Who goes to War?

WESTOVER AIR RESERVE BASE, Mass. -- In April, I deployed to central Kabul, Afghanistan. 

The conditions at International Security Assistance Force headquarters varied between friendly and toxic.  Two 107 millimeter rockets exploded near us in our first few hours on the ground.  Many of us got sick because of bad bottled water - the kind we buy because it's supposed to be safe.  Conversely, I met people who were remarkable on a daily basis.

I'd like to honor modern-day veterans by telling about the ones I met.  I often hear the word heroes applied to everyone who went to war, like we do at the end of T-ball season:  Everyone gets a trophy.  Instead, what I saw at ISAF was a mingling of noble and ignoble actions. 

I'm a 53-year-old grandfather.  I didn't volunteer to go to war.  I served in a NATO billet with people from 48 countries.  Next to my barracks room on one side were Italian Escercito, on the other side were two Frenchmen.  On my floor we had Irish, Brits, Turks, U.S. troops, and several civilians.  In our noisy chow hall, I could hear a dozen different languages. A friend remarked, "This place is like the Epcot Center, with guns."  One morning I greeted our German counterpart, Frank, "How are you?"  Frank was a moody Special Forces officer.  He replied, "Fine, fine. Isn't that what you Americans expect to hear?"  Another time, when I was sick with the stomach bug, Marcin, a Polish officer, took me to his country's small support building and gave me a bowl of his home-cooked stew. "Eat it; you'll feel better," he said.

Camp ISAF held a stark simplicity. Meals and laundry service were provided. All we had to do was work, seven days a week, 12-13 hours a day. Air Force tours were usually six months; Army tours were one year. I met a contractor who had been there 6 years, and another who had been there 3. They were well paid, but neither was married anymore.

And of course the danger mixed into everything, like the dust.  On July 17, insurgents attacked a post near Kabul airport, just down the road from where we operated at ISAF headquarters.  Most attacks we saw in Afghanistan were hit-and-run, or hit-and-die, in the case of suicide bombers.  So this was unusual.  A dozen of us were due to deliver clothing and school supplies to an orphanage the next day.  That evening, I was scared. 

My roommate, a Navy commander, had been out on many trips around Kabul.  He told me that it's unnerving to be stuck in traffic and know you're a target.  Then he said, "You have a security team with you, so you should be fine."  That brief act of encouragement eased my mind.  The next day, going to the Red Crescent compound and handing out lollipops to kids who were rescued, in some cases, from torture and slavery, turned out to be my favorite day in Afghanistan.

Here's another noble act. During Ramadan, one of our Afghan interpreters told the group during the morning meeting that the Afghans will be fasting - abstaining from food and water - during daylight hours.  Pamir was soft-spoken, and he was a devout Muslim. "Don't feel bad about eating or drinking in front of us," he said. "Please feel free to eat and drink as you would normally." It was a brief, selfless act. In the evening, it was a pleasure to join them for spiced lamb and naan when they broke their fast. 

The United States just had Election Day November 4, and no one was killed at the polls.  My last election day in Afghanistan, June 14, was tense.  The day began with early explosions around Kabul, and an earthquake up north later in the morning. 

Reports kept coming in over secret lines, then on Twitter: an explosion in District 1, an IED downtown.  Yet the people came to vote, knowing some would not return.  They dipped their finger in the purple dye to prove they'd voted.  Later, we learned that the Taliban chopped off the ink-stained fingers of some old men who had voted.  The result, after many delays, was that in September, Afghanistan had its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power in its history. 

So who are the veterans of this modern war?  There's Mike, an Air National Guardsman who volunteered for duty.  A senior civilian at 31 years old, he would have outranked everyone in the building in his civilian status, but as a major at headquarters he was mid-level.  Mike spent a month planning a summer Hawaiian barbeque, complete with colorful hung decorations, a limbo stick, beach songs, and non-alcoholic cocktail bar, just to lift everyone's spirits.

Who goes to war?  A bitter Army colonel, who walked around our open area being pointlessly nasty to everyone she outranked.  Then she would go outside to pet and feed the stray cats, disobeying General Order 1.  We watched and wondered how she could be so caustic to people and so nice to cats.

Who goes to war?  My friend Pete, a Navy reserve lieutenant, whose "day job" was being mayor of South Bend, Ind.  He was involved in every orphanage run, every backpack and school supply distribution we had.  Once, a reporter from South Bend asked him how he decided to answer the nation's call to service in Afghanistan, which meant "abandoning" his duty to the city while deployed.  "I raised my hand to take two oaths," he answered, "one to the city, and one to the country, and I try to honor both."

Who goes to war?  Jennifer, a Navy officer and mother of a 5-year-old, who produced more than anyone else on the floor, to make the time pass.  Despite my telling her repeatedly to take an actual break at dinnertime, she would go to the chow hall, rush back, and eat at her desk so she could write another story before her 13-hour day ended.  Her eyes would well up with tears when she showed us pictures of her 5-year-old boy and show us the story about a toad she was writing for him.

Who goes to war?  Scott, a 56-year-old Navy chaplain, who had to do seven funerals in his first month at ISAF.  I checked in regularly with him to make sure he was doing OK, and he returned the favor.  He told the 500 people gathered at Maj. Gen. Harold Greene's memorial service, "We all grieve and mourn in our own way.  There is no right or wrong way to do it, though some ways may prove better or healthier than others.  But grieve and mourn we must."

Who went to war?  The Afghan people, whether or not they wanted to.  I asked Miriam, a young Afghan civil engineer, how she chose her profession.  "I grew up seeing the civil wars in my country, all the buildings ruined," she replied, "and that was my inspiration to be a part of rebuilding my country."

At the end of the day, at the end of my brief tour, I saw a majority of smart people doing what they thought was right, even if it was inconvenient.  Not all their acts were noble, except, I hope, in the aggregate.  The world has one more democracy. 

A lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve, James G Bishop served in Afghanistan as a public affairs officer at headquarters, International Security Assistance Force from April to August 2014. He's completing a memoir on his time in Afghanistan. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of NATO, the Department of Defense, Department of the Air Force or the United States government.  He serves at chief of public affairs at Westover Air Reserve Base. 

"This article first appeared in The Republican and Masslive.com.  Used by permission."