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Dead Largo soldier's prescient email to Rep. C.W. Bill Young is read aloud on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON

The e-mail was read aloud in a hearing room Thursday morning on Capitol Hill, bringing to life a soldier's words as he cited the very conditions that would cause his death.

"As a brigade, we are averaging at a minimum an amputee a day from our soldiers because we are walking around aimlessly through grape rows and compounds that are littered with explosives," U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Sitton wrote to U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores. "The morale and alertness levels on our patrols are low and it is causing casualties left and right."

On Aug. 2, Sitton and another paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne Division were dead, blown apart by one of the explosives he warned about.

Sitton's letter and subsequent death prompted Young, a longtime supporter of every war the United States has waged dating back to Vietnam, to change his mind about Afghanistan. He is also running for his 22nd term in Congress, prompting his Democratic opponent, Jessica Ehrlich, to question how much his conversion owes to the approaching Nov. 6 election.

The 81-year-old congressman announced this week that he now sees the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth the costs. He wants the troops to come home immediately, a dramatic departure not only from his past views but also from the views of most Republican leaders.

Because Young chairs the House defense appropriations subcommittee, he had a committee staffer read Sitton's email to his colleagues Thursday to drive home a point about the growing threat of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that are killing or wounding troops at alarming levels.

"I can't find a whole lot right about what's happening in Afghanistan," Young said after the hearing.

IED attacks in Afghanistan have increased from 9,300 in 2009 to 16,000 in 2011, and this year is on pace to meet or exceed that level, according to the Pentagon. In the decade that the war has been going on there, IED-related casualties for all of the U.N. peacekeeping force totals 1,287. In Iraq the toll is even higher: IEDs have killed 1,791 coalition troops.

"The IED is the weapon of choice . . . because they are cheap, readily available, largely off the shelf, easy to construct, lethal and accurate," Lt. Gen. Michael D. Barbero, director of the Joint IED Defeat Organization, testified.

He called IED casualties "a reality of the 21st century warfare."

However, Barbero told the committee, the ability to detect IEDs before they detonate has improved, helping to reduce casualties by more than 40 percent in the past year.

Concern over IEDs has been a long running discussion in Washington, and the increasing casualties have collided with an intensifying debate about the war and how quickly it should end.

Polls have shown the American public has grown weary of the war and its human cost. In May, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that 69 percent of Americans surveyed believed the United States should pull out.

President Barack Obama has begun troop withdrawals, promising to have all U.S. troops home by the end of 2014. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney also supports withdrawal by that date.

Young has voted repeatedly to oppose withdrawals and even voted against setting a timetable for withdrawal. But then, in June he got the emailed letter from Sitton. The soldier, on his third combat tour of duty in Afghanistan, had gone to a school sponsored by the church Young attends, and his grandmother had told him Young helped her son years ago in another military matter.

"I am only writing this email because I feel myself and my soldiers are being put into unnecessary positions where harm and danger are imminent," Sitton wrote. "I know the threat of casualties in war and am totally on board with sacrifice for my country, but what I don't agree with is the chain of command making us walk through, for lack of a better term, basically a mine field on a daily basis."

Sitton, 26, described a scene where soldiers were told to go on patrol with no stated purpose: "I am all for getting on the ground and fighting for my country when I know there is a desired end state and we have clear guidance of what needs to be done. But when we are told basically to just go walk around for a certain amount of time is not sitting well with me."

Young told fellow lawmakers at the hearing that he had brought concerns Sitton outlined to the attention of high ranking Pentagon officials and had not yet gotten a response when word came back Sitton had died.

"Somebody needs to be held accountable," said Young's wife, Beverly, who attended the hearing and like her husband has long taken up the concerns of soldiers.

Mrs. Young, who wore a T-shirt that said Support the Troops, said she long ago decided the war in Afghanistan was no longer worth it and that her husband eventually saw her side.

"He was getting really fed up," she said. "How can it be a war when it's our troops vs. IEDs?"

Barbero said he had not read Sitton's letter before the hearing but was familiar with the way he died. "It was troubling, as they all are," he said. While he talked about improved methods to detect IEDs the general also said the enemy increasingly finds new ways to make them.

"The enemy is adaptive and smart. They watch us."

Several members of the defense committee vented that more was not being done to prevent the flow of fertilizer — a key component in IEDs — from Pakistan. Some called for tougher pressure against foreign allies but Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., said a better solution is available — "to get our troops the hell out of there. The real solution, is staring us in the face."

Times staff writer Marissa J. Lang and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

Dead Largo soldier's prescient email to Rep. C.W. Bill Young is read aloud on Capitol Hill 09/20/12 [Last modified: Thursday, September 20, 2012 11:17pm]

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