- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

First Lt. Phillip Neel was killed by enemy fire in Balad, Iraq, on April 8. His death was announced in one of the bland official e-mails that the Defense Department distributes with depressing regularity. No matter where I am, I stop to read those e-mails because of the sacrifice they represent. I immediately pray for the family and thank our creator that our nation still produces men and women willing to step forward and serve its interests. My heart sank as I read the e-mail because Phil was one of my students while I served on the faculty of the U.S. Military Academy.

Phil graduated from West Point in the class of 2005. Like all civilized people, he and his classmates were horrified by the shock of September 11. The difference for them was that they were in their first year at the academy. They stood together on the Plain in silent midnight vigil as the trumpet mournfully blew and as the shock of events wore off they gained the certitude that they would serve our nation in time of war. At that point of their cadet careers, Phil and his classmates could have chosen to leave. They were the first post-September 11 class to choose to serve, and in an eerie fortuity 911 young officers were commissioned that May morning.

As is true of every other casualty, that e-mail had a face and a personality and a story. Phil was not flashy. He was a quiet young man who generally thought before he spoke. He was not from an aristocratic line. Life did not hand him success because of his family name or wealth. He worked hard to graduate and succeed at the academy while helping his friends along the way. He carried himself with a steadiness and dependability that was admirable. His attributes in life were precisely those that Americans should be entitled to expect of West Pointers who commit themselves to the service of this republic.

Robert E. Lee once said that duty is “the sublimest word in the English language.” Those four letters embody a breathtaking sweep of self-abnegation and require an almost holy commitment to the non-negotiable demands of the mission and the welfare of soldiers.

We suffer as a nation today because so few of our elected leaders understand these concepts. Despite the blather about supporting the troops, a declining number of our elected officials have served and sweated, and as the veterans of old would say, have “seen the elephant.” In return for their commitment, those who serve in uniform should be entitled to the deepest and most unwavering support that this nation can muster.

Phil Neel did his duty. It is time for Congress to do its duty. The Joint Chiefs has written to describe the adverse consequences of inaction on the supplemental appropriations that languish while congressional leaders posture. Congressmen go home to be with their families while those who are separated from their families by the demands of duty suffer from their inaction.

This is not the first war in which American politicians have dithered while armchair generals debated and corporations profited. Victory in Iraq is nothing less than the creation of conditions that demoralize and disrupt those who continue to murder innocent civilians. Victory, however, cannot be measured solely by numbers or artificial dates or terrorist cadavers. American fighting men and women have largely borne the burden for Iraqi intransigence and incompetence. No more. Our blood and treasure cannot indefinitely bankroll a government that is unwilling to meet its most essential obligations.

In my four trips to Iraq, I have seen much progress, but also much that is dismaying. There are legitimate ways to express dissatisfaction with events on the ground in Iraq, but it is the height of hypocrisy for Congress to complain about rampant factionalism and bureaucratic bungling in Baghdad even as they set the world class standard in Washington. In depriving our troops and their families of the funding they need in order to pander to a political faction, Congress abdicates its solemn obligations.

It is time for the American people to demand that Congress do its duty to support those who are engaged on the front lines of freedom.

Michael A. Newton is a West Point graduate who served over 21 years in uniform and teaches at the Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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