Commander's Letter Tackles Troops' Morale in Afghanistan

Some of the public debate may have reached soldiers in the ranks.

Oct. 16, 2009 -- WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan — A U.S. Army commander in Afghanistan has responded to concerns about low morale among his troops in a personal letter that assures them they are contributing to the "overall success of the mission" here.

As the Obama administration debates the military strategy in Afghanistan, the letter offers a rare glimpse about how that debate is playing out among troops on the battlefield in one of the country's most violent provinces.

Col. David Haight, of the 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Brigade Combat team, sent the letter to the 3,500 men and women after two of them were killed in combat and his chaplains reported that many were disillusioned about the war.


"From the individual's foxhole, it is probably often difficult to see the bigger picture," wrote Haight, who provided a copy of the letter to USA TODAY.

Haight wrote that "some (soldiers) may ask why" efforts to clear valleys of insurgents or keep roads open are "so important (or) really worth it. ... I am here to solemnly testify that it is all important."

In an interview after sending out the letter, Haight said that some of the public debate may have reached soldiers in the ranks.

"I can tell a soldier to do anything, and he may or may not in his mind question why," Haight said. "But if you explain the why very, very clearly, he will not only accomplish the mission, but he will do the mission to a much higher standard."

"Morale is something that varies by person and circumstance," said Army Lt. Col. Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman. "But based on conversations with commanders in the field, morale across the force is generally pretty good."

The letter itself wasn't unusual, said Lt. Col. Paul Swiergosz, spokesman for 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y. Haight writes a letter every month in the unit's newsletter, Swiergosz said. He said the unit's soldiers remain focused on their mission.

Haight said he wrote the letter after a request by Capt. Jeffery Masengale, a chaplain who told British newspaper The Times that many soldiers worried their mission was pointless and the Afghans reluctant to help them.

Masengale declined to comment.

Staff Sgt. Stephen Barnes, a squad leader fighting in the Tangi Valley, said "there's a lot of soldiers that are going to be glad as hell that (the chaplain) has spoken up. Because out of fear of reprisal, they don't speak. I will say it. Morale has gotten low. I will say it on the mountaintops."

An Oct. 2 incident in which an Afghan police officer shot and killed two of the brigade's soldiers — Sgt. Aaron Smith and Pfc. Brandon Owens — set off much of the unit's frustration, Haight said. The Afghan police officer, who had worked with Americans for five years, escaped after the attack.

Contributing: Jim Michaels in McLean, Va.