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Opinion

American soldier reacts to Afghanistan deployment

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March 23, 2012

We have been at war for over 10 years. Throughout that period of time military personnel have been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and a whole plethora of other countries in support of them. Some soldiers have had one deployment. Some soldiers have had two deployments.

A surprising amount has had three, four, or even five deployments, where as some soldiers have never deployed and never will. I served in Afghanistan under a soldier who was on his fourth deployment. He spent 10 months in Kosovo, 10 in Iraq, another 12 in Iraq and 10 in Afghanistan.

He loves deployments. He loves the good times, the bad times and everything in between. He’s not addicted to combat, or anything for that matter (except sugar), he just enjoys the challenge of performing difficult tasks under pressure and is good at it.

I proudly served under him for his fourth deployment and would proudly serve under him for his fifth and sixth as well. For whatever, reason he is better at handling the stress and fatigue than most other service members; deployments have little effect on him. I have met few people who are similar.

What about the rest of us? The service members who are affected by multiple deployments? And what about the service members who just cannot handle it?

Ideally in each chain of command the superiors of the unit have a good handle of the capabilities and limitations of their subordinates. Ideally they would recognize the signs of combat fatigue or stress and not deploy soldiers who are exhibiting these signs.

Unfortunately, the reality is that in the units where soldiers are most likely to be suffering from combat fatigue or stress, are the units which have high deployment tempos.

These signs are likely to be ignored due to the high demand for experienced soldiers. Soldiers who may not be able to handle another deployment are forced or coerced into deploying again and again and again.

Those units are right, to a certain extent. Experience is huge in these theaters of operation. I was a mess my first mission. I did not know where to stand. I did not know where to look. I did not know what to say, what to do and my report was nothing short of embarrassing.

It was not until after about three months that I felt like I was making significant contributions to the unit’s efforts. That is three months of wasted productivity because I had not deployed before.

Units are tempted to cut out those three months by only deploying experienced soldiers, drawing from a pool that, if only experienced soldiers are ever deployed, cannot grow any larger.

This is how Staff Sergeant (SSG) Robert Bales, the suspect in the recent killing of 16 Afghan civilians, ended up on his last deployment even though he arguably should not have.

So what happens when a soldier snaps? Well, we are going to find out. As the Afghans would say, the Army and the Obama administration are caught between a cliff and a tiger (the phrase rhymes in Pashto). Afghans as a whole are likely expecting SSG Bales or whoever is found guilty to be executed.

This would be hard for the American public to swallow. Haven’t there been enough deaths of military service members? Can we really allow one that could be prevented so easily? I hope not, but not executing the one responsible for the killings would be an even tougher sell to Afghans who are accustom to capital punishment for crimes such as these.

Arguably, a lot of the reason why there has not been a violent reaction to the news of the killings in Afghanistan is because Afghans are taking it for granted that whoever is found responsible will be executed. Americans do not understand Afghan culture but Afghans really do not understand American culture, especially our sense of patriotism and nationalism.

I expect that we will see violence in Afghanistan if the news were to break that SSG Bales was found guilty and was not to be executed. This is something that the Army and the Obama administration are going to have forefront in their minds.

Which is better? Killing one of our own soldiers who did something wrong to potentially save the lives of others and our mission in Afghanistan, or preventing the death we know we can prevent, potentially costing the lives of others and the mission in Afghanistan?

The second option is what will likely happen. I doubt he will be sentenced to capital punishment in the first place and even if he is, the Army of the Obama administration will likely step in and prevent the sentence from being carried out. However, this is not the best option and, yes, there is another one.

I vote for option C. The option where we hold whoever committed the atrocities responsible for their actions in a manner that we, as a nation, are comfortable with.

A manner not condemning them to being a statistic, a manner preserving the life of other service members still in Afghanistan and not to mention relieveing the stress that caused the “snap” in the first place.

I vote for pulling out of Afghanistan all together and letting the Afghans deal with what is left. It is their country and ultimately their responsibility. We are soon approaching a point where our presence in itself is going to be destabilized.

We tried to help. We tried to do the right thing and we might very well have succeeded. We will not know until we take that leap of faith and give Afghanistan back to the Afghans.

Jason Larson is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.