Holiday revives recollections of deployment

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jonathan Wright
  • 81st Contracting Squadron commander
Each year in my family, Thanksgiving is a time for turkey, football, get-togethers and, of course, thanks. For me, this Thanksgiving marks my return from Afghanistan one year ago this month. As I look back, I'm still thankful for the graces that I said then and would like to offer them again this Thanksgiving.

I'm very thankful for the health and safety for all who have served and those who serve today in harm's way. Everyone who's been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan can relate to the imminence of rocket attacks, improvised explosive devices and car bombs. Does it stop us? Absolutely not. Meanwhile, we receive support from family, friends, our units back home, children who send cards to "Any Soldier," and even fellow countrymen who are simply anonymous yet care enough to send a package. This helps us go the extra mile, or as they say in Afghanistan, "climb the mountain." How extraordinary, considering the toll that we, as a nation, pay in the currency of efforts and sacrifices.

Our country's sons and daughters serve with dedication and commitment toward helping a war-torn country. Since the 1980s, all it has ever known was conflict. Sadly, some service members pay the ultimate sacrifice in their service to the United States. This is truly priceless and they will never be forgotten. I am thankful for those sacrifices they made toward what we, as a country, are doing for Afghanistan. It's much more than a response to 9/11 that started in October 2001.

I can mark the day when this really hit me. During my time "over there," I had to go on convoys several times a week. My routes were always through high-threat areas in the capital city, Kabul. One of the most challenging days was traveling the route where a 900-pound bomb had exploded several hours earlier and through another point in which a bomb had exploded two days prior. essentially, your "head is on a swivel," as the saying goes, to keep a sharp eye on every single car -- expecting the worst and being prepared.

One day, we approached a traffic circle that was heavily congested. We remained at idle for what seemed like an exorbitant amount of time. "When can we move?" was the thought that must have drummed through all of our minds. Moving is much better than being a sitting duck. Seconds felt like minutes. Any moment, one of these cars, vans or even a donkey cart could have exploded. Which one will it be? We waited far too long.

Then I noticed an Afghan girl about 4 years old right outside my window. She stood in the median all by herself. She had brown, uncombed hair and emerald eyes. Clothed in a ragged, smudgy tunic, she was obviously poor. I was thinking about the challenges she must endure. For example, poverty runs so rampant in Afghanistan that some children beg for water bottles. They'll pour out the water in order to resell the plastic.

At this point, I'm wondering what kind of life she may have in front of her. All of a sudden, she waved at me.I was quite surprised that she would do so, considering I'm in an armored vehicle, wearing my full battle rattle and dark sunglasses, and my convoy appears quite menacing. After all, it's manned by the U.S. military, the world's best trained fighting force and equipped with weapons and ammo. But she waved at me.

In other words, she thought we were the good guys. In a city where terrorism runs rampant, she knew we were on her side. I waved back. She waved again, this time smiling with a big, toothy grin. We exchanged waves back and forth about 10 times, each time making her giggle just a bit more as if it were a game. She reminded me of my daughter, who also likes to make people smile. Here I am in Afghanistan, seeing a girl about the same age trying to make me do the same.

But wait, where are her parents? Why is she in the middle of the road? Up ahead, further into the traffic circle, I spotted her mother, begging from car to car. She wasn't just standing on a street corner with a cardboard sign. Instead, she was subserviently bowing before each car in the hopes that she may receive alms for her family. The vehicles started to dissipate, so we started moving forward. I couldn't get out and do anything for the girl or her mother. Quite the opposite, considering the threat and our procedures. 

But on this day, in this brief exchange, I was looking at the future of Afghanistan. And I realized that I, along with other U.S. and Coalition members, am doing something for this little girl and the thousands like her. Every single day, we must all ask "What difference am I going to make?" No matter if we're on the front line, providing logistics support or sending support from back home, our actions enable the fielding and development of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police as well as defeating the terrorists who attempt to derail these efforts. These two institutions will provide enough law and order so that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan's democratic government can function. The change won't happen overnight. Yet collectively, we are making a difference.

We do this so that in the years to come, when this little girl is a mother herself, that she may have a government that can provide basic services for her and her family. So on Thanksgiving, I will continue to say thanks for my family, the Air Force and our country. I am thankful for my family who endured sacrifices while I was away. Military families make such an incredible difference. My wife, like many other spouses, had to take on twice the responsibility. Also, our children learned to cope without dad. Yet military families continue to be fully supportive so that we can help this country establish itself. Additionally, I owe much appreciation to the members of my squadron. As my Wingmen, they dropped me a line from time to time and never hesitated to ask what they can do to support my unit and me. I am also thankful for the men and women I got to know and serve alongside in Afghanistan. And ultimately,
I am thankful to serve our country -- one that will stand up for others, like this 4-yearold little girl, who cannot protect themselves so they look to the United States for a better tomorrow.