U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-U.S. House of Representatives South Carolina Fourth District) recently returned from a five-day trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan. While he was there, he had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with several neighbors from his home state.
“I’m tracking down Upcountry citizens everywhere,” Inglis said.
He was part of a congressional delegation touring the region focused on seeing where some of the additional 30,000 troops sent to Afghanistan at the beginning of the year are stationed.
“We wanted to see where the 30,000 were headed and to understand the connection to Pakistan,” Inglis said. “And to encourage the Pakistan forces to continue to work with us to expel the Afghan Taliban who have moved into Pakistan.”
He added the United States needs Pakistan to continue working with its armed forces to keep those extremists on the run.
But the trip was more than just about strengthening relationships with the Pakistani government and military and seeing where troops were stationed; it was also about seeing America’s best working in some of the planet’s “hot spots.”
“That was the most significant thing to me,” Inglis said. “To see all these incredible volunteers doing all this incredible work.”
And that included the South Carolinians he met along the way.
Inglis and the delegation traveled to Pakistan first, visiting the country’s capital of Islamabad. From there the group traveled in armored Suburbans to sites in Kabul, flew south to the Kandahar air base aboard Black Hawk helicopters and then rolled to the Afghanistan/Pakistan border in heavily armored six-wheeled Stryker vehicles.
They also included crew rest stops in Romania and Tunisia. In each country, the delegation was able to meet with America’s ambassadors and government officials of each country.
But it was the men and women serving in the Middle East that struck a chord with the congressman. And it wasn’t just those serving in the military.
“There are some amazing civilians also serving in a very dangerous place,” Inglis said.
While he was in Kabul, the congressman had the distinct pleasure of meeting with 31-year-old Susan Anderson — a native of Union County and graduate of Union High School. Anderson is working as an economic analyst for the American Embassy in Afghanistan.
The two didn’t talk a lot about her work at the embassy, but did chat about Union High School and her time at the College of Charleston. They even tried to figure out if she was in Charleston around the same time his two nieces were.
Inglis said it’s amazing to think about people like Anderson who are willing to serve in places like Kabul where the threat of attack — which the American embassy compound, while heavily guarded, has experienced — exists.
When he stepped off the plane in Islamabad, the first person he saw was Lt. Col. Rick Simmons of Pickens who is the former Pickens County Veterans Affairs Officer and now serves as Chief of Protocol in the Office of Defense Representative to Pakistan.
“He’s right in the mix there in all the meetings,” Inglis said.
Simmons works with the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.
Inglis was able to skip a dinner with the delegation and instead have a bite to eat with Simmons and seven other American service members at the chief of protocol’s apartment in Islamabad.
Returning to Kandahar — where the majority of the U.S. and allied troops’ operations are taking place — prior to the delegation’s departure from the region, the congressman also had the honor of meeting with two South Carolinians with the 174th Engineers of the U.S. Army who were recently deployed to Afghanistan.
Both serve on the explosive ordinance team.
“We were walking around the Kandahar base, basically where the PX is and our escort said there were some South Carolinians who just got here,” Inglis said. “Sure enough, we found two of them.”
One of them is actually Inglis’ neighbor in Travelers Rest — Spc. Justin McAbee lives about five miles away from the congressman’s home.
McAbee and Spc. Zack Gregg of Pelzer are those soldiers who have to get close enough to explosives with a specialized robot to reach them and detonate them. Inglis explained these two soldiers are part of a group of troops who go beyond “the point of no return” everyday.
“In other words, South Carolinians are doing some of the most dangerous work in one of the hottest spots on earth,” Inglis said.
When the congressman tried to thank McAbee for serving his country and tried to compliment him for doing his very dangerous work, the soldier replied the same way others in his line of work would.
“He gave me the standard response of our incredible all-volunteer force,” Inglis said. “‘It’s my job, sir.’”
He said all of the South Carolinians he met while on his trip — civilians and military personnel — prove what he’s known all along about his fellow statespeople.
“I already knew this — South Carolinians serve,” Inglis said. “It was interesting on this trip. It was really striking to see so many in these hot spots.”
At a dinner hosted by America’s Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, the congressional delegation was called on to offer comments. Inglis used his remarks to remember another South Carolinian who served his nation to the fullest in the region — Geoff Whitsitt of Travelers Rest.
Whitsitt was killed last month by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
“I wanted them to hear his name in Afghanistan — exactly one week (to the hour) after the Upstate paused for his funeral,” Inglis said. “I wanted them to know how precious his life was to his parents, to his brother and to our mutual friends. I wanted them to understand that Geoff died for the protection of America. I told them that we are willing to give our treasure in Afghanistan to help build their nation because we are sure that, using our creativity and entrepreneurship, we will make the money back. But, I told them, we are willing to give the lives of our sons and daughters only for America.”
He lauded the South Carolinians he saw while on his trip during a speech to the House Floor upon returning to Washington on Feb. 2 but also made clear his stance on what U.S. troops are doing in Afghanistan.
“While we’re hunting down terrorists, we’re going to give the Afghan people the opportunity to reject al Qaeda outsiders and to build a future free of the Taliban,” Inglis said in his speech to the House. “The Afghan people should seize the opportunity as it will not last indefinitely.”
The congressman said last Friday it’s time for Afghans to choose what they want their future to look like because America’s best are there helping give them that right. But it’s important not to let the current mission creep into becoming that of worldwide nation building — an issue he is keeping a close eye on.
Inglis said the United States’ best — like Whitsitt — are not being put at risk for Afghanistan. They are there to ensure the national security of their country. It’s up to the Afghans to make the decision to put themselves at risk for their own national security and freedom.
He said if the Afghan people choose to live with all the bad things they’ve endured, that’s their choice but they have the opportunity right now to choose a better path.
“The time for choosing is now,” Inglis said. “And they should choose quickly and choose wisely because they’ve got America’s best there to help.”
He told House members in his speech upon returning to U.S. soil that this country’s soldiers are there to serve only America by draining a terrorist cesspool.
“But there will come a day when the brave men and women of America’s armed forces will have completed their work — not that they will have taken out every terrorist, for that would be impossible,” Inglis said. “But there will come a day when we will have destroyed enough of the terrorist networks in Afghanistan that America will be reasonably safe from murderous plotting — at least from within Afghanistan’s borders. Until then, we fight on. Committed to finishing the job. Clear-eyed and determined to avoid mission creep.”
And many of the brave South Carolina soldiers and civilians will be there to help give Afghanistan the opportunity for that better future.