On the eve of Independence Day, folks at Bethesda-on-the-Bay Lutheran Church were treated to a genuine display of patriotism.
Commander Greg Schell, fresh off his second tour of duty in Afghanistan, spoke to the congregation after the morning service about his experience on the battlefield.
Schell served in the Civil Engineer Corps of the Navy in Afghanistan’s southeastern Kandahar Province. Bordering Pakistan, the area is the second most dangerous in the country, with 377 NATO casualties since the war began.
As the executive officer of a naval mobile construction battalion (NMCB), or “SEEBEES” as their known in the field, Schell had the crucial job of building bases and constructing roads.
“We were basically like a construction company with heavy weapons,” said Schell. “You wouldn’t believe it, but we actually had to build roads to the battlefield just so our soldiers could get there,” he said.
After more than three decades of war and internal conflict, Afghanistan is one of the least developed countries in the world, and few roads existed in the country prior to the U.S. invasion in 2001, especially in the rugged mountains and treacherous valleys where much of the fighting has taken place.
Schell witnessed first-hand the “heartbreaking” situation in which most Afghans live as a result of so much violence and devastation.
“We’d go through a marketplace and see women and children living in horrible conditions,” he said.
But perhaps the Taliban’s most dangerous weapon is the IED – or improvised explosive device – which they hide in roads, including some of those which Schell helped build, to blow up unsuspecting U.S. convoys.
Schell said the human cost of war was something you couldn’t get away from in Afghanistan, and that every two or three days he would hear reports of someone being killed or seriously wounded.
But after any major attack, he would always call his family to let them know that he was alright.
“If we had personnel at, say, Base Johnson, and Base Johnson gets hit, and it’s on CNN, I knew I had to call home,” he said.
Anyone who’s been away from home as long as Schell has knows how easy it can be to lose touch with loved ones, and how tough that can be on children. So Schell made sure to call his 10-year-old son as often as possible just so he could “keep a conversation going” with him.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Schell’s presentation, however, was the manner in which he addressed the audience’s questions.
Even after 10 years, many Americans still aren’t exactly sure what the U.S. is trying to do in Afghanistan, and some of that disillusionment and frustration was apparent in the tone and type of questions they asked Schell.
Yet despite the tension created by blunt questions like “Was it worth it?” and “Should we even still be there?” Schell continually responded in an honest, empathetic tone that seemed to win him the appreciation of everyone in the audience, regardless of their opinions on the war.
In short, Schell believes that President Barack Obama’s decision in December 2009 to send the additional “surge” of 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan has already “paid off, just within a year.” However, in light of Obama’s recent decision to begin pulling out troops, he hopes that certain programs are continued in order to build on the success the surge has achieved.
He also pointed out that one of the biggest challenges going forward will be providing a viable economic alternative to narcotics, which is the country’s primary industry.