Thursday, August 25, 2005

I’m very proud to be a soldier of the U.S. Army because of the war on terror and our missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m not alone either. I’m surrounded by soldiers who are re-enlisting and volunteering to go to units that are deploying. In fact, despite all the negative news and protests, I see everyday that our military is actually doing very well.

This is quite obvious, except for the fact that most of the media seems asphyxiated with defeatism. The message from most journalists would lead you to believe that we soldiers are getting out, that no one is joining anew and that we want to stop fighting. This simply isn’t true.

Yes, recruitment is lower, but the caliber of those who are signing up and the rates of re-enlistment are both extremely high. All 10 of our major combat divisions are ahead of expectations for retention of soldiers. In my unit, there are soldiers who specifically went active duty from the reserves because they want to go to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Before September 11, a lot of soldiers were happy to just enjoy the benefits. Since that day, those soldiers have left. That is fine and not the disaster that defeatist reports are making it seem. Such soldiers were never the types to want to go on long deployments and face combat. Yes, they were heroes for signing up and being in a job that could go that direction, but they had other priorities that made their service contingent on enjoying the benefits rather than serving in war.

That changed on September 11. Now, just as we are told to expect when joining, we are going to combat and many soldiers are getting injured and killed. This is our job, and it is what we know can happen. I don’t know why the media insists on trumpeting the idea that all of us are tired and worn out and just want to stop fighting. I don’t, and I am not alone.

The fact is that we are not experiencing casualty rates anywhere near past conflicts, nor for that matter as bad as during peacetime. There were weeks in Vietnam when 350-400 Americans died, and in other wars thousands would die in single battles. Nothing like that is happening now.

From 1983 to 1996, more than 18,000 soldiers died. That averages to more than 1,300 a year, far more than have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan each year. Yes, that was mostly from accidents, drunk driving and other mishaps. Yet, while protesters in Crawford, Texas and elsewhere would have you think that our military can’t survive with the low casualty rates of this war, I wonder why they were willing to accept the much higher peacetime casualty rates of the past? We lost around 3,000 innocent people on September 11, and with four years of war and the toppling of two regimes, we haven’t lost that many in combat.

Injuries are high, but they are nothing compared to past conflicts. And most striking is how many are recovering well. I have been to both of the major military hospitals involved in this war, Landstuhl in Germany and Walter Reed in Washington, and I can tell you that there are many soldiers who have lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan and who want to return to their units and get redeployed.

Like I said earlier, though, the striking fact I see every day is that the soldiers who are joining now are of much higher caliber than those who joined before September 11. The senior commandant of the Marines recently testified before Congress that the same is happening with them. There maybe fewer than before, but those that do show up are willing and dedicated to being deployed and going to combat. These are also the types who are re-enlisting more than ever before. In fact, re-enlistment is up to 130 percent of expectations in some divisions.

My wife is in the National Guard. Theirs is an interesting experience right now in that there have been more casualties by accidents and reckless behavior off-duty than in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why are protesters not upset about that? Sadly it appears that much of the media are obsessed with defeatism. Even the message of the protesters — contradictory, false and confused as ever — is made front-page headline news every day. The few people they can exploit to push this defeatist agenda are made to appear to speak for all of us. That just isn’t true.

Contrary to all the bad news, I see everyday that our soldiers are motivated and eager to contribute and participate in our nation’s military missions. This is a very proud and important time to be serving. Considering that out of a population of 285 million, less than one-tenth of one percent are going to war right now, and considering the huge impact we are having on the world, this is a wonderful time to be a soldier in the U.S. Army.

Sgt. Joe Roche is with the 12th Aviation Battalion and stationed at Fort Belvoir.

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