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On the bright side…

Today is a big day for America. We are out of Iraq! It’s times like this when veterans tend to draw the greatest acclaim for the sacrifices they’ve made, yet receive the biggest headache of questions and media inputs questioning the validity and worth of their sacrifice. I’m thankful for having come back home after a brutal fight in Afghanistan, to a nation that is far better at disassociating a service member’s sacrifice from various opinions of the worth of the conflict.

The path to transition is still a long journey far from complete for our veterans back home. But considering where we have been as a country, and the changes our society has embraced, I’m sure that the 1million+ veterans of the Iraq campaign can hang their heads highly without fear of scorn or bearing society’s anger against the war they executed. This is by no means a post to insist that veterans don’t have it bad. On the contrary, I and many other activists fight tirelessly to get our boys and girls the services and resources they deserve to live productive lives in the democracy they volunteered to protect. But in a pluralistic manner, I’m happy today to look on the progress that veterans and their advocates have made over the past forty years or so in preserving a sense of respect for those who are coming home. Now, for us GWOT veterans, it’s our job to remain active and passionate so we can fight for the next generation of young vets that will come home when we are old and gray. We must consider them part of our own unit, and care for them as we would care for our teammates on the battlefield. That means getting involved, putting your money where your mouth is, and using our network to proactively help the veteran community as we disperse to our homes across America. The time for awareness has passed, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

I’m currently working on two projects to get vets back to work and to get them services they need to transition successfully. For those interested in getting involved, tweet/Facebook/comment or email me at Rajiv@RajivSrinivasan.net

What We’re Thankful For

Friends and Family,

This Veterans Day, when you thank a soldier or veteran for their service…take a minute to think about what exactly you’re thanking them for in this new generation of conflict. I discuss this in my latest in TIME- All the best :)

http://ideas.time.com/2011/11/11/what-to-thank-a-veteran-for-compassion/?iid=op-main-lede

WHAT WE’RE THANKFUL FOR
From TIME.com

Underneath the regalia and pomp and circumstance, Veterans Day is somewhat of an awkward experience for both veterans and civilians in how we interact. For us veterans, it’s often hard to accept thanks for going to war, when we know others have done and sacrificed far more than we have. It’s hard because not all of us join the military for such benevolent, patriotic reasons. Some of us join to break free from our hometowns. Some join to test themselves. And let’s face it, a lot of folks are like me and joined for the free education.

But for the civilian, the act of thanking a veteran for their service is awkward as well. Not in the least because the gratitude isn’t genuine but rather because it’s too unfocused. It’s hard to thank someone when you truly have no idea what they’ve done. That’s not a flaw of character on the civilian’s part by any means but simply a narrative that I fear goes untold in today’s 24-hour news cycle.

(MORE: A Brief History of Unknown Soldiers)

When my military friends and I turn on the news, we relive the moments of violence and fear showcased on B-roll footage of soldiers in combat. I remember the adrenaline-charged feeling of firefights in Kandahar. My power was not in the finger on my rifle’s trigger, but rather the finger on my radio. Just as every good Army platoon leader, I trained vigorously for the decisive moment where I would call for fire upon my enemy. Calling for mortars and aviation fire is the bread and butter of the military profession. My soldiers relished the idea of raining down hell on Taliban positions off in the distance. And when the explosions erupted, they cheered. And I felt like a 24-year-old god holding nothing short of the wrath of the U.S. Army in his hands — just one radio click away.

But behind the scenes where the cameras don’t go, Taliban leaders would bundle their severely wounded teammates into a taxi cab, drive to the front gate of our outpost, kick the bleeding bodies out the door and take off before we could catch them. They expected us to medically treat and save the lives of their wounded fighters.

It breaks my heart to think that when American civilians thank my soldiers for their service in combat they thank them for the assumed bravery under fire. They thank them for putting their lives in danger. But this Veterans’ Day, I’d ask you to thank our soldier’s for something far more valuable and sacred that has truly saved more of our American lives than anything else: their compassion.

