House staffer returns to Capitol Hill from Afghanistan

On the morning of his 15th birthday, his mother woke him up early for school and wished him a happy birthday. Later, when he came down for breakfast, his mother told him that a plane had hit one of the towers at New York City???s World Trade Center.

???We were in the car, headed to school, I was a freshman in high school, and we heard on the radio that a second plane had hit the towers???we obviously knew then it was a terrorist attack,??? said Cyrus L. Artz, a staffer the Republican Study Committee, the caucus of roughly 170 conservative Republicans that forms the majority of the majority in the House of Representatives.

The Afghanistan veteran said later that morning he watched the towers collapse as he sat inside the library of Fargo, N.D.???s Shanley High School, the same Catholic high school his mother attended 30 years prior.

Artz was born Sept. 11, 1986.

On his 26th birthday, he was packing to come home from Afghanistan, where he deployed with the District of Columbia National Guard as part of NATO???s International Security Assistance Force.

???I went to boot camp in January 2007,??? he said. Then in March through July, he went through his Army Advanced Individual Training at Fort Gordon, Ga., where he learned to be a ???25U??? or signal support specialist, a soldier who installs, maintains and troubleshoots battlefield communication equipment.

???These were the days of the $20,000 bonus,??? he said.

The staffer was promised the $20,000 bonus if he enlisted and agreed to become a military intelligence analyst, he said. But, as he was on the phone for his initial top secret clearance, he was told that the bonus was dropped to $15,000.

??????But, we???ll give you $20,000 if you do communications,?????? he said they told him.

???So, I stupidly went to communications,??? he said. ???I would have enjoyed my career more if I???d gone for intelligence instead of communications, but when you???re 20 years old, $5,000 is a lot of money,??? he said.

Artz said his unit, the 273rd Military Police Company, mobilized in January and conducted pre-deployment training at Fort Bliss, Texas, the Army???s massive facility on the Mexican border near both El Paso and Juarez, once called by CBS News, the Murder Capital of the World. ???They were very strict about letting people go to Juarez.???

The training at Fort Bliss focused on the MP-mission, and included force protection, detainee operations, setting up and running entry control points, convoy operations and how to detect and counter improvised explosive devises, he said.

The training was enhanced with actors, who dressed and behaved like the local nationals that the soldiers would encounter in Afghanistan, he said.

For the better part of his seven-month deployment, Artz said his home was Camp Scorpion, after a series of flights and stops that took him and his comrades to Kyrgyzstan, hub Bagram air base, the large logistics and military operations in Afghanistan and finally to his assigned camp on a Chinook.

Camp Scorpion was an all-American base established inside a larger Afghanistan security forces base, he said. There was very little interaction with other NATO personnel, although some of the soldiers from the 273rd were allowed to travel to a German forces camp to earn German marksmanship badges, which are coveted and authorized on American uniforms.

???We were at the end of the food and supply line,??? he said. ???Our cooks were just MPs, who had no idea they???d be cooks until we got there.???

Two of the themes that dominated the deployment were need to respect the local customs and religious practices and the awareness of Green-on-Blue attacks, he said. In Army parlance, ???blue??? personnel are part of U.S. forces and ???green??? personnel are allied personnel, such as members of Afghanistan???s security forces or members of NATO.

There were such incidents during his deployment, but the specialist said it was not an issue for him and the soldiers stationed with him.

Two weeks before he arrived in theater, there was an international controversy revolving around the inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran, the Islamic holy book, by American soldiers in Afghanistan assigned to burn trash and refuge.

Artz said all personnel were given specific training on how to handle the Koran.

The staffer had little interaction with local nationals, but one patrol convoy mission he was part of through Kabul, the locals greeted the Americans by throwing rocks at them and their vehicles.

The journey home took Atrz back through Kyrgyzstan, where during the layover and outprocessing, he caught performances at the camp by LeToya Luckett, an original member of Destiny???s Child, and the Miami Dolphins, he said.

???They were what you???d expect for Miami Dolphins cheerleaders, Florida girls are beautiful and they were as pretty as you???ll come across,??? he said. ???It was a pleasure to see them after seven months with no women.???

???I left D.C., on Jan. 3 and I returned to D.C., Oct. 15,??? he

???My first day back on Capitol Hill was Nov. 12, the Tuesday after Veterans Day, and that was an odd day,??? he said.

???Many of the things I thought were absurd about Washington before I left, I still think are absurd today,??? he said.

???I think I have an increase in confidence now,??? he said. ???I wouldn???t describe my experiences as, you know???I did not have an earth shattering experience in Afghanistan, I was on a base, where we were secure, I played a role that was straightforward???the biggest thing I was fighting was boredom,??? he said.

???The confidence comes from having set out to do something and accomplishing it,??? he said.

Like many soldiers, Artz said much of his deployment was spent pulling duty in watch towers, and thus his deployment lent itself to contemplation.

???I had a lot of time for reflection, thinking about who I was and where I was going in my life,??? he said. ???That was probably the most important thing I got out of my deployment.???

Atrz said he takes comfort in the knowledge that because he went to Afghanistan, someone else did not have to go in his place and that because Americans are willing to enlist and deploy in service of their country, other Americans can enjoy the freedoms they take for granted.

???I am glad people can go out on a Friday night with their friends and not have to worry about anything???we???ve got a great country here.???