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General James Terry faces the press.
General James Terry faces the press.

Drum commander cites progress in Afghanistan

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The war in Libya, unrest through the Middle East, and the nuclear crisis in Japan have pushed America's war in Afghanistan down the news agenda.

Fully half of Fort Drum's soldier population is on the ground in Afghanistan. The Army base's commander is in charge of coalition troops in the most dangerous part of the country. General James Terry briefed the media while on leave from Afghanistan last week. David Sommerstein was there and has out report.

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There’s actually a campground on Fort Drum, set around a little lake called Remington Pond.  Overlooking the pond sits the Pentagon version of an Adirondack lodge.

Check, check, mic check.

Inside, reporters set up cameras and mics as fighter planes buzz overhead.  Fake pine boughs, snowshoes, and wooden geese grace the walls.

General James Terry strides in and sits before the scrum.  Then he realizes he’s still chewing gum.

Well, don’t look but I’m going to stick my chewing gum under the table. [laughs]

An aide scurries over, trash can in hand, so the General doesn’t have to stick his gum under the table.

Terry seems easy-going for a two-star general.  He looks like a very fit grandfather – neat gray haircut, wire-rimmed glasses.

But as commander of southern Afghanistan through the fall, of course, he’s serious.  Terry says U.S. and coalition troops have managed to do what the Russians never could – take control of the Kandahar region, birthplace of the Taliban.

What’s very different this go at it is we are not fighting for that terrain now.  We are holding that terrain.  We are there, have home field advantage, and that means the insurgents have to come to us.

And they are coming.  Hours before the General spoke, insurgents had attacked a police centre near Kandahar, detonating a bomb hidden in an ambulance and killing six Afghan police.

President Obama has said training Afghan security forces is the primary mission in Afghanistan.  General Terry said his troops are making progress.  He said Afghan forces handled the riots last week that followed the burning of a Koran in Florida.

Really what I see them doing is starting to step in and to step up to start shouldering the security responsibilities here.

Terry’s headquarters battalion was recently joined in the south by Fort Drum’s 3rd Brigade.  The 10th Mountain Division’s Aviation Brigade is in eastern Afghanistan.  The 10th Sustainment Brigade is deploying this fall, the 2nd Combat Brigade in the summer of 2012.  And the 1st Brigade, which just returned from Afghanistan, will likely go back by 2013, says Terry.

The pace of deployments at Fort Drum remains unrelenting.  It’s stressed families.  It’s forced the base’s medical and mental health teams to scramble to address an Army-wide epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and suicide.

A bright spot, says General Terry, is that the Army is slowly increasing dwell time, the time in between deployments.

It’s been a one to one, one year deployed to one year back home, and so when you look out to ‘12 and ’13, I think what you’re going to look at is 21 to 24 months of time back at home for soldiers and families.  I think what that means for the North Country community is you’re going to see more families accompanying soldiers and staying for longer.

According to its latest impact study, Fort Drum pumps 1 and a half billion dollars into the economies of Jefferson, Lewis, and St. Lawrence counties.  It employs thousands of civilians.

Officials have long worried about a severe housing shortage when all 20,000 soldiers are finally back at Fort Drum at one time.

That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.  General Terry said there’s still much work to be done in Afghanistan.

What has to happen is the Afghan national security forces have to be able to control this insurgency themselves.  I will say this, they’re making a lot of progress.  To put a timeline on it would be very premature right now.

President Obama has set a 2014 timeline to pull out of Afghanistan.  His own Democratic Party, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, is pushing to move up that date.  Americans seems to agree.  The latest polls find a majority of Americans support a pull-out from Afghanistan soon.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m David Sommerstein at Fort Drum.

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