(PHOTOS: Veterans From Iraq and Afghanistan Bring Their Leadership Skills Home)

I remember one evening after a helicopter engagement that I ordered, two brutally injured Taliban fighters came to our gates. My medic, Specialist Mike Piegaro, a 21-year-old soldier from Florida, began to operate on the most critically wounded. I watched the Afghan’s eyes. He was about my age. He trembled and shivered on the operating table as cold wraps and iodine touched his skin. His gaze at the ceiling seemed to question of God, “How did I get myself into this? I want to go home.” As the fighter’s spasms increased with his anxiety, Specialist Piegaro stopped operating. He took off a glove, grabbed the Afghan’s hand and held tightly. He motioned the interpreter to his side. Mike looked into the Afghan’s eyes — a boy of similar age who just two hours ago had been trying to kill him — and in a calming voice, he said to him, “Relax, brother. Everything is going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.” The young Talib responded more to Mike’s body language than the interpreter’s translation. He leaned his head back, lowered his shoulders and allowed himself to be healed.

I look back on that day affectionately as humbling moment. Whereas I had felt so proud of myself for engaging my enemy with explosives, Mike had probably done more for Afghanistan and the United States by engaging the enemy with compassion. It was one of my proudest moments as a platoon leader, but the reality is that these sort of events happen every day in Afghanistan and Iraq. Medics and doctors from all services and ranks, spend countless stressful hours on operating tables and aid stations treating Afghan civilians and insurgents.

(VIDEO: Heroic Images: TIME Meets the New Greatest Generation)

My good friend, Maj. Raj Shah is an F-16 fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force who, in his free time during his first Iraq tour, donned scrubs to help in the trauma station at Balad Air Base. One night he was assisting in the operating room when the tell-tale thumps of a landing Blackhawk helicopter signaled the arrival of an emergency casualty. Two injured men were quickly wheeled into the tent-covered operating room. One was an American Marine, the other an Iraqi. Raj was asked to assist with the Iraqi, who was being treated for gunshot wound. As he handed scalpels and bags of saline to the surgeons, Raj watched as the doctors across the room frantically worked to save the Marine’s life. Much of the Marine’s leg had been decimated by a roadside bomb. Several hours into the effort, one of the surgeons called out to Raj, “Take a look at this bullet.” He handed Raj an M-16 round he had extracted from the Iraqi and then dropped a bombshell — the Iraqi they were working on was the trigger-man for the bomb that had blown off the Marine’s leg! While the Marine was eventually sent to Walter Reed for recuperation and the Iraqi to the penal system, during their time in the hospital, both equally received the finest medical care our nation could muster. No other fighting force in history has provided such a level of care for its enemies. I shudder to think of the outcome had the roles of fighter and captor been reversed.

As I returned from combat to read nothing but bad press on the failures of our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, a dire fear started to seep under my skin, a fear that our nation will regard both wars as a total loss with no positive impact. I feared that the daily courage of soldiers like Mike Piegaro would go unappreciated through history. Winning this war is about small daily victories, and a 24-hour news cycle fueled on sensationalism will never give credit where credit is due. Say what you will about the grand national strategy of our occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq, but at the end of the day, let us not remember these wars in a simple win-loss context. Let us appreciate the sacrifices shown through benevolence — and the bravery shown through compassion on battlefields and in the operating rooms. They are not gifts deserving of thanks nearly as they are models for how great America can be.

Srinivasan is a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom and a spokesperson for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The views expressed are his own.

Read more: http://ideas.time.com/2011/11/11/what-to-thank-a-veteran-for-compassion/#ixzz1dQA42Esr

10 years later

Friends

Here is a TIME article I wrote recently discussing how my life changed ten years ago when I was a high school student on 9/11/01. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and comments.

http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2092327,00.html?xid=tweetbut#disqus_thread

Making the Sale

Friends, I’ve been lucky enough to be published again in TIME Magazine discussing our nation’s drastically high veteran unemployment rate. I’d appreciate you taking a read and letting me know your thoughts! All the best.

