WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stopped at Bagram Airfield Sunday on his way from Singapore to Brussels to thank U.S. troops for their service in Afghanistan and to share the intense gratification of freeing prisoner of war Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after nearly five years in captivity.
Bergdahl went missing from his post in Afghanistan in June 2009. The now 28-year-old soldier was thought captured by the Haqqani network, an Islamist insurgent group operating in Afghanistan.
But Saturday, after years of work by U.S. government agencies, the governments of Qatar and Afghanistan, and the international community, President Barack Obama ordered special operations forces personnel to recover Bergdahl from Afghanistan and move him to safety.
The operation went off safely and smoothly, and doctors at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany are now caring for the former prisoner of war.
At Bagram, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., commander of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, introduced the secretary to the gathered soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and DOD civilians as “a combat vet from Vietnam and wearing two purple hearts.”
Hagel took the microphone and greeted the troops, acknowledging that Obama had made an unannounced visit to the base over Memorial Day weekend with superstar country singer Brad Paisley, who played a surprise concert for the troops.
“Nothing makes me more proud than to say I served in uniform and served in the United States Army,” Hagel told them, over some cheers in the background. “I’m proud of that and I want you to know it, and I’m proud of you all.”
The secretary added, “This is a happy day … for our country, for our armed forces, because we got one of our own back last night.”
On behalf of the American people and the men and women in uniform and those who work for the Defense Department all over the world, Hagel said, and to the many people and personnel from all the services who had something to do with the recovery effort, “I want to thank you for that.”
Hagel said the week has been interesting for many reasons, including Obama’s announcement about America’s post-2014 role in Afghanistan.
“We all recognize the tremendous progress made over the last 13 years,” the secretary added, “and that progress is clearly a direct result of the men and women of the U.S. armed forces and how you have helped the Afghan people build and strengthen their institutions, and put the people on a path to being able to defend themselves, govern themselves, support themselves and secure themselves.”
The U.S. role is not finished, he said, but the nation will phase out of one role at the end of 2014 and phase into another with its ISAF partners over the next two years.
“That will be important because we can continue to help the Afghan people and their military continue to strengthen their efforts to secure their own country,” Hagel said. “You should be very proud of that. We’re proud of you for being able to do that.”
The secretary said he knows that “more than occasionally” the troops must ask themselves if anybody is paying attention to their work in Afghanistan.
“We are,” he said. “The American people want our job finished here but they want it finished the right way, and you want to finish it the right way. The president of the United States and I want to finish it the right way, and I think we’re on a path to doing that over the next two years.”
Hagel added, “Of our coalition partners, who have been particularly important to us in this effort, most will continue to have a role with us over the next two years.”
Before taking questions from the troops, the secretary thanked them again for their service, paying special attention to a group of service members sitting in the front row, some of them with patched-up wounds, others on crutches.
“I read each of your stories coming in from Singapore this morning,” he told them. “We admire your character, your courage and not only what you did on the battlefield and contributions you made to our country and Afghanistan but what you’re doing now.
“You are tremendous inspirations to everybody,” Hagel said, “and I want to thank you personally for that. And I want to thank your families in particular … they anchor us and help each of us get through this, especially men and women who serve in combat.”
Hagel’s next stops on his 12-day trip to countries in Asia and Europe include Brussels for a NATO defense ministerial, Romania, and France for stops in Paris and Normandy to commemorate with President Barack Obama the Allied victory in World War II and the sacrifice and courage shown on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944.