Monday, December 28, 2009

Ronan Vets Skeptical of Obama's Commitment in Afghanistan

-- By Carly Flandro

At the VFW in Ronan, Mont., old veterans sit at tables and sip their coffee. An American flag leans against the wall behind them, a symbol of what they've dedicated their lives to. They are talking and visiting, like they do almost every morning.

This morning, though, they are talking about Obama.

The president recently announced he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, a plan that has not been strongly supported throughout the country. Ronan, however, sits in one of two community types that Patchwork Nation found were split over the troop increase.

Although "Tractor Country" polls show that as many people support an increase in troops as a decrease, here among Ronan's military members and veterans the overwhelming majority of voices are strongly opposed to Obama's decision.

But unlike some opposition based on increased troop levels, these vets say it is his intention to withdraw troops by July 2011 that prompts their disapproval. To them, the so-called "exit strategy" indicates that the president is not dedicated to winning the war.

"If you're going to commit people, to expose themselves to die, you ought to try to win and go home," says Ken Wersland, who was in the military for 26 years.

As an Air Force bombardier, Wersland spent time in Japan, Vietnam, Germany, Turkey and Spain. Those years, Wersland says, changed his perspective about his country.

After being in the military, he's become more politically conservative. Wersland is skeptical of Obama, but says his plan could be worthwhile if it helps Afghanistan to form a stronger infrastructure and provide better education for its citizens. Regardless of what happens, Wersland says it's a soldier's job to obey, not question decisions.

"No matter your rank, you have the last two words in every decision: yes sir or yes ma'am. And that's the way it is," he says. "If anybody thinks other than that, they cannot be successful in the military."

Dan Hall, another Vietnam veteran, pulls up a chair next to Wersland. Hall fought on the ground, which Wersland says is very different from fighting in the air.

"Air war is quiet and impersonal," Wersland says. "You can inflict damage (with a bomb) but you can't hear it go boom or smell it. You're not down there worrying about leeches on your legs or mines in the ground."

Those mines have lingered in Hall's memory, especially the one that detonated when a fellow soldier stepped on it. The explosion propelled Hall up and backwards into the air, leaving him with two to three feet of scars and permanent hearing loss.

Hall has experienced the gravity of war, and he says that the 30,000 new troops being sent to Afghanistan should go with the intention of winning -- that way, the traumas they'll endure will have had a purpose.

"If they go over there, get involved and pull out, it'll be a lot of deaths for nothing," he says.

The physical tolls of war are often tragic, but so are the mental tolls, says Bert Todd, a Korean veteran. The suicide rate among service personnel is the highest it's ever been, he says. People are being deployed multiple times, and some have been sent to war five different times.

Todd's son, Kyle, is in Iraq on his second deployment.

"His mother has nightmares," Todd says.

Todd, too, thinks about what could happen to his son. He could come back with serious physical or mental problems, or worse -- he could not come back at all.

"But," Todd says, "there's nothing I can do about it."

The conversation lightens quickly as Hall talks about drinking dirty water from streams when he was in Vietnam, and Todd takes the excuse to laugh, to think about something else.

At her house, Charleen Crenshaw thumbs through a photo album, looking at pictures of her son. He's in the military, and there are pictures of him in uniform, and others of his wife and children.

Crenshaw, who wears a t-shirt that says "freedom isn't free," is one of four people in her family who are in the military or have been at some time. She's a human resources specialist, and went to Kuwait in 2006.

Crenshaw says she will always obey her commander in chief, but she's concerned about the decisions Obama has made.

"Obama's never even been in the military," she says. "It doesn't seem like he has as good of a grasp on what's going on as he should."

Crenshaw says the extra troops could be beneficial, though, because they'll supplement the soldiers who are already there and hopefully prevent some deaths by creating a stronger force.

But she also knows how those soldiers' absences from home will make a difference. When her son is gone, it's one less place at the dinner table. When her husband is gone, there is less help with the kids. And when she's gone, it means someone else will have to cook and clean.

"When a soldier deploys, it's not just him," Crenshaw says. "His family deploys with him, and so does his community."

In Ronan, Mont., the military members and veterans know the importance of obeying the commander in chief. But they also know that 30,000 is not just a number -- it is people, families and communities. If all that is going to be further ricked in Afghanistan, they say, they should go until they win.

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