Service in Afghanistan: an Airman's perspective

  • Published
  • By Capt. Michael Morales
  • 58th Airlift Squadron
Reactions to the war in Afghanistan among the American populace are unsurprisingly mixed. However, the majority of American opinion regarding our involvement in Afghanistan seems to be marked by apathy at best, and negativity at worst. Many of the naysayers about our efforts there seem to group this operation with the one in Iraq and label both of them as hopeless. 

Nevertheless, after almost seven months of interacting with the Afghan people on a regular basis, my own perspective on our efforts there has substantially changed. As a C-17 pilot in the U.S. Air Force, flying a myriad of cargo and resupply missions into both areas of responsibility, my contact with the local population was non-existent. Though never negative, my perspective on our involvement at these hot spots bordered on indifference. I trusted our leadership and felt certain that we were doing something good, but it was difficult to see how the supplies I was bringing in were making much of a direct impact. 

Last summer I was deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan, as a mentor to the Afghan National Army Air Corps. Before leaving for there, I read a few books about Afghanistan's history and tried to learn some of the local language. When I arrived, I was amazed to encounter a people who were consistently friendly and light-hearted, despite the strife and poverty in which they lived. Most of them live with their large families in tiny houses or apartments with electrical power (and therefore, heat) being sporadic at best. The Afghans are proud people, to the point where they sometimes place their honor above their integrity. Nevertheless, they take their responsibilities as hosts quite seriously. Once you have gained their respect, they will go well out of their way to please you and even protect you. 

During my first three months there, I had the opportunity to travel to several of the country's provinces. I was stunned at some of the things I saw. For example, driving into the Hindu Kush Mountains in central Afghanistan, we came upon a small village nestled in a lush green valley surrounded by brown, dry hills. Only ten houses in this village have electricity, powered by a small generator run by a watermill. The villagers were eager to have us there and to show us all the ways that we could help them. Fortunately, American and coalition provincial reconstruction teams scattered around the country do just that -- help the local populace by building clinics, schools, etc. 

In my last three months in Afghanistan, I had the privilege of teaching English to Afghan aircrew members. Though I doubted my ability to succeed in this endeavor, it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Spending all day with my class of 10 Afghans was incredible. The better I got to know them, the more impressed I became with their ability to find the good in difficult situations. 

Several times, when loud explosions went off less than a mile away, my students did not even skip a beat while reading their English assignments out loud. I was incredulous at the fact that these bombings had become so much a part of their normal lives that it rarely fazed them. Worst of all was the fact that with every bombing, at least one of our students lost a family member. With each passing day in that job, I came to the realization that what often came across as whining on their part was simply a statement of fact regarding their present standard of living. 

My intent in writing this is not by any means to romanticize what the Afghans are like. Their culture is vastly different than ours and it is impossible to understand some of the things that they do, like their propensity to hoard things or their loyalty to their tribe over their country. But the Afghan people are full of life despite their difficult lifestyles. When I passed out candy to Afghan children just outside the gate of our base and felt their rugged hands that looked like they belonged to elderly people, I realized that I would never fully comprehend the extent of their misery. My children have everything they need in comparison. Yet these people somehow find a way to rise above their circumstances and live full lives. They are always smiling, always generous, and always kind. They go to great lengths to help those they love and respect, regardless of their origin. 

The war in Afghanistan is about much more than military might. In fact, military power alone is incapable of gaining a victory. While this power is necessary in establishing security, true victory can only be won by reaching the people of Afghanistan and winning their hearts and minds. Despite the fact that American Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines are being deployed half a world away to help a people they know little about, I consistently saw these Americans rise to the occasion. They understand what is at stake and they mentor their Afghan counterparts with passion and perseverance. The Afghans, on the other hand, repeatedly tell us how happy they are to have us there. They constantly contrast us to the Russians and tell us how what we are doing is different because they see that we care about them. 

This is a war that can be won. But winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people cannot be accomplished overnight. It is painstaking and labor intensive. But it is undoubtedly worth it, in my opinion and from my experience. And the American and coalition forces persevering in this effort are slowly but surely making headway with the people of Afghanistan.