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Afghanistan Today-The GWOT Hotspot-Mon. 10-5-09

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FREEDOM IS NOT FREE: Reflections on a Military Family at War

“Freedom is not free,” is stitched in white on a maroon fleece blanket I have folded and sitting in a woven basket on my desk at work.

My small tan desktop globe is next to it, sitting there tilted on its gray stand.

Below it I have taped a purple 3 cent 1942 stamp with a white eagle and the words “WIN THE WAR” across the center. To the right is a snapshot of my oldest son when he was a US Marine at the Marine Corps Ball in 2006 on Okinawa, Japan, standing next to a buddy, also in dress blues.

To its left I taped a 3 cent purple stamp with Lady Liberty holding a flame. “LIBERTY”: is printed at the bottom and in white across the center, “IN GOD WE TRUST.” To the left is a 4 cent brown Kansas stamp with a yellow sunflower, reading “Kansas Statehood” 1861-1961.

To the left of Lady Liberty and the Kansas stamp is a photo of my two sons at Ft. Lee, Virginia, Thanksgiving 2004. My older son was training at the Ft. Lee Quartermaster School-Marine Detachment, and we drove from Kansas to Virginia to see him for the holiday.

Next to a red sign in front of the detachment building on the Army base, he’s standing straight, tan combat boots on, wearing his camouflage uniform and cover, hands behind his back, feet slightly apart; all Marine.

My eyes are drawn to my younger son in the photo, then two years away from high school graduation and attending the same quartermaster school.

He is on the other side of the sign, wearing  jeans, a jean jacket, white tee shirt, and shaggy brown hair. He stands in a more high school-like pose, not ramrod straight like his brother.

The red “SEMPER FIDELIS” sign between them stood as a bond as both would be Marines in a couple of years.

To the left of that is a photo of my smiling older son, a Lance Corporal, in dress blues, at the 2006 Marine Corps Ball with his then girlfriend, an Okinawa national. She’s very cute, smiling in her pink dress and cream-colored shawl, but after he went to Iraq for the surge and was taken off Okinawa, they didn’t get back together and I don’t know why. Such is the Marine life.

Behind my computer monitor on the wall I have 5 letters to the editor I wrote to the Kansas City Star which were published, such as Oct. 21, 2008’s “Setback in war in Afghanistan,”which was about restricted rules of engagement under Pres. Bush’s general in Afghanistan, Gen. McKiernan. Until 2008 I never wrote a letter to the editor. Soon I had five as the deteriorating military situation in Afghanistan left very little else for military families to do, other than write the editor, write to the President, write their representatives, and to pray.

The letter reads:

“Top NATO general David McKiernan says military forces are needed to tamp down militants in Afghanistan (10/13, A-14, “Afghan war isn’t failing”.) Restrictions keeping some NATO members out of the fight were harmful to the mission.”

It continued, “Last month McKiernan ordered more restricted rules of engagement for U.S. troops, risking their lives. Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered commanders to issue apologies and money quicker to Afghans claiming to have injuries or to have a relative killed by U.S. troops, before an investigation.”

“Victory in Afghanistan faced a setback when, for the first time I can find in U.S. history, Marines were thrown out of a war in 2007. One hundred and twenty Special Operations Marines were attacked and thrown out. A Court of Inquiry ruled they acted appropriately, and no criminal charges were warranted. Now generals ask for more troops.”

I ended the letter, “Families sending their sons and daughters to war should know about the restricted rules of engagement, apologies and how Marines were thrown out of the war in 2007.”

I notice my cell phone sitting in front of my computer, and a photo of my younger son on its screen. He was ending his two weeks of R & R and going back to Afghanistan Aug. 20, 2009 when I took it. He is sharp in his camouflage uniform, waiting for the plane at Kansas City International Airport that will fly him back to a place described as the worst place in the world. He didn’t complain. Duty called.

I have a longer letter pinned up; “Thanks Marine,” which I wrote for the KC Star Thanksgiving 2008, when they requested letters listing what we were thankful for. I never saw it printed. I did submit it to a few other places after they did not call to confirm it, and Canada Free Press listed it under their Thanksgiving content. It reads:


“The chips were down in Iraq. Two Marine battalions were needed for the surge. Non-infantry Marines joined one battalion. Food service specialists and admin clerks left kitchens and offices to man machine–gun turrets on Humvee patrols outside the wire. In those dark days, the Commandant ordered, “Every Marine into the fight.” I’m thankful Marines are riflemen first; ready when their nation called to break the back of the insurgency. A more peaceful Iraq ensued. I’m thankful for Iraq and Afghanistan vets and pained when our government treats some shabbily. Politicians, even a Senate leader, called the war “lost”; however, Marines remained focused on their mission. I’m thankful for Marine Cpl. Allen Roberts, a machine gunner who died shortly after Thanksgiving 2007, going toward the sound of the guns.

