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Sunday, Oct 26, 2014
Howard Altman Columns

Some areas of U.S. have amnesia regarding war in Afghanistan

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We talked about the incident and sources and how every crooked trail seems to lead to Tampa, often a very sunny place for very shady people.

Eventually, the conversation turned to the war in Afghanistan, most likely because I was asked what I do now that I no longer cover the awful ways people dispatch each other outside of war zones.

Now I cover U.S. Central Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, two air refueling wings, two major VA hospitals and those who have made tremendous sacrifices. Which means the war, and all it entails, is always top-of-mind.

But not so much in New York, the producer noted.

I don’t remember the exact words, but they were to the effect that most people there go about life with little cognizance of or connection to a place where U.S. boots have been on the ground for more than a decade. A place that has cost the lives of 2,300 troops and left as many as a half million with wounds seen and unseen.

Afghanistan? I’ve heard of that. Pass the salt please.

This is no knock on New York. I was born in Brooklyn and I am proudly (though not sure why) wearing my Mets cap as I write this. Hell, even Adm. William McRaven, the man in charge of Socom, seemed visibly weary about Afghanistan (or at least answering questions about it) when the Daily Beast’s Kim Dozier queried him about efforts there during his appearance at last month’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference. Given the cost in blood and treasure, it’s hard to blame him, especially since — unlike most Americans — he served there, commanded troops there, oversaw the raid that took out bin Laden from there and knows far too many who died and suffered wounds seen and unseen there.

I think of that conversation from time to time, that disconnect that even someone in the media feels about the last 13 years. Especially when I talk to people irrevocably altered by the war, either by being wounded or losing a loved one to combat, injury, training accident, illness or suicide.

I thought about it again the other night after reading a piece by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in Defense One with the headline “It’s the Afghan War, Not Bergdahl, That America Has Forgotten.”

Lemmon writes about the furor that has erupted over the exchange that brought Bergdahl back after five years in the clutches of insurgents, speaking also to the America’s amnesia about the war:

“That Washington leaders appear surprised by the firestorm ignited by the decision to release five Taliban prisoners in exchange for Bergdahl is only the latest sign of the growing chasm between America’s fighters and everyone else. In our desire to forget we are at war, we also have forgotten to remember what the lives of those who served actually look like. And what it is we have asked them to do in America’s name.”

Lemmon is spot on in her observation. But clearly, the Tampa area is a very different place.

Home to MacDill Air Force Base, two of the nation’s busiest VA hospitals, one of the busiest Veterans Benefits Administration claims processing offices and one of the nation’s largest populations of veterans, this is not a community that has forgotten to remember.

It is a community that can’t remember how to forget.

Especially with more than 30,000 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan until the end of the year and about 9,800 called for by the White House in 2015 should the winner of the Afghan presidential run-off, as expected, sign a bilateral security agreement to keep a U.S. presence there beyond next year.

Say what you will about Bowe Bergdahl, but in Tampa, the news of his return was unneeded as a reminder. It did, however, rip open some very deep wounds.

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I’ve written often about the local effect of defense budget cutbacks, from fewer personnel at MacDill to reductions in jobs and paychecks at local defense contractors.

Recently, 34 airmen at the 6th Air Mobility Wing were essentially given lay off notices.

Those cuts are part of an Air Force-wide move to trim about 25,000 positions across the flying branch.

The airmen in question were “selected for separation under the quality force review board process,” says 2nd Lt. Patrick Gargan, a spokesman for the wing, the host unit at MacDill.

Service-wide, the Air Force will trim about 3,500 airmen this way, according to Air Force Times:

“The negative quality indicators landing airmen on the QFRB list included those who refused retraining, had a grade reduction, were denied re-enlistment, or were serving on a control roster.

“The Air Force Personnel Center said it used a ‘whole person’ concept to evaluate airmen, based on their record of performance and potential for continued positive service.”

Gargan says that, though the airmen will lose their jobs, the wing itself won’t be losing the positions, maintaining an active-duty force of about 3,000.

Still, there is a real effect, on both those who are leaving, and those who will remain, Gargan says.

“The reduction in force affects every airman, leader and wingman at all levels and we are doing everything we can to help those involved with these force management programs,” he said in an email.

I called him to drill down a bit about what that means.

“Any time you have personnel leaving, there is the difficulty of losing members you work with,” he says.

Base officials have plans in place, he says, to help those being involuntarily separated (the Air Force term for laid off).

“The Airman and Family Readiness Center at MacDill takes great pride in providing resources such as the robust Transition Assistance Program available for any service member transitioning out of the military,” he says. “We continue to aggressively work with the Tampa community to connect transitioning service members to potential civilian employers in a variety of ways to include hosting ‘How to Hire a Vet’ events.”

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My late dad Joseph Altman did his basic training at what used to be called just Fort Dix in New Jersey, so the following item brings back some memories of his stories from that time.

Aero Simulation Inc,. a Tampa company that provides simulation services, just won an $8.5 million award from the Navy for the “development, delivery and support of a new training system to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst” for the Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter Flight Training Device.

“ASI is pleased with our team’s ability to fully meet this new CH-53E training system requirement,” said company president Michael McCarthy.

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The Pentagon announced the deaths of two soldiers last week in Afghanistan.

Pfc. Matthew H. Walker, 20, of Hillsboro, Missouri, died June 5, in Paktika province, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when his unit was attacked by enemy fire.

He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

Capt. Jason B. Jones, 29, of Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, died June 2, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, of wounds received from small-arms. The incident is under investigation.

He was assigned 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

There have now been 2,313 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

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