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Honoring a hero…as war drums beat

One week ago on Monday, August 26, 2013, I had the incredible experience of being at the White House as a member of the media for the Medal of Honor presentation to United States Army Staff Sergeant Ty M. Carter by President Obama. Staff Sergeant Carter was awarded the Medal for his heroism in action on October 3, 2009 during the Battle of Kamdesh at Combat Outpost (COP) Keating in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. Carter is the second soldier of B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division to be awarded the Medal. The first awardee was Staff Sergeant Clinton L. Romesha who received his award from the President in the same setting on February 11, 2013. The pair are the first two living Americans to be awarded the Medal of Honor for the same action since the Vietnam War.

I shot my own video from my vantage point in the East Room of the reading of Staff Sergeant Carter’s citation and the moment when the President placed our nation’s highest honor around his neck.

In addition to the two Medals of Honor, eight members of B-3-61 Cav were awarded the Silver Star for valor and eighteen the Bronze Star with Valor Device. Two United States Air Force and six Army aviators received the Distinguished Flying Cross for the critical air support rendered to the soldiers fighting for their lives on the ground. If you want the full story of what happened at COP Keating, I highly recommend you read The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor by CNN Chief Washington Correspondent Jake Tapper. It’s in part thanks to Mr. Tapper’s book and other reporting about what happened over three years at COP Keating, culminating with the October 2009 battle, that the story of some of our nation’s greatest present heroes, as well as the questionable tactics and strategies that placed our fighting men in an Afghanistan valley surrounded by high ground and with tenuous at best access by road or helicopter for resupply and reinforcement if and when the chips were down.

Eight Americans lost their lives during the battle; many others were wounded.

After witnessing the Medal presentation to Staff Sergeant Carter, I also had a front-row position for his personal statement outside the White House West Wing. Carter, still on active duty, suffers from hearing loss in his left ear and has also been open about his ongoing battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On my CDN radio show last week (8/26), we spent some time discussing how poorly we as a nation have cared for our combat veterans’ mental health, certainly not limited to those who have witnessed the horrors of war over the last twelve years since September 11, 2001. Caring for our veterans – men and women to whom we all have a debt of honor – should be a completely non-partisan issue. I’ve got no time for anyone who wants to make it one too.

I looked at my trip to the White House last week as a non-partisan trip. On most days, you can count the points of agreement I have with President Obama on one hand missing all fingers and the thumb, but I wasn’t at the White House to score political points but to honor a hero. If I had been given the chance to ask a question at the press briefing that I was lucky enough to be allowed to attend, it would have been perhaps controversial, but not technically political.

About one month before the fight at COP Keating, a group of US Marines and Soldiers known as an “Embedded Training Team” was ambushed with the Afghan National Army unit they were advising in the Kunar Province. Sergeant Dakota L. Meyer became the first living Marine recipient of the Medal of Honor for his valor during what is known today as the Battle of Ganjgal (also spelled Ganjigal), September 8, 2009. Two other Marines, Captain Ademola Fabayo and Staff Sergeant Juan Rodriguez-Chavez, were decorated with the Navy Cross for their roles.

The question I would have asked would have been concerning Army Captain William Swenson, who Sergeant Meyer credits with saving his life in his book Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War. Swenson was himself nominated for the Medal of Honor, but to date, he has received no recognition or decoration for his undoubtable courage in action. The official story of the Captain’s award recommendation is that the paperwork was “lost”.

Swenson, in after action reports and the official investigation that followed the ambush at Ganjgal was highly critical of his superiors and the “rules of engagement” under which they were fighting and the lack of support, particularly from artillery fires, they got on the battlefield. There’s significant speculation that recognition for Captain Swenson is being held up because of his public stance on his superiors’ actions, or more properly, inactions. I’d have asked Mr. Carney to comment on reports that documentation concerning Swenson’s overdue award of the Medal of Honor have been forwarded all the way to the White House…and is there collecting dust.

Five Americans and eight friendly Afghani soldiers lost their lives in that ambush.

In my blog post announcing that I’d be making the trip to the White House for Carter’s ceremony, I lamented that present-day Americans are too concerned keeping caught up with the Kardashians – illustrated plainly by two magazines I observed at the grocery store check-out on Saturday (In Touch Collector’s special, headline “Greed, Lies & Betrayal: the Complete Kardashian Diaries” and the regular In Touch edition, headline “2 Kardashian Marriages OVER!”) – than honoring heroes, even for all everyone is ready to shout “We support the troops!”.

Not one headline or cover shot at the grocery store of Staff Sergeant Ty M. Carter on a weekly or monthly magazine. Not one.

But, back to my afternoon at the White House. Most of the rest of the press present that day in the briefing room focused on the news of the day, which at Press Secretary Jay Carney’s briefing, meant Syria. Carney was expansive in talking about the “undeniable” evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, which our government asserts were wielded by the Assad regime against the rebels. There are conflicting reports that claim the rebels accidentally released the chemicals on their own people. Regardless, President Obama is saber-rattling over attacking Syria because of the chemical weapons use, but at least he’s taken a pause and stopped to ask Congress first when they return from recess.

The stories of American military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq – both, I might add will full Congressional oversight and authorization – doesn’t give me a whole lot of confidence for military success in Syria, if we start shooting. The debacle in Libya and Benghazi only makes the likelihood of success less. My view of getting into a shooting war is simple. There should be only two possible results for our enemies in a conflict: their unconditional surrender or complete annihilation. It’s been seventy years since that’s how the United States has waged war, and until there’s the political will to do it again, we should probably keep our hands to ourselves.

There are politicians on both sides of the traditional (but flawed) “left/right” divide arguing for and against action against Assad. It’s hard to understand any argument for action as Assad’s enemies are rather closely allied with Al Qaeda and the perpetrators of September 11. Enemies of enemies could be friends…they’re just as likely to be just more enemies. There are no good guys fighting in Syria, so it’s left to our politicians to decide if American intervention can save civilians, and if the cost is worth the treasure that is the life of the American warrior. The lives of our fighting men and women aren’t all that’s at risk either. Our national credibility is just about shot on the world stage, and the indecisiveness seen during nearly five years of Barack Obama’s foreign policy makes doing nothing just as costly as doing something.

Cruise missiles, unless they’re carrying nuclear warheads, can’t destroy chemical weapons. Cruise missiles with conventional warheads might take out commanders, leaders, and delivery systems, but won’t do one thing to the weapons themselves, except perhaps release them and contaminate the surrounding area and perhaps kill innocents. Same goes for precision-guided munitions carried by American warplanes, which naturally puts pilots and aircrews at risk from air defenses. No, the only way we can guarantee the destruction of chemical weapons (since using nuclear ordnance would almost certainly be unacceptable even to anyone who would be allied with us, which looks like just the French), is to put boots on the ground. Which, I’d add, would also expose our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen to the same risk of chemical attack or accidental exposure over and above the risks and hazards of conventional combat operations. Is Syria worth that?

We’re not done in Afghanistan yet, and the full history and assessment of the long term success and failure of our military actions there will take years to learn and write. Even though we’re out of Iraq, the same goes for that war. While we’re still wondering if the sacrifices made thus far will have been worth it, while we’re still waiting for debts of honor to be paid to those who have fought so valiantly so far, shouldn’t we all choose very carefully where, if anywhere, we’re going to send our warriors next?

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