Making The Sale: The renewed case for reducing Veteran Unemployment
http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2088709,00.html#disqus_thread

A Soldier’s Reflection for Memorial Day

Friends,

I wrote a Memorial Day post that’s featured in TIME this week. I hope you enjoy:

http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2074001,00.html

Happy Memorial Day and warmest thanks to all who serve and have served.

The Axe to Vets

Also Available at http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2064039,00.html#ixzz1J26X9ToP

My eyes always cringe at the sight of a homeless veteran. As I know the pains of war firsthand, it breaks my heart to see that people who have sacrificed so much for my freedom are suffering to such a degree. But it’s comforting to know that groups like the American Legion Homeless Veterans Housing Project in Jewett City, Conn., have been renovating old buildings and turning them into shelters for veterans for quite some time. They’ve raised millions of dollars from private businesses and caring citizens. The federal government has even said it would chip in the monthly rent of $875 for 15 veterans each year and provide additional funds for construction.

Unfortunately, in the recent round of intense budget cuts in Congress, this small funding for the homeless-shelter project was slashed, along with a total of $75 million in homeless-veteran benefits. As both a veteran and an American, I don’t believe that veterans’ programs should ever be isolated from budget cuts. After all, if the nation is hurting, it is we veterans who have sacrificed and will sacrifice first to protect her. But when I turn the pages of the budget to find a $7.4 million guaranteed commitment to fund a U.S. Army NASCAR sponsorship — and $20 million more from the National Guard to do the same — my blood begins to boil.

Advertising consultants may argue that the marketing statistics actually make the NASCAR project worthwhile, that it’s great “bang for the buck” in getting the Army slogan in front of millions of young auto fans salivating at the masculine thrill of modern sport. But is this really what we’ve come down to in our military-recruitment strategy? Have we boiled down the science of appealing to the core of the most dedicated young Americans to simple ad placement? To more-forgiving critics, this is just a miscalculation. To me, it is a telling exposition of how removed our policymakers are from the personal narratives of the men and women who execute their orders.

Running on my 24th month as a platoon leader — 12 of them in combat — I have had the chance to hear each of my soldiers’ life stories from before their enlistment. Some had seen tremendous success; others had seen horrific family pains I know I could never endure. When I ask my soldiers why they joined the Army, each of their answers is unique and far more sophisticated than a halftime commercial.

Michael’s dad was once in the Special Forces in Vietnam, and there was a distance between them for some time. Michael joined the Army against his father’s wishes to better understand him. Since then, their relationship has grown closer than ever.

Doug hadn’t graduated high school and was already in a bad crowd that would have probably led him to an early death or jail time. When his father died, there was no one in his family bringing home a consistent paycheck. He knew he had to make something of his life. He joined the Army.

Aaron is a college graduate, deeply interested in politics and energy independence. He chose not to do the ROTC because, in his words, adding up his enlistment bonus and the accelerated promotion points from his degree, it was more profitable for him to enlist than commission. He’s now one of the most senior and respected NCOs in the company, as well as a loving husband and father.

America’s service members are not one-dimensional people. The military’s target audience — those who have the fortitude to sign on the dotted line — are not simpletons who will be called to action by a race car. They are smart. They are thoughtful. They are not children but grown men and women, and they deserve to be treated as such.

That being said, when a smart, young high school student from Connecticut is considering enlistment, what sort of “ad placement” do homeless veterans on his neighborhood block present? What does that high school student think when he sees veterans unemployed or without health insurance?

