THE HAGUE, Netherlands The son of the Dutch defense chief was killed Friday by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, and the Taliban claimed they deliberately made the young lieutenant a high-profile target.
While the Dutch quickly cast doubt on the Taliban claim, the death underscores the danger high-profile soldiers can face and illustrates a grim reality for families, famous and not, who choose the military life.
Lt. Dennis van Uhm, 23, was one of two Dutch soldiers killed in the explosion seven miles northwest of Camp Holland, the Dutch military base in the restive southern province of Uruzgan. Two more soldiers were injured, one critically.
Van Uhm's father, Gen. Peter van Uhm, was installed only Thursday as the Netherlands' defense chief.
The prime minister called Van Uhm's death "an unprecedented tragedy," and the weekly meeting of the Dutch Cabinet was briefly stopped so ministers could reflect privately.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi claimed that the militants knew in advance about Van Uhm's movements and planted a mine that killed him, but the Dutch government rejected the claim.
"Our information is that there is no indication of any link between this cowardly deed and the fact that it was the son of the defense chief," Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende told reporters in The Hague.
Balkenende and a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Robin Middel, would not say whether Van Uhm, who began his tour of duty in Afghanistan only about two weeks ago, had received any special protection.
Earlier this year, the British military pulled Prince Harry from Afghanistan after news leaked that he was posted there. He had spent almost 10 weeks in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province, his deployment kept secret by officials and the media.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain has a son who has served in Iraq. And the son of Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the former second-in-command in Iraq, had his arm blown off in August 2004 while serving in Iraq.
Lt. Col. Nathan Freier, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there is an ongoing debate in the military about putting high-profile soldiers in the field.
Soldiers with well-known parents often come from families with a military tradition, and holding them back can become a point of contention within the family, Freier said.
"To be pulled back or given a special opportunity based on family could be considered an affront to that soldier," said Freier, noting Prince Harry's insistence that he be sent to fight.
Although soldiers move in large formations with some degree of anonymity, there is an argument that an entire unit can be put at risk if the enemy manages to track the movements of a specific person.
"You can make an operational argument that the fact that you are deploying him puts those around him in danger," said Freier.
Wim van den Burg of the Federation of Military Personnel said it was highly unlikely the Taliban deliberately picked off the defense chief's son. He said high-profile troops should be no problem so long as their presence is not widely known.
"I doubt they even knew who Van Uhm was," Van den Burg said. "This is just propaganda for them."
The attack raised the Dutch death toll in Afghanistan to 16 since the government made the unpopular decision to send 1,650 troops to fight in the NATO force in August 2006.
In November, Balkenende's government again defied public opinion and decided, under NATO pressure, to prolong the mission by two years until mid-2010, but only after pledges that allies such as France and Australia would send more troops.
Van den Burg predicted the latest casualties would spark fresh criticism, of the government's decision.
"What you can't avoid is that every time there is an attack, there is more discussion," he said.
Van den Burg's organization, which represents thousands of troops, opposed extending the mission, saying it was stretching the Dutch military too thin, both in Afghanistan and at home.
The prime minister originally managed to convince a skeptical Dutch public that the mission would not only fight the Taliban but also devote time to building roads, schools and hospitals to help Afghans recover from years of conflict.
But as the Taliban has gained strength in the south, Dutch troops have been forced to spend more time fighting and less on reconstruction efforts.
Suicide attacks in Afghanistan spiked last year, with the Taliban launching more than 140 such missions the highest number since the insurgency began after 2001. The fighting is most intense in the south of the country.
More than 1,000 people, mostly militants, have died this year in insurgency-related violence in Afghanistan, according to an Associated Press tally of figures provided by Afghan and Western officials.
In the small Dutch town of Ermelo, 50 miles east of Amsterdam, where both the slain soldiers had been stationed, local authorities lowered flags to half-staff and opened a condolence register at the town hall for local residents to sign.
"It is particularly bitter that after yesterday's ceremonial changing of the military command we heard that this family which yesterday was so happy got such terrible news," Balkenende said.