On Sept. 11, 2001, Eric Swenson was stationed at the American naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Swenson, who joined the Marines in the summer of 1999, was gone from the base before Christmas of that year, not long before hundreds of suspected terrorists were brought to the base’s detention center.
Some of Swenson’s friends at the base were among the first troops sent to Afghanistan in October 2001 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Swenson, 27, spent his years in the Marines on various missions in peaceful places. When Swenson’s commitment to the Marines ended in 2004, he had not spent a day in combat.
Swenson had no intention of rejoining the military, but when he worked civilian jobs upon his return, he found himself unfulfilled. So Swenson, who is graduating from the University of Minnesota this semester with a degree in history, rejoined the military knowing it was likely he would spend time in combat.
Swenson, who is now a second lieutenant, is scheduled for duty in Afghanistan in early 2011, but he thinks the recently announced troop increase by President Barack Obama might push his deployment to an earlier date.
When Swenson goes to Afghanistan he will be a recent college graduate and a newly married man, having wed his girlfriend of three years in September. He has close friends who also finished their military career without any combat action and who chose not to re-enlist. He doesn’t blame them.
“I do sometimes wonder how it’s going to affect me in the long run,” Swenson said of deploying to Afghanistan. “At the same time, I’m going to change over time no matter what. So I’ll just try to deal with it the best I can.”
Conduct and courtesy
Obama’s decision earlier this month to send 30,000 additional American troops, who will join the 68,000 already in Afghanistan, was a renewed commitment to a conflict that has recently taken a turn for the worse.
This has been the bloodiest year of America’s involvement there, with 302 combat deaths already, compared to 155 in all of 2008. Troop deployments will begin in the spring of 2010. Obama also announced that he would like to begin a phased withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, setting a tentative date of July 2011.
Swenson does not know exactly where he will be sent, but he has a good idea of his mission and its importance to meeting that withdrawal date.
Swenson’s unit will be training the Afghan army, which is currently only in charge of the capital city, Kabul, and its surrounding area. All other parts of Afghanistan are the responsibility of American or NATO troops.
Swenson welcomes the responsibility that comes with his mission.
“If we don’t train [the Afghan army] properly and in a timely fashion, it’s definitely going to affect a pullout date,” Swenson said.
In his speech, Obama stressed the importance of the additional troops, including units like Swenson’s.
“They’ll increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight,” Obama said, “and they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.”
Later this month, Swenson and his unit will attend a rigorous training program somewhere on an American base. There, the unit will undergo simulations meant to mirror the experience in Afghanistan, including an exercise in which a Humvee rolls as it would in a crash, and troops must learn how to survive and exit the vehicle safely.
Swenson has been supplementing his training, which includes education about the culture of Afghanistan, with conversations with his friends who have spent time in the country.
He thinks that units like his, which work directly with the local people, are on the front lines of the war for hearts and minds. As executive officer of his unit, Swenson is second in command of a group of 151 troops. Part of his job is to prevent misconduct by his troops and maintain a positive relationship with the local people. Swenson said the military is harsh on soldiers whose mistakes lose the support of the Afghan people.
“They’re really quick to punish people who screw that kind of stuff up,” Swenson said, “because one dumb thing can ruin a lot of good work.”
Swenson will rely heavily on interpreters when he first arrives, but he plans to learn at least some Arabic. He is still learning the nuances of Afghan culture, but as he understands it now, the best practice is “just a lot of courtesy.”
Troops in Afghanistan must follow a strict code of conduct when making decisions about the use of lethal force. For Swenson, limiting unnecessary deaths is not only a tactical matter but can also have an adverse effect on the person who pulled the trigger. Soldiers who kill an innocent person can be discharged or face a court martial, not to mention the guilt that follows, he said.
“There’s real consequences that soldiers, Marines and everybody else faces when you do something like that,” Swenson said.
The American military had gained control of Afghanistan’s urban areas by the end of 2001. Since then, the mission has become a constant competition to gain the trust of the country’s beleaguered and impoverished people. Swenson thinks the best way to get local support is by providing basic needs like food and water, saying humanitarian work is one of America’s best weapons against the Taliban.
“A lot of people are turning Taliban because they give them stuff,” Swenson said. “Basically, I mean, it’s almost like – I hate to say a ‘bribe war’ – but they’re going to go with whoever keeps them alive.”
‘A halfway-normal life’
Swenson has attended the University on the comprehensive Chapter 33 GI Bill, which was signed into law July 2008 and became available this past August. Under the previous GI Bill, which was called Chapter 3, soldiers taking more than 12 credits received a monthly stipend of around $1,100 per month. Under Chapter 33, which is available to all soldiers who have spent three years in active duty after Sept. 11, 2001, Swenson receives a $1,477 monthly stipend, and his tuition and books are covered completely. When he graduates at the end of this semester he will still have seven months of Chapter 33 remaining, which he plans to transfer to his wife, Mindy, when she returns to school.
Swenson said Mindy is still getting used to the idea that he is going. He tries to bring it up now and again to remind her and make her more comfortable. He plans to use the Internet and Skype online phone service to talk to her as often as possible – even if that’s not as often as she would like.
“She probably wants me to call every day,” Swenson said, laughing.
His wife is not the only woman who will wait for his phone calls. Swenson’s mother, Louanne, said she plans to spend a lot of time with Mindy in her son’s absence. When Swenson told his mother that he was re-enlisting, she knew the decision was made and there was no changing his mind. Fighting tears, Louanne Swenson said she is proud of her son.
“I know the commitment Eric made and how he feels about it,” she said. “I think he’ll give a good impression of us.”
Swenson said the biggest misconception people have about the war in Afghanistan is that it is a religious war. He thinks the enemies are not true Muslims but simple criminals. He has been ordered to do a job in Afghanistan, but it is one that gives him great pride.
“It would be nice to be a part of that general idea that we’re going to help them either not be run by the Taliban or by opium,” Eric Swenson said. “And I think the people there deserve a halfway-normal life.”