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Posted: September 13, 2012 5:37 p.m.
Updated: September 14, 2012 5:00 a.m.

The men sat directly across from each other in the small bay of the dual prop aircraft over eastern Afghanistan, the only sound, the drone of the propellers, the only light, the red filtered lenses often used at night. They were all Middle Eastern, all the same build, all wore similar clothing. Other than these similarities, the differences were stark. Three of the men wore black hoods, completely covering their heads. They could not see Khalil although he was a mere three to four feet across from them. They were strapped to the inside wall of the plane and could not move. According to the interpreter, the men had been detained because they had been “putting bombs under the road.” They had been picked up on a small dirt runway near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and were under the watchful eyes of two young US soldiers who were obviously not participating in their first rodeo.

Khalil was a different story. I met him at Bagram Air Field on that mild fall afternoon at the base of the microwave tower near our compound. Our job that day was to escort Khalil to one of the many Forward Operating Bases in Afghanistan where he would repair a communications link owned by his company, but utilized by U.S. forces. At no more than 140 pounds, he had trouble carrying the body armor we offered him, constantly changing hands for a more comfortable position as we walked to meet the transport which would take us to the flight line. A lifelong resident of Afghanistan, a “local national,” Khalil was used to working with the Americans and in his 25 years, the war seemed almost second nature to him. By trade, Khalil was a microwave radio engineer. Trained in local schools in his hometown of Kabul, he was one of the better technicians in his company and his family depended heavily upon his profession. Along with his immediate family, a wife and two children, he also supported his parents and his younger siblings. Khalil, no doubt, lived a better life than many in his country. His father had been a teacher in Kabul and he allowed his wife to go to school, this allowance not a boast on his part, but a reality of the culture in which he lived. He laughed that his family did not like for him to travel. This was, of course, due to the security climate around the country. He had no choice but to accept the risk, but the simple truth was that things happened in Afghanistan and his family would be devastated without his income. His laughter was his way of “whistling past the graveyard,” but the threats he faced were always alive and well.

This brief encounter that night was insignificant on its face. These transactions and many more take place every day and night in Afghanistan. The moment was telling, however. I can remember being struck by the choices which had been made on each side of the aisle of that small plane. The men in hoods wanted the Americans out. They wanted to kill and terrorize as many soldiers as it took in order to regain control over what they perceived to be “their” country. Khalil did not want war in his country, but he understood it. I remember asking him if he wanted us to leave. His response was that he also wanted the Americans out, but “not now.” In his opinion, the work required to ensure stability was not yet done. He appreciated what we were doing and knew that his country had to step up. His choice was to work hard, educate his family and, hopefully, realize a better life.

This encounter was hardly a blip on the radar screen of what is known as Operation Enduring Freedom. Since 9/11, some 11 years ago, our service men and women have been moving mountains in the Global War on Terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq and other locations around the globe. There is literally nothing they cannot accomplish given the opportunity. They have done themselves and all of us proud and, this week especially, we owe it to them to remember. We have all seen the headlines and some may wonder if this endeavor is still worth further involvement by our country. Each of us has to make this determination on our own, but we cannot view the actions of our men and women in combat through the foggy lens of politics.

Men like Khalil are out there. They seek something which they have never tasted, but still somehow know. Man does not need to experience freedom to yearn for it. Khalil understands that to gain this freedom for his own country, he must live his life without fear, go about his work, and be prepared to give his life if necessary. This is what we know already. So many before us have given everything so we can experience the freedom we have without having to yearn. We will only dishonor them and all those who gave their lives on 9/11, and since, if we forget.


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