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Letter from doomed soldier helped change congressman's mind on Afghan withdrawal date

TAMPA — Sarah Sitton knew her husband Matt, an Army staff sergeant, was upset he and his men were forced to trudge through fields laden with improvised explosive devices.

She knew he was so concerned he wrote a letter essentially predicting his own death to U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who attended the same Largo church as the Sittons.

What surprised her was how much impact the letter would have.

Young this week reversed his position on Afghanistan, a change of heart he says came in part because of Sitton's letter. In a position opposite that held by most leaders of his party, the influential Republican is now calling for U.S. troops to leave the country ahead of the 2014 deadline called for by President Barack Obama.

He also has called a hearing for 10 a.m. Thursday to ask the agency in charge of protecting troops against IEDs to explain why so many are still dying and suffering horrific injuries despite an annual budget of nearly $3 billion.

Sitton was killed Aug. 2 by an IED in the same field he had complained about in his letter. He was 26.

"I don't feel Matt's service was in vain," said Sarah Sitton, who now is raising the couple's 10-month-old son, Brodey, on her own. "Because with him leaving that letter behind to the Congressman, I hope that it saves others that may come in the future."

Young, the senior Republican in the House of Representatives and the chairman of the influential House Appropriations Committee Defense Subcommittee, said he has "always supported the war efforts."

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But Young said two issues – troops like Sitton killed and maimed by IEDs, and the growing number of troops killed by Afghan forces they are training – moved him to waver from his commitment not to second-guess military leaders.

He said he had been "reluctant" to call for an early withdrawal.

"I have been very careful not to substitute my judgment for that of military leaders in the field managing the mission," he said Wednesday. "I really believe that. But I also believe that we are not carrying out our commitment to protect our troops the best we can."

"I don't think we should put our soldiers at risk any longer," he said. "The president wants to bring them out piecemeal by 2014. Logistically, I am not sure how long it would take, but I think we should start moving them out quickly and safely and leave a combat force that has authority to use whatever force they need."

Sitton's death, said Young, was a catalyst in changing his mind.

"He knew who I was and that I do everything I can to protect our soldiers," Young said. "At the end of the letter, he says, 'If something doesn't change, we are going to die. If you can't help us, pray for us. Not me, but us.'"

Young said Sitton wrote in his letter that as a staff sergeant, he was responsible for a squad of men who had to do foot patrols "where they knew there were IEDs and that every time they went into this field, someone lost a leg or an arm or their life."

Sitton, complaining on behalf of those he commanded, "said there was something wrong that, knowing this field was full of IEDs, there was not what they thought was any obvious reason for going into this field,'' Young said. "He thought it was a mistake threatening the lives of he and his soldiers."

Sitton wrote his letter after his command "told him to quit whining," Young said.

Shortly after receiving the letter, Young said, he shared it with the Army's top leadership, as well as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

"The entire chain of command knows" about Sitton's concerns, Young said. But no one took any action.

"Frankly, nothing happened until we were notified that Matt Sitton was killed in the very same field he said that they knew were IEDs and no reason (the troops) should even be in there."

Last week, Young said, he received a classified response to his concerns about Sitton from Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno.

The response, he said, came via courier.

"I handed it back to him and said 'I don't want this letter," said Young. "The third page is missing.'"

The courier responded that there was no third page.

"I said there needs to be a third page saying what do we do to fix this," said Young.

Young said that at Thursday's hearing he will ask the leadership of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, "What has happened to all the money appropriated to help protect ourselves against IEDs?" and "What has the organization accomplished?"

Young said he hopes his reversal on the issue of when the military should pull out of Afghanistan prompts discussion.

"Whether it turns into a national debate remains to be seen,'' Young said. "But it is not something we can ignore when troops are being killed and losing arms and legs and being murdered in their sleep by people supposedly their allies. It's not right."

Young's statement has reverberated with other local members of our Congressional delegation.

Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor said "I welcome his voice to the interest in accelerating America's departure of combat troops on the ground there."

Republican Congressman Tom Rooney said that after learning that the training of Afghans by coalition forces has been suspended, "I no longer know what our mission is anymore … right now I am on Bill Young's side of this issue. I have never been before."

For her part, Sarah Sitton hopes Young's comments help get U.S. troops home sooner.

"There isn't much they are fighting for now," she said. "They are just keeping people safe who don't want to keep themselves safe. We are building roads they can't build for themselves, clearing towns they can't clear for themselves. We are just doing things that don't have much to do with what we went over there to do."
 

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