From boyhood to battlefield: Long war takes its toll

Gregg Zoroya and Greg Toppo:

EASLEY, S.C. — When the terrorists struck on 9/11, Barrett Austin was in Mrs. Spearman’s second-grade class here. Weeks later, he’d wear a Ninja costume with a red headband for Halloween.
Tristan Wade was a middle-school practical joker with an endearing crooked smile who told everyone he wanted to be in the Army like his dad, a military policeman stationed near Tacoma, Wash.
Zack Shannon was playing Army in a cul-de-sac where his family lived in Florida. He’d break his ankle later that fifth-grade year on a neighbor’s trampoline across the street.
They were little boys oblivious to the beginning of America’s war in Afghanistan. Any notion they might be caught up in the violence to come was the furthest thing from their parents’ minds.
But this would be the nation’s longest war.
All three children — Barrett, 8, Tristan, 11, and Zack, 9 — would reach manhood as fighting churned on. Barrett’s desire to challenge himself, Tristan’s drive for excitement and Zack’s love of all things military would draw each on separate paths toward war.