For this Independence Day, at a moment when the tone of our political life would probably shame our Founders, here are snapshots of some brave American soldiers and civilians I met inside Syria last week who should make us all proud.
Let’s start with a bearded sergeant major from Oklahoma. He’s driving an armored SUV down a dusty road toward Tabqa. He’s got a radio headset on to talk to the other vehicles in the convoy, but he’s playing country music from a speaker up front, too.
The sergeant major weaves the vehicle around ruts and potholes. Islamic State fighters who controlled the town until six weeks ago like to pack the potholes with explosives. Most mines have been cleared, but still, it’s not a ride in the park.
As the vehicle bumps along, the sergeant major talks about a comrade who was killed about 40 miles north of here last November by an improvised explosive device in a house. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Scott C. Dayton was assigned to defuse such ordnance. It’s said he died trying to shield U.S. and Syrian partner soldiers from the blast. So far, miraculously, he’s the only American who has died in combat in Syria as the U.S. and its allies have routed the Islamic State from town after town.
The sergeant major drives these roads near Raqqa every day. He’s part of a Special Operations forces team that is advising the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that is clearing the Islamic State from its capital, training a separate internal security force that will maintain security after the terrorist group is gone, and supporting the local civic councils that will rebuild water, electricity, schools and other services. He’s one of about 500 U.S. Special Operations forces now serving in Syria; the first 50 arrived about 18 months ago.
Sometimes these roads are crowded with desperate refugees fleeing the battle with their families, carrying furniture and, occasionally, herding livestock. The sergeant major calls it “goatlock,” with so many sheep and goats blocking the road,
The Syria mission is usually secret, little seen or understood by the American public. But these anonymous warriors are some of the best soldiers I’ve encountered anywhere. They’re living rough, in forward outposts in the towns and in a few simple bases in the countryside. Working alongside their Syrian partners, they’re accomplishing something U.S. forces haven’t experienced enough over the past two decades: They’re winning.
“The best fighters in the world are the ones who are trying to get home,” explains a Special Operations forces commander who runs training for the Syrian security troops who will protect Raqqa and the surrounding towns as the Islamic State collapses. He plans to graduate 250 trainees every two weeks, building toward a force of 3,500 to 5,000. This is very basic training. I listened to a rangy American soldier bark out to the Syrian recruits through a translator, “How to shoot: There are five positions.” The recruits paid rapt attention, as if understanding that their instructor represented the best fighting force in the world.
Like every soldier I met, the sergeant major is passionate about his mission. I ask him how many Islamic State fighters were killed in Tabqa. “Not enough,” he answers. “The worst thing anyone could ever do when they’re on our bad side is to give themselves a ZIP code,” he says. The “caliphate” made that mistake.
When these soldiers finish business, they go back to camps that are simple, to put it mildly. This is not the “Green Zone” occupation life, with three choices of entree. If you’re not ready to deal with regular digestive-tract problems, stay away. Like American soldiers everywhere, they’re super-fit. Nearly every facility has a makeshift gym, and you find men and women pumping iron morning and night.
These elite units are the pride of the U.S. military. The forces I saw were the train-and-assist part of the mission. But there is another, super-secret part of the Special Operations forces mission here that seeks to capture or kill extremists. What they all share is toughness and good judgment.
Not all the American heroes I saw here are soldiers. Al Dwyer, the chief coordinator of emergency relief assistance, illustrates what civilians are doing. Dwyer, a USAID official, has led every major American humanitarian mission in recent years, from the 2010 Haiti earthquake to the 2014 Ebola breakout in West Africa. He is a stone-cold pro at the logistics of assisting desperate people.
How did Dwyer get started in the humanitarian-aid world? It’s a basic American story. He was running a freight terminal in Boston when someone gave him an order he thought was inappropriate, and he decided: Take this job and shove it. He has worked in 100 countries since then, helping people survive. It’s Americans such as Dwyer and the sergeant major who I’m thinking about this Fourth of July week.
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