Solemn Marines continued patrolling the cold desert defending our freedom; but more selfless, in Operation Iraqi Freedom, provided security for Iraqis. This Thanksgiving they’re home, back to their units, or have completed their contract. A successful mission in western Iraq’s “triangle of death” allows Iraqis to experience relative peace. I’m forever grateful, humbled by Marines outside the wire. Today they face terrorists in Afghanistan, and prepare for another troop surge. I’m thankful for Cpl. Roberts, one Marine making a difference, quietly sacrificing his life for freedom. Many won’t remember this hero, who died 11/28/07, but his family will never forget as they sit around the Thanksgiving table this year, without their Marine. RIP Marine, I am thankful.

“Proud of son’s service to U.S,”is the title of a letter to the Kansas City Star I had published June 16, 2008, shortly before my older son received his honorable discharge from four years of active Marine duty ending with a tour of Iraq for the surge. He had 3 years left in the Individual Ready Reserve. (Marines are sometimes recalled to active duty from the IRR) He drove from California to Kansas City by himself. We were glad he was coming home.

It reads, “Placing trust in the government four years ago, my then 18-year-old son shipped to recruit training. Earning the title Marine was his dream. Deployed overseas, ending with an Iraq surge tour, he awaits his final day of active duty at Camp Pendleton, and will face a lonely drive home with no victory parade.”

I continued, “He patrolled outside the wire in a Humvee turret, receiving a Meritorious Mast for superior performance of duty while serving as a vehicle gunner, ensuing security in Anbar Province.”

“After trials, tribulations and sacrifice, he will earn an honorable discharge and use the GI Bill.”

“Little support was forthcoming from politicians and, more often than not, he heard anti-military comments.”

“Marines exonerated at a Court of Inquiry after an ambush in Afghanistan (6/4, Letters, “Unthinkable attack on Marines” received no apology from politicians, including generals. Air Force leaders are fired. I suggest a top-to-bottom Marine Corps review.”

“The newest greatest generation is sadly forgotten, with the exception of groups such as American Legion Riders, who met my son at the airport before going to Iraq.”

I ended it with the following, “While my son’s classmates graduate from college, he’s been fighting terrorists so we can live in freedom. We are very proud of his service.”

I have the letter, “Unthinkable attack on Marines,” published June 4,  2008, by another Marine supporter, and published in the Kansas City Star. I posted it with a push pin on the wall, and it reads, “When an injustice is observed, it is our duty to stand up in opposition. Let me relay the true story of our Marines in the midst of a complex attack.”

“On March 4, 2007, in Afghanistan, the Marine convoy on patrol was strategically attacked by a suicide bomber. A firefight ensued.

According to sworn testimony at the Court of Inquiry, the Marines shot at no one who was not shooting at them. No bodies were recovered; no autopsies, no forensic evidence.”

“The Marines survived this attack, only to be attacked by the unthinkable: their own leaders and media, falsely accusing them of killing civilians. After millions of dollars were spent investigating this incident, it was determined the Marines acted properly and in accordance to the rules of engagement (5/24 A-6 “Charges rejected against two Marines”).

It concluded, “It is the leadership of Army Col. John Nicholson and Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, falsely charging their own soldiers that should be investigated.”

I see a copy pinned up of my older son’s Meritorious Mast awarded the 22 day of February 2008 shortly before he left Iraq, having served a seven-month tour during the surge.

A flag decorated calendar from the VFW, one showing Marines from Camp Lejeune and a blue star poster signifying a deployed family member complete the wall. By the window is a photo of both sons in their Marine dress blues. My college diploma, from Wichita State University, put onto a mouse pad, is leaning next to the photo. Next to it, my certificate for 20 years of service I received last year.

A couple of days ago I saw at the Wal-Mart Marketplace, Catholic type candles in a clear glass jar, depicting Saints and their story in English and Spanish. I’m Christian and not Catholic, but thought I better buy two. One for a secretary friend who is Catholic and praying for my son and Marines deployed to Afghanistan for the surge. My son’s been there since March 2009 and has now been extended until May 2010.

