By Shane Dixon Kavanaugh and Bill Hutchinson New York Daily News
The U.S. military death toll in Afghanistan reached the grim milestone of 2,000 over the weekend with an attack that killed a soldier and a retired NYPD sergeant.
Kevin O’Rourke, a former Emergency Service Unit sergeant, was killed Saturday during an intense firefight in eastern Wardak Province.
O’Rourke, 52, a divorced father of two, was working as a contractor in Afghanistan.
The U.S. soldier killed in the ambush, whose name was not immediately released, was assigned to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, officials said.
The fighting started Saturday when a mortar apparently fired by insurgents struck a checkpoint set up by U.S. forces, said Shahidullah Shahid, a provincial government spokesman.
The Americans believed they were under attack from a nearby Afghan Army checkpoint and fired on it, prompting the Afghan soldiers to return fire, Shahid said.
But ISAF officials had a different story.
“After a short conversation took place between (Afghan Army) and ISAF personnel, firing occurred which resulted in the fatal wounding of an ISAF soldier and the death of his civilian colleague,” they said in a statement.
At least three Afghan soldiers died in the gun battle.
The death of O’Rourke and the U.S. soldier came as a stunning reminder that Americans are still shedding blood in Afghanistan even as the 11-year-old war is winding down.
The soldier became the 2,000th U.S. service member to die in Afghanistan, according to a tally by The Associated Press.
O’Rouke’s death stunned friends, who remembered the former NYPD veteran for his big heart and his determination to find colleagues lost in the rubble of the World Trade Center following the 9/11 attacks.
“Kevin was the ultimate professional,” said William Keegan, former lieutenant of special operations for the Port Authority Police Department. “His humanity brought that out. He just felt the loss of his colleagues so much that it gave him a razor-thin focus.”
In the aftermath, O’Rourke joined other rescue workers in a pact.
“We made a pact that we weren’t going to lose one more guy,” said Keegan, founder of the H.E.A.R.T. 9/11 disaster relief group. “It’s 11 years later, and they took one of us.”
O’Rourke moved to Hernando, Fla., after retiring from the NYPD in 2003. He continued to volunteer for H.E.A.R.T. 9/11, traveling to Haiti to provide relief following the 2010 earthquake there and helping to rebuild homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“He was a knockdown, drag-’em-out American. I can’t think of anything else to say, really,” said Matthew Lins, a friend reached at O’Rourke’s Florida home Sunday. “He was just awesome.”