Soldiers Say Rules Of Engagement Hinder Them
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
At West Point last night, the cadets offered a mix of serious expressions, some cheers, and polite applause to President Obama's way forward in Afghanistan. At Fort Campbell, Kentucky, soldiers said they wanted to hear a little bit more. They said they were concerned about the restrictions the U.S. is placing on itself as it fights the war.
From member station WPLN, Blake Farmer reports.
BLAKE FARMER: When President Obama said the military would have to be nimble and precise with its use of force, Staff Sergeant Jason Mitchell(ph) sat on his couch and shook his head. As the president continued on TV, Mitchell said the number of additional troops doesn't make a huge difference when they're hamstrung by airtight rules of engagement.
Staff Sergeant JASON MITCHELL (U.S. Army): We're fighting on with our hands tied behind our back.
Specialist ROSS CHAMBON(ph) (U.S. Army): We were just letting our guard down too much.
FARMER: That's specialist Ross Chambon.
Specialist CHAMBON: We're trying to be a lot more friendly than what we are being soldiers.
FARMER: Both of these guys have deployed twice to Iraq, and they leave for Afghanistan early next year with the 101st Airborne. The division will start its fourth wave of deployments since 9/11 even as other soldiers return to Fort Campbell from Afghanistan this week.
Mitchell and Chambon will ship out around the same time President Obama's 30,000 additional troops begin to deploy. After the speech, Chambon says he shares Mitchell's feeling that the military has become too focused on befriending the Afghan people.
Specialist CHAMBON: We have so many rules, whereas Taliban and al-Qaida don't. So there is, you know, a hundred people out there, they can unload on the whole town as long as they get us. We can't do anything like it, which - I mean, I wouldn't do anything like it anyway, but still.
FARMER: Staff Sergeant Mitchell chimes in.
Staff Sgt. MITCHELL: And that's a lot of things that the soldiers, they worry about over there. They're worried to react, because they're going to get Article 15, they're going to get court martial.
Private First Class JUSTIN CERVENIK(ph) (U.S. Army): I think about that all the time.
FARMER: That third voice is Private First Class Justin Cervenik(ph). Mitchell is his squad leader.
Staff Sgt. MITCHELL: That's going to make you hesitate.
Pfc. CERVENIK: For me, yes. I'm (unintelligible) think about it all the time.
Staff Sgt. MITCHELL: And if you hesitate, you'll die.
Pfc. CERVENIK: Exactly.
Staff Sgt. MITCHELL: So, I'm not saying, you know, we go over there and just open up, you know, we're getting blinded by the hearts and minds.
FARMER: Cervenik nods in agreement. The 20-year-old from Ohio was in middle school when the war in Afghanistan started. He says President Obama's new strategy sounds a lot like the mission described to them in recent briefings, and Cervenik says it sounds like a tall order.
Pfc. CERVENIK: It does almost feel like a impossible war, when you really think about these people, do they want to learn? Do they not - do they not care if we'll return to teach them so they can run and establish their own government, towns and stuff over there? I mean - I mean I really don't know.
FARMER: Aside from the effectiveness of training indigenous forces, the trio is conflicted about the 2011 pullout of troops. On one hand, Mitchell, the squad leader says wars don't fit in neat timelines. He sees the other side as well.
Staff Sgt. MITCHELL: It's good to give a timeframe, because it gives people hope. They don't want to think, damn, we're going to be here forever.
Pfc. CERVENIK: I guess it is kind of like a form of motivation I guess.
Staff Sgt. MITCHELL: Exactly.
FARMER: Mitchell agrees with the president that Afghanistan is not another Vietnam or a lost cause.
Staff Sgt. MITCHELL: Any war that we're involved with is not a lost war. Any war that we're in by God, we're not going to lose.
FARMER: Like many enlisted soldiers, these three from Fort Campbell are gung ho. They're just not sure what winning looks like even after hearing from their commander-in-chief.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
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