Obama's first stop to sell his new Afghanistan strategy is this afternoon at Fort Drum near Watertown. The President will meet with soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division and with families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Fort Drum's been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan since the beginning. And as David Sommerstein reports, soldiers don't see their roles changing much yet.
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Even before President Obama said a word last night, the feeling around Fort Drum was any troop withdrawal would be good news.
"I think that’s great. I think it’s time for them to come home," said Vicki Woodard’s, as she strolled into an Asian buffet with her daughter, Sergeant Kiki Woodard, and 7 year-old Kenaya, who’s wearing "a pink dress. A colorful dress!"
Kenaya’s mom, the Sergeant, is going to Afghanistan next month. Like many soldiers here, Sergeant Woodard puts on a professional face regarding the President’s strategy. "I don’t really have an opinion on it, because I am a soldier, so I have to go by what they say," Sergeant Woodard said.
Grandma Vicki Woodard doesn’t hold back. She’ll become the Mom while Kiki’s away. She took a deep sigh and said, "It’s very hard. You go through so much. She’s like the head of the family and she organizes and I have to take over and try to fit in. It makes it difficult."
For almost a decade now soldiers here have had as little as nine months with their families before they’re sent back overseas. Many families cope with it, but alcoholism, domestic violence, and divorce have been growing problems here and elsewhere in the Army.
A former soldier herself, Shawn Jensen is now a soldier’s wife. She said Obama’s plan to ease the pace of war is good but she’s also skeptical: "I mean, we’re always happy to hear that not as many soldiers are going to go over there, but we also know, too, that no sooner that they get back, they’re already set up for the next deployment."
Maggie’s on the River is a bar filled with soldiers watching sports on umpteen television screens. The President’s speech does get one in the corner, and a few soldiers are watching, mostly because I ask them to. Afterwards, we walk out to the back deck by the Black River.
"My initial reaction to it is it’s about time," said Sergeant Shadrach Miller, who just returned from Afghanistan. He’s been part of the 30,000-troop surge that Obama now pledges to pull back by next summer.
Miller trained Afghan soldiers – the President’s core rationale for the surge. Overall, Miller said, it’s working. "The short answer is yes on that. However, the guys we’re standing up right now…we’re too focused on getting them to shoot some targets right now," Miller said. "What you need to get them focused on core values, because they are corrupt as you wouldn’t believe."
Here’s where the soldier’s view of the drawdown gets complicated: Miller wants the war to wind down quickly, but he’s not sure the Afghan Army will ever be able to keep the country secure.
Bill Croff is a National Guardsman who also just returned from Afghanistan. He says any fixed timeline for withdrawal sends a dangerous message to insurgents. "We need to play it by ear," Croff said. "We need to make sure that we do things right, and that the soldiers that have died have died for a just cause and we come out of there with a victory."
Miller sees that side of it, too: "He’s right. It’s ridiculously counterintuitive for us to want a specific timeline. As soldiers we don’t want to tell the enemy anything."
Miller and Croff both said they understand the political dimensions at play as well. Civilians are tiring of war and the President is hard-pressed to act with an election on the horizon.
Croff says occupations often drag on. "We’re still in the Sinai. We’re still in Germany. We’re still in Japan," Croff said. "And how long ago did we fight World War II?"
That’s why many soldiers at Fort Drum – and their families - don’t really expect their role in Afghanistan to end anytime soon. Two more brigades from Fort Drum are slated to ship off for Afghanistan in the next year.
David Sommerstein, North Country Public Radio, Fort Drum.