In what was in no way a publicity stunt, US Senator Lindsey Graham, an Air Force reserve officer, recently served active duty in Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan – The men around Lindsey Graham ignored his powerful political title — U.S. senator — and instead addressed him by rank — colonel.
Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and the only U.S. senator in the military's Guard or Reserves, donned the Air Force's camouflaged uniform for five days last week to serve in Kabul.
The senator enrolled in the ROTC in 1973 and has been in the Air Force Guard or Reserves as a military lawyer ever since. In Kabul, he worked with the staff of military lawyers at the U.S. base Camp Eggers. The office is helping to train military judges and defense lawyers, and to write Afghanistan's uniform code of military justice.
Graham said his experiences in the military taught him how difficult wartime deployments can be on families.
"One thing I learned is that when a soldier, airman or a Marine is away, the more we can take care of the family, the better they're going to be able to do their job because there's nothing worse than being deployed and having family problems," said Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Graham said that when the military mobilized for the war in Iraq, about 20 percent of Guard and Reserve forces were medically disqualified. He said it wasn't smart to have "20 percent of your force out of the fight without a shot being fired." About 25 percent of the Guard and Reserves were uninsured.
In response, Graham worked with Sen. Hillary Clinton in 2005 to allow members of the Guard and Reserve to purchase health insurance for themselves and their families through TRICARE, the military's health care system.
Seven years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban for hosting al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, the United States has a record level of some 32,000 forces in the country, and American commanders have asked for 20,000 more. Violence has soared over the last two years.
Graham, who was in the capital from Sunday through Thursday, called the challenges in Afghanistan "enormous," and said the U.S. "let some time get by" without enough focus on the country.
"It's going to get tougher before it gets better. But we have a new strategy in place. Gen. (David) Petreaus understands how to win wars," Graham said, referring to the chief of U.S. Central Command. "So I want the people of America to know we're here to make our own national security better."
The Taliban appears to be making gains in Afghanistan's provinces, and more U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan in 2008 than in any year since the invasion, but Graham said history shows that the momentum in conflicts can turn quickly.
In 1987, Graham said, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S. was "vigorous." By 1990, he pointed out, it was over.
"Momentum for evil or good can be powerful. Things can really deteriorate fast, but things can change and I've learned that in Iraq," Graham said of the country, where violence has dropped quickly over the last year. Graham has also served time in Iraq in the Air Force Reserves.
The politician said his service in the military has made him a better senator.
"You don't need to be in the military to be a good senator or president, but every experience you have helps you," Graham said.