For many homeless veterans, residual emotional and psychological effects of war are what led to their unfortunate circumstances. When we fail to support our veterans in dire conditions, we present military service as an unsustainable lifestyle to our prime recruitment audience. Those potential enlistees will deduce that they can better care for their families and themselves in other professions — and our front lines will be weaker for it. Thus, this isn’t just a veterans’-affairs issue but a national-security issue and should be regarded as one. With every soldier I’ve met, the common denominator in their decision to join the Army was a caring mentor whom they wanted to make proud. Rather than spending millions chasing stock cars to get attention, why don’t we invest in the mentors — the American veteran heroes — who can sell the honor and fulfillment of military service better than any athlete ever could?

I truly hope the American Legion Homeless Veterans Housing Project continues its venture. In the meantime, the manner in which our senior policymakers conceive the psyches of the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who lay their lives on the line each day for this country needs a drastic shift. This oversimplification of our identities costs this nation money; it will eventually cost us military talent and perhaps even lives. If you know a soldier or veteran, don’t just thank them for their service. Take the time to understand why they joined — and why they stayed — in the military. It’s an issue we must all understand if we are to democratically influence the decisions that will protect our country. Otherwise, we’ll just be driving in circles around the same problem for years to come.

When the Wave Hits Afghanistan

Available From: http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/when-the-wave-hits-afghanistan/

As reports of the riots in the Middle East continue to flood news outlets, I follow with a distance that is rather peculiar considering my history and interests. Having spent nearly seven months of my four years at West Point in Egypt and Tunisia, I hold a special place in my heart for the people of both countries. After all, they helped me learn their language, and thus gave me a conduit to understanding the depths of one of the world’s most misunderstood regions. And while a call for liberation is certainly worthy of praise, it’s difficult for me to feel proportionally excited for my friends in Egypt and Tunisia, because there is a third country close to my heart that few have considered in this equation: Afghanistan.

One of the biggest misconceptions I brought with me to Kandahar in mid-2009 was how disconnected the society would be from events around the world. I knew the major population centers, like Kabul, would have decent connectivity, but I could not imagine a globally aware population springing up from the isolated villages in Zhari and Maiwand. As my relationships with village leaders and Afghan Army officers strengthened over my 12-month tour, I found that the proliferation of cellphones and radios offered a primitive, but effective, means of relaying world information even in the most remote locations of the Afghan deserts. Concurrently, the information flowed in only one direction, and in my experience with village leaders, was restricted as a privilege for the powerful.

What worries me most as a veteran of Afghanistan is how those village elders with whom I drank chai daily will react to the wave of protests and coups in their brother Arab countries. I’m not talking about the more developed areas around Kabul or Kandahar, but the isolated villages where the Taliban roam and intimidate freely. The leaders of these villages were raised in deep-seated and conservative manifestations of Islam.  We in the West may have looked upon the governments of Tunisia and Egypt as dictatorships. But let us empathize with these Afghan tribal elders as they listen to their radios today, hearing of coups toppling leaders, using things like Twitter and Facebook for coordination.

If I were a senior tribal elder in Zhari, I’d look upon these countries and see Egyptian and Tunisian women walking freely outside without escort and without burqas. I’d look at these nations’ youthful resistance as a severe sign of disrespect toward elders, and thus a violation of the patriarchal value system our faith honors. If I were an Afghan tribal leader, it would be easy to designate former Presidents Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt as victims of their own leadership philosophies — their failure to instill Islamic discipline in the countries they command. I would view their investments in education and communication as the kindling of their downfall.

It’s hard to tell a tribal elder to liberalize his village and let women go to school when he hears of such threats to power happening in other Muslim countries. If I were a tribal elder wanting to retain an Islamic community, it might even be in my best interest to further isolate my village from the toxins of the Internet and equal gender rights to keep away future threats to what is the true Islamic way of life. But the free flow of information, be it through modern or primitive means, is the key to a successful democracy. If grass-roots Afghan leaders view this information flow as a threat to their authority, what are the implications for our goal to democratize this country and leave it more stable than we found it?

