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Troops in Afghanistan Respond to Bush's Speech

The following article ran as part of an eight-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch June 6-24, 2004.

The satellite connection was a little shaky. A wind storm was kicking up the desert dust outside.

But as he spoke from half a world away, President George W. Bush commanded the full and sober attention of several hundred servicemen and women who gathered Wednesday to hear his speech at a U.S. air base north of Kabul.

"I thought it was excellent, just right," said Pvt. Nathan Powell, an Air Force communications specialist who arrived in Afghanistan just three weeks ago. He had previously served in South Korea.

"I'm here for a year," said Powell, who had listened intently throughout Bush's speech, his automatic rifle sitting on the floor to his right.

What does he think of Afghanistan so far?

"Very nice," he said, adding with a smile that all he's seen so far is Bagram itself.

The Army and Air Force public affairs offices here learned last weekend of Bush's plans to make the speech, and of the White House desire to include live footage of soldiers watching from Bagram and Baghdad. They've been working feverishly since, with limited power and a balky satellite feed.

"No problem," laughed Sgt. Charles Holt of the Oklahoma National Guard, after staying up until dawn the night before trying to make the connections work -- and then wondering as the broadcast approached whether the tent itself might collapse as the wind beat against its sides.

Several soldiers said afterward that they felt Bush talked too much about Iraq and not enough about Afghanistan, although none wanted to be quoted as criticizing the commander in chief. The president has often spoken of Afghanistan as a victory already won. To soldiers on the ground here, it very much remains a work in progress. That was underlined again this week. A rocket landed Tuesday just outside the downtown Kabul headquarters of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

On Wednesday four Afghan civilians, including two children, were killed in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz when a home-made bomb exploded near the rear of a convoy of German soldiers.

"I'm not a Bush supporter but I liked what he said about rebuilding these countries," said Airman 1st Class Quinn Eisenbaum, 23, an amateur filmmaker and student pilot back home in Dallas whose job here is aircraft mechanic. Eisenbaum has been stationed at Bagram for four months. He's gotten off the base several times, as part of an adopt-a-village program that lets service people volunteer in local towns.

"It seems like we're doing some good," he said, adding that he liked the thumbs-up that he usually gets from local residents. But he also wonders about what is driving the U.S. commitments here, especially the heavy engagement -- and earnings -- of private American contractors.

"Sometimes I doubt that we're doing all this for the right reasons," Eisenbaum said.

"I hope we are."