Monday, December 12, 2011

The real 1% - Those who defend our nation.

This author makes the case for the 1%. The 1% she is highlighting is not the uber-rich, but those who are serve in uniform defending our nation and their families who support them from the homefront. I agree with her point-of-view.

Two members of a different 1% on Afghanistan, politics and privilege.
By ANNE JOLIS - Wall Street Journal
Zhari District, Afghanistan

U.S. service-members make up less than 1% of the American population. But the occupiers of Afghanistan do have a few, superficial similarities with the self-described "99%" occupying Western financial districts: Their endeavors both involve tents and have gone on far longer than first expected; both elicit mixed reactions in the areas they occupy; and both at times struggle to explain what their occupations are meant to accomplish.

Otherwise, the soldiers here in southern Afghanistan could not pose a starker contrast to their agitating peers back home. Take Spc. Anthony Webster, 32, of Portland, Maine and Sgt. Matthew Montville, 24, of Worcester, Massachusetts. They serve as their command group's security detachment in the Fourth Squadron, Fourth U.S. Cavalry Regiment, First Infantry Division—the "Pale Riders."

In late November, straightening their tent after a day of patrols, Sgt. Montville recalls taking leave in October to find himself "appalled" at the Occupy Boston crowd. The impish blond, who enlisted at 17 because "the idea of college never excited" him, observes: "Most of those 'Occupy' people wouldn't know hard work if it jumped up and punched them in the throat."

Not so the Pale Riders. They've had a particularly wretched war even for a particularly wretched part of Afghanistan, which has the ignoble distinction of being the Taliban's birthplace. Since arriving with 517 soldiers in late February, the Pale Riders have buried seven and been awarded 134 living Purple Hearts.

After 2001, the U.S. largely left this stretch of the Arghandab River valley to Afghan forces. By 2006 the Taliban was resurgent, and a Canadian-led contingent was sent to level entire neighborhoods here. But they never had the manpower to hold the area and by 2007 had effectively retreated, leaving the valley to de-facto Taliban control once again.

President Obama's surge increased U.S. troop presence here by roughly six-fold. The Second Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division spent much of 2010 redoing the Canadians' bloody work. When the Third Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division arrived with its Pale Rider attachment, they expanded the 101st's so-called security bubble while consolidating those gains with local outreach.

"We came at the beginning of the fighting season, and there was no bulls— about it," says Spc. Webster, a former construction and private-security entrepreneur whose tattoos cover about 85% of his body. "When it started, it started."

Spc. William A.T. Phillips, 4th Squadron, 4th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division
The Pale Riders patrol through Charkusa, southern Afghanistan.

It hasn't really stopped. On a routine patrol a week before I met them, the Pale Riders entered a house that turned out to be rigged with explosives. The blast brought the house down on top of two of them, who survived but were critically injured. "I've never heard screaming like that in my life," says Sgt. Montville.

"You can't justify any of the losses," says Spc. Webster after a long pause. "But we're here to do our jobs, we know what we signed up for. The mission is what we live by, that's priority No. 1."

Sgt. Montville summarizes: "We continued the push and at the same time started talking to the locals to find out what they need from us and actually start to implement it—roads, schools, clinics."

"Anyone can go in and blow a place up. We're trying to do the right thing," he adds. "I'm proud of what we've done."

"We see more kids now, more of their women out, people able to farm their land—we've accomplished a lot in a short period of time," adds Spc. Webster. But "it's frustrating, too. Ultimately it's up to the Afghans. We go to these shuras [meetings of local elders] and we hear them arguing about dumb stuff."

Earlier on the day of our interview we patrolled through the neighborhood of Charkusa, where only weeks before the Pale Riders had been taking regular fire from mazes of grape walls and marijuana gardens. Now Charkusa is quiet, though nearly deserted. Over tea with several elders who had fled during the Canadian offensive, the old men acknowledged that security had improved and said they're prepared to work with their imperfect government, return home and fill the vacuum that insurgents would be happy to re-occupy. But some remained focused on what the Americans haven't done for them lately: They want their mud huts rebuilt and this time with doors and windows; they want their irrigation canals repaired and reinforced with brick or cement; they want their relocation expenses covered. Pale Rider Commander, Lt. Col. Michael Katona of Michigan, listened patiently, his soldiers fanned around us, nodding: "We can do all that."

Their aim is to do so by the end of the year, when the Pale Riders will start to leave. But "it's their community, at some point they need to own it," Spc. Webster says. "If not, our efforts will have been futile. I'd like to believe they weren't, I know my friends who have passed away, their families—I know they hope they weren't."