He was able to take 2 weeks R & R and was home in August, 2009, time that went too fast.  I have one of the candles next to my computer, but don’t light it of course. It’s red, and has an illustrated paper sticker on it; a drawing of St. Michael (St. Miguel), with a sword raised up to slay a devil on the ground.

The prayer on back says, “Prayer to St. Michael”: “Holy Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protector against the wickedness, and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do you, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the other evil spirits who wander through the world seeking to ruin souls. Amen”

I turn around to the other side of my desk: a full size American flag hangs down, a flat map of the world with a post it note by Afghanistan where my son is, a USO calendar, and a calendar for the month’s events at the Overland Park Post 370 American Legion.

I have my radio on and Eric Church is singing, “I Love Your Love the Most”, which they said was currently #1.

Church’s song lists the things he loves, which make me think of my son in Afghanistan and his fellow Marines who don’t have these luxuries: cold beer, Jack D in their Coke, NASCAR races, or rocky road ice cream to name a few things mentioned in the song.

I think ahead to the days my son will return home where “hell yes” he loves his truck, college football games, good barbeque, and anything his mama cooks, although no “honey” to love the most right now!

Church sings he loves, “a good loud honky tonk that rocks on Friday nights”, and “hell yes” he loves his dog, and as I listen, it makes me think of our Marines in Afghanistan; at outposts away from the creature comforts we enjoy in the United States. We have a free country and they are willing to fight to keep it that way; putting their lives on the line for us. It is a proud, yet sobering and sad thought.

I think of America’s finest: Marines there dealing with heat, dust, and terrorists. Soon enough they will be facing a bitter cold winter in Afghanistan.

Sometimes though, they sacrifice their lives or are maimed for life because of restricted rules of engagement.

With a bit of luck and lots of prayers, they will return home to the United States and will be welcomed home at Camp Lejeune in May 2010. In our free country they can get their lives back to a normal state, enjoying the things described in the song.

The clock reads 1:22pm. I’m tearing up thinking of our Marines.

I turn and look around for a box of tissues. I have everything except tissues. If anybody saw me they would want to know why I was crying.

I reach into the basket holding my “Freedom isn’t free” fleece where I have some rough paper towels, to wipe up spills.

Well, my tears are spilling, so I feel the roughness of the paper as I dab the tears from my face.

I looked to see if anybody up the hall is coming toward my cubicle.

Coast is clear.

I get back to work, a couple of more hours until I go home, filled with thoughts of my son in Afghanistan.

The cubicle walls are tall enough nobody else could see me cry. I had switched stations, and Eric Church is again singing about the things he loves, and again reminding to me of these things our boys at remote outposts don’t have in Afghanistan. My eyes tear up again. I say a silent prayer for our troops and for my son’s safety.

I think of how much we miss him and how he doesn’t have these things in a deadly and dangerous Afghanistan, as the singer concludes, “Honey, I love your love the most.”

I think of the Marines at small outposts and even the larger bases in Afghanistan, in what some call the worst place in the world. So hot, and so dusty, the Marines yearn for victory, and the day they will be back home.

I heard that the dirtiest place in America is better than the cleanest place in Afghanistan. I think of all we have to be thankful for in the USA. I think of them willing to die for our freedom.

I think of a leader such as Gen. McChrystal, who wants our troops out of their armored vehicles to walk and talk to Afghan villagers, when, for example, many of our enlisted troops, such as my son do not even speak their language. I think of the danger they are in with restricted rules of engagement and the denial of needed air support or artillery.

I think of our men who want to win the war and kill the enemy, but are told this is no longer the strategy. The new plan, which really isn’t new, is to protect the civilians even at the cost of American lives. As one veteran told me, it’s the “VIETNAM PLAN FOR AFGHANISTAN.”

I have a quote on my bulletin board, “Whatever you allow to dominate your thinking becomes your instructor”. Don’t know who wrote it. I cut it out of a magazine and taped it to a Post-It-Note which had been yellow but is now faded.

Above it I have taped to a piece of paper with red, white and blue  stars, and a “blessing” cut out, which reads: “The Lord shall cause thine enemies that rise up against thee to be smitten before thy face; they shall come out against thee one way, and flee before thee seven ways.” Deuteronomy 28.7.

“Small Town USA” starts playing on the radio. I put on my headphones and turn it up. I get tears in my eyes again, and reach for another rough paper towel.

It’s a country song, one my son likes. I think of all our Marines in Afghanistan, those who miss their small town, their city, their family, friends, and the everyday things we take for granted here. It’s enough to break your heart, so I wipe at my eyes again.

