Seventeen years after U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks, Americans need to be reminded that the war continues.
Operation Enduring Freedom has lasted longer than World War I, World War II and the Korean War combined. Perhaps its longevity bores Americans; the war is infrequently in the news. Maybe the general public is less concerned because only volunteers are fighting for the U.S., along with the multi-national coalition that assembled in 2001; no worries about being drafted. In any case, Operation Enduring Freedom continues to cost American lives and money. At least seven American military members were killed this year, along with hundreds of Afghan army soliders and civilians.
American forces there have doubled since the summer of 2017, with about 16,000 service members now in the country, the Military Times reported recently, citing congressional officials. The Pentagon no longer makes the ground troop numbers available, instead giving a “last reported figure of 14,000,” according to the Military Times.
Additionally, thousands of civilian contractors are working for the U.S. government in Afghanistan; many are American military veterans or retirees.
More than 60 of those active-duty U.S. troops are Montana National Guardsmen. The 495th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion left Montana in May for a month of training and preparations before going to Afghanistan for a year-long tour of duty, said Maj. Chris Lende, Montana Guard spokesman in Helena. The guardsmen are scheduled to return home next summer.
The one-year deployment isn’t unusual, said Lende who has deployed twice to Afghanistan. At any given time, some Montana Guard members are serving overseas. Later this year, the Montana Air Guard’s aviation unit with more than 200 personnel are scheduled to be deployed, he said.
The 495th is based in Kalispell, but has members from all across the state.
This unit works in logistics, delivering ammunition, fuel and other supplies where they are needed. The truckers, fuelers, supply sergeants and other 495th members often say their unit is “the muscle behind the punch.” Lende said. “They go and support missions where they’re needed.”
Altogether, Montana has about 3,500 National Guard members, including 2,600 in the Army National Guard and 1,000 in the Air National Guard.
“Guardsmen are part of your community,” Lende said. “We are all across Montana.”
Families of guardsmen remain in their civilian communities while their loved ones are deployed. In Montana, they may be far from a military base and the common bonds of coping with the challenges of deployment. So it’s up to us — the neighbors, friends, employers and civic leaders left behind — to ensure that guard families are supported.
Many Montana employers hold jobs open for deployed guardsmen. Community groups and student groups assemble care packages to send overseas. Those are important supports. Every Montanan, even those who don’t personally know a guardsman who is deployed, or an active-duty military member, can do something to show solidarity with our troops.
As they answer the call to duty, let us unite as Americans to support them. In the weeks and months after the 9/11 attacks, we were all Americans first — political party labels and ideology were secondary.
Now Americans are bitterly divided over way too many things. We forget how good life is here compared with Afghanistan where suicide bombers strike and kill weekly — if not daily. The 495th members aren’t complaining, but we note that they are spending an entire year in a climate much harsher than Montana’s and they won’t really get a day off. There’s no safe place to relax off-base in a land where Taliban militants are continually fighting the government and even infiltrating the ranks of police and army forces. There will be Montana birthdays, anniversaries and holiday celebrations missed.
Speaking Tuesday at a 9/11 remembrance ceremony at City College in Billings, Mayor Bill Cole urged the 100 or so people attending to each work on making America less divided.
“It won’t be easy,” Cole said. “We’ll have to remember the sacrifice of others, and forget ourselves. We’ll have to find answers to complicated questions based on hard work and sometimes inconvenient facts.”
“But most of all, we’ll have to find the courage to serve others, even when it’s hard to do so.”
That’s what Montana National Guardsmen are doing today far from home in the war zone. These Montana men and women are models of service and sacrifice for the rest of us. Thanks, 495th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion. Stay safe and come home soon.