Thanksgiving is a time that Americans usually spend with family and close friends, catching up with one another and reflecting on the things they are thankful for. At my house, my wife begins the annual ritual of decorating the Christmas tree and researching the latest recipe twists on American classics such as sweet potato casserole or pumpkin pie. While I usually participate in this ritual, this year I will be conspicuously absent.
Currently, I serve in Afghanistan as the Senior Enlisted Leader of NATO Special Operations Component/Special Operations Joint Task Force Afghanistan. I have the privilege of working with the largest Special Operations Forces (SOF) formation on the battlefield today. Our mission of training, advising and assisting our Afghan SOF partners and disrupting insurgent networks that intend to harm America and its friends is daunting, yet extremely rewarding. The men and women with whom I serve are extremely talented, and have borne more than their fair share of the burden in Afghanistan. We have formed close partnerships with the Afghans, and together we have made extraordinary progress toward security in this nation, giving hope to the Afghans for a better tomorrow.
On this Thanksgiving, I ask that you remember that there are still Americans and NATO partner nations serving in harm’s way every day. Since my return to Afghanistan last June, we have lost 17 brave soldiers, but their sacrifice, while tragic, has not been in vain.
The war here in Afghanistan has been challenging, but we have made real progress. We have organized, trained and equipped the Afghan SOF, and through hard work and dedication its members have progressed into what they are today — a professional fighting force capable of standing against the enemies of Afghanistan. This year an important milestone occurred in the sovereignty and security of Afghanistan. Today, operations are planned, led and executed by Afghans, with assistance provided by NATO and U.S. forces. That significant shift speaks to the dedication and expertise of our SOF, but is also representative of the deep and enduring partnership with our Afghan brothers.
As we move into an advisory role, we must focus our attention on developing their capabilities at the headquarters level. Although the Afghan forces are very capable, we cannot forget the importance of sustainment and integration of capabilities across multiple organizations. The Afghan SOF must foster closer relationships with the conventional Afghan National Security Forces. The integration of forces, combined with a better understanding of military intelligence and a workable resupply system, will go a long way toward establishing a strong foundation that they can continue to build upon in the future.
As I look back on the path the Afghans have followed, I can see how far they have come. Yet I know they have a long way to go. For the U.S. and NATO soldiers that continue to serve alongside them every day, the investment is more than money and time. For many, this is a very personal investment. Their continued service, and their partnering with and advising of the Afghans, is a testament to their oath of service and to the respect they have for the Afghans. Most of all, it is a payment made toward a debt of honor that can never be repaid.
As you enjoy your day of Thanksgiving with your families and friends, please take a moment to remember those who have sacrificed so much to liberate the Afghan people from the tyranny of the Taliban and the fear of al-Qaeda terrorists. Take a moment and give thanks for the men and women who so bravely serve our nation and have acquitted themselves with honor, for they represent all that we hold dear. This Thanksgiving, I will be thinking of my family back home, and I will be thankful for their safety and security. However, it is with these brave men and women that I will celebrate, as I give thanks for their service and for the difference they have made in the lives and security of the Afghan people.
God bless America.
Command Sergeant Major Ledford “JR” Stigall is with the U.S. Army in Kabul, Afghanistan. He has been wearing his nation’s uniform for 32 years, and lives with his wife, two Dalmatians and two Australian shepherds at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C.
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