Afghanistan is a strikingly rugged country. That is not lost on the young men and women who serve here. Some count the days and view their tours as short interruptions to “normal life” back home. Others think more deeply about the experience and stop to appreciate the beauty that is Afghanistan — the history, the geography, and the people. We all view our tours in individual and personal ways but are bound by a common mission and common purpose — to protect and defend our freedoms — serving at the front lines fighting hate and extremism that conspires to tear at the delicate fabric of peace and security in this world.
We also share and understand the risk – that military service can be deadly in places like Afghanistan. No one dwells long on that possibility, however, because we are too busy and much too confident that “it certainly won’t happen to me.” The reality is that some don’t make it and a disproportionate number of soldiers killed are younger, typically in their twenties. This struck me during one of our morning update briefings and explains the title. We analyze and brief the numbers but we don’t know the individuals behind them.
What are the trends? What does the data tell us? Are military operations achieving the desired effects? The numbers and statistics are regularly briefed in the headquarters — kinetic events and violent engagements with hostile forces; Improvised Explosive Device (IED) finds and explosions; and yes, the casualties. We track them all and use these and many other statistics to try to understand the dynamics of warfare and assess our progress in the campaign. While it is critically important to track, analyze and assess what the numbers tell us, it is important to remember that many of the numbers represent individuals.
And every individual has a story. . .
And the story is often one of personal service, sacrifice and tragic loss. . .
Whether chalked up as killed in action (KIA) or grievously wounded in action (WIA), it is important to remember that there is an individual behind each data point — a son or daughter, a husband or wife, a brother, a father, someone’s close friend, or a student.
The link below is a dedication to one of those many young soldiers who did not make it – one of the personal stories behind the numbers briefed in the headquarters. It was written by Elizabeth D. Samet, a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point.
Man of Letters by Elizabeth D. Samet
Captain Whitten was my student. This is the way it happens. They sit in your class poring over ‘Dante’s Inferno’ or grousing good-naturedly about the silent film you’ve insisted they admire. They graduate to crawling through the mud at Ranger School or learning how to fly a Chinook in Alabama. They write to let you know about the milestones and about the weirdness; they ask what’s new on your end and tell you not to work “too hard.” They stop by the office whenever they’re back in town for a classmate’s wedding or some other event. They become, for reasons you think you understand, more active correspondents the farther away they find themselves. Messages–sometimes old-fashioned letters — roll in from Mosul or Herat, from places you can’t even locate on a map but the names of which give you a sense of the general atmosphere: “COP Crazy,” “FOB Warhorse.”
So the next time you see the numbers or the news cites the casualty statistics for the dead and wounded, think about Captain Whitten. Think about the individuals behind the numbers. In that small way you can honor their personal sacrifice and be reminded that each number represents an individual hero – someone willing to give up everything to protect and defend our freedoms.