Over and over, every time the subject of pulling American troops out of Afghanistan has come up, U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young has voted to stay the course. He opposed resolutions to withdraw, and even a resolution to set a timetable for a full withdrawal.
"I think we should remove ourselves from Afghanistan as quickly as we can," Young, R-Indian Shores, said during a meeting with the Times editorial board Monday. "I just think we're killing kids that don't need to die."
Young is chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee as well as the longest serving Republican member of Congress, so his change in position might be expected to carry some weight in Washington.
The White House had no comment on Young's new position, and House Speaker John Boehner did not respond to a call from the Times.
NATO has accepted President Barack Obama's plan to withdraw the U.S.-led international military force from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, handing over operations to NATO-trained Afghan security forces. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney also supports the 2014 deadline for withdrawal.
The Obama plan calls for a drawdown of 33,000 U.S. troops by Sept. 30, leaving 68,000 American troops to fight militants and help prepare Afghan forces to take over by the deadline.
U.S. troops were first deployed in Afghanistan in January 2002, when the Taliban refused to turn over Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Young, who has served in Congress since 1970, said he has been a "stay the course" politician since the days of the Vietnam War. But he has also been an advocate for wounded military veterans. He frequently talks of visiting Veterans Administration hospitals to check on their care. He said he came to his new position over the past three months as a result of talking to veterans about what's happening in Afghanistan.
"It's a real mess," he said.
The death last month of 26-year-old Staff Sgt. Matthew S. Sitton in the Kandahar province was one factor that convinced him to change. Sitton, an Army Ranger who served with the 82nd Airborne Division, hailed from Largo and attended the Christian school run by the church Young attends.
Before he died, Sitton wrote Young a letter "and told me some things I found hard to believe," Young said. Sitton pointed out problems with the command structure in Afghanistan, he said, problems he said have yet to be resolved.
Young said he did not want to detail all of Sitton's criticisms, but he listed two. In the letter, Sitton told Young about "being forced to go on patrol on foot through fields that they knew were mined with no explanation for why they were patrolling on foot," the congressman said.
Sitton also explained that local streams and rivers were contaminated by pollution, creating a strong risk of bacterial and fungal infection, Young said. Yet when a flood soaked their uniforms, Young said, "they were required to continue patrols without changing their clothes."
Young said Sitton predicted his own death, "and what he said would happen happened." He stepped on an improvised explosive device and was killed, leaving behind his wife, Sarah, and their 9-month-old son, Brodey.
Young said he has talked with his Republican colleagues in Congress about his new position on Afghanistan and he believes they feel the same way he does, "but they tend not to want to go public" about it. He said he has also talked to military leaders about his views "but I don't get a lot of reaction."
Young, 81, is seeking his 22nd term in Congress. He's facing a challenge in the Nov. 6 election from a Democrat, first-time candidate Jessica Ehrlich.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]
Editor's note: This article was changed to reflection the following correction: U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, who was first elected in 1970, is the longest-serving Republican member of Congress. Two Democrats, Rep. John Dingell of Michigan and Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, have been in office longer than Young. A story in Tuesday's Times was incorrect on this point.