The wave of uprisings may be viewed in the contexts of the individual countries, or in the Arab region as a whole. But the fact is that the entire world, including Afghanistan, is watching very closely. As thrilled as I am to see my Egyptian and Tunisian friends in the streets asserting — and achieving — their right to be heard, I know that there are still American, Afghan and NATO lives in grave danger in the same battlefields from which I returned not so long ago.  Those are my brothers fighting to bring democracy to a country that has been tormented by war for centuries. It is an intimidating challenge. The voyage has thus far been painful, and the currents of history continue to work against them. I just hope that this wave of liberalization across the Arab world doesn’t push us farther back to shore.

Taking off the Armor

Available From: http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/taking-off-the-armor/

I trembled when I felt the suction of the sterile brace over my right eyeball. The brightly lighted operation room faded to black as the blood ceased to flow. My left eye, still functioning for the time being, followed the surgeon with a paranoia I had not felt in months. My Army-sponsored Lasik eye surgery was supposed to be a relatively simple procedure. The surgeon would cut a flap into my cornea, imprint the prescription on its inner surface, and finally replace the flap with a few steroid drops. I’d jump up, throw on some sunglasses, and would probably see 20/20 in a few days. But this wasn’t what I signed up for.

A sharp swipe of a needle quickly struck the contour of my eye. I felt it pierce the surface of my cornea, and I whimpered. Dear God, was I supposed to feel that? Should I say something? I still couldn’t see in my right eye. With the wet sensation around my brow, I believed I was bleeding.

To a third party, and even to myself as I write this, I might seem unnecessarily dramatic. After all, Lasik is a routine procedure. My doctor had performed thousands of these surgeries. It’s easy to say that my fear was in vain in retrospect, but in the moment, I desperately feared that the needle and blood I felt meant something went wrong and my eyesight was at stake.

A montage of images from the most impactful events in my life flashed through my mind, most from my recent tour in Kandahar. I remembered seeing the delicate smiles of children, finding humor even in their war-torn home. I recalled the crying girl, about 7 years old, who knelt by my side during a firefight in Zhari. I saw the way she raised her hands toward her mouth, as if to cover the cracks in her brave exterior. I remembered dozens of explosions, the bravery of my men and images bemoaning the confusion of combat. I saw the faces of lifeless friends, and the purging of emotion from the losses thereof. My eyes had served me so well in my life.

Overcome with fear and vulnerability, I lost control of my nervous function. I began to shake and twitch on the operating table as waves of post-traumatic stress unleashed itself in my body. But then something magical happened: a moment of kindness and warmth that I will never forget. A nurse sitting to my left reached for my arm. She held my hand, and squeezed it with reassuring compassion. My left eye shot to her face. Though her mouth and hair were both covered, I could tell she was a middle-aged woman, akin to my own mother. Her eyes darted to meet mine with an empowering stare as if to say, “Don’t worry, Rajiv, everything is going to be all right.”

I took a breath. In. Then out. My body slowly began to relax. My arms rested by my side, and I indulged in a rare feeling of delicate protection in the arms of another. It was a dramatic transition from terror to trust and security that I hadn’t felt in years. I felt like a small child, trusting my own mother and father as I received my first booster shot at the age of 5. As the surgeon regained his tempo, I finally sat motionless on the table, amazed at how quickly this woman’s touch calmed me down.

Communication through human touch transcends anything that can be said or heard; it’s therapeutic. I considered my weakest moments in Kandahar: the losses and injuries of my good friends and colleagues; devastating violence that haunts me to this day. There was no one who held my hand then. There was no one to wrap their arms around me and bring me back to that childlike sense of trust and security. Instead, I stomached that grief into a protective wall of masculine armor and walked back into the fight with my soldiers.

As soldiers, we fortify this masculine armor in combat to protect ourselves from the emotional demons which would otherwise consume our hearts and prevent us from executing our missions. We do it because war is tough and we need to be tougher. When we come home, we try to take that wall down and regain the ability to share and trust with our loving families. But to modern soldiers, the act of accepting compassion remains an implication of weakness. This isn’t because of our society, or even because of our institutional military — but simply because of the individual identities we hold as soldiers. We’re tough guys; tough guys don’t need hugs.

