the following day.
“Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling right now,” his fiancee wrote on Facebook Thursday. “My heart is broken. We were supposed to start a family together. We were supposed to build a home together. We were supposed to grow old & grey together.”
Hines’ family could not be reached for comment.
In the neighborhood around the building in Harrisburg, many people declined to comment on the attack, or how they viewed the men and women who report there one weekend each month.
“What can you say?” one man said with a shrug.
Just after noon, a man pulled up to the building in a Veterans of Foreign Wars van and delivered care packages to the front door. Thomas Hanzes, the VFW state commander, said the packages are often toiletries or food to send overseas.
Around the corner, a large American flag hung above the door of Vivian First’s stone Colonial. First said her son likes to watch the Marines standing guard on weekends, though she prefers to see the family gatherings they often have in the big lots beside her house.
She hadn’t heard that Marines from Echo Company died.
“Whenever we see them, it’s a reminder that there’s some people who contribute more,” First, a federal employee, said. “I’m so sorry to hear that. It’s wonderful to have them here.”
Earlier in the week, the slain Marines were honored nearby at the Pennsylvania Statehouse. State Rep. Frank Ryan, a Lebanon County Republican and retired Marine Reserve colonel, said he traveled the same road Slutman and Hines did in Afghanistan when he was deployed there in 2002.
“From my perspective, we are always at war until the last person comes home,” Ryan said. “My heart just breaks for the family.”
At the Slutman home, Fletcher and Mary said they were just settling into the heartbreak after several hectic days of travel and a bevy of phone calls. Fletcher talked glowingly of his son, a firefighter like his dad. In July 2013, Christopher Slutman was given an award for dragging a woman from a burning home in the South Bronx.
“Everybody loved him,” he said. “Everybody has reached out to say they loved him. I knew he was good to his core because I’m his father, but it’s good to hear. Everything he did, he worked hard at and he did it right."
Slutman and his family lived briefly in Newtown Square before moving to Upper Marlboro, Md. Christopher split his time at work in New York and Newark, where his wife and three children live.
Fletcher Slutman said his son could be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Hines’ arrangements have not been confirmed.
Mary Slutman sat at the kitchen table Friday, folding a place mat in her hands over and over. Soon, she’ll replace the blue star in her window with a gold star, to signify her son’s death. But not too soon.
“I’ll get around to it, I guess.” she said. “I just don’t think I can take it down."