It was a stifling, windy June day in 2004 on Balad Air Base in
Iraq, and members of my company and I were itching to board a cargo
plane, waiting to fly us out of the dust back to greener shores. We
were cheering, whooping it up like school kids, beside ourselves
with the anticipation of seeing family and other loved ones when
suddenly we realized that right next to us on the tarmac, waiting
for a second cargo plane, was another group of soldiers also going
home to their families.
They were waiting silently… in caskets.
It was at this exact moment that the full price of our tour
overseas struck me, but so did the overwhelming conviction that the
only way to honor the efforts of our fallen colleagues was to stay
committed to completing the missions at hand.
Yes, it could have been me on that second cargo plane. By some
divine act, it wasn't. Instead, I've been given the opportunity to
give voice to those who didn't make it home-to tell you that the
enemies in Iraq aren't Iraqis, they are foreigners who have
infiltrated the region. If we were to leave Iraq prematurely, these
foreign elements would overtake the country, and no semblance of
Iraq would remain.
In the past year, with the surge, we've gone a long way toward
making sure that Iraq is for the Iraqis. That's why now is not the
time to withdraw-with reports of civilian casualties dropping some
75 percent in Baghdad, and overall attacks falling by more than
half, we'd be giving up the fight on the verge of winning it.
I applaud the U.S. Secretary of Defense for recognizing this,
and putting a pause to the troop drawdown.
But we need to do more than pause the withdrawal. We need to give
our servicemen and women the tools, support and appreciation they
need to complete the missions in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
The long-overdue "thank you" to both our enlisted personnel and
our recent veterans is finally being made at the grassroots
level-clearly, loudly, and unequivocally. Armed with personal
stories from the front lines, a group of recent veterans-several
highly-decorated war heroes-is traveling coast-to-coast to
personally thank veterans, vets' families, and their supporters for
sticking to their convictions and remaining committed to completing
the missions at hand.
The bus tour is sponsored by Vets for Freedom (VFF,) a
non-profit, non-partisan organization with more than 20,000 members
and 44 chapters nationwide. As state co-captain for California, I
couldn't be prouder of being a VFF member, and of helping launch
our "thank you," the National Heroes Tour, from the deck of the
U.S.S. Midway on March 14, in San Diego.
And I'll be there with other vets and enlisted personnel, paying
homage to those men and women who traveled home from Iraq on the
same day that I did, but paid the ultimate price in their efforts
to provide Iraqis with the freedoms that we so often take for
granted on our own shores.