By Megan LockeMay 17, 2010
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (May 14, 2010) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai brought a message of thanks to Soldiers and their families at Fort Campbell Friday, as the 101st Airborne Division continues to deploy to his country.
Karzai's visit to the installation came on the heels of a week of talks in Washington, D.C., with President Barack Obama. The two leaders used the time to help repair relations between Afghanistan and the United States, after a year of rising tensions.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recognized the history and sacrifice of the 101st Airborne Division Soldiers and their families in his introduction of Karzai.
"[The sacrifice] is especially true on a post like this one, where almost everyone here today has either just returned from a deployment or is about to head out and confront the hardship and dangers half a world away," Gates said.
In a hangar filled with more than 1,200 Soldiers and spouses, Karzai concluded his trip to the United States by focusing on the improvements in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban almost 10 years ago. He is the first leader of the post-Taliban government.
"Since then, the story of Afghanistan, on many accounts, has been one of extreme achievements," Karzai said.
Advances in education, healthcare, and the economy are all indicators that Afghanistan is progressing, Karzai said. Women's roles in the predominantly Muslim country also indicate the changing mindset. About 27 percent of the country's leaders are women, more than the U.S. and other Western nations.
"We have more women in our Parliament than many [other] countries have," Karzai said.
The leader also lauded the free press that the liberation of Afghanistan from Taliban rule provides. Instead of one government-owned radio and television station, Karzai said, the country now boasts dozens of radio and television stations, as well as newspapers.
"The bad thing is they all are against me, no matter what I do," Karzai joked of Afghanistan's media outlets. "It looks like the free press doesn't like presidents anywhere in the world."
With the help of U.S. Soldiers to bring peace, Karzai said Afghanistan can be a great tourist destination in the future. However, the leader recognized that much must be done to ensure the prosperity of his nation.
"Yes, we still have problems," he said. "Yes, we are still a very poor country. We have miles to go, and miles to go before we can call ourselves sufficient."
After his speech to Soldiers and spouses, Karzai greeted deploying Soldiers of 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, at the personnel processing center on post.
"Soldiers and officers, it is a distinct honor for me to be with you here today," Karzai said. "Especially the day that you are also leaving for Afghanistan to work for your country and to also work for my country."
Before coming to Campbell, Karzai met with wounded Soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and paid his respects to the fallen at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
"It was heart-rending and extremely difficult to see Soldiers without their arms and legs," Karzai said of his visit to Walter Reed.
At Campbell, he was able to shake the hands of Soldiers, spouses and children present.
Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell, commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division and Fort Campbell, was impressed by Karzai's support.
"He had a deep passion for the families and really thanked them for their selfless sacrifice and for what their husbands and wives are doing in Afghanistan now and will do in the future," he said. "He recognized the great sacrifices that our Soldiers and families have rendered over the last nine years in Afghanistan."
Karzai thanked the families for everything they have done to improve the lives of Afghanistan's people. He spoke of a desire to return to Fort Campbell with some Afghan families after the Soldiers return and the fighting is complete, so that the 101st Airborne Division can be properly thanked for their efforts.
"They will speak from their heart," he said. "They will express their gratitude."
One Fort Campbell spouse considered the visit to be a learning experience and encouraging in the face of upcoming deployments.
"It's just nice to see that we have good relations between our countries," said Roya Lorge, spouse of a 101st Aviation Brigade Soldier. "I didn't realize the healthcare situation over there, and the education of the children, how much that has increased since we've been there."
Staff Sgt. Joseph Hart, 3rd Battalion, 101st Aviation Brigade, deployed to Afghanistan once previously. He said Karzai's message was "uplifting," and helps make the sacrifices of combat worth it.
"It's just nice to know that what we're doing is going to mean something," Hart said. "We're not just doing it without anything to show for it."
"The Afghanistan people deserve to have all the wonderful freedoms that we have, and sometimes we have to sacrifice ourselves for a bigger cause," he added.
Lt. Col. Johnny Davis, commander of the deploying 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, added his take on Karzai's visit.
"It is a big deal," he said. "As a matter of fact, I never thought it would happen here on Fort Campbell ... What I think is critical [in Afghanistan] is that the Taliban are not part of the conversation. They are the obstacle. I'm going to support the people, and everything secondary to that is just an obstacle to us. We will overcome that. We're certainly headed in the right direction."
Gates, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and International Security Assistance Forces-Afghanistan Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal accompanied Karzai to Fort Campbell.
About 20,000 Fort Campbell Soldiers are scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan by the end of the year. More than 10,000 are already in theater. The entire 101st Airborne Division will be in Afghanistan for the first time with two brigades in Regional Command South and four brigades in Regional Command East.
"I wish them all good health, success and a happy time in Afghanistan and for them to come back safe to the arms of their loved ones here," Karzai said.
(Megan Locke writes for the Fort Campbell Courier.)