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Colonel mirrored soldiers concerns in Afghanistan

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 05:25 PM

To Sarah Sitton, the scathing, eight-page memo written by Army Col. Harry Tunnell IV to the secretary of the army about problems in the area where her husband was deployed seemed eerily familiar.

The memo contained many of the same concerns her husband, Staff Sgt. Matt Sitton, 26, of Largo, raised in an email to Rep. C.W. Bill Young, as well as in emails home and in conversations via Skype.

"A gross lack of concern for subordinates," Tunnell wrote, "manifests itself in guidance that 'zero' civilian casualties are acceptable and coalition soldiers may have to be killed rather than defend themselves against a potential threat and risk being wrong and possibly resulting in injury or death of a civilian."

Reading Tunnell's memo was "kind of like hearing my husband speak all over again," said Sarah Sitton.

But for Sarah Sitton, as well as some of Sitton's friends in the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, perhaps the most aggravating thing about Tunnell's memo was that it was written in August 2010. That was nearly two years before Sitton and 1st Sgt. Russell R. Bell, 37, of Tyler, Texas, were killed by an improvised explosive device in the same IED-laden field Sitton complained about being forced to walk through day after day for no reason.

The problems that Sitton wrote about, the problems that helped convince Young to change his mind about the war in Afghanistan, were pointed out to the highest level of institutional Army command by Tunnell, a brigade commander. I obtained his memo from Michael Yon, who's covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2004.

"It was one of those hard things to sit there and see," said Sarah Sitton after I sent her a copy of Tunnell's memo. "There was a commanding officer reaching out and saying what the problems were and they were brushed over. Honestly, people wouldn't have listened to my husband's letter if he didn't die. They don't listen and they don't care."

Tunnell, who commanded the 5th Stryker Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, was a controversial figure even before writing the memo. Now retired, Tunnell was a strong opponent of former U.S. Central Command head Gen. David Petraeus' counterinsurgency doctrine. He trained his troops to hunt and kill rather than emphasize the nation-building aspects of what the military calls COIN, according to "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan," a book written by the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran and excerpted in Slate.

Last year, Tunnell was admonished after men in his command were accused of purposely killing civilians, then photographing the bodies, according to published reports.

His memo, an "Open Door Policy" report to John McHugh, secretary of the Army, excoriates the COIN doctrine in the macro and drills down to what he sees as problems working with unreliable Afghan partners and poor decisions by NATO commanders he said wasted U.S. lives and money.

The COIN doctrine, Tunnell wrote, "… is not professional and relevant because it does not reflect the studied body of best practice – the concepts it promotes, in fact, contribute to needless American casualties."

The doctrine, he wrote, is essentially built on two faulty assumptions – that the Afghans can stand up for themselves and that "the population doesn't want what the Taliban have to offer."

Tunnell's memo exhibits particular disdain for British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commander of NATO forces in Regional Command South, which includes the Arghandab District where Sitton was killed.

It was Carter, Tunnell wrote, whose verbal order led commanders to risk their own troops rather than Afghan civilians – something Sitton complained about two years later in an email to his wife.

Tunnell also blasted Carter for ordering the 4th Brigade Combat Team, in which Sitton served as a platoon leader, to deviate from the mission it trained for – training Afghans.

Carter "clearly employed them in a role that they were not designed for based upon an operational design that underwent no scrutiny," Tunnell wrote. "Formations that are assigned maneuver tasks without the requisite training or equipment will suffer increased and unnecessary casualties."

Reading that passage hit home, said Sarah Sitton.

"Matt was trained as a sniper, to get out there and fight," she said. "He was not trained to walk out there and clear roads."

The Army did not respond to an email seeking comment about Tunnell's memo. The International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led organization overseeing combat operations in Afghanistan, "is not going to comment on two-year old private correspondence between an American officer and the U.S. Army leadership," according to Air Force Maj. Lori Hodge, an ISAF spokeswoman.

Tunnell's memo also struck a chord with Sean Michael Taylor and Brandon Southern, two of Sitton's fellow paratroopers.

Taylor – who said Sitton was "like the little brother I never had" – was taken aback by the Tunnell memo. Southern was, too.

"It was different for me to see that coming from a full-bird colonel," said Southern, who like Sitton was a staff sergeant before leaving the Army in late 2010. "The things he was saying reached to my level, the boots-on-the-ground type of guy."

Southern, who now lives near Dallas, said that knowing top commanders were aware of problems in the area two years before Sitton was killed "is very sad. … Think of all the lives that were lost since then. Our casualties have increased severely since two years ago. It is a damn shame no one is listening."

The Pentagon announced the names of five troops last week who died supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.

There have now been 2,121 deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation's longest war.

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