ESSAY- Freedom's front: Hey, I volunteered for Afghanistan

Lee Payne with Afghan soldiers

Photo Courtesy Lee Payne

It seems that over the last few months the media and our would-be national leaders have taken a much-needed new interest in the issues going on over here. Both Presidential hopefuls have been touting their new policies regarding a recommitment to Afghanistan.

The recent increase in attacks has certainly changed the mood here as well. A rise in IED fatalities, the prison break in the Southwest, and the deaths of nine Americans in one altercation in the Northeast have set everyone on edge.

A few months before this most recent rash of violence, I attended my first memorial service. SFC Collin Bowen was in this country long before I arrived and was stationed with some members of my unit. During a patrol, his vehicle was hit by an IED. SFC Bowen survived the attack and was eventually transfered to a specialty burn ward back in Texas, but after several weeks, he died.

Standing in the ranks at the ceremony, I thought about his wife and daughters, about the horrible void his death leaves in their part of the world and how the event had immediately affected a multitude of people he had known in his life. Since that day I have been to quite a few more services, and each one serves as a still point in this strange life we lead out here, a reminder of the potential costs of this ongoing war.

I recall the night before my first convoy and a feeling of total incredulity when I thought of what my country was asking me to do: potentially die.

"How," I thought to myself, "can they expect this of me, of us?"

Shortly after this wave of consternation passed, I realized the truth of my situation. No one sent me here; I asked for this.

I need to remind myself, the American public, and even our military leaders here of this fact. Recently, after seeing some of our militaryʼs reactions to the deaths of our troops here, I am somewhat resentful of the restrictions placed on us. Iʼm not saying that American lives are not valuable; indeed, they're too valuable to be lost by random IED explosions that lead to us retreating to our bases to wait until things "calm down."

Every time we tone down our activities in response to a US casualty we're effectively giving the enemy space to operate. Our decreased presence allows them to move freely on the roads and in the towns we fought to liberate. American lives are far too precious to allow these kind of setbacks.

How are we serving the memory of our fallen military members by allowing their efforts to be negated by our reduced presence due to their death? I, for one, if allowed to see this result after my death from a similar event, would wonder what my sacrifice had been for.

Perhaps the caution is largely a result of popular worry back home and the American sentiment that even one death is unacceptable. If that's the case, then the American public needs to remember and understand that we in the military are all volunteers. We swore an oath and signed on the dotted line.

The fact that some of us didnʼt expect to go to war doesnʼt change the fact that we volunteered to do so if the need arose. We are trained to carry out our missions and prepared for the possibility of not coming home.

We took this job freely, and it's not up to American public opinion to relieve us of that responsibility. In war, people die. As a collective, our country entered into this war, and there will continue to be casualties. While deaths should be expected, they should never be allowed to be in vain. In my opinion our response to insurgent successes should be to continue with new-found resolve both personally and operationally to put an end to these occurrences.  This can only be done through the appropriate flexing of military might in response to these heightened attacks.

Speaking for my fellow soldiers, sailors, and airmen, we are ready and willing to carry out these duties. Our mentality is not really that different from any Charlottesville resident getting up in the morning. Anyone can choose to have the conscious thought, "What if this is my last day alive?"

I think the difference is that people here have come to actively consider that thought every day rather than turning a blind eye. We have the thought of death in the forefront of our minds rather than buried at the bottom underneath our daily routine and concerns about what we have to pick up at the grocery store or what we will do on the coming weekend. 

Iʼm willing to say that at this point Iʼm all right with the prospect of death. Iʼm not trying to sound brave or as if I donʼt appreciate my life, but Iʼve already had a great one. Iʼve been to 25 countries, lived in of few of them, been in love, written and performed music with my best friends. Iʼm an uncle, and I have a fledgling understanding of, but profound respect for God. Iʼve enjoyed my life, and I while I canʼt yet say that Iʼve always been fully thankful for every moment Iʼve lived, I can say that I now more fully recognize that I should be and have a better chance of striving everyday to do just that.

A marketing manager at Sperry Marine and a U.S. Navy Reservist on a year long tour of war, Lieutenant Lee Payne was the author of a prior essay on his adventures in Afghanistan.