HELMAND PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN
"Don't either of them even know we're still fighting over here?" That question was posed by one of the U.S. Marines with whom we have been keeping company in southwestern Afghanistan. His query followed this week's presidential debate at Hofstra University, during which the word "Afghanistan" was uttered only once in the 90-minute exchange between the two men bidding to be commander in chief.
Last year when we were in this part of Helmand province, there were four Marine battalions providing security and mentoring Afghan soldiers and police. Now there is just one -- 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment -- the last Fleet Marine Force unit in which I served. I admit to bias in favor of these young Marines, with whom I share a special bond.
Since our two-man Fox News team arrived last month, Chuck Holton and I have traveled much of the same ground we covered on previous trips when we were reporting on Americans and our allies in this long war. On this trip, we have interviewed, listened to, documented and hiked many miles with nearly 700 of the 68,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines remaining in Afghanistan.
We also have spoken with hundreds of American contractor personnel -- more than on any of our previous trips. That's because there are so many required to implement the Obama administration's "exit strategy." In a surreal exercise of political and financial accounting, we now have civilians performing essential tasks that U.S. military personnel used to carry out before the "Obama drawdown" began in the midst of this year's "fighting season." Because civilian contractors do not count in the military end-strength numbers, the White House and Pentagon can show they are "ending operations in Afghanistan on schedule."
As the members of 3/8 begin their retrogression back to the United States, they are bringing with them tens of millions of dollars' worth of heavy equipment accumulated over the past 11 years of war. It's a herculean feat requiring a full-time, 24/7 effort. On outposts soon to be turned over to Afghan forces or "demilitarized" and abandoned, the troops pull security duty, go on patrols, train the local Afghan army and police, and pack, load and move 26-ton armored vehicles, mine-clearing equipment, trucks, generators, communications gear, water and fuel systems, and entire armories.
The work goes on day and night.
There is little time for meals, a shower or rest, much less talk of politics at home. Nonetheless, some of them do find time. To the extent they can, they follow the debates -- particularly on larger bases where contractor-provided dining facilities offer air conditioning and big-screen televisions.
Here's a brief summary of what we have seen and heard since we arrived here last month. Some of it is considerably different from the reporting at home:
There is an overwhelming sense of disappointment at the lack of attention being paid to America's longest war by the presidential campaigns. Over a cup of coffee, I asked a senior staff noncommissioned officer for his opinion. He's on his fifth combat tour since Sept. 11, 2001, three times here and twice to Iraq, where he was wounded by enemy fire. His assessment: "Early on, people cared. But now, the only people who even know about us being over here are our families. You're the first news team we've seen on this deployment. The press doesn't even mention us except when something bad happens, and our politicians don't acknowledge us at all. We came back here last spring at the beginning of fighting season. Some of us will be home for Thanksgiving. Hopefully, we will all be home for Christmas. I hope the election changes things. This war shouldn't end like [Vietnam]."
Then there is the matter of whether military personnel overseas are able to cast absentee ballots. We asked nearly 700 members of the U.S. armed forces about any problems encountered in getting or casting a ballot. Only four said they had experienced any problems whatsoever.
One of the Marines put it this way: "When the company first sergeant says 'Give blood,' we line up to give blood. When he tells us to sign up for an allotment to support the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society or Toys for Tots, we do it. When he tells us to register to vote, we do that, too. We're not stupid."
All true. There may be fewer brave, young Americans serving in this difficult and dangerous place than the last time we were here, but those who volunteered to come here still inspire me. I hope they will inspire you, too -- even if you don't have a first sergeant.
Oliver North is host of "War Stories" on the Fox News Channel and author of the new novel "Heroes Proved" (Threshold Editions, 2012).
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