What I learned in Afghanistan
By Congressman Charles K. Djou, Politico
Serving in Afghanistan on a tour of duty with the U.S. Army has taught me many things. On the surface, I have a new-found appreciation for running water and toilets. I treasure, more than ever, time with my family; being able to hold my wife’s hand and read my kids a bedtime story. Most importantly, I have a renewed respect and appreciation for the men and women, who put on the uniform, and place themselves in harm’s way to answer our country’s call to serve.
While working on a forward operating base in a violent combat zone in Afghanistan, I learned what true sacrifice really means. It was an honor to serve with soldiers, who gave selflessly, not for fame or fortune, but to defend the cause of freedom and security for all Americans.
I was privileged to serve in the same unit with a 24-year old West Point lieutenant who stopped his platoon on patrol when they reached a bridge over the Argendab River. Even though intelligence said the bridge was clear, he had a “funny” feeling. So, he halted his platoon and approached the bridge alone to investigate. A Taliban insurgent, using a command wire, detonated an improvised explosive device or “IED” that killed this lieutenant, slicing his body in two and throwing the pieces 20 feet in the air. Because of his actions, the lieutenant likely saved the lives of his platoon. This lieutenant left behind a young wife and one-year old daughter.
I was honored to have served with a staff sergeant. He was leading a squad of 10 soldiers when radio traffic picked up Taliban insurgents massing to ambush his men. The sergeant, knowing the need to find cover and get his soldiers protection quickly, went first into a ditch that he knew had not been cleared for mines. The sergeant wanted to be sure that his men could take cover safely. He stepped on a Taliban IED. He lived, but went home missing both of his legs.
This is the type of heroism and sacrifice that goes on every day in Afghanistan by our service members.
While I was in Afghanistan, I oversaw detainee operations for my brigade. It was my responsibility to vet every enemy insurgent that was captured. I processed over 100 enemy Taliban captured by U.S. and coalition forces in the Zharay District of Kandahar Province, the most violent district in one of the most violent provinces of, arguably, one of the most violent nations on earth.
Working in detainee operations, I helped put away a Taliban insurgent who murdered local Afghans simply because they worked with Americans. After killing his victims, he would throw their bodies at the door step of the local mosque and nail a note into their forehead threatening that he would “get” any other local national who dared to try to find work with coalition forces.
I also put away another insurgent who gave hand grenades to young children. He taught children that these grenades were “fire crackers” that only worked if you threw them at U.S. soldiers. Two young boys took one of these hand grenades, promising to use the “fire cracker” the next time they saw an American. They instead decided to played “catch” with the live grenade. It detonated and ripped their young bodies to pieces.
This is the nature of the enemy we face.
When I look across America and Hawai’i, I am concerned that so many people view things as so bleak. I understand that unemployment is still higher today than it was four years ago. I recognize that our economic growth rate, both locally and nationally, still remains well below historic averages. I know there are major challenges that face our country and our community that seem insurmountable.
But as I consider what our American soldiers have been able to accomplish and what they have been willing to sacrifice, I know our country has the ability to overcome any obstacle. As I have looked at true evil in the eyes of radical Taliban insurgents, I know what it means to face a real enemy.
Our sluggish economy and dysfunctional Congress are grave concerns facing our nation. But after having seen what Americans can do in Afghanistan and having seen the true nature of an intractable blood thirsty enemy, I know that these obstacles can be overcome with the right leadership and good, old-fashioned American hard work.
Hawai’i and America need representatives who will work cooperatively with both sides of the aisle in a bipartisan fashion. We need a commitment to policies that will increase economic growth and decrease government spending. We need representatives who will always put Hawai’i first.
After having served in Afghanistan, after serving with real American heroes, I know that the problems and issues facing our community and our country can be fixed through solid leadership and by each and every one of us coming together to do our small part.
Our brave and selfless American soldiers are an inspiration. I invite all of us to draw from the lessons learned by our nation’s returning Afghanistan and Iraq veterans in defining the future direction of our great country.
Charles Djou represented Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District from 2010 to 2011 and was a member of the House Armed Services Committee. He deployed with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) at Forward Operating Base Pasab from 2011 to 2012.