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Can a Doomed Soldier's Letter Change the Course of the Afghanistan War?

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2012-09-24-Sgt.Sitton.jpg

Having been severely stung by criticism over their presidential nominee's and their speakers' lack of mention of the Afghanistan War and of the U.S. military during the recent Republican National Convention, GOP hawks are now "urging Mitt Romney to separate himself from President Obama on Afghanistan and back an extended presence for U.S. troops in the country."

While president Obama continues to deliver on his promise to end the Afghanistan War, while an overwhelming number of Americans support such a course and while even Mitt Romney has publicly, albeit reluctantly and "evolvingly," agreed with the withdrawal plans, GOP defense hawks apparently see in prolonging the Afghanistan war -- our nation's longest war already -- a winning campaign strategy. This is a war that continues to cost our nation dearly in lives and treasure. A war where, if present trends continue, one American soldier will die every day we stay -- many at the hands of the very Afghan troops and police we are trying to help -- and a war on which we will continue to spend $65 billion a month.

Nonetheless, GOP hawks such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) apparently believe that "getting it right" in Afghanistan -- whatever that means -- is more important than the lives we are losing and the treasure we are squandering over there, and they are telling Romney that he needs to distance himself from "the Obama administration's goal of pulling all American forces from Afghanistan by 2014."

My personal belief is that such a war strategy -- shamelessly, at this point in time, more a political strategy -- will backfire badly on Republicans and will become just one more nail in the coffin that is presently the Romney campaign.

But those are just my words.

Some words, however, can have a tremendous impact.

Take the words in a letter written by U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Matthew Sitton, an Army Ranger who served with the 82nd Airborne Division, in Afghanistan.

Those words are having a significant impact for several reasons.

First, Sergeant Sitton, 26, while on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan was killed there by an IED on Aug. 2, less than two months after writing the letter.

Second, the e-mail letter was sent to none other than U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, (R-Fl), the senior Republican in the House of Representatives and the chairman of the influential House Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee.

Finally, and tragically, Sitton's letter pointing out the dangers and mistake of sending troops on foot patrols in fields that were known to be full of IEDs, where "every time they went into this field, someone lost a leg or an arm or their life," pretty much predicted the soldier's own death.

In his letter to Young, Sitton said:

I feel myself and my soldiers are being put into unnecessary positions where harm and danger are imminent. There is no end state or purpose for the patrols given to us from our higher chain of command, only that we will be out for a certain time standard....We are walking around aimlessly through grape rows and compounds that are littered with explosives.

Sitton's letter has contributed to a change of heart and possibly to a change in policy on the part of an 81-year-old Congressman who thus far has consistently voted against troop withdrawals from Afghanistan "or even for setting a timetable for troop withdrawal."

Last Monday, Young said during an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, "I think we should remove ourselves from Afghanistan as quickly as we can. I just think we're killing kids that don't need to die."

As the longest serving Republican member of Congress and as chairman of the powerful House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Young's change of heart should say something to the Romney campaign as it will carry some weight with fellow Republicans and with the American people.

Last Wednesday Young said, "I have been very careful not to substitute my judgment for that of military leaders in the field managing the mission. I really believe that. But I also believe that we are not carrying out our commitment to protect our troops the best we can."

"I don't think we should put our soldiers at risk any longer," he said. "The president wants to bring them out piecemeal by 2014. Logistically, I am not sure how long it would take, but I think we should start moving them out quickly and safely and leave a combat force that has authority to use whatever force they need."

In addition to changing his views on Afghanistan, Young is also looking into the IED danger. He has called for a hearing next week to "ask the agency in charge of protecting troops against IEDs to explain why so many are still dying and suffering horrific injuries despite an annual budget of nearly $3 billion."

While Sitton's letter has certainly been a catalyst in changing Young's heart on Afghanistan, Young has always been an advocate for our wounded warriors and he frequently visits them at Veterans Administration hospitals to check on their care.

But Young is not the only Republican having second thoughts on Afghanistan.

Young told the Tampa Bay Times that he has talked with his Republican colleagues in Congress about his new position on Afghanistan and he believes they feel the same way he does, "but they tend not to want to go public" about it.

According to the Stars and Stripes, Republican Congressman Tom Rooney said that after learning that the training of Afghans by coalition forces has been suspended, "I no longer know what our mission is anymore ... right now I am on Bill Young's side of this issue. I have never been before."

It may thus be that the words of a fallen Army Ranger -- a hero who leaves behind his wife, Sarah, and their 9-month-old son, Brodey -- may have a greater impact on the course of a war than the words of a presidential candidate, of generals, of pundits and, hopefully, of Senator Lindsey Graham.

Photo: U.S. Army