Like Eric Church’s song earlier, Justin Moore lists the things he likes, as he sings, “These are my roots and this is what I love. Give me a Saturday night, my baby by my side, a little Hank Jr. and a six pack of light, an old dirt road and I’ll be just fine. Give me a Sunday morning that’s full of grace, a simple life and I’ll be okay, here in Smalltown USA.”

I think of our boys who will die in Afghanistan and return to “Smalltown USA” in a flag draped coffin.

The singer belts out, “A simple life and I’ll be okay. I wouldn’t trade one single day. I’m proud to say I love this place.”

A wipe at more tears as the song finishes.

I will soon be able to leave for the day. It’s another gauntlet going home and hoping and praying no uniformed Marines are in the driveway.

When will the USA fight to win this war so our boys can get out of Afghan villages and back to “Smalltown USA”?

A black and white copy of an Afghanistan map the Family Readiness Officer gave me is fluttering in the slight breeze of the fan. I have it taped to the side of my desk where I can look at it, just at eye level.

I have highlighted in yellow, Helmand Province and Laskar Gah the Province’s capital. This is where many of the 8,000 Marines sent for the first Afghanistan surge are located. They are at the newly built mega base, Camp Leatherneck, while some have fanned out to Camp Dwyer, or to the Pakistan border area at combat outposts.

I have a flag sticker, with “God Bless the USA” printed on it, stuck on my wall map.

A story was posted online today about Marines passing out candy and grocery shopping in a small village in Afghanistan, having to fight their way there through over 20 miles of landmines.

I haven’t heard from my son since Friday September 4, 2009 before he went outside the wire on supply convoys to combat outposts near the Pakistan border, in what has been described as a hostile area. I told him that they have air power and drones flying over the convoys to protect them. I told him this, but I knew that sometimes they were just doing flyovers to scare the terrorists or dropping flares.

I told him we were proud of him and we would be praying for him.

I didn’t know if I would ever talk to him again.

It was 10:19am and we talked 16 minutes, as he called my cell phone from Afghanistan. We talked about going to the Ozarks when he returns.

I wonder when this madness will end? Where were the Afghan troops to deliver supplies and to secure their own country after eight years of training? There is no mention of killing the enemy or victory in Afghanistan.

It’s my opinion our troops are being sacrificed by Gen. McChrystal’s policy. They’re expendable according to McChrystal’s plan, while Afghan civilians are most important according to the general. Adm. Mullen considers the Afghan civilians paramount.

There should be a Marine Court of Inquiry into the American Marine deaths caused when commanders would not allow air strikes or artillery.

I think that the job of community organizing in Afghanistan should go to the community organizing and voter registration experts, ACORN. Send ACORN to the villages with the generals from the Pentagon and let them figure it out.

Let Marines fight the war. Our Marines need air support. They need artillery. If they are not there to fight, bring them home.

When their ground commander calls in artillery or an air strike, they need it. If a commander is not on the ground with bullets flying by, then they forfeit their decision-making and should no longer be allowed to deny air strikes. The commander on the ground should make the call.

The generals, politicians and president need to focus on victory.

The American public should demand it. They demand victory in football games and would fire coaches if their team had not produced a victory, especially after eight years.

I am not a member of the military, just as I am not a professional football player. But, I can see if a team is winning or not.

Our military is being sacrificed with rules of engagement favoring the enemy, and getting U.S. troops and our allies killed. How does this make America safer and improve homeland security for American citizens?

It seems like our troops are not allowed to go on offense. They seem to be on defense, responding to ambushes instead of being the ones setting them for the enemy. If our troops are continually ambushed, resulting in death and maiming, doesn’t this mean that the enemy already reconned them and that means we are losing? I’m just asking. I don’t know, it just seems that way.

Our finest are out there defending us, and they deserve nothing less than full support. When under fire they should not be denied air strikes and artillery when the commander on the ground calls it in.

As a mother of one of the troops on the ground, I should not have to worry that our government and generals are sacrificing our enlisted men. I think General McChrystal’s report advocates doing just that.

Our officers, who lead our enlisted men in battle, should answer, as a part of taking their oath, whether they will consider the lives of the men they lead paramount? If not, they shouldn’t be commissioned.

I’ve gotten the tears wiped away, it is past time to go home, but I wanted to take notes so I could type this up when I got there, before I forgot. I am ‘off the clock’. As I think of heading home, it is with a fear and sadness of never knowing if a strange car will be out front, with uniformed Marines waiting to break bad news. I delay my exit a bit and say another prayer as I pull myself together.

