"the Beautiful Americans"
Our troops had of course heard all about what was happening back home. They had heard the news accounts coming over “Stars and Stripes” radio broadcasts, and naturally had questions for this group of Congressmen coming to visit them. This was the scene at every military base. As they were continuing to bravely conduct the war on terrorism in Central Asia, and as they prepared in the Middle East for a possible war against Saddam Hussein, protests were underway in their hometowns and across the world. Soldier after soldier asked me how I read those demonstrations. As a proud veteran of this country’s armed forces, my answer to them was this:
“There is a clear difference between policy and implementation. There is a difference between debating the merits of foreign policy and supporting our troops in the field. Please have no doubt in your mind. While debate continues as to the appropriate courses of action for our nation, there is no debate about our support for you on the front lines. In fact, the very freedom to assemble, to express one’s views, is exactly what separates us from those that wish us harm and those who attacked us on September 11, 2001.”
I recently had the honor and privilege of being chosen to take a trip with four other Members of Congress to visit our troops in the Middle East and in Central Asia. The purpose of our trip was twofold. First, we went to convey this nation’s unwavering support for our troops in the field, and thank them for their service. Second, we listened to them carefully to determine what more the Congress can be doing to make their mission a complete success.
I was inspired by what I saw at every military camp, at every mess hall I visited on this trip. At our first stop, in Kyrgystan, we met with President Askar Akaev to discuss the democratic reforms underway in that former Soviet nation and the status of our troops stationed at Ganci Airbase, named after Fire Chief Peter Ganci, a hero we lost in the attack on New York City. At the base, we held a town-hall style meeting and ate lunch with our troops and those from 7 other nations. We presented them with a flag which had flown over the United States Capitol, and a banner signed by President Bush and emblazoned with a line from his State of the Union Address which said, “You Believe in America, And America Believes in You!”
We then flew via a C-130 military aircraft to Karshi Kharnabad (K2) Air Base in Uzbekistan. There we met with military commanders and toured the base, which provides key search and rescue operations and other support for our war on terror, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. After the tour, we ate with our troops and played them a video of support messages from back home. We met with Kader Gulamov, the Minister of Defense for Uzbekistan, which is another former Soviet State struggling for independence. It is a very poor country that has been cooperative in our efforts to track down terrorists in Central Asia.
The evening before our departure from (K2), we sat up all night and discussed the possibility of us going to war with Iraq. Our body clocks were all off, and the realities were stark on a cold winter night in the middle of nowhere. Every fifteen minutes, an armored vehicle patrolling our encampment would pass. It was misty, with a light here and there silhouetting our bodies. My close friend, Congressman Mike Capuano of Massachusetts, shared his thoughts on why he had voted against the resolution in support of President Bush last October. While we disagreed, I knew that I was no better an American than Mike. We both love America. It is a beautiful country. So is Uzbekistan and so would be Kuwait, where we would be the following day.
After visiting our Embassy in Kuwait, we proceeded to Camp Doha, which has been a major U.S. facility in Kuwait since the 1991 Gulf War. At the base, which serves as a headquarters for the Army Forces Central Command-Kuwait, we received an intelligence briefing from Lieutenant General David D. McKiernan and his team on current operations and deployments in the regions.
We then took a Blackhawk helicopter right into the desert of Kuwait to visit Camp New York, the base of operations for the Third Infantry Division. It is hard to convey the conditions we saw in the desert, right along the Iraqi border. Severe sandstorms filled the barren wide-open spaces.
Every place our five member delegation went, in every instance, morale was high and the troops were truly thankful for us reaching out. To say these encounters in Central Asia and the Middle East were emotional would be an understatement. We all prayed for peace but understood that this is not a perfect world.
Upon my return to New Jersey, I have called several family members of the troops I visited. I told them how proud of their loved ones I am. I told those mothers and fathers, and brothers and sisters that their loved ones are doing well.
Whether the mission is eradicating terror cells in the snowy mountains of Afghanistan or ensuring that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction are never used, our troops are ready and they are prepared.
I saw resolve on this trip. I saw determination and commitment to purpose in the eyes of our men and women fighting for our very freedom and security. In short, in the faces at every mess hall, I saw what makes our nation great.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, represents the 8th Congressional District.