Well, it wasn’t until my Lasik surgery when I realized just how badly I needed that hug — and still need it. It took a lot more courage to admit the weaknesses of my masculine wall than it did to patrol the Zhari district for a year. For me, a weakness in that wall was a weakness in my character. It meant accepting my inability to cope with the combat I had seen, knowing that so many soldiers have withstood much more than I had.

For many junior leaders, admitting weakness means an admission of selfishness. Every hour spent in a counseling session means an hour spent away from training my men for their next tour in 2012. Every hour spent managing my anger means an hour away from the planning and resourcing needed to take care of my platoon. It means more work for my soldiers and platoon sergeant. Thus, like many leaders, I let my anger simmer, my focus wanders unchecked, and in my weakest moments, my heart goes without that much-needed hug.

Just because a soldier doesn’t have a diagnosis of PTSD doesn’t mean he does not have life-altering post-traumatic stress. The war zone is not limited to the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan. The fight does not end for a soldier when he comes home. He may shed his helmet and rifle, but he still carries his armor. The enemy no longer wears a uniform, but remains an elusive demon that reappears at the most inopportune times in our life. Each day we thank our soldiers for being strong for us. But, for our soldiers’ sakes, we now need to ask them for a different kind of strength: the strength to take off that masculine armor and accept weakness as one’s humanity. As our commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan begin to close, and our focus turns to our veterans’ well-being, we must remember that it’s not about giving soldiers hugs, the hard part now is making them accept the hugs.

Person of the Year

Available from: http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/17/person-of-the-year/

Mark Zuckerberg is a name I grew quite familiar with even through my year in Kandahar. Facebook was the novelty through which I interacted with most of the world back home. Though it was accessible only on our trips to the forward operating base — no connectivity on our stranded outpost in the Zhari District. Despite all that Facebook meant to me while at war, I was less than thrilled to find that Mr. Zuckerberg had been named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.

The distinguished title goes to the man or woman deemed to have had the most influence through the year’s events. Other notable names on the short list included Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, The Tea Party, and the Chilean Miners.

As I read through this year’s selection summary, my eyes scanned for even the mention of one name. A name that has grown to mean so much to so many Americans, but unfortunately too few to be considered “influential”. That man was Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta, the first Congressional Medal of Honor recipient in the Global War on Terror, and the youngest living recipient by 35 years (he is 25 years old, there are three living recipients who are currently 60 years old).

I stared at Zuckerberg’s bright pale face on the cover of Time; his skin almost as white as the pages upon which the article was written. I contrasted it with the deep tan covering my soldiers’ faces along contours not covered by eye-protection and chin-straps.

I am not upset that Staff Sgt. Giunta wasn’t selected for the award. I don’t shame the periodical for not putting him on the short list. What makes me cringe is the fact that such heroic acts as Giunta’s in defense of our most beloved nation are still not “influential” enough — not valued enough — to move and inspire us as a country: a country for which so many of us cry fierce patriotism, yet feel so little of its burdens.

Tears — genuine tears — filled my eyes when I heard Staff Sgt. Giunta’s Medal of Honor Citation I felt fear and empathy, I felt pride. I had never met this man, I didn’t know who he was. But he made me want to be a better soldier and leader of soldiers. When I saw Giunta’s interviews on The Colbert Report, Sixty Minutes, and dozens of other broadcasts, my heartbeat raged with pride knowing that he and I shared the same uniform. He was humble, and he wore that blue ribbon around his neck for all of us. Every single man or woman in uniform I’ve spoken to has felt the exact same way.

