It has been 20 long years since terrorists-hijacked airplanes brought down the twin towers and struck the Pentagon.
It’s a tragedy that’s seared into the souls of most Americans especially those who were directly affected. But with each passing year, there’s less commemoration as if our nation’s wounds have now been healed and the day becomes a distant memory.
In fact the generation of high schoolers today were all born before that fateful day. No longer a lived experience, it has become a page in their history books. How are they taught in school about the tragic events and how will they carry the sacred memories to their kindred.
As an active duty Sailor aboard the USS John C. Stennis watching the towers come down on TV and having to deploy to Afghanistan shortly after, the memories are still vivid with me and will remain that way as long as I am alive, and I hope the same for the generations after me.
I lost a couple friends and fellow shipmates to enemy fire in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For nearly two years, we worked together at Bethesda. Florence Choo was a Medical Service Corps officer who worked as a health care administrator for Medical and Surgical Services at the National Naval Medical Center. I would pass by her office and welcomed her calm demeanor and radiant smile that left an indelible and lasting impression.
Florence was always taking the initiative and giving of herself whether or not it was her responsibility to do so. She was very supportive of the corpsmen assigned to the Medical Evaluation (MEDEVAC) teams who made regular runs to Andrews Air Force Base to bring our Wounded Warriors home.
For the MEDEVAC operations and throughout the hospital, Florence was always offering of her services. She took pride in her work and worked hard to support her Chiefs and Corpsmen whether or not they worked for her or not.
Florence grew up in San Diego and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at UC San Diego and a master’s degree in public health and healthcare administration at San Diego State. Just days after the Sept 11 attack, she visited the Navy recruiter and got her commission five months later.
After transferring from Bethesda, Florence and her husband were transferred to Okinawa. In Japan, Florence gave birth to a daughter and then was transferred again to Naval Medical Center San Diego where she volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan for one year as an “individual augmentee” to run the medical station that serves U.S. and Afghan troops and civilians.
Life was busy for her. Besides her work responsibilities, Florence was a big advocate and supporter for the United Through Reading program ensuring that the troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan had access to children’s books and a way to videotape and send home their extensive readings to their own family.
Florence was doing what any other Sailor, Soldier or Marine would have done on that base. She was taking an afternoon jog on March 27, 2009 along a well-worn path on the outskirts of Forward Operating Base Shaheen in Afghanistan with a fellow Sailor, a Seabee.
This is when an Afghan insurgent who was disguised as an Afghan National Army soldier raised his weapon and shot the two (as well as a 3rd military officer who survived).
And then a week after Florence was killed, Florence’s DVDs started coming in the mail. Her family were very excited to see them and watched their mother, wife, daughter over and over again.
My deepest condolences to her family. You will be truly missed. I will always remember you and the ultimate sacrifice you made to make this world a better place for all, especially on those long, hard runs.
Memorial Service for Lt Florence Choe
Now how long are we going to stay in Afghanistan. Both Obama and Trump wanted to exit the country. But if we exit too quickly, we risk have the country destabilize. The Taliban would take over and introduce Sharia Law, and hundreds of thousands of Americans and Afghan lives who supported the US and NATO would be in jeopardy.
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I’ve deployed to the Middle East several times aboard a fast frigate, a destroyer and an aircraft carrier. Our ships patrolled the seas of the Arabian Gulf protecting America’s interests in the region, ensuring safety of maritime trade and contributing towards a stable and peaceful region.
In 2009, during my last tour in the Navy, I had an opportunity to visit Afghanistan as part of an advisory group for the NATO Supreme Allied Commander. Our boss, General Craddock oversaw the progress in Afghanistan. We would be receiving many briefs and updates during our short visit.
Comprised of forces from over 25 nations, they were part of the International Security Assistance Force. Responsible at first for the security around Kabul, their mission had now expanded to the whole of Afghanistan, a conflict that we had come to observe.
We first landed in a C-17 in Kabul at the International Airport. There were no limos waiting; no meet and greet holding signs — just a thick haze of dust and humidity so thick you could slice it with a saif (curved, 19th century Arabian sword) and spread it on a chapati.
We were methodically whisked away in a convoy of Humvees sandwiched between two armored personnel carriers. NATO Soldiers with machine guns kept a vigilant watch for insurgents or anything suspicious.
Since it’s implementation, the Humvee has served as the backbone for U.S. forces worldwide. Over the years, the Humvee has evolved from a venerable troop carrier in the Persian Gulf War, Kosovo and Bosnia to a more heavily armored vehicle battling bomb-wielding insurgents in the shifting global war on terror urban combat.
The Humvee is heavily armored, but it has a flat, vulnerable bottom and its low to the ground making it vulnerable to IED attacks.
Roadside bombs are among the leading killers of troops in Iraq — a grim statistic that could be drastically improved once the deployment of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles is fully implemented.
We kept our helmets strapped firmly, our body armor tight, like it was going to run away if we didn’t keep it buttoned down.
And as I looked out the blast-resistant windows, I could see concrete security barriers, blast walls, deep trenches, barbed wire — all the vestiges of war that provided some protection against the surging insurgency.
It was true that these walls added to the congestion and traffic jams. But in this high-terror environment of random and almost weekly suicide attacks, these barriers of limited but viable protection seemed called for.
They kept the coalition forces safer, they allowed aid workers to carry out their duties, but also served as a physical and psychological distance from the local population they we were deployed to work with.
I felt relatively secure, safe in a foreign land marked by discord and lurking danger.
