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By: Lt Col Jesse Arnstein, USAF

Wartime illustrates the worst of human nature—violence, hatred, evil, death. Dealing with terrorists captured on the battlefield initially tempted me to be cynical and jaded. But the more time I spend here, the more I see that wartime inspires remarkable unselfishness, magnanimity, and generosity in others.

For example, we are inundated with care packages from anonymous US citizens. My own friends and family have shown tremendous support for my wife, Jill, and our children, Aaron and Sarah. They have also been tremendously concerned for my own welfare and have given me encouragement that inspires me to endure. The outpouring of gratitude is humbling and so very appreciated.

Lenore from Connecticut, whom I never met, just sent me two large care packages with Shabbat candles, grape juice, snacks, magazines, and air fresheners. Aleph, Kosher Troops, and The Jewish Soldiers Project sent care packages for Passover. Pallets of girl scout cookies arrive regularly. We get so many cards from children thanking us for our sacrifices and their freedom. (By the way, if you want to help THIS troop, instead of sending care packages, you might consider taking my kids on an outing for a few hours, which will cheer them up and give Jill a break!)

I wish more Americans would regularly embrace how very fortunate we are to live in the United States. In Afghanistan, the life expectancy is 44 years old and 25% of the children die before reaching age 5. Only 2% of the population is over 65 years old. Ninety-nine percent of the troubles we have at home would be virtually insignificant to these people.

I have become close friends with an Afghan named Doud. He is a few years younger than me and has seven children (six girls and one boy). When I asked if he would like to emigrate to America with his family, he immediately responded, “Absolutely.” “But Afghanistan is your home, where you grew up, and your extended family all lives here,” I queried. He explained his dire concern that after the soldiers leave, Afghanistan will go back to the way it was before 2001—with endless violence and fearing for your life and your family’s lives. His American dream was not based on prosperity, but rather on sheer safety.

Doud explained how children are badly affected by the violence. He himself had to support his family following 8th grade. He told me about constant rocket attacks, up to 2,000 a day, and constant fear of death.

War also affects people’s ability to earn a living. Doud told me a story of how 15-year-old girls have to marry 45-year-old men because they don’t have a dowry. He works very hard, but only makes about $100 a week (which is quite a bit more than the average Afghan earns).

He is eager to have anything American. We compared English and Pashto newspapers, looking at the pictures and explaining to each other what the story was about. I gave him a baseball for his son and they loved it.
Hearing these stories from a friend is sobering. For the Afghans, America is not so much about liberty, prosperity, and the pursuit of happiness, but rather the dream of not living in constant fear that you or your family will be killed on any given day.

In early May, the attack sirens sounded and I ran into a bunker (literally—I didn’t jog, I RAN). Fortunately, it was just a drill. Alongside me in the bunker were five Afghans. One spoke English quite well and we had an hour-long conversation. He told me about his life, which is difficult: He cleans the showers on base and has one day off each month (which is the norm for most Afghans who work at military compounds). Each day he is out of the house for 14 hours. He showed me a pay stub reflecting earnings of $1.62 an hour. He has a wife and two children. Their house/shelter has sporadic electricity and they are fortunate to have running water. But there is no heat, and even making a fire is difficult as wood is expensive. His children want to play with him, but most nights he’s just too tired.

He told me stories of a co-worker who jumped in a cab on his way to work only to find two other people in the cab. One of them pointed a gun at him and the car drove to a remote location in the mountains. They told him this is his only warning; if he continues to work for the Americans they will murder him and his family. He is not alone in this. Others have returned home to find a notice taped to the door from the Taliban stating if they go to work for the Americans, they and their families will be killed.

My new friend said that even though life is very difficult and he will have trouble finding work after the base closes, his primary concern is for his family’s safety. It’s been 30 years of war for him, almost his entire life. He could live in poverty, he said, but constantly fearing violence is far worse.

When the drill ended, I gave him some packaged food that I had. He thanked me and requested that if there were any clothes or items I wanted to discard, to please give them to him.

This man was so kindhearted and eager to reveal personal things about his life, family, and religion after knowing each other for less than an hour. This is not unusual among the Afghans, who are a very warm and caring people. It’s terrible and unjust that they have been born into such difficulties.

Another Afghan friend of mine explained how dangerous it can be to work for the NATO coalition—and sometimes there is no warning. He told me about some workers at a nearby compound who were kidnapped by the Taliban on the way to work and murdered because of where they worked.

The Afghans, particularly those that are living in rural areas, have to make choices that are absolutely unfathomable to Americans. Some remote villagers have sold their sons to the Taliban in exchange for food. The only other choice was to starve. It is utterly heartbreaking.

Natural disasters are yet another scourge on the Afghans. On May 4, a double landslide first buried an Afghanistan village of 2,000 people. In a rescue attempt, almost 600 people from a nearby village had volunteered to help dig people out, but a new landslide occurred and consumed many of them, too. Digging them out was impossible and a mass grave holding thousands of people was declared. In the landslide, a wedding ceremony was tragically waylaid too.

Despite these hardships, most Afghans are very generous. One gave me a new Afghan hat and scarf just because we are friends. He always gives me a big hug when we see each other and invites me to join him for a cup of tea.

On another occasion, I lost my sunglasses and an Afghan found them. I offered him money as a reward, but he refused to take it. When I pressed him for some way to repay the favor, he made one simple request: He wanted me to assist him in getting permission to take discarded plywood from the Post so he could build a shelter for his family.

I also have friends here who are from countries other than Afghanistan. My friend Nirmal from Nepal is very eager to live in America so he can have a steady job. Like many of the third-world country nationals working here, he has been living apart from his wife for over a year. A female friend, Marley, is from the Philippines and has not seen her children in over two years. Prior to Afghanistan, she worked in Iraq. She has no other choice since unemployment is so high where she is from.

These people make tremendous sacrifices, which most Americans would never dream of having to face. Yet as I pause to reflect, I realize that most Americans (including me) are actually NOT so removed from these situations, as many of our European parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents faced similar dire predicaments. They were blessed to become American immigrants, and we are blessed to inherit their good fortune. I hope all can find a way to repay our country for offering a safe haven.

Finally, I end with a tragic incident that illustrates the juxtaposition of evil and benevolence during war: At the end of April, a terrorist opened fire in a Kabul Cure International Hospital run by American volunteers. He murdered three people, including a father and son (Jon and Gary Gabel of Chicago). Afterward, the terrorist shot himself in the stomach but was saved by the Cure Hospital staff.

Some Americans think that the military is not necessary. We have our freedom; we have prosperity. Now, more than ever, I believe that if we did not have a powerful military, our nation would suffer the violence, insecurity, and instability that is found in many parts of the world. Fast forward to the present day and look at the Russian incursion into Ukraine. They (or some other powerful force) would be aiming for America if not for our military muscle. No doubt the Soviets would have steamrolled America just as they did half of Europe during my parents’ lifetime.

And America’s military power discourages despots and dictators from invading other nations or practicing genocide. Human nature has a very =dark side, and our military strength certainly helps repress those urges. But although we don’t see a threat now, it’s naïve to think that one would not exist in the absence of our military strength.

I miss Jill and the kids a lot, even though I now recognize my sacrifices are nearly insignificant to those around me. Our song is “I guess that’s why they call it the Blues,” by Elton John. It captures the feelings of a couple separated by military service, even if it’s overly dramatic.

I thank G-d that our country is far from the battlefields. May we never come too close to the horror of war.

Originally published in the Pesach 5783 of the Jewish American Warrior.