Giunta may not have 500 million Facebook friends. But allow me to paint a picture of his “influence” in a profession of such fierce influence as the U.S. Military. We soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen are tired. It’s not only because we spend one year out of every two or three at war. It’s returning to full work just a few weeks after coming home. It’s training and re-training, and remembering. It means never really getting a chance to sufficiently recover from one’s psychological and emotional wounds. It’s knowing that, if we want to stay in uniform, we will inevitably return to war again, and again.

In a military nearing complete exhaustion, Staff Sgt. Giunta gave many of us a second wind. He softened the hearts of the world’s most powerful, yet over extended, fighting force, and inspired us to continue rendering salutes and follow orders into fierce battles … all in the name of a controversial conception of security. If that’s not influential, I don’t know what is.

Today, there are 87 living recipients of the Medal of Honor. In about 30 years, Staff Sgt. Giunta could very well be the only one left. He is not just a hero, he is the hero of a whole generation of twenty year old kids — my soldiers — who go under-appreciated each day of their lives. The purpose of this essay is not to ask you to blindly regard service members as influential. The purpose is to make you evaluate the forces which influence you. Are they tweets and tags? Or bravery and dedication? What are the values which move you on a daily basis, and what are the values you want passed on to the next generation of Americans?

I hope that in my life, I’ll get the opportunity to meet Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta. I want to thank him for lifting my spirits after what I selfishly regard as a difficult year in Kandahar when I know so many others have had it much worse than me. I’d tell him thanks for bearing that medal on my soldiers’ behalf. Of course, if I never get that handshake, I suppose I can always show my appreciation by “liking” or posting” his Facebook Fan page. For that, Mark, I thank you.

Game Changer: Tanks to Afghanistan

My MGS Vehicle overwatching ANA dismounts in the Zhari District

The United States military has announced that it will be sending a company of Marine Tankers to southwest Afghanistan, bringing a much-needed armor presence to an asymmetrical fight.(U.S. Tanks En Route to Southwestern Afghanistan).

Despite serving in an infantry company and performing infantry patrols during my 12-month tour in Afghanistan, I am actually an armor officer trained to command tank and scout platoons…and the news absolutely warmed my heart.

Most tankers with whom I served in Kandahar recognize the inherent value that armor assets can bring even to the most civilian-friendly counterinsurgency. It is often thought that heavily armored vehicles (Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, etc.) would be excessive instruments. This argument is not merely in the context of combat, or even intimidation of locals, but the tracks of a main battle tank would most likely destroy the few poorly engineered concrete roads that facilitate the Afghan economy.

Offense & Defense

Driving through minefields is one of the scariest parts of an Afghan tour. A 500-pound I.E.D. is comparable to the psychological effect of a tank’s main gun concussion. My body armor felt more like a pressure cooker around my sweaty chest. As vehicle design has attempted to adapt to this modern threat, the vehicles have inherently become more defensive in nature. They are elevated from the ground to make room for V-shaped hulls. They sacrifice visibility for protection, and combat effectiveness for survivability. But a more defensive vehicle is also an ample target for the enemy.

A battle tank is different. The tank is clearly an offensive vehicle, but with a mine-roller in front and 70 tons of steel to protect its crew, tanks are a fantastic combination of offense and defense on the battlefield. No vehicle is ever immune to the I.E.D. If there is a vehicle on the ground in Afghanistan, the enemy will find a way to blow it up. But tanks are weapon systems capable of taking the hit and continuing the fight.

The Army’s Mobile Gun System Stryker variant (MGS, see above) is the closest thing the Army has to a tank at its disposal in Afghanistan. This weapon system is rarely discussed when the issue of Stryker Brigade performance is on the table. In fact, I imagine few who have followed the Stryker’s progression in the global war on terror would even recognize the 105 mm main gun turret that rotates on an amplified Stryker hull…but I guarantee the Afghans in Kandahar province know it very well.

However, as I say, a battle tank is different.

