Columnist John Paradis: America needs a reset button

  • Sgt. 1st Class Merideth Howard, a 52-year-old firefighter and Army Reservist from Alameda, California, hands a school bag to an Afghan girl. Howard is the oldest known American woman to die in combat. Submitted photo

Thursday, September 09, 2021

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I watched the unimaginable unfold from the “GOC,” the global operations center, an underground command post for all U.S. nuclear forces in Building 500 at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.

I was down in “the bunker” after an overnight watch as a participant in a worldwide exercise when the images came over on CNN. That afternoon, Air Force One with President George Bush on board would land at our base. I was in charge, if only for a moment, with staging an area for the White House press corps.

After Bush received the horrific details of the 9/11 attacks, he left to return to Washington. Less than a month later, the first U.S. forces entered Afghanistan. My life and the lives of millions of other men and women in uniform and our families would forever be changed.

To best explain how, I must move the time clock and describe another anniversary.

Fifteen years ago this week, I was deployed to Afghanistan and walking toward the United States Embassy in downtown Kabul for a meeting to discuss plans for marking the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with international media coverage. In a few days, I would be escorting CNN’s Anderson Cooper to various locations around Afghanistan.

Then, I felt an ear-splitting explosion. Then a blast of wind. I dropped to the ground. When I got back up, there was a huge cloud of smoke and dirt with fire and flames just yards from me. A suicide bomber detonated his bomb-packed Toyota Corolla alongside a Humvee, an armored American military vehicle.

At the time, it was the deadliest blast in Kabul since American forces pushed out the Taliban. There would be more attacks, all the way to the bitter end. Sixteen people died that morning, Sept. 8, 2006, including two American soldiers.

One of them was Sgt. 1st Class Merideth Howard, a 52-year-old firefighter and Army Reservist from Alameda, California, who was behind the Humvee’s mounted gun. She is the oldest known American woman to die in combat. Another Army reservist in her unit, Staff Sgt. Robert Paul, was also killed.

The two soldiers were assigned to a civil affairs brigade in eastern Afghanistan, acting as liaisons with the Afghan people to help rebuild roads, schools and infrastructure.

They were in Kabul for a supply run and to get a break from being at their outpost. On trips to the capital, Howard met with other Reservists she knew from back home who were assigned to my unit. I remember her smile and her laugh. During one visit, she enjoyed a fun evening that included stories and board games — a chance to unwind and relax.

I have a picture of Howard saved to my laptop. I look at it often. It’s the one you see with this column. A moment of hope, at that time, from our American experience in Afghanistan. A female soldier with a rifle slung across her shoulder, handing a school bag to an Afghan girl.

In a documentary that highlighted the civil affairs mission in Afghanistan, Howard is prominently featured — a gray-haired American woman chartering the future for Afghan woman.

“Most of the kids are in school, even if it’s just a few hours a day,” she said in the film. “And that’s what we’re trying to do, is just help them out as much as we can.”

In 20 years, U.S. troops built schools, constructed roads, and brought electricity and running water to villages. They created a better life for many Afghan people.

The problem, of course, is that we fought two simultaneous wars — Iraq and Afghanistan — with an all-volunteer military. Simply enough, with hubris and a superficial understanding of history, we bit off more than we could chew.

In a report I filed when I returned home, I had this to say: “Anything positive for the Afghan people will be targets for Taliban militants. The Taliban are always lurking and have deep roots. Transforming Afghanistan is, in my estimate, far beyond our scope and our capacity.” And, today, I will add certainly far beyond America’s attention span and interest in fighting long, drawn-out wars in far-off places.

In his address to the nation shortly after 9/11, Bush called on all Americans to unite. “We have found our mission and our moment,” he said. “We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire; we will not falter, and we will not fail.”

Who was “we?”

The crux of my lengthy examination of America’s legacy since 9/11 is the lack of shared sacrifice and the enormous profits raked in by military contractors. One percent of the population was sent to fight while another 1% made a ton of money. If someone else’s kid does the fighting and we pass the bill to future generations, why not?

“While we’re at war, America’s at the mall,” was the common refrain among the all-volunteer troops in country.

Think about it. During 20 years of war, a passive and disinterested American public asked few questions, avoided unpopular truths about our progress, and funneled more money to the Pentagon. And suddenly, when the last Air Force jets were leaving Kabul last month, people asked, “was it worth it?”

I’ve relived every attack and every image of suffering children and heartache and loss from my time spent in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I still lose sleep, and I still have flashbacks. 9/11 was supposed to unite us. Twenty years later, with a nation so bitterly divided, no wonder so many of us are disillusioned.

America needs a reset button. We need to reset how we send our sons and daughters off to war. And before we do, we all need to share and own the sacrifice. Anything less is shameful and contemptible.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column for the Gazette. He can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.