Leaving a military base in Iraq in their up-armored SUVs, soldiers fire their M-4 automatic weapons into piles of sand dumped along the side of the road. It’s part of the routine: Make sure the guns work.
But to a group of five governors on a recent trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, the sudden bursts of gunfire were a jarring reminder of the constant danger our soldiers face in that remote and forbidding terrain. Late this past July, at the invitation of the Defense Department, we were given the opportunity to spend a week with our troops overseas and see firsthand the ongoing military, political and reconstruction efforts.
As governors, we command the National Guard, the thousands of volunteer citizen-soldiers who play a vital, and increasingly important, role in serving and commanding our nation’s military operations. Guard and Reserve forces now make up almost 25 percent of American troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Standard deployments last about a year, but some volunteer to return four, five, even six times.
These courageous men and women do whatever we ask of them, and more. At home, they are firefighters, police officers, teachers, doctors, mechanics. Overseas they fly jets, perform amputations and show farmers how to grow food instead of opium.
They sweep Afghan villages and dirt roads for the enemy’s weapon of choice — IEDs — disabling these crude homemade bombs before they can kill or maim more soldiers and civilians. Some patrols keep score on the sides of their vehicles: one scratch for each IED they’ve disarmed.
To call our volunteer citizen-soldiers brave vastly understates their courage. They know the importance of their missions and accept the risk. The price is high. Since the start of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan in 2001, hostile action has caused the deaths of nearly 900 U.S. service members and the wounding of another 7,149, according to the Defense Department’s weekly tally.
If what we saw and heard in mess halls, barracks and field hospitals taught us one thing — and it taught us many — it’s that we must support our troops at every stage of their missions:
• As they’re deployed, we must give them the training and tools to get the job done.
• While they’re gone, we must look after families they have left half a world away.
• As they return, we must provide the medical care they need to heal physically and mentally.
• And when they’re safely back home, we must help them reintegrate with their families and get back to work quickly, rebuilding their careers and our economy with skills, discipline and teamwork honed in battle.
Fighting terrorism and stabilizing nascent democracies takes time, resources and an unbending national will. As long as our nation’s obligations in the Middle East continue, the National Guard will continue to play a critical role there.
We are extremely proud of the professionalism, dedication and selflessness we witnessed everywhere we went. To all our troops in all branches of our military, know that your countrymen are standing with you. We thank you and pray for your safe return.
And yet, a thank you and Godspeed do not fully honor the living — just as a folded flag and lone bugler do not fully honor the dead. We honor them fully by counting the blessings of life in the greatest democracy in the world, ever-mindful of the price its protection demands.