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U.S. troops hope Afghanistan sacrifices not in vain

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan | The sirens blared as a Taliban rocket attack rattled troops across Kandahar Air Field for the second time last week.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Teresa R. Coble and other members of her unit at the base's media-support center hit the floor, lay flat on the dusty cement and protected their heads with their hands. Later, the unit moved to cement-reinforced bunkers until the all-clear sounded.

While the Obama administration debates whether to send tens of thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and Afghans prepare to vote for president for the second time in four months, some of those already braving rockets and bombs worry that their mission has lost the support of the U.S. public and that their sacrifices - and those of their fallen comrades - have been in vain.

"What about the troops who died giving their lives for this mission?" Sgt. Coble asked as she waited for the rocket alert to finish.

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By next August, Sgt. Coble, 27, from Germantown, will have served more than 30 months combined in Iraq and Afghanistan, far from her only child, five-year-old Troy Davis.

"We would not be honoring the lives of the troops who died if we left here without finishing our mission, and many troops are concerned that the American people have forgotten why we came here to begin with," she said.

"If we left Afghanistan right now, its equivalent to somebody going up to help a rape victim, engaging in a fight to help that rape victim, then giving up because they didnt want to get hurt themselves and allowing that rape to continue," she said. "Because essentially thats what the Afghan population is: They are victims, and we need to follow through with what we promised."

Others interviewed by The Times were less supportive of the eight-year war and less certain that adding more U.S. forces would defeat a tenacious and growing Taliban insurgency or reduce corruption in the Afghan government. Several asked not to be named so that they could voice their opinions candidly without retribution from their superiors.

One young soldier, who had arrived at Kandahar Air Field from a forward operating base along the Pakistan-Afghan border, said his unit had suffered a number of casualties.

"I used to believe in what we were doing here," the soldier said. "I'm not too sure anymore. It's just we don't know what the endgame is. We've been getting hit hard out here. What are we here to win? I have to believe that what Gen. [Stanley M.] McChrystal is doing is going to work.But who knows how long that will last before someone else decides to change the game plan again? I mean, do the people in Washington even remember we're here?"

Others said they had difficulty working with some members of the Afghan National Army, which they described as disorganized and in some cases untrustworthy. Gen. McChrystal, the commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, seeks to increase the size and quality of the Afghan army as the mainstay for Afghan security in the future.

"I don't trust them," said one U.S. soldier who said he had worked closely with Afghan military personnel during multiple tours in Afghanistan. "They make it impossible for us, and we have to work around it. I understand that we're trying to aid the Afghans in securing their own country, but we're up against some of the worst corruption I've ever known. It puts our lives in danger."

In Kabul, Army Maj. Pedro Espinoza said he supported Gen. McChrystal's plans and believed in the mission despite its difficulties.

"I have hope in what we're doing here," Maj. Espinoza said, as he donned armor in preparation for the short ride from International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters to Kabul airport. "Look, if I didn't have hope, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. It's as simple as that."

Polish Col. Jacek Rolak, who was also in the convoy, wasn't as hopeful. He joked with Maj. Espinoza and said he was grateful to be leaving Afghanistan.

"I'm not too sure things will work out the way we would like," Col. Rolak said. " I'm not sure what's going to happen, or how good any strategy is in Afghanistan. Guess we just wait and see."

U.S. troops here deal daily with death and injury, seeing comrades hurt and watching flag-draped coffins go through forward operating bases on their final trip home.

Many are also haunted by the faces of Afghan people the U.S. is trying to help.

In Kabul, Army Pvt. 2nd Class Logan Purtlebaugh sent e-mails to her family from the comfort of her bunk bed. Her Myrtle Beach pink blanket, books strewn on her bed and periodic breaks to brush her long, blond hair made the 19-year-old seem more like a university student in a dorm than a soldier in a barracks. The young chaplain's assistant with the 82nd Airborne, 4th Brigade, at Camp Lindsey, not far from Kandahar Air Field, was on a nine-day break in the Afghan capital.

The policy debate back in Washington was not on the mind of this soldier from Bloomington, Ind.

Instead, she was thinking about the accidental death of an Afghan child she recently had witnessed in Kandahar.

"It's the first time I'm dealing with death," said Pvt. Purtlebaugh, who is on her first deployment. "I'll never forget what happened."

She folded down her laptop and stared into the darkness.

"He ran out in front of the MRAP [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle], and there was no time for the driver to stop," she said. "The little boy's head was decapitated. It was horrible for everybody involved. Especially for the family of the boy."

The young victim "seemed to be about the same age as my seven-year-old sister, Madison Purtlebaugh," she said. "I really miss home, but this is where I want to be. I believe in the Afghan people. I have hope despite everything."

Sgt. Coble urged Americans to think about the sacrifices U.S. troops have made in Aghanistan and the consequences of narrowing the mission before it has more time to succeed.

"We're not just numbers," she said. "I'm not going to say morale is high with everything going on at home. We're here for a reason. This is not a draft military. When people go out on the streets in America and say, 'Bring our troops home,' it infuriates me. Don't go out there talking about bringing our troops home, let us decide when to come back home. We're here because we want our children, my son, to have a safer world, and we know the risks."

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