Another crucial variable over which the Pale Riders have little control is the development of the Afghan National Army, which Spc. Montville says is "definitely improving. But for a lot of them, it's their first time having their own money, so they have cell phones and they want to hang out and talk on them, weapons flopping around—sometimes they smoke hashish on patrol."

Like most of the U.S. soldiers with whom I spoke, Spc. Webster and Sgt. Montville have taken it upon themselves to informally train the ANA they work with—though ostensibly they've already received NATO training.

Sgt. Montville tells me that, for instance, their ANA counterparts were recently issued .50-caliber machine guns. But "a lot of them didn't know how to clean them, take them apart—they just didn't know what they were doing. So instead of us getting shot in the back accidentally, [Spc.] Webster and I went over to the ANA side [of Forward Operating Base Pasab] and brought our .50-cals over and had them bring theirs out. We showed them how to take them apart, clean them, make sure they work right, put them back together—basic soldiering skills. . . . Eventually they do start taking stuff seriously."

He flicks on his laptop to show me a recent video of U.S. soldiers defusing an IED set against a grape wall. While everyone else waits, frozen, an ANA soldier wanders into the frame, ignoring the others' warning shouts, steps on the pressure-point and loses half his face and a foot. "Luckily, they're getting better."

"Yeah, but that really is how undisciplined some of these guys are. It's a liability every time we go out with them," adds Spc. Webster.

Both agree that Washington's 2014 combat-withdrawal date doesn't make their work easier.

"It's more pressure on us and especially our commanders, to try and get everything in place to make sure it doesn't all fall apart once we leave, to make sure these people aren't bullied all over again," explains Spc. Webster. He says even after 2014, he expects the U.S. and its allies to keep a significant overwatch presence in Afghanistan for a long time, "for the safety of the whole world. If not, [Afghanistan] would go to hell again."

But he also sees their work now as more humanitarian than U.S. defense. Which is why the pre-set timeline is "the right thing to do. We've got a lot of problems at home. How many more lives and money can we really afford to lose here?"

Spc. Montville, on the other hand, characterizes the timeline as "a nice goal," but also akin to telling the insurgents "'Hey, guess what guys, we're leaving in 2014, you just got to hold on till then. Then you can come back and do whatever the f— you want.'"

Unlike Spc. Webster, Sgt. Montville claims "honestly, I don't care. Once I go home, I'm going to try my best not to think about this place and some of the s— I've seen."

Why? "Because I'm a spoiled American."

Turns out that after nine months dodging rockets and IEDs, without alcohol, flush toilets or their respective wife and girlfriend, Spc. Webster and Sgt. Montville's tour has left them preoccupied with how good they have it.

"If you grew up in a mud hut, went to school for maybe one or two years, you might not be the smartest dude either, but you'd be a hard worker," says Sgt. Montville. "You see kids here hauling three, four times their body weight, going 15 miles an hour on some [beaten-up] one-speed bicycle. I absolutely have a lot of respect for them. You've got to."

Which brings us back to America's "occupiers." "Yeah okay, a lot of them have jobs, they work a crappy nine-to-five, they've got student loans," concedes Sgt. Montville. "And I have a car payment. I'm not getting financial aid for my cell-phone bill. Everyone has to work. Deal with it."

Of their own unenviable salaries, Spc. Webster shrugs: "No one's ever going to get paid enough to do this job. That's not why we do it."

"I love what I do, I can't see myself doing anything else," adds Sgt. Montville. But when Washington politicos were threatening earlier this year to suspend military pay, his initial reaction was: "They train us to kill people, to drive tanks, use explosives, fight in the dark, to engage in hand-to-hand-combat; they give us all these guns, all this cool gear to do this—and then they're going to take our pay? Are they stupid?"

Memo to the humorless: He's kidding. Upon hearing of the budget brinkmanship, "a lot of guys here said '[Forget] it then, I'm not going to go out on patrol!' But I don't know anyone who would actually do that."

And while neither voted for the current President, "[Mr.] Obama is my boss," says Spc. Webster. "If he sends us orders tomorrow to go to Pakistan, Iran, wherever—done. I'd pack my bags and go."

As the U.S. drawdown proceeds, Spc. Webster predicts, safely, that 2012 campaigns will bring claims of "'I did this, I brought the troops home.'" He laughs and lets Sgt. Montville finish his thought: "We're the ones watching each others' backs out here. The ones who survive—we'll have brought ourselves home."

Miss Jolis is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe.


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