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Afghanistan death adds to Utah's toll
They walk home from school each day, but no walk before had ever been like this one. Flags lined the street, each flapping gently in the breeze coming off the Great Salt Lake. The flags had been placed along the roadside in honor of their stepbrother.
Wednesday marked the first day back to school for Clearfield students Elliot and William Lehmiller after learning their older sibling, Michael, had been killed in Afghanistan.
The 23-year-old soldier's death comes amid a rise in insurgent-style attacks, more common in Iraq, targeting American troops in Afghanistan.
Sunday's attack, a roadside bombing that destroyed the Humvee in which the young sergeant was riding near Baylough, in southern Afghanistan, left three other U.S. soldiers' families in mourning as well.
Elliot, 10, and William, 11, may be too young to have a lot to say about the struggle in which their stepbrother was engaged when he died.
All they know, for now, is that Michael Lehmiller was fighting for something he believed in. And that makes him their hero.
On Wednesday, they learned they were not alone in that regard. Elliot arrived at school to find stacks of handmade cards, written by classmates, expressing condolence for his loss. Upon returning to his home, just south of the former military base now known as the Clearfield Freeport Center, he emptied the bag of cards before William. The duo read through each once -- and then again with their mother.
At the moment, there is little else to do. Though the family intends to bury Michael at Arlington National Cemetery, the Army has not yet given the Lehmiller family an indication of when the slain soldier's body will be returned to the United States.
"For now, we're all just trying to get back into some sort of routine," said Paula Lehmiller, the boys' mother and Michael's stepmother.
It was, in fact, routine that gave Michael Lehmiller's father, Robert Lehmiller, the first indication that his son may be dead. Each morning, the Clearfield man woke early to scan the television for news on the war in Afghanistan -- and Sunday morning, he saw a report on the four deaths. Hours later, the doorbell rang. Through the screen, Lehmiller could see two uniformed officers standing on his porch.
"I knew," he told Ogden's Standard-Examiner. "I knew that one of the four was my son."
The deaths bring to at least 16 the number of U.S. soldiers killed in the past 30 days in Afghanistan. At least nine of those soldiers were killed by improvised explosive devices, according to Defense Department records.
The use of roadside explosives and suicide car bombs had been relatively rare in Afghanistan in the first three years of U.S. action there, but has become more common recently, the records show.
The more frequent bombings have contributed to an increase in the number of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan, where 74 U.S. troops have died so far this year, a twofold increase over last year's count for the same period.
Lehmiller, who attended high school in Clearfield for about a year in the mid-1990s but lived with his mother in Florida and South Carolina for most of his life, is the first Utahn or former Utahn to be killed in Afghanistan since Staff Sgt. Allan Rogers died "of noncombat-related injuries" on Sept. 29, 2004, according to an unofficial count of war zone deaths kept by The Salt Lake Tribune. The Army says it is continuing to investigate Rogers' death.