When I joined the military in 2003, I was full of a sense of urgency and a great deal of idealism. The granddaughter of a survivor of the Korean War, I felt a sense of pride and duty to serve my country in a time of war and I had this dream that one day, young women in Afghanistan would have the opportunities and hope that I had grown up with - something my grandmother could never have conceived of for herself or her daughters but that my sisters and I would realize.
I deployed in 2006 and learned a lot. Despite the disappointments and the seemingly overwhelming onslaught of dream crushing events, I found flowers growing in mine fields - literally and figuratively. There, amidst the fear, oppression, death and decades of destruction that have been the daily reality the women and children of Afghanistan, I still found reason to hope.
Today, over eight years after my initial enlistment, I am finally facing the reality that I have become... disenchanted?
As I consider what it means to deploy to Afghanistan again, I'm wrought with frustration, guilt and a lack of clarity of purpose. When I consider what we're doing and how we're going about achieving this new and unclear end-state, I arrive at countless questions.
In 2009, when I testified on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about my experiences in Afghanistan, I had many answers... answers that I'd known previously but had only been given the opportunity to Monday morning quarterback. Answers that I'd given no voice to because I felt inadequate due to lack of age and ignorant by lack of formal education, even. Surely, the people who were making the decisions to send us off to war were far more informed than I... Of course they knew and had studied the history of Afghanistan, our history with Afghanistan, and the culture of the people of Afghanistan. Most certainly, there was no way they'd learn anything new from this humble and lowly Staff Sergeant...
But my observations of all that's transpired in the wake of my previous deployment and of what's occurring in 2012 in Afghanistan have led me to believe that we either do not know what we're doing, do not care, or can do nothing to change it. Our only options then and now are to stay in Afghanistan and continue in the hopes that eventually we'll reach a turning point or to leave - immediately.
Projecting a draw down was, in this humble servant's opinion, the most dangerous and costly (of American and Afghan lives) decision that our leaders have made. Whether it was made to appease those opposed to the war on the left side of the aisle or for some other reason, it was the wrong decision.
I watched from my seat in the MSNBC studio, as the President spoke from the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY, about the troop surge into Afghanistan. I felt, at once, that we and the Afghan people would finally know hope for the future of their country. And in the same speech, my heart sank as I heard him state that we'd be looking at a pull out of troops by 2014. I knew then and I'm ever more convinced that making a public statement about the draw down of troops in Afghanistan was the point at which we started to "lose" the "war" against the Taliban. I hoped and even argued that this was a statement made for political survivability reasons. I believed President Obama when he said that we'd evaluate the situation in 2014... the media took this statement in a different context - that we'd pull out by 2014.
As Brian Williams appeared on my camera, I hoped he would ask me what I felt about the troop surge, or perhaps that he'd ask for my opinion about the best way ahead for the US in Afghanistan. Instead, he asked me what I thought the troops in Afghanistan were thinking about the President's speech. I couldn't speak for anyone else and certainly not for my brothers and sisters who were down range and missing the holidays with their families. I half halfheartedly replied something along those lines.
I don't presume to know everything, be a highly educated person or any kind of expert on our policies and positions in Afghanistan. When I say that I "know," I am pulling from personal experiences, my instincts and what I've learned about human nature.
With that said, I studied Pashto and the culture of Afghanistan for 10 months prior to my 11-month deployment there in 2006 and when I returned from my tour, I spent my several idle hours at my defense contracting job reading cable upon cable, report after report and hundreds of analytical papers both for and not for public consumption. Following that job, I moved on to work as an analyst with a focus on countering the Improvised Explosive Device threats in Afghanistan. After that, I worked on the team charged with standing up, implementing and facilitating the largest counter-IED contract in the US Army (for which our team was recognized internationally by our employer, the 3rd largest defense contractor in the world).
Having been blown up by a car packed with explosives, I found this work (at least for a while) to be personally important. It was a way for me to continue the fight from home, supporting our troops from afar and dedicating myself to the fight, even if I was unable to be active directly. And many times, I have attempted to deploy back to Afghanistan, with each of those opportunities having fallen through. I have said many times, "Afghanistan gets in your blood."
During all of those jobs, I became almost fatally aware of my own issues with post-traumatic stress. I hit "rock bottom" and discovered a new passion (some would say it was an obsession but I would say it was an addiction) for veterans' advocacy. It was and has been a very personal war, waged by me and many others returning home, each in our own ways. As I move ever so fully into my purpose and get closer to realizing my dream of helping my fellow veterans as they return from war and transition out of military service, I am becoming ever more painfully aware that I am becoming less a Soldier and more and more an advocate. I am unclear how to reconcile this as this is new territory for me. I am proud of my service. I love my country. I am ever-more patriotic... if that's even possible. But I cannot reconcile in my mind - the why. If we are pulling out of Afghanistan, what and why are we still there today? Why wait? What are we waiting for? How many more Americans and NATO troops will die while we attempt to stick to our timeline for withdrawal?
New Zealand is pulling out its troops. Do they know something, are admitting something, we're not?
I know that my questions will go unanswered. It's not for the Soldier to ask why... it is for us to follow orders. But as a Citizen, I will ask my questions...
1. Why are we continuing to deploy American Soldiers and Marines to a war to support an unstable and yet-unprepared military in which we have already proclaimed that we will abandon them on a timeline? In the US Army, we have a common saying - "Train to standard, not to time." This means, we set a standard - an achievable and measurable goal and we train to that standard whether it takes us the allotted/estimated time or not. If we finish early, we go home. If we go beyond our time limit, we stay later.
2. Why hasn't anyone publicly projected that "Insider Threats" would become more prevalent and worked to mitigate that risk in a more strategic application/way that would ensure little to no loss of American lives? Is it plausible that with all of our intelligence capabilities and analysts that we would miss the concept that telling friendly Afghans that we're going to leave them to their own devices against their enemy when they are ill-prepared to defend themselves would force them to consider joining the other side for their own survival and that these "blue on green" attacks are possibly, even probably, a way for them to prove their changed loyalty as they switch to the side they have perceived to "win"? Have we failed, after a decade of war, to understand the culture of a people who are just trying to survive from day to day?
3. What is our desired end state in and for Afghanistan? What is the US Government's? The US military's? The US people's? Were we ever clear on this?
4. What will happen to our veterans and families - those who fought this war with no tangible or definitive end state? Why are we continuing to generate more of us and how/what are the government's plans to down-size the military responsibly so that we don't continue to overload the already inefficient and inadequate processes, facilities, institutions and organizations that are attempting to deal with our issues?
This time, when we deploy - I will go because my friends are going, because my sister is going, and because I've been ordered to. I will try in earnest to not lose hope that in some way, I can help make a positive impact and that by risking my life and my friends and family risking theirs, we will contribute to some amount of progress for humanity. I will try, with everything I am, to find reason, justification and conviction that my service, and possibly sacrificing my life, is for the good of our country and the Afghan people... but right now, in this moment and for the first time since I took the Oath in 2003, I am unclear as to whether or not I can deploy to Afghanistan for any other reasons than I have been ordered to and my friends/family are going.
"I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and
defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies,
foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the
same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United
States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to
regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God"
I have not waivered in my conviction and dedication to supporting and defending "the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..." I will obey the orders to which I am and have committed but I no longer understand why we're doing what we're doing.
Maybe, in the coming weeks and months, I'll find answers...