We drove towards the city center. Normally the majority of the vehicles would comprise of NATO convoys tearing through the city at breakneck speed like it was the Santa Monica Freeway.
With all the busses, vehicles, sedans, bicycles, carts, with dozens of round abouts and absolutely no traffic lights, congestion was a grueling finger cramping nightmare.
Today, we were given top priority for safety, and ISAF would allocate all resources possible to ensure we were kept safe as we rolled down the streets of Kabul.
However, at this moment, the roads were secure and the only people we saw were busy shopkeepers and the empty look of children waving, begging and staring hopelessly into our humvees. Seeing kids was definitely a welcome sight. They were indigent, many without families or homes, some living in shelters, some not getting a proper education.
But deep down inside, I sensed that they were amazing human souls, displaced, downtrodden but full of spirit and energy.
But inside the heavily-armored Humvee, I also felt displaced, almost a world and distant land away
For a striking moment, I wished we could stop in our tracks, get out in the fresh air and give these children a warm, soft hug. Why not, without candy or change, that was the only thing I could offer or perhaps just a chuckle, a banter for hope for a brighter future one day.
I remembered poignant images of The Kite Runner and the unconditional love and commitment Hassan had for Amir, and how Amir eventually made up for his past failures and returned home to help his old friend Hassan, whose son is in trouble.
In Kabul, speed is survival. If we are moving fast, the enemy will have less time to target us. I sat erect, scanning our surroundings intently. If we were to get attacked, I at least wanted to get a chance to see the eyeballs of the enemy.
Soon and to much relief, we were driving through the main gate. A quick check, then we were firmly inside the the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is headquartered.
What a sigh of relief. No where on this land was fully safe, but for now we could unshed our body armor and loosen up our chin straps.
We stayed at ISAF through dinner, and while we waited, we spoke to some young Brits about duty in Afghanistan. They shared their stories, gripes, and victories. They missed their families, their wives and girlfriends, their country, but most ardently their alcohol. Meanwhile German troops could drink beer and wine. British and US forces had to settle for coke or red bull.
At the Headquarters, there are more than 2200 service members from 42 NATO nations. Everyone seemed to work well and even socialize well together. It appeared that they were willing to set aside any cultural differences and even make a strong attempt to learn each other’s norms and nuances.
We also talked informally about the drug problem — no, not within NATO. The Heroin trade was serious in this impoverished nation. Afghanistan is the world’s largest exporter of heroin. It is the country’s main cash crop. There is more heroin that is exported in Afghanistan than cocaine is produced in Colombia. There were even reports that children were becoming addicted to cocaine.
Although some of the three billion dollars annual revenues goes back to the the local economy such as jobs for farmers and reconstruction, the vast majority of the revenue is funneled to the Taliban.
Though Opium poppies grow in almost every province of Afghanistan, the problem area is the south. In the Helmand province, where the Taliban maintains a stronghold, they are said to levy a 40% tax on opium cultivation and trafficking. In addition, many of the Afghan security forces have turned into heavy opium users.
My boss, General Craddock, firmly believed that NATO should be in the drug enforcement business. He believed that ISAF troops should engage in surgical interdiction strikes against heroin labs.
The problem is that counternarcotics is fundamentally a law enforcement problem and no foreign military has ever been successful in counternarcotics. Colombia, for example, succeeded in gaining partial control of their drug trade only after decades of political and economic development programs. In addition, many of these facilities are embedded in complex environments near civilians.
After the meal and the chat, it was now time to check into the safe confines of the Serena Hotel. Situated amidst bombed-out buildings, theSerena is the modern symbol of capitalism and safety making a bold attempt to flee from and flaunt the suppression of the insurgency.
The Serena’s design is stylish and the service is first-rate superb. When walking in, I felt like I was in the magnanimous confines of the Marriott or a Hilton in Bahrain, Istanbul or any world-class city. The hotel is as safe as you can get. You go through a full security screening each time you enter and no one is allowed to drive straight in from the street.
Inside the magnificent confines of this 5-star hotel, hosts a beautiful courtyard and a luxurious swimming pool — the only feasible place to take a dip in the whole city of Kabul.
The price for a room averages $250 per night, which is very steep considering that Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. But it was worth every single Afghani.
The Serena Hotel is a an oasis of safety for the many UN workers, contractors, journalists and aid workers. But even this sanctuary can be infiltrated. For meals, the buffets are delicious and the fruit juices are divine. There is no alcohol, and some of the guests I talked to took an issue to that.
Last year, seven people were killed as Taliban stormed into the Serena Hotel. The attackers struck with grenades, guns and one suicide bomb and were targeting the Norwegian foreign minister who escaped unharmed.
Tonight we will spend a comfortable, restful evening in the safe confines of the most luxurious hotel this city will ever enjoy. Tomorrow we are off to the mountain pass that links Afghanistan with Pakistan, the ancient and strategic Khyber Pass.
In December 2001, the world looked extremely different. The US had essentially shocked, awed and terminated the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and there was talk about how the country would evolve into a pro-American nation providing access easy access for new oil pipelines.
Meanwhile, the Bush Administration focused on Iraq and the demolition of the Saddam Hussein regime. The US wanted to put Afghanistan behind us, so they redeployed many of their forces to Iraq. Unfortunately, the real enemy and the perpetrators of 9/11 was the Taliban.
Sadly, Afghanistan had become America’s forgotten war. America was now tied down and absorbed in the intricacies of Iraq. Meanwhile, in this forgotten country of the Taliban and Heroin, NATO forces had confronted a resurgent Taliban especially in the southern Helmand province where the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) was deeply embedded.