Five years ago on the anniversary of 9/11, James Smith was an S.C. Army National Guard captain fighting in Afghanistan. He was serving as an adviser to Afghan police patrolling the treacherous border with Pakistan – one of the world’s most dangerous jobs.
A South Carolina state representative from Richland County, he had taken off the politician’s blue suit, donned an Army uniform and left his wife and four children at home to lead troops in combat.
Today, on the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., the Democrat is back in the legislature. He is one of a dwindling number of voices, even among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, who back Obama’s call for airstrikes on Syria in response to that country’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
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“I’ve fought Al-Qaeda and the Taliban directly,” said Smith, now a major with the Guard. “I know firsthand how important our credibility is with the enemy – that we mean what we say. If we allow chemical weapons to be utilized on women and children and take no action, it allows every other despot and depraved leader to think, ‘Well, maybe I can get away with it, too.’”
And like Obama, Smith on Tuesday embraced a two-pronged approach of supporting United Nations talks aimed at securing Syria’s chemical stockpiles while backing air strikes if those talks fail.
“I’m encouraged by the possibility of a diplomatic solution,” he said.
Presently, there are two South Carolina-based squadrons of fighter jets within striking distance of Syria – both from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
VMFA 115, the “Silver Eagles,” are stationed “somewhere in the Middle East,” a Marine spokesman told The State, and VMFA 312, “the Checkerboards,” are in the western Mediterranean. Both squadrons have about 20 F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets capable of launching air to ground missiles.
All three squadrons of F-16s at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter are at home, as well as the S.C. Air Guard F-16 squadron based at McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover, spokesmen for the bases said.
However, published reports citing unnamed Pentagon sources have said that any strike will come from Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from four Navy destroyer warships in the Mediterranean.
Most Iraq and Afghanistan veterans interviewed by The State said they oppose any air strikes, afraid that they would lead to further involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Take retired Navy Cmdr. Richard Jadick, known as the “Doctor of Valor” for treating wounded Marines on the front lines during the battle of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004. He was deployed twice to Iraq and just returned from a deployment to Afghanistan in October before retiring this spring.
Jadick, now a Peachtree City, Ga., urologist who will be the speaker at tonight’s 9/11 banquet sponsored by the Lexington Medical Center Foundation, said the U.S. should stay out of the ongoing Middle Eastern conflicts.
“There are horrible things that go on in the world every day. You see it in the villages. You see it in the cities,” said Jadick, who was awarded the Bronze Star for valor for his actions in Fallujah. “But at some point we are going to have to stop launching weapons into somebody else’s backyard. Whenever we get involved, things go nuts. I hope that Iraq is a better place, but I’m not sure. And Afghanistan is going to be no better when we are done.”
For Walt Field, a retired master sergeant who was in the first wave of Marines to fight their way into Baghdad in 2003, air strikes are “a very slippery slope” towards ground combat.
“It gives me chills,” said Field, now 49 years old and a records unit shift leader with the Columbia Police Department. “I hope they don’t get involved in this mess.”
Matt Jenkins, 32 and a 2000 graduate of Ben Lippen School in Columbia, was deployed twice to Iraq from Oct. 2006 to Nov. 2008. He said that the U.S. military has already been stretched thin fighting two wars at the same time.
“You learn from history that two front wars are very difficult,” said Jenkins, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and now serving as a law enforcement officer in Arizona. “Guys were getting really ragged.
“It isn’t our fight,” he added. “There has always been conflict over there, and I don’t know that any one thing we do will change everything. But if you’re going to start something, you need to finish it.”
However, the veterans interviewed all said that if the military is asked to respond, it will do so with professionalism.
“You put your trust in the leadership to do the right thing,” Field said. “When they tell us to mount up and go, you do it.”
Sept. 11 events
Here, a sampling of Columbia area events happening today to mark the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. These events are open to the public.
9/11 First Responders Remembrance Ceremony: 8:30 a.m. at the Columbia Fire Department, 1800 Laurel St.
Ceremony at Fort Jackson: 11 a.m. in front of Post Headquarters, includes wreath-laying, 21-gun (cannon) salute, moment of silence. Fort Jackson’s commanding general, Brig. Gen. Bradley Becker, will speak.
5K run/walk: Benefit event starting at West Columbia riverwalk; opening ceremony at 6:15 p.m., race at 6:30 p.m. Proceeds will benefit Hidden Wounds, the FealGood Foundation, Support Our Troops and the Wounded Warrior Project. hosted by the Cayce-West Columbia Jaycees at the West Columbia Riverwalk. Register online until 2 p.m. Wednesday at Strictly Running, http://strictlyrunning.com. Online registration $30 with race shirt or $20 without; on-site registration is $35 with race shirt or $25 without.