Major Gen. McConville Praises U.S. Forces in Afghanistan

For the 13th year in a row, U.S. troops are spending Christmas in Afghanistan. For the 7,500 of them based in the eastern part of the country, Major Gen. James McConville is providing the closest thing to a visit from Santa.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now for the 13th year in a row, U.S. troops are spending Christmas in Afghanistan. For the 7,500 of them based in the eastern part of the country, Major General James McConville is providing the closest thing to a visit from Santa.

NPR's Sean Carberry has been traveling with McConville - not by sleigh, but in the air.

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SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: There are no reindeer pulling General McConville's Black Hawk helicopter as he soars above snow-capped peaks and fertile valleys in eastern Afghanistan. He's visiting the remaining 13 bases in the eastern command. That's down from 58 when McConville took over in March. Although it all looks peaceful from above, many parts of the east are still Taliban country. Since last June, it's been primarily the responsibility of Afghan government forces to battle the militants while Americans provide training and logistical support.

MAJOR GENERAL JAMES MCCONVILLE: All right. Everybody just stand at ease.

CARBERRY: And here at Forward Operating Base Gamberi in Laghman Province, McConville says the Afghan forces held their own this year.

MCCONVILLE: And they think they won, and quite frankly I agree with them. They didn't win by enough to stop the war, but they won the first fighting season.

CARBERRY: But, the main purpose of McConville's Christmas tour is to give thanks and praise to the U.S. forces.

MCCONVILLE: What I want to do is thank you for your service for being out here. And there's going to be a lot of people waking up during Christmas morning who are going to have a nice safe and good Christmas because of what you all do out here.

CARBERRY: Lieutenant Colonel Juanita Chang, the public affairs officer for the regional command, says part of the purpose of this tour is to recognize the support troops - the mechanics, cooks, logisticians who keep the operation rolling.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL JUANITA CHANG: It's really important to get out, especially during this time and thank those people behind the scenes for what they're doing and the contributions they're making to this effort.

CARBERRY: Instead of giving out presents, McConville is handing out coins, specifically his ceremonial command coins, to select soldiers.

MCCONVILLE: OK, who's my youngest soldier here?

CARBERRY: He starts by giving them out to the youngest soldier in each group - soldiers who were in elementary school when the war began.

MCCONVILLE: PFC Johnson, OK. So, I'm real proud of you. Should I give him a coin? What do you think?

UNIDENTIFIED TROOPS: Hooah.

MCCONVILLE: OK. I'm going to give you a coin here, OK?

CARBERRY: Then he hands out coins to those who have spent the most time in Iraq and Afghanistan.

MCCONVILLE: Well, I've got to figure out who's deployed the most here.

CARBERRY: At each base, McConville finds a number of soldiers who have deployed four to five times. One of those is Staff Sergeant Nicholas Franco based at Mehtar Lam. He's on his fourth deployment, and this is his third Christmas apart from his wife.

STAFF SERGEANT NICHOLAS FRANCO: The first one was hard, the second one was hard. I think now it's more along the line of, she's there for me regardless, and her support actually means a lot.

CARBERRY: And what do you think; do you think this will be the last Christmas apart?

FRANCO: No, I don't. Only because I plan on staying in, and wherever the army needs to send me, they need to send me. That's just the sacrifice we make.

CARBERRY: And it's a sacrifice military families make. In each address, General McConville implores his troops to thank their families for allowing their sons and daughters to serve.

MCCONVILLE: You know, we all volunteered to do this, and our families didn't. Quite frankly, I think sometimes they have a tougher job than we do.

CARBERRY: Sean Carberry, NPR News, Bagram, Afghanistan.

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GREENE: We just heard about a place where Americans are at work on this Christmas doing a job that's particularly dangerous. We should say there are Americans across this country who are not on holiday but working in all different jobs, including here at MORNING EDITION. And here's a little poem: 'Twas the week of Christmas, and of their own volition, lots of people were working at MORNING EDITION: Molly Messick, Vince Pearson kept us on track, Acacia Squires too, and Jessica Pupovac. Mr. David McGuffin kept us all in good cheer, and Reena Advani lent a well-trained ear. And we mustn't forget Barry Gordemer as well for keeping this program sounding so swell. Without their hard work, we would all have the blues without MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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