Concerns, confidence on the front

American Legion National Commander Fang A. Wong says U.S. servicemembers deployed in Afghanistan are concerned about looming defense budget cuts, increased TRICARE costs and possible changes to the military retirement system as lawmakers in Washington try to resolve the federal deficit crisis.

However, Wong explained, the men and women he met last week at Bagram Air Base are not worried about these issues for themselves. "Their concern is for the next generation of soldiers," Wong explained. "I think many of them know that they are grandfathered on a lot of these things. Senior officers and NCOs are more concerned about those who will serve in future wars. That's exactly the way we should look at this."

The Department of Defense already faces $450 billion in budget cuts over the next decade, with more on the way if Congress cannot find enough in other areas of government to meet the $1.2 trillion reduction goal. Increased out-of-pocket costs for TRICARE coverage is also on the table as the congressional "supercommittee" (Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction) reviews thousands of recommendations to control federal spending.

President Obama announced last summer that U.S. military forces in Afghanistan will be reduced by 10,000 before the first of the year, with another 23,000 to come home by September 2012. Wong said officers and troops at Bagram expressed confidence at least about the first wave of reduction. "You really get a feeling from talking to them that they're very optimistic about the war effort," he said. "The 10,000 - that's not a problem. But over 20,000 more may be a different story."

Wong said officers and NCOs are advising their troops on patrol to step back and let the Afghanis lead more of their own security efforts. "They are learning to do it for themselves," Wong said. "The generals are optimistic. The Afghanis are good fighters, but we still have to sustain our support."

One of the challenges, Wong explained, is literacy. "In training the Afghan army, one of the obstacles they are facing is trying to improve reading and writing. It's hard to run an army with a low literacy rate. There is a lot of teaching going on there, but the Afghanis are positive about all of it."

Natural resource development stands likely to play a vital role in the post-war recovery of Afghanistan, Wong said. He said he was told about some $1.2 trillion in mineral and energy wealth in the ground there, and that China and India are already investing, but utilities such as electricity and irrigation systems are lagging.

As for the American troops themselves, "The thing that really struck me personally was that I was there to represent veterans and to express thanks to them," Wong said. "Before any of us even opened our mouths, they came out and thanked us for all of our support and what we've done for them. That was very touching. The troops are really upbeat. Everywhere you go, they are cheerful and thankful for our support."

Wong traveled with VFW Commander-in-Chief Richard DeNoyer, AMVETS National Commander Gary Fry and retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Norbert Ryan, Jr., who leads the Military Officers Association of America.