Chasing trash into a minefield

Every once in a while, I’m reminded of how much we have in this nation. You would think I wouldn’t need to be reminded with as much as I have seen and experienced in my lifetime, but nonetheless, sometimes it bears repeating and reminding.

I’ve seen poverty and deprivation here in the U.S., but quite often, those have been the results of life choices made or individualized circumstances. I’ve also been smack in the middle of cultural poverty and deprivation and seen what it’s like for a whole culture to try and claw its way out of tyranny.

We as a nation have so much to be thankful for, yet all the same, we still need to say it, recall it and even dwell on it once in a while to maintain an appropriate level of gratitude.

I will never forget living for a year among the Afghan people at the beginning of the war. It was an unconventional assignment well away from any base. We grew beards and lived out among the people of the northern provinces of Afghanistan. Everything we had was unique to the people we were there to work with. The most insignificant hand tool, or wristwatch, or radio, was often a wonder. I have some distinct memories of catching a glimpse of our level of wealth versus that of the average citizen of that war-torn nation.

We used to receive our resupply at an old Soviet airstrip in the dark of night. The area was filled with old landmines and unexploded ordinance, so we had a general rule that we did not step off the old crusty tarmac into the tall grass and scrub that surrounded the airstrip. We would set out our infra-red strobes and the special operations logisticians would kick parachute bundles out of an MC-130 Combat Talon. Usually, the bundles dropped pretty neatly down the tarmac, but I remember one night watching by night vision goggles with my counterpart who served as a Special Forces Team Leader as one of our bundles floated off the line and well out into the tall grass with all of its explosive hazards. I asked him, “OK, Don, how bad do we want that one?”

“Not bad enough,” he said.

“I agree.”

We found out later that it was a good move on our part. It turns out that a well-meaning family support group from back home had shipped over boxes of ladies' shoes to give away, and that’s what was out in the minefield. But I feel certain that despite the risk of losing life or limb that those shoes made it to the local bazaar and onto someone's feet. Minefields were no deterrent when there were treasures like shoes to be had.

On another of those night resupply operations, I heard a commotion, with a great deal of yelling and cussing. I went running down the tarmac thinking that one of our guys was in trouble. Suddenly that same guy broke light discipline and flipped on his white light, and I could see him pointing his weapon at several Afghan civilians.

“What are you doing?!” I yelled.

“Sir, do you have any idea how many cases of our MREs just got thrown out in the tall grass?!”

Apparently, in the dark of night, some of the locals were pilfering our supplies before we could even begin to round them up.

Parachute drops of women’s shoes, people pilfering our supplies, living out of a bucket well, no electricity. For nearly a year I saw the other side of the world. The side that has nothing. But the incident that got me the most - the time when it really hit home hard that I come from a blessed and much-favored place - was the day I suddenly realized that I didn’t know where our trash was going.

We had been on the ground for several months, living in what we called a “safe house,” operating off of generators, riding horses and old Toyota trucks. Living small by U.S. standards but large compared to the locals. Suddenly it hit me: “Where is all of our trash going?” Water bottles, MRE wrappers, cardboard and basic garbage were just the detritus of an American team. But where was it all?

So I got one of my interpreters, and we asked the Afghan cook. He said that he took all of the trash out every day and dumped it out behind a broken-down wall in an empty lot across from the safe house. I thought surely we had created a dump! The Americans came and started a landfill! I figured by then we had to have mounds and mounds of debris rotting in the sweltering Afghan sun and dust. I told him to take me out there and show me, but when we got there I was amazed because there was nothing. No trash, no rotting food, no empty water bottles, no cardboard debris, nothing. I looked at him, and through my interpreter, I asked where all of the trash was. His answer will stick with me for the rest of my life.

He said the people watched for him every day, and whenever he came out of the Americans' house carrying trash they followed him and picked over it all and took everything. Every last scrap that we threw out the locals took and reused. Keep in mind, we were living in what the Army referred to as “austere conditions”. I lost 30 pounds due to a lack of food and dysentery. We could hardly get those resupplies I told you about. We Americans pined daily for the ability to be at home where every light switch meant light, and every store had food, and as long as you were physically able you could always find work even if it meant just flipping burgers. But even then, even in those “austere conditions,” we generated trash that became someone else’s treasure. It was a lesson that I hope to never forget.

You see, in this country we may have gripes. We may have nasty politics. We may have irritants and upsets. But generally speaking, we are far better off than the majority of the world who would love to have what we throw away.

But too many have forgotten that fact. There is an air of expectancy, especially among the left, that indicates that too many US citizens are just plain spoiled.

Any society that can waste time debating the use of pronouns, or trying to justify letting men compete against women, or actually fighting to prevent states from passing laws to prevent life-altering surgeries from mutilating children in the name of “gender-affirming care” is clearly filled with those who are desperately searching for problems to fit their solutions.

The other day I went, once again, to a fast-food location only to find that the drive-thru was open but the dining room was closed for lack of staff. Separately, a friend told me that she usually has a sales staff of 12 but is currently down to just two. Sure, our unemployment numbers are down, but the workforce participation rate is also way down, meaning that we are a nation that has accustomed people to being paid not to work. The Biden administration recently attempted to pay off the student loan debt of millions. Apparently, it was thought to be just too hard for students who took out a loan and signed a contract to follow through on their payments.

I could go on, but this is not intended to be a gripe session. I’m just quoting the headlines of our society. But those headlines indicate a nation that has so much has apparently forgotten how little others have.

Let’s not forget that in some places in this world there are folks who will chase a box of ladies' shoes out into a minefield. There are those who will be glad to have our trash.

We live in the greatest nation in the history of the world. We need the focus to be on what is real, what is lasting, what is meaningful. And in doing so, let’s not forget who we are.

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