Memorial Day in Afghanistan

By Congressman Pete Gallego —

It’s noon in most of Congressional District 23, but for me it’s 9 p.m.
as I ride in the belly of a darkened US Air Force C-130 transport plane.
Over the din of the aircraft, an airman tells me quietly that we have
another hour to go before landing in Kabul.

This Memorial Day weekend, I am en route to Afghanistan.

Still
in transit, already it has been an eye-opening experience. In Kosovo, I
see a land previously ravaged by war that – thanks to the U.S. – is
learning to live in peace. I meet our young men and women who maintain
that peace each and every day. Away from those they love, yet content to
do their duty for God and country.

At Landstuhl Regional Medical
Center in Germany – where soldiers severely injured in the field are
first taken – I pray over several soldiers in the ICU. A young girl is
still unconscious from injuries suffered when an IED exploded near her
vehicle in Afghanistan. She is someone’s daughter. Another, a young
Latino from Utah, tries desperately to talk with me – but the oxygen
mask and tubes make it all but impossible.

After leaving Ramstein
Air Force Base, I fly to Qatar. The wind feels like a hair dryer
blowing hot air across your face. I meet 20 of my fellow Texans – most
from San Antonio. Despite the hardships, they are enthusiastic. This is
nothing, they tell me, compared to the sacrifices of their brothers and
sisters in Afghanistan.

Visiting with the soldiers at Al Udeid is
a highlight. We talk about the Spurs. We talk about politics. We talk
about our kids – and how they miss the hugs, putting them to bed, and
milestones like kindergarten graduations. We talk about their roles in
the fight for freedom.

Now, the plane begins its descent. Soon, I
will be met by officials from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The
environment is still dangerous. Our armored convoy slowly snakes its way
through checkpoint after checkpoint through the area known as the
“rings of steel.”

In Kabul, I meet more of our state’s finest. I
am struck by their confidence in the success of their mission. And, I am
continually surprised not only by their devotion to America, but also
by their dedication to the Afghan people.

Travel by car is not
particularly safe. The danger of IED’s is ever-present. I board a
Chinook helicopter for a trip to Bagram Air Base. As the helo lifts off,
the machine gunners take their places. The Kevlar vest is heavy. I am
sweating profusely in the heat, and I’m not the one carrying an
additional 50 pounds of gear. Can’t imagine what this is like for our
troops who are in this environment constantly.

In Bagram, I meet
two pilots and an instructor from Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio.
They tell me about their missions – saving lives, and providing air
cover for their comrades on the ground. They have left all they love
behind to stand tall for America and America’s interests.

One
more trip north to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Lightning. I meet Afghan
soldiers. As the U.S. draws down, it is the Afghans on the front line.
They are effusive in their praise of and grateful to American troops.
They will win, they tell me, not just for themselves, but in honor of
their American brothers and sisters who brought them this opportunity
with blood.

As I board an airplane for the return trip to Texas, I
receive a video of my son who has now mastered riding a bike. It was a
special moment – and one I missed. Immediately, my mind flashes back to
all the conversations I’ve had over the last few days.

A mother
giving instructions by Skype to her husband on how to be sure their
daughter is ready for her kindergarten graduation. The many high school
graduations missed. Soccer games. The very first steps. The parent in
me understands the enormity of the American contribution – the American
sacrifice.

I leave Afghanistan impressed and more appreciative
than ever of the courage and service of our men and women in uniform.
Our nation’s past has been built on the valiant service of our veterans.
Our future is in good hands.