By U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Nathan Gallahan, ISAF Joint Command Public Affairs
March 1, 2010 - I worry sometimes that the world looks and sees only four nations involved in operations here, the United States, Great Britain, Germany and Afghanistan itself. This is one of the major reasons that Ken and I started this trip. The one thing we have learned so far is that there are so many other countries contributing as well.
No, the other countries aren’t contributing 75,000 troops towards security, but they are contributing as much as they can. Many of these little countries, like Bosnia and Herzegovinia, Croatia, and Georgia have a population of less than five million, yet they still find a way to support missions like the Balkans, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
The most touching aspect of their support here is how quickly they have recovered from their own conflicts and now look to help other countries. Yes, there are other reasons that aren’t as touching, such as some wanting to join NATO, but on the ground, the men and women I’ve talked to wanted to come to Afghanistan for a personal reason, to help.
The stories I’ve heard bounce between absolute heart break and absolute astonishment. Today, I talked with a servicemember from Bosnia and Herzegovina. He told me how in the 1990’s his country was embroiled in war and 200,000 fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters died. He told me how he personally fought in B&H (as he calls it) for more than four years and how now, has eight people helping in Afghanistan. Some of the people were on opposing sides during their war, but are now working together to better Afghanistan.
He told me how he lived in a U.N. protected city for two years before the Serbians came in and started killing. He talked of how he knows hunger, and what it’s like to not eat sugar or salt for months on end. How he ran for his life through the forests ducking and weaving as the Serbians were looking for all of the people leaving the city. He said the enemy stole and wore blue U.N. caps to coax people to come to them for help, and then massacred them. He said how his uncle was caught and imprisoned for six months and how over the course of the fighting many of his closest friends died in his arms. He said he knows war.
I will carry the memories he shared with me today for a very long time, and as soon as I’m back to civilization, I’m going to be doing a lot of reading about his country. I constantly ask myself as I learn more and more, why I didn’t know about these things happening before? Why didn’t I read further about what was happening in B&H back then, so that before today I knew the atrocities committed there? I’m ashamed of my ignorance in regard to the conflicts and strife that have afflicted the little countries that have allied with us to bring peace to Afghanistan.
B&H isn’t alone, many of the countries here fought for their independence, such as Lithuania and Croatia. Like Afghanistan, their wars were not just headlines and body counts. The wars are personal and the troops are deeply connected to them. They lost family, friends and comrades. Every troop I’ve encountered from these countries are fiercely patriotic about the flag they fight for, it’s inspirational and in some cases, cost many lives for them to be wearing them today.
A larger than life lesson I’ve been learning since I joined the military, is how big this world really is and how much happens. In my not too distant past, I was guilty of believing the U.S. military was the most professional, best trained and best equipped military in the entire world. I’ve learned that there are many militaries just as good as ours, just on a smaller scale. A lot of these smaller armies, have learned from experience, fighting not in distant lands and far away places, but fighting for the independence of their own countries from their own back yards. These are hardened soldiers who have sacrificed so much for their own country and now use that experience to help Afghanistan.
As Ken and I travel around Afghanistan, we will try to share the stories of these little countries, because while their footprint may not be as large as that of the United States, their contributions are just as important.
Ken wanted me to tell all of you that he would love to capture some of their stories on film, but unfortunately, some of the countries we’ve encountered have national caveats towards talking with the media. This basically means they need to ask permission from their government to talk with us, and for as quickly as we’re moving, it hasn’t been possible to gain those permissions in time. It’s a shame, because seeing them tell you their stories adds a depth of understanding, which is hard to capture through a blog.