Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lesson from the Front

solider723.jpg                     State legislator says service in Afghanistan inspired push for change at home

Two reserve officers tell different stories about battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they have common themes - - bravery, comradeship and building trust.
Rep. James Smith (D-Columbia), is a S.C. National Guard captain who returned home in May after serving in dangerous places in Afghanistan.  Col. Robert Burton, an Air Force reservist who is a Mount Pleasant pilot with Delta Air Lines, currently is serving in Camp Ramadi in Iraq’s Al Anbar province in the Sunni triangle.  A few years back, Burton ran for state adjutant general.
In Iraq, Burton finds himself in an unexpected place - - a pilot on the ground overseeing soldiers and Marines to keep a military outpost secure from infiltrators who want to cause damage.  Two months ago, suicide insurgents tried to ram a water truck loaded with 3,000 pounds of explosive ammonium nitrate into the camp.  In their way were two U.S. Marines standing their post to protect the camp.
In a column from Iraq published this week on the Web site, Burton described a video he had to review of the bombing:  “What I saw was the most heroic thing I will ever see…I saw that truck then turn down the entryway, weaving between the barriers accelerating.  I watched the Marines make their life-defining choice.  Their life choice.
“They could run and might possibly live, but the truck would pass and take out the barracks and many Marines would die.  I watched as they stood their ground and opened up with all they had in a desperate attempt to stop the truck.  They knew the moment that truck accelerated toward them.  They chose.  They stood their ground and stopped the truck.”
> Burton recalled he felt the bomb when it exploded, despite the fact he was more than two miles away from the detonation site that killed the two Marines.
“From all this, I’ve learned that one life, my life, is completely inconsequential all by itself,” Burton wrote.  “ Only when I join it with others, through love, common commitment, service or shared sacrifice, can one life mean anything or do anything great.”
Smith, who commanded two different security teams working with Afghan police in and around Zabul province, said his survival depended on having strong relationships with Afghans he worked with, particularly since there was a Taliban price tag of up to $80,000 for American soldiers.  Just as he depended on them, the Afghans depended on Smith, he said.
Smith, former minority leader in the S.C. House of Representatives, learned a lot more about leadership in Afghanistan.
“Good leaders are the kind of people who make good friends, good wives and good fathers because they express a devotion, love and commitment to the people they are leading,” Smith said.  “There’s definitely a servanthood.  The best leaders I know didn’t get their men to do what they needed done because of the rank on their shoulders.  They got done what they needed to be done by the devotion to them.”
Now back home, Smith said the lessons he learned in Afghanistan could impact what happened in the state legislature, despite the fact that he witnessed some of the same tired rhetoric and sniping when he returned home in May.
“I come back very much encouraged.  I feel like I’m very proud of my men and the Afghans I worked with and we made a huge positive impact.  I come back with renewed vigor to focus on issues here at home.
“[But] the quickest thing that brought me home was going to the State House and arguing the same issues and hearing the same phrases and arguments.  It didn’t seem like I had been gone a day.”
Smith said that realization convinced him the state needed real change agents to deal with longtime challenges like education, energy, health care and the economy.
So come January, look for Smith, who is unopposed in November, to use some of the skills in politics that he and Burton learned overseas - - to connect with people, nurture relationships and work together to build a better South Carolina.

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