BROOKSVILLE — Earlier this month, U.S. Rep Rich Nugent found himself walking up the ramp of a C-130 cargo plane at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and kneeling beside a flag-draped casket.
A 23-year-old Marine had been killed in a firefight in a remote part of the country and his remains were headed back to his hometown in Massachusetts. Military officials invited Nugent's small delegation of House members to pay their respects.
As he knelt, Nugent said a prayer for the soldier and his family. He placed a congressional coin on the casket, walked back to the tarmac and tried to collect himself.
"I couldn't even talk for a few minutes," Nugent recalled in a phone interview with the St. Petersburg Times on Thursday, choking up a bit at the memory.
During the weeklong trip to the Middle East, Nugent met with high ranking Iraqi and Afghanistan officials. He talked with Afghan police recruits, chatted with people in markets and toured a school that had been rebuilt after being set ablaze by the Taliban. He met with Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and, on the way back, visited with wounded Americans in Germany.
It was with this firsthand experience that the freshman Republican from Spring Hill considered President Obama's speech Wednesday night outlining a plan to withdraw 33,000 of the 100,000 troops in Afghanistan by next summer.
Nugent said he wholeheartedly agrees with ending the decade-long war that has cost the lives of at least 1,500 U.S. military members and wounded roughly 12,000.
Asked for his opinion on the rate of withdrawal, though, Nugent said Thursday he can only trust that Obama used guidance from Petraeus, not political considerations, in making the decision and that the strategy won't come at the expense of progress already achieved in the war-torn country.
"What I don't want to see is that we pull out of there prematurely and then we're back there 10 years from now because the Taliban have reestablished themselves," he said.
Nugent also expressed concern about announcing the timetable to insurgents.
"It may not play to his base, but I personally know from my law enforcement days that if you telegraph your intentions, people can preempt what you're going to do," the former sheriff said.
The delegation, comprised of three other Republican House members and a Democrat, visited Iraq first. The level of danger there struck Nugent.
Wearing helmets and bullet-resistant vests, they sped through Baghdad streets to avoid becoming an easy target for ambush. They had dinner at Camp Victory on the evening of Sunday, June 5; early the next morning, a rocket attack on the base killed five American soldiers.
As the delegation was being briefed on that incident at the U.S. embassy that day, they heard the blast of an improvised explosive device that heavily damaged a convoy of State Department sport utility vehicles.
The deaths at Camp Victory brought to 4,459 the number of U.S. military members killed since the invasion in 2003. Iraqi officials want the Obama administration to keep U.S. forces in Iraq beyond the Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline.
The Status of Forces Agreement signed by Iraq and the United States during the Bush administration says all U.S. troops must leave Iraq by then, but the contract also leaves the possibility for negotiations that would delay withdrawal. There are about 47,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, none in declared combat roles.
Nugent is adamant about sticking to the deadline to end what he called "an expeditionary war that we had no business getting into."
"We can't solve the issues going on between the Sunnis and the Shiites and the Kurds," he said. "We should have been out of there years ago. We took our eye off the ball and got involved in Iraq, and it's taken us a lot of time to get back on track in Afghanistan."
For Nugent, though, the Iraq war is also personal. Two of his three sons are there serving in the Army. His oldest, Ryan, who also has done a 15-month tour in Afghanistan, is training Iraqi soldiers at Al Asad Air Base, about 100 miles west of Baghdad. His son Casey is at Camp Victory. The Army arranged for all three to have dinner together before Nugent left for Afghanistan.
A majority of Americans -- 56 percent -- said they favored withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible, according to a poll taken last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington. Thirty-nine percent favored keeping U.S. forces there until the situation is stabilized.
Nugent acknowledges he saw only a snapshot of Afghanistan, but he was still encouraged. In Kabul, he watched as Afghan police recruits practiced take-down techniques and riot control strategies. There were men and women ranging in age from 18 to 40s.
"They don't want to be under the Taliban," he said. "They're really proud that they're going back to their villages to keep them safe."
Whether he was talking with the deputy prime minister or the headmaster of the rejuvenated school, the sentiments had a common theme, he said: We're grateful for the work Americans have done to keep the Taliban at bay, but U.S. forces must not stay forever.
"Let's face it, we're still the foreign occupier, and they would much rather have their own army and police," he said.
Nugent wasn't able to talk to all of the wounded soldiers and Marines at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Some were on respirators. Those who could talk said it's time to get out of Iraq, but also that America should be proud of the accomplishments there and in Afghanistan.
"They feel like they've done something," Nugent said. "I just hope it's not in vain."
A week later, Nugent stood on the side of Shoal Line Boulevard to unveil a road sign dedicating a portion of the road to Army Spc. Justin Dean Coleman, a Nature Coast Technical High School graduate who died in a firefight in Afghanistan in 2009 at the age of 21.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or email@example.com.