Despite tragedies, US soldier dreams of triumph

With the announcement that 17,000 more US troops will be sent to Afghanistan soldiers such as 1st Lt Brochetti understand the fighting will intensify.

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The soldier's letter home began as a thank you to family and friends for the donations sent to him in Afghanistan, a country that more than seven years after the September 11 attacks remains in parts a dangerous hell-on-Earth mystery to many. It ended with a quote read at the funeral of another US soldier killed in Iraq about the lessons learned from his father: "Be brave. Believe in something bigger than yourself. Serve Your Country ? Conquer Your Fears."

In the missive, passed on by a friend of his wife, 1st Lt Adam Brochetti certainly seems to be doing all that. "Myself and my fellow Marines stuffed our bags full of gloves, socks, beanies, and various school supplies, most of which were sent out here from all of you back home. As soon as we stepped through the entrance of the school, we were mobbed by a mass of 45 children," wrote the soldier from Kittanning, Pennsylvania. "They knew why we were there, and they know we give away sweets and pens on a regular basis."

With Barack Obama announcing that 17,000 more US troops will be sent to Afghanistan this spring and summer, the soldiers such as 1st Lt Brochetti understand the fighting will intensify. Their war could become a centrepiece of the new US president's military strategy and foreign policy. Winning over hearts and minds in a place 1st Lt Brochetti calls "this crazy country" will be crucial to any battlefield success. But the effort to reach out to Afghan children is not simply part of a military strategy. It is also essential to being a soldier in a war that is not against another country or its people, a fight in which the enemy comes in various factions whose motives are not always clear.

As Steve Coll, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, said in a column in the New Yorker magazine, "Afghanistan is not for the pure of heart". Today's helper could easily become tomorrow's enemy. Coll points to a recent poll to highlight the challenges the Obama administration and the troops on the ground face: "Only 18 per cent of Afghans think the US decision to send more troops to the country is a good idea; 44 per cent want fewer troops. This scepticism seems to be associated with a broad belief that US military action has not and will not improve the security of Afghan civilians. The Taliban remain unpopular - more unpopular than the United States - but the gap is closing, and larger numbers of Afghans now see the Taliban as 'more moderate' than in the past."

Against this backdrop, 1st Lt Brochetti brings to life the realities behind those statistics in a way that only a front-line soldier can. "While conducting a night reconnaissance, two of the sniper teams walked into an abandoned compound, and one of the Marines stepped on a pressure plate IED [improvised explosive device] that was strategically placed inside the doorway. The marine who stepped on the PPIED was a young kid from Louisiana, named Matt Cheramie. This was just like him to be the first one through the door ... He and two others were ... blown back through the house as the result of the blast. All three of them were evacuated several hours later to our hospital facility. Matt had a considerable bit of damage to both legs and the other two Marines had severe concussions.

"Matt is alive and just recently made the decision to have his leg removed just below the knee. The damages were so severe that doctors told him he would have to have surgeries for the next two years, and even then it was questionable whether or not he would ever be able to run again. He said he couldn't bear the thought of never being able to run and immediately told the docs to take his leg." Despite such battlefield horrors, 1st Lt Brochetti says: "I really think that things are getting better out here because of the courageous efforts of the British soldiers, the Afghan security forces, and our young Marines. It is hard for me to even explain how humbling and rewarding it is to get the chance to wake up every day and work side by side with America's youngest heroes. I watch sometimes in disbelief, as they work tirelessly without complaint, and as they risk their lives daily in a very austere and confusing environment. It makes me extremely proud to come from a place that produces young people of this calibre."

1st Lt Brochetti's wife told her friend that she believes that the purpose of his letter was to raise awareness of the issues in Afghanistan, knowing that political realities are that if the death toll among US forces escalates significantly in the months ahead, many in Washington and elsewhere will question the battle and ask whether such a fight is winnable. Some have already warned that Afghanistan could prove to Mr Obama's Vietnam.

In response, 1st Lt Brochetti would no doubt recall the story he shared with friends and family: "The good news is that five days ago was the commencement of voter registration in Musa Qaleh, one of the most heavily populated districts in Helmand province. Over 500 people registered in the first three days, which completely shocked us all. "It gave us great satisfaction to know that the people had enough courage to come and register to vote regardless of threats made by the Taliban. I feel like that alone is a win; that the people feel safe enough to walk through the gates of the district centre to be part of history ...

"Success here is measured in a bunch of very small victories, and I hope that after enough small victories add up, it will hopefully equate to something concrete."