I have to drive home, hoping and praying again that no strange car is in front of our house, and no uniformed Marines are there.

That is how they deliver the bad news of death. They call if there is an injury from what I understand.

I think of how my younger son told us in August, before he left to go back to Afghanistan that he is re-enlisting. We all tried to tell him to leave and go to college, including his brother.

But, in talking to him, he was set. For him, there were little if any bonus money offered. In asking him if he was sure, he said he was not ready to enter the civilian world again; he wanted to stay Marine and serve our country. We asked again, and he reiterated that it was not time for him to enter the civilian world. He was remaining Marine.

I asked him again when we were alone, “Are you sure you want to re-enlist?” He gave me his affirmation and said he would make sergeant soon. Again, I asked if he had any more reasons why? His answer, in his very deep voice, was, “For the camaraderie.”

He was joining for his fellow Marines, which was enough for him.

We haven’t heard from him in over three weeks, that’s how it is in Afghanistan. No news is good news is what they say.

I think back to how he called before going outside the wire three weeks ago, where he’ll be on dangerous supply convoys, vulnerable to ambush and roadside bomb attacks to Combat Outposts (COP’s) being built on the Afghan-Pakistan border in a hostile enemy infested area. I have read that these COP’s take mortars too.

He is with his fellow Marines. That’s where he wants to be.

It’s time to leave. I have tissues in my car.

I think of the extra time alone when I asked my son if he really wanted to re-enlist. I think of how I again asked him, “Why”?

I remembered his answer, hearing his deep voice as if it was next to me, “For the camaraderie.”

Joining his fellow Marines was enough for him. It should be enough for me.

I think American generals should give our troops top priority. Concern for the safety of the troops they lead to victory should be #1. American military families should not have to worry about this. It should be a given. They should be assured that their Marine’s last breath, if they die for their country, was not dying for defeat, but was taken as they pursued a mission with a clear vision and plan for victory.

They should not be maimed for McChrystal. Our injured heroes who earned the Purple Heart in battle should live with the knowledge that they were pursuing victory for their country, while securing the safety of their countrymen.

It’s a good thing I had tissues in my car. After two years in Okinawa my son became a huge country music fan. The radio played, “I Love Your Love the Most”, again, as I headed home. The tears welled up as I was thinking of my son and all the Marines without the things the singer loves the most. I was still able to drive.

I made it to my driveway when that song was followed by another favorite tune of my son’s, “Red Neck Yacht Club” by Craig Morgan.

He’ll get a laugh out of this, as I have tears in my eyes again, crying at “Red Neck Yacht Club”! When he gets home in May 2010 he told me in one of his last and rare calls home, he wants to go to the Lake of the Ozarks, and that he had been listening to “Red Neck Yacht Club”.

Now I’m listening to that song.  I close my garage door. No strange cars or uniformed Marines. I take a deep breath, and grab a tissue to wipe my eyes as I walk upstairs. The dog wags her tail. I sit down. I made it home one more time.

There are many more days until May 2010. I am least in America. He is in Afghanistan, the worst place on earth.

Despite being the worst place on earth he has the camaraderie, he desires. He is with his Marines.

If Gen. McChrystal’s policies lead to his maiming or death, he will be with his fellow Marines. There’s honor in that. That’s what the families will have to lean on for comfort.

Gen. McChrystal’s policies, may take their lives, with his heartless death sentence for some of our troops, but he cannot steal their honor.

Gen. McChrystal, Adm. Mullen, or Sec. Gates cannot steal their valor.

In WWII Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz said “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” It applies today as Marines on the battlefield live and die by this creed: “Semper Fidelis”. Their leaders may have abandoned them, but they have not abandoned each other. The term means something out there.

As a military family we find ourselves praying a lot. And our prayers were answered. Not by a four star general, not by an admiral who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and not even by the Secretary of Defense.

Our prayers were answered by fellow Marines, who give their last breath living and dying for their brothers in arms, “Semper Fidelis” running through their blood.

The Marine next to our son is the answer to our prayer. It is the reason he is there. As long as Marines in battle stand together, our prayers are answered.

A failure in leadership in today’s war lets their own men die on the battlefield when they could have provided air or artillery support.

A terribly flawed command should not let their own men die for defeat. Dishonorable men will have to answer to their Maker.

And Marines will be guarding the Entry Control Point with weapons loaded and ready to kill the enemy without restricted rules of engagement. Saint Michael might even be there with them.

Copyright Thursday Sept. 24, 2009