Buttigieg reflects on Afghanistan

Buttigieg reflects on Afghanistan and return to South Bend

By Pete Buttigieg

October 5, 2014, The South Bend Tribune

Six months ago, I stepped off of a C-17 transport plane at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, after leaving the mayor’s office on recall to active duty as a Navy officer. Leaving South Bend behind was tough, but made easier by the faith that I would return the next fall to a city stronger and better than ever. Now that I’m home, it is clear that this faith was well-placed.

South Bend went through a great deal in the half-year that I was away. Early spring violence, a downtown blackout, and a ferocious summer windstorm tested our community harshly. But South Bend rose to each challenge, as everyone from ordinary residents to city workers and administration leaders stepped up to support each other and our hometown. Meanwhile, new jobs multiplied, vacant properties were addressed, and gang-related gun violence fell sharply. Our community and administration have made me prouder than ever to call South Bend home.

While our city grew over the last spring and summer, so did I.

The switch from elected official to junior officer was humbling from my first days training in South Carolina. No longer in charge, it was my turn to take orders and instructions, whether that meant hitting targets at 300 yards on a rifle range, or cleaning toilets in our barracks.

In Afghanistan, I was assigned to a counterterrorism unit called the Afghanistan Threat Finance Cell. Working long hours, seven days a week, we went after the most dangerous terrorist groups by targeting the connection between narcotics and insurgent financing. 

I spent some days entirely on research and meetings, other days as a driver and armed escort for my commander and colleagues.

On the ground, the realities of war were unavoidable. The new normal included sprinting to the nearest bunker at the sound of insurgent rockets impacting nearby, learning firsthand how to tell the difference between a construction noise and a suicide bomb, and, on dozens of missions outside the wire, anxiously scanning the road at all times for signs of an attack.

Yet amid the strangeness of war, the most profound lessons of my time there came from observing just how familiar and universal the lives and hopes of ordinary Afghans are. 

I spoke with Afghan men and women who defied Taliban death threats in order to vote and shape their future. I played with children who, though orphaned by the conflict, were no different than children at home in South Bend. Most Afghans I saw were focused on regular life — boys and girls going to school, families going to the market to pick up food for the evening meal, small businesses striving to grow and succeed. 

Driving the main routes and neighborhood shortcuts of Kabul brought constant reminders that all people need cities that work for them. The Afghan capital has made great strides since the fall of the Taliban, but life is still tough. Maneuvering around potholes wider than my entire vehicle, passing ridges of garbage piled along the side of the road, sensing the anxiety in neighborhoods that police could not fully secure, I have never felt a greater appreciation for capable local government. 

The experience reaffirmed my belief in the core purpose of any city administration: to make the basics of life easier for residents, so they may be free to spend their energy on what matters most. To deliver on essentials like smooth roads, clean water, trash service, and public safety, because only then can people focus on what they truly care about: family and friends, discovery and learning, business and enterprise, culture and recreation, life and love.

Perhaps this is what all public service is about, be it municipal, military, or otherwise: enabling people to live their lives, whatever that means to them. That purpose — simple yet challenging — gives meaning to everything we do in South Bend government, just as it did everything we did in uniform.

Last Thursday, I returned gratefully to a terrific community welcome at South Bend International Airport. Not everyone I served with got to come home the way that I did.

A hardworking sailor who volunteered with me to distribute humanitarian donations (including school supplies sent generously by the people of South Bend) is fighting to keep her leg, badly injured by gunfire. A well-liked soldier on our compound, who favored the same wooden bench that I did for relaxing and picking up a wireless signal to call home, was killed in action just days before he was supposed to go on leave to spend time with his family.

This war is not over, whatever you may hear. But one day it will be, and the measure of what we achieved at such great cost will be taken by asking whether Americans and Afghans live better, freer lives because we served.

For me personally, the legacy of serving in this war will be a renewed commitment to home, to the peaceful ways of life that all public and military service is intended to protect and support. I returned home with a new appreciation for the richness of the work, the play — the life — that goes on every day in our community. 

The Afghans say, “Everyone’s own homeland is Kashmir to him.” And so, whatever it may mean to each of us in our own way, a place like South Bend will always be worth fighting for.