The Tampa Bay Times had an in-depth profile this weekend of a local soldier killed in Afghanistan. Staff Sergeant Matthew Sitton had actually written a letter to his congressman about the war in which he'd been fighting since 2007, which bookends the profile:
On June 4, Sitton had written a letter to U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young. In it, he explained to the Republican legislator that for weeks his platoon had been mandated to patrol empty fields and compounds strewn with explosives. The missions, he wrote, served no purpose. Soldiers were losing arms and legs every day. He had objected, but no one had listened…
Earlier this month in Washington, one of Congressman Young's staffers read aloud Sitton's letter in a congressional hearing where Young announced that after a decade of war, he thought it was time for America to leave Afghanistan.
Since then, Young said, four Republican congressmen also publicly announced they want the United States to pull out. He said more than 25 others have privately told him the same.
The ultimate impact of Sitton's death on the war and this nation's politics is still unknown. Congress is on break until mid November, but Young is convinced that Sitton's story will resonate for months to come.
"There's something really wrong," he said, "with what's happening in Afghanistan now."
Matthew Sitton was the 2,056th American soldier killed there. In the two months since, 50 more have died.
Along the way the Tampa Bay Times reveals a dismal mood among American service personnel in Afghanistan, caused by institutional problems that help explain why America is losing in Afghanistan:
In the war's early years, the people of Afghanistan had embraced American troops. But that warmth had tilted toward resentment.
"Everybody could see it," said Brandon Southern, 29, who served with Sitton. "Everybody knew most of the populace didn't care that we were there."
It became harder to talk to the locals because they feared the Taliban, he said. The now-infamous insider killings, in which Afghan trainees shot their American trainers, had begun.
Once-defined objectives — find the enemy, defeat them — had grown muddled.
"It was a lot of senselessness," Southern said. "Just walking around. What are we doing this for?"
Sitton didn't waver.
"Matt still believed in the big picture," Southern said. "Free the oppressed."
One night near the end of that deployment, Sitton's base was attacked. A nearby explosion threw him from his bed. He scrambled to his weapon and helped the other soldiers fight back the ambush. No Americans were killed.
By that time, the Army had begun to transfer duties to the Afghan troops. Among those was tower guard.
That night, Sitton later told his mother, not one bullet was fired from those towers.
After their return in late 2010, Southern left the military.
"I didn't believe in what we were doing," he said. "I lost faith."
…Afghanistan in 2012 was far different than the place Sitton had left two years earlier.
Politics, Sitton thought, had overtaken common sense. His platoon worked for weeks on four hours sleep a night, he told his wife and friends. Their missions were aimless. Twice each day for two to four hours, he and his men were mandated to walk through what he described as a "mine field."
"Seriously, there is no rhyme or reason for our patrols other than to meet a time criteria," he wrote to Southern. "So now we are being punished because we as a platoon are saying all this is garbage and we won't go out into freakin' hell and back for no reason."
Sitton and his men, he wrote over and over, felt alone. In prior years, they often received air support during heavy firefights. Because the command staff was so concerned about harming Afghan civilians, that option had all but disappeared.
He told his wife and Southern that the infuriating orders had come from brigade commander Col. Brian Mennes. The Army did not return several calls for comment.
Mennes, Sitton told his wife, had blamed his own troops for the high rate of IED injuries and deaths because experts had determined improvised explosive devices should be avoidable.
"We are serving no purpose. We are leaving and still the command is putting the lives of Afghans over the lives of Americans," he wrote to her. "Col. Mennes said he would rather risk losing a paratrooper than killing an innocent civilian over here."
Sitton still believed in the mission, the greater good, but he seldom mentioned it. He told his wife he didn't know who would make it home. He stopped saying that God wasn't done with him.
Sitton was killed by an IED patrolling a dirt road in Arghandab Valley on August 2nd. The whole profile is worth the read.