It’s a very difficult moral dilemma, to weigh the life of a young man of great promise against the chance of Afghan children to go to school and gain the chance of entrée to a larger world than their poor farming villages.
But an outstanding 28-year-old Army officer, Captain Daniel P. Whitten of Grimes, Iowa, beloved husband, son and brother, chose to put his life in this balance.
He was killed by an improvised explosive device on Feb. 2 in Zabul Province, Afghanistan.
I met Dan in late November 2009 while embedded with the military in Zabul, where he lead Charlie Company of the 508th PIR, 82nd Airborne Division. For three days, I trailed Dan and some of his subordinates as they prepared for an air assault on a dusty Ghazni town, Faisabad.
Dan was full of good humor and vitality, and seemed to relish almost every aspect of his job. It wasn?t an easy one ? commanding a company of 120 paratroopers spread out over four remote combat outposts, many hours drive from other American bases. In my time with Dan?s men, I stayed at a forward operating base called Nawbahar, which was a 19th century British mud brick fort out of the movies. There was no running water, just a well; no toilets, just burn bags; and the paratroopers slept in extremely cramped quarters. Yet they enjoyed their life.
Something civilians often don?t understand ? and I didn?t until I did embeds ? is that a lot of men in their twenties enjoy living in rough conditions in the middle of nowhere, as long as they are given responsibility and have the sense that they are doing meaningful work. Dan seemed to me to have found a calling ideally suited to his temperament; he seemed sure of his purpose in a way few of us are, especially so young.
Dan was special, even among the high caliber of officers I knew from the 82nd Airborne, almost all of whom are Army Rangers. Tall, big-boned and handsome, he had the West Pointer?s confidence and the ideal American officer?s ability to put others first. He had already earned two Bronze Stars for his efforts. Yet when it came time to edit my article, I realized I had far more material on Dan?s subordinates than him. That was as he?d intended.
Dan was kind and witty and socially at ease, and remembered everything I told him. We?d talked about my writing on Afghan archeology, and so, in the helicopter that took us back from Faisabad, he drew my attention to a mysterious large tower he had passed on previous trips. I could tell at once that it was very old. This tower isn?t known to Afghan archeologists: Dan?s sharp eyes and intellectual curiousity may have made a discovery.
According to Capt. Derrick B. Hernandez of the 1-508, Dan and his men had finished a three-day operation on the Ghazni Province border when his Humvee struck an IED that wounded one of his men.
?Dan then jumped into another vehicle and recovered his original vehicle. Seven kilometers later, his truck again struck another IED, this one instantly killing Dan and Pfc. Zachary Lovejoy and seriously wounding three others.?
Dan died doing work that had meaning to him. As Derrick pointed out in a speech he gave at Dan?s memorial in Zabul, Dan could have had any assignment he wanted. He chose to return with 1-508 to one of the most remote and insecure places in Afghanistan.
On his first Afgthan deployment Dan was aide-de-camp to Major Gen. Joe Votel, and was marked for a bright future. Gen. David Petraeus was among those at Dan?s funeral in a packed Cadet Chapel this Friday at West Point, Votel said Dan had the ability to ?make the unbearable bearable.? Unfortunately no one was around to do that on Friday.
I don?t know how many people in Southern Afghanistan appreciate what our military are doing over there; some mutter that the US is in Afghanistan because we want their land. What?s certain is that it?s only in areas with an American presence that government schools are operating in Zabul.
Dan knew there was a significant risk that he would be killed more or less at random, without the chance to meet his enemies in a fair fight. He was murdered by evil men who literally want to keep the people of Afghanistan in the Dark Ages.
We have lost 696 men like Dan in Afghanistan. I would suggest that one way to honor them is not to enter into negotiations with his murderers, or to give Afghanistan back to them.