Psychology

Driving a Stryker or MRAP down the Afghan highway is much like driving a bus down a crowded street. As Afghan locals become more aware of what behaviors they can get away with before soldiers will respond with their restricted levels of force, it becomes difficult to keep both soldiers and Afghan civilians safe during our movements. But tanks elicit a far different response from the average Afghan.

Most Afghans have distinct visions of the havoc that T-72 Soviet tanks were able to produce from their occupation. As my MGS vehicle rolled through Kandahar streets,no motorcycles cut us off. No oncoming traffic tried to lure us into a game of chicken, as sometimes happened with the infantry carriers. People kept their distance, which kept them safe, and us free to control the tempo of operations.

I’m certainly aware of the argument that rehashing these memories of Soviet tanks to the Afghan people might not be in the best interests of earning their “hearts and minds.” But in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, we are still working on earning their respect. A tank demands respect.

The Power of Sight

Firefights are the bread and butter of daily life in Zhari District; and the enemy has nearly a 100 percent vote in when and how he engages us. Most of these skirmishes occur at ranges exceeding 750 meters amidst dense vegetation. Above all else, the power to see is the most limiting factor in an armed conflict. Currently, most American military vehicles are equipped with remote optics systems,  which are useful for urban fire fights at short ranges but do not offer the depth necessary to fight effectively in southwestern Afghanistan. However, tanks offer optics systems that dwarf the traditional capabilities of an infantry carrier…and, oh yeah, these days each tank can acquire targets clearly in excess of four times as far.

Once a target is finally acquired, most people are unaware of just how diverse an array of ammunition choices there are to engage it properly. There are high explosive rounds for light targets, canister rounds for dismounts, which will preserve the local infrastructure, and of course anti-tank rounds in case the Taliban are able to fix up an old relic of previous wars. The tank does not have to be a source of complete destruction. But it is a game changer. And when that fearsome concussion reverberates, the enemy always second guesses its fight.

The Elephant in the Command Post

As I discussed with colleagues the addition of tanks to the Kandahar mission, I was not surprised to find a strong variety in responses and interpretations of how an armor company integrates with a counterinsurgency mission. A memorable quote from a colleague: “One minute they’re saying minimize civilian casualties and let ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] lead the way; the next, we’re bringing in arguably the most fierce ground weapon system in our Army’s arsenal. I think we’re sending mixed signals.”

Another veteran of the Afghan war currently set to return as a civilian noted: “Anything that separates us from the population makes us less likely to win the war. All the successful COIN initiatives in Afghanistan involve dismounted operations, living with the population, minimizing the distance and difference between us and them.”

But from a tactical perspective, a senior tanker NCO hailed the idea: “We can talk about Afghans all day, but it’s really hard to go interact with locals when there’s a minefield and Taliban fighting positions in the way. Tanks will help us fill the gaps where the infantry cannot cover. Both are important.”

Thus, the real strategic question becomes, are these tanks a supplement to the counterinsurgency mission, or a diversion from it? If the latter, what implications arise for our approach to state-building?

Not the first. Not the last.

One of the most memorable moments during our 12 month tour was arriving on FOB Wilson in Zhari, Kandahar, for the weekly district security shura and watching the tanker half of my platoon swoon over the troop of Canadian Leopard 2A6Ms parked in the motor-pool. Memories of past I.E.D.s and firefights flowed through our heads. And of course, we couldn’t help but wonder, “What if…”.

Perhaps in my excitement for these tanks I am personally still stuck in “survival mode” from my year in Kandahar; perhaps I’m failing to see the negative strategic implications that will follow these tanks into southern Afghanistan. But then again, the soldiers who patrol those sectors each day are always in survival mode. If a tank has any chance at keeping them safe during their dangerous tour, I’ll be the first to give it a fair shot.

These Marine tanks will not be the first to enter Afghanistan. But they will no doubt make a resounding impact when integrated with conventional infantry. This will no doubt be a game changer in our fight against the Taliban. From the sidelines here in the United States, the crossed sabers on my chest beat with tanker pride.

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