October 7, 2011

Afghanistan: Soldiers

The second part in our series about 10 years of U.S. involvement there.

Jessica: At the age of twenty-five, Sergeant Christopher Sullivan is a war veteran. He has been deployed four times, which means he has been sent twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan.

Sergeant Christopher Sullivan: Each deployment is seven months, about twenty-eight months of my life.

Jessica: Two-and-a-half years spent shooting… and getting shot at.

Sergeant Sullivan: It’s not like what you see in the movies. There’s definitely something that snaps in your head that says, ‘this is real.’

Jessica: But Sergeant Sullivan knew the risks going in.

Sergeant Sullivan: I was a freshmen in high school when they flew the planes into the towers and I wanted to sign up and do my part. I love my country, love America and I love the life I’ve been given.

Jessica: The biggest question was whether to join the Army or the Marines.

Sergeant Sullivan: We walked into the Army office and it was this fat, nasty guy with boots on a desk, strong Southern accent, bald and disgusting, and telling us how he could sign us up with a $20,000 dollar signing bonus. And then, walked into Marine Corp office all in their snazzy uniforms, extremely professional, all fit and huge. They promised us absolutely nothing. They said we’re not going to pay for you to join us, we want you to join because we want you to be a Marine, not because it’s something we pay you to do.

Jessica: Sullivan is now stationed at a small base in southern Afghanistan. On the outside, it looks like a sand castle. Inside, he and his fellow Marines have done their best to make it home.

Sergeant Sullivan: This is something to remind us of home in Hawaii, just like a real palm tree.

Jessica: Most of the guys here are between the ages of nineteen and twenty-one. They create their own fun, despite constant reminders of what is at stake.

Sergeant Sullivan: Complacency kills. Our fallen our wounded have bled and sweat too much to give any of this back to the Taliban.

Jessica: During the day, they patrol on foot or in combat vehicles like these.

Sergeant Sullivan: So right now, we’re going on patrol and we’re in a vehicle that can withstand IED explosions.

Jessica: And the reason why U.S. Marines go on these patrols is for security. They want both the Afghan people and the Taliban to know they have a strong presence in the area.

The Taliban is the militant Islamic group launching attacks on U.S. troops.

Sergeant Sullivan: Two-and-a-half years ago, this area was Taliban territory. They controlled the land between the Helmand River, which is behind me all the way down south. But since then, the U.S. has increased the number of troops here.

This needs a map.

Jessica: Those extra troops were part of a surge that helped drive out the Taliban in this area. But now, much of the fighting has moved to the border with Pakistan. Experts say it is because the Taliban has found safe haven in Pakistan, where they are recruiting and arming new members.

At this U.S. base along the border, militants in Pakistan fire rockets at troops on a regular basis. But rockets aren’t the biggest danger out there. This is what is left of a truck that was hit by an IED, an Improvised Explosive Device. It is one of the biggest threats to Afghan and U.S. forces.

IEDs are responsible for between 70-80%  of military deaths, something Sergeant Sullivan knows firsthand.

Sergeant Sullivan: Last deployment, my very best friend, Noah Pierre, he was killed. He stepped on an IED. They were lured into an ambush. We didn’t know it was him. You see the plume of smoke come up and you knew someone was hit, but at the time it didn’t occur to me yet until we were listening to the radio and calling it in, and they called in his zap number. First letter of the company, first letter of last name and last four of social security number. That’s how close I was to him is that I had it written down in my book and had memorized it in my head. I heard that and my heart crumbled.

Jessica: But death is not Sergeant Sullivan’s biggest fear.

What is your biggest fear?

Sergeant Sullivan: Coming here and making it be a waste, not accomplishing what we’re supposed to get accomplished.

Jessica: One of Sergeant Sullivan’s duties is working alongside the Afghan National Army, or ANA. In fact, one of the key goals of U.S. forces is to train and build up the ANA. The idea is for Afghan soldiers to take over for U.S. troops who have already begun withdrawing from Afghanistan. The president says all U.S. combat troops should be out of Afghanistan by 2014.

So, how close are we to that goal? That is what we will explore tomorrow.


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