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Slain major general explained mission in letter of thanks

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Published:   |   Updated: August 6, 2014 at 05:22 PM

The one-page handwritten letter now seems as haunting as it was heartfelt.

In February, Army Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene, deputy commanding general of a mission to train Afghans, expressed his thanks for boxes of treats sent to Afghanistan by service organizations at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, where he used to serve.

But in that letter, written Feb. 24, Greene also explained his mission, saying, “We are making noticeable progress in developing the” Afghan National Security Forces.

On Tuesday, near Kabul, someone believed to be one of those security forces shot and killed Greene, 55, and wounded as many as 15 others, according to the Pentagon.

Greene was the highest ranking U.S. military officer killed in action overseas since the Vietnam War.

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Before he became deputy commander of the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, Greene served at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. The local chapter of the Association of the United States Army and the Army Aviation Association of America forwarded to Afghanistan four boxes of treats that included goodies received from Operation Support the Troops, a Wesley Chapel-based group that has shipped out about 600 tons of snacks, toiletries and other goods to troops around the world.

The Aberdeen group had received several shipments from Wesley Chapel over the years, said Mark Van Trees, who has been running the organization, headquartered in the Sifter Parts and Services warehouse, since founder Bob Williams was injured in January 2012.

Van Trees estimated that about half the items in the packages sent to Greene came from Support The Troops.

One of the things that made Greene special, said Van Trees, is the personal touch of gratitude he exhibited, often responding with notes, emails and pictures after receiving packages.

“Not everyone does that,” said Van Trees. “But I must have a dozen letters and pictures from him.”

Van Trees said that in the past year, he shipped up about 20 pallettes of candy, coffee and other items to Maryland, which the groups in Aberdeen would then pay to have shipped overseas.

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The four boxes of goodies that arrived in Greene’s office in Afghanistan “greatly improved” morale, Greene wrote to the Aberdeen support groups, which then forwarded the letter to others who helped out, including Van Trees, who provided it to The Tribune.

“I enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) some of the treats (especially the Girl Scout cookies), but I took the boxes to our staff meeting,” he wrote, adding that he also sent along pictures of the “mayhem that followed as the staff dove in to get treats to share with the team.

“As you can see from the pictures,” Greene wrote, “morale was high.”

Jim Costigan, a retired Army colonel who is on both Aberdeen groups and serves as vice president of the AUSA local chapter, said that Greene was widely admired in the Maryland community on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, about 50 miles northeast of Washington D.C. Both for his commitment to the troops, and to the nation.

The handwritten letter, said Costigan, was a typical Harry Greene example of a rare attribute. Someone who took the time to show he cared.

“He and I were old friends,” said Costigan.

Recalling a time before Greene headed off to Afghanistan when they were playing golf on base, Costigan said his friend expressed a continued interested in service despite the personal costs.

Costigan said a while ago, he asked Greene, who was finally back with his wife Susan after a long assignment, why he didn’t just retire, instead of taking on a new job and possibly being separated again.

“If you know Harry, he was a very, very personal guy,” said Costigan. “One of the few times he said something, he said, ‘I serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States.’ I looked at him and said, ‘you know, good for you.’ ”

About eight or nine months ago, on the golf course, they had a conversation about another assignment, this time to Afghanistan, where Greene would help run the training effort.

“Harry tells me, ‘I am being deployed to Afghanistan,’” said Costigan, “I am a retired colonel, I know what it is to serve, and I said, ‘you have done your time, why don’t you just retire? No one is going to fault you.’”

Greene, he said, felt he had to set an example.

“He said to me, and again, it was one of those rare moments, ‘I have sent guys and gals to that theater who were in the same situation as I am today,’” said Costigan. “‘How can I not go?’ I said, ‘God bless you Harry.’ He was a very nice man. A very intelligent guy, very smart and at the end of the day, he cared for his people. This is a tremendous loss.”

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Greene closed out his letter by explaining his job in Afghanistan, which was to help train indigenous forces to provide their own security after the bulk of U.S. forces leave at the end of the year.

There are about 30,000 troops now in Afghanistan and President Barack Obama has stated that if and when the next Afghan president signs a mutual security pact with the United States, 9,800 U.S. troops would remain, mostly to help train Afghans. About 1,000 commandos — half of those expected under the Obama plan — would also engage in counterterror missions.

“Some of you may wonder how the mission is going,” Greene wrote. “Our organization is charged to equip and support the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). We are a joint organization, with members of all 4 services working together toward a common goal. You would be proud of them and their efforts. We are making noticeable progress developing the ANSF. You should be especially proud of the people — service members, government civilians and contractors dedicated to improving the ANSF. They are true patriots and remarkably capable.”

After Greene was killed while visiting the The Marshal Fahim National Defense University in Kabul, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby held a news conference and said the mission Greene wrote about remains on track despite what appears to be a so-called “green-on-blue” insider attack that remains under investigation.

“The Afghan National Security Forces continue to perform at a very strong level of competence and confidence, and warfare capability,” said Kirby, who at the Pentagon briefing did not mention Greene by either name nor his specific rank. “They have had a good year securing not one, but two national elections, and stopping or minimizing the impact of countless numbers of attacks throughout the country, even in Kabul. ... So, this is a security force that we believe grows stronger by the week and they are already in the lead in combat missions throughout the country. They’ll be completely in the lead for military operations by the end of the year. We see no change in that, no degradation of that progress.”

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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