Afghanistan Crossroads

Viral post pits coverage of Sheen, fallen soldiers

By Wayne Drash, CNN

It started with a Facebook status update. Upset at the media's coverage of Charlie Sheen, someone took up for American soldiers dying in Afghanistan.

"Charlie Sheen is all over the news because he's a celebrity drug addict," it said, "while Andrew Wilfahrt 31, Brian Tabada 21, Rudolph Hizon 22, Chauncy Mays 25, are soldiers who gave their lives this week with no media mention. Please honor them by posting this as your status for a little while."

The status update has since gone viral, shared by tens of thousands on Facebook. An abbreviated version is on Twitter.

When a friend of mine posted the message on her Facebook page, it was a sobering reminder of the news media’s failings of covering the Afghanistan war. I kept returning to the names of the four soldiers. Who were these men? What’s their story?

I started by calling the father of Cpl. Andrew Wilfahrt (pronounced WILL-fort) in Rosemount, Minnesota.

“I think it’s spot on,” Jeff Wilfahrt said of the viral post.

His 31-year-old son was killed while on foot patrol outside Kandahar on February 27, around the same day the Sheen media blitz kicked into high gear.

“From the Charlie Sheens to Lindsay Lohans, who are these people and what good have they done in society?” Jeff Wilfahrt said. “What are we collectively doing as a society? How do you wake people up?

“In part, sir,” he said, “I blame the press.”

Andrew Wilfahrt was a Renaissance man with an infectious laugh. In his obituary, his parents described him as “compassionate, smart and witty. He was an admirer, composer and player of music who believed deeply in art and humanity. Andrew was fascinated by math, palindromes, maps, patterns, mashed potatoes and the absurd.”

He was also anti-war - part of a “strong family of lefties” from Minnesota, his father said. Andrew stunned everyone when he announced two years ago he was joining the Army.

“He didn’t have a child and a wife,” Jeff Wilfahrt said. “In a way, he went over so that somebody with a young family wouldn’t die.”

The grieving father added, “He was a gay soldier.”

His son agonized over the decision to join the military because Andrew knew he’d have to keep his sexuality a secret. He kept quiet when he first signed up, but his fellow soldiers knew.

“Andrew told me one of the reasons he wanted to enlist was that he felt guilty as a civilian when so many men with wives and children were separated from their families," one of his comrades posted on Facebook. "He joined the fight so that guys like me didn’t have to. He is my hero, my friend, and I miss him. Sleep well, buddy. You earned it.”

Andrew’s younger sister, Martha, said the “least interesting thing” about her brother was his sexuality.

“Quite frankly,” the father said, “nobody gave a s*** he was gay. He was a good soldier.”

His mother, Lori Wilfahrt, told Minnesota Public Radio her son was an “interesting, wonderful young man” who joined the service because he was “looking for a purpose.” Andrew wanted to be with a “group of people that would be working together toward something.”

In a recent letter home, he told his mother that “everybody knows … [and] nobody cares” about his homosexuality. In combat, he rode with two other soldiers. One was African-American, the other from Hawaii. The unit called them "Team Minority."

“He was a gentle soul and he was very kind and compassionate,” said Lori Wilfahrt.

As Sheen’s every comment was dissected on TV and plastered across the internet, the Wilfahrts quietly buried their son.

“In exchange for a son, we got a flag and a bunch of medals,” his dad said. “That’s a helluva tradeoff.”

He’s torn by all that’s happened. Jeff Wilfahrt said he’s always been a peace activist and staunch opponent of war, yet he added, “I’m so proud of him and his service.”

His voice breaks. It’s likely his son is among the first gay soldiers to die in combat since Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed in December. “I’d do anything to honor my son.”

'Truly an American hero'

From Texas to Nevada to California, three other families mourned loved ones mentioned in the viral post. I was unable to reach those families, but I pieced together these snapshots from local reports and Army news releases.

Spc. Brian Tabada was the youngest soldier honored in the Facebook status update. A fire support specialist with the 101st Airborne, he was killed February 27 in northeastern Afghanistan when his patrol was ambushed by insurgents using small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

He joined the Army in 2008 and quickly earned an array of medals, including the Army Achievement Medal.

His mother met his flag-draped coffin at Dover Air Force Base and escorted her son’s body home to Las Vegas. Nevada’s governor ordered flags at half-staff.

“Tabada made the ultimate sacrifice and we are forever grateful,” Gov. Brian Sandoval said in a written statement. “I believe it is right to honor his life, service and his sacrifice.”

Spc. Rudolph Hizon, a 22-year-old Los Angeles native, was killed when insurgents attacked his brigade with the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan’s eastern Logar province.

A Bronze Star recipient, Hizon was best known for his radiant smile and love of life. Hizon enlisted with the Army in January 2009 and was deployed to Afghanistan last October.

“I will always think of him as the happy and cheerful person he was,” Spc. Joshua Gonzales told Task Force Patriot public affairs. “I’m going to miss him dearly.”

“He is truly an American hero,” Tito Pong wrote on a Los Angeles Times obituary tribute page. “We are very proud of him and we are very much going to miss him.” Added Pfc. Lorien Rilate, “You had such a big heart and you always knew how to make someone feel better.”

In the eastern corner of Texas, residents in the town of Cookville honored Staff Sgt. Chauncy Mays, a father of two young girls. Mays, a member of the 10th Mountain Division, was killed February 28 in eastern Afghanistan’s Wardak province.

A highly decorated soldier, Mays worked as an explosives ordnance disposal technician; the Army credits him with saving countless lives for disarming hidden bombs in the region.

“He was a leader who led from the front,” Army Sgt. Chandara Hak told Task Force Patriot public affairs. “He was always careful, but never fearful. I will do my best to follow in his example.”

Army Capt. Aaron Teller said Mays epitomized the best of the American soldier. “He would give you the shirt off his back without hesitation.”

Those were traits Mays displayed even in high school. "He cared about people and worked hard to encourage them," his teacher, Josh Stegall, said at a memorial service. "He lived to serve."

Since February 26, when the Sheen story began dominating headlines, at least 13 U.S. troops have died in support of the Afghanistan war. Besides the four honored in the Facebook post, seven others were Sgt. Kristopher Gould, 25; Spc Christopher Stark, 22; Pfc. David Fahey, 23; Spc. Jason Weaver, 22; Cpl. Jordan Stanton, 20; Staff Sgt. Mark Wells, 31; and Pfc. Kalin Johnson, 19.

Senior Airman Nicholas Alden, 25, and Airman Zachary Cuddeback were killed in a March 2 attack on troops at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany.

Italian Lt. Massimo Ranzani, 36, and British Lance Cpl. Liam Richard Tasker were also killed in Afghanistan in late February and early March. Another British soldier whose name has not been released was killed Wednesday.

As I looked at the names of those who’ve died in the last two weeks, I thought about my phone conversation with Jeff Wilfahrt.

“Get this on the front headlines,” he said, “and make people aware of what’s going on.

“That’s what I’d do if I was king. But I'm just an unemployed 58-year-old man in Minnesota who misses his son.”

Check out CNN.com’s Home and Away special dedicated to fallen troops