John Fisher: An Army soldier glad to be home for Thanksgiving

November 23, 2012
John Fisher is home after a 12-month tour of duty in Afghanistan. BY DENNIS FORNEY

This time last year, John Fisher of Lewes was in Afghanistan commanding the 489th Civil Affairs Battalion for the U.S. Army. He and other officers in the battalion took their turn behind the stove on Thanksgiving Day to serve some of the 300 soldiers who were serving their nation in tough duty overseas. “You really appreciate things you're giving thanks for when you're in that situation,” said Fisher this week, now home from that duty. “There was a sense of danger all the time - inside the wire or outside the wire. There was no place you ever felt safe. The holidays were really tough on the soldiers.”

There are many things Fisher is thankful for this Thanksgiving holiday, especially being home with friends and family. But more than anything else, he is thankful that all the soldiers in his battalion came home.

That's not to say they all came home without serious physical and mental injuries. “We still have soldiers out of the battalion in the hospital. In all, there were 14 Purple Hearts awarded for injuries received in the line of duty. Some of those injuries were from IEDs [improvised explosive devices], while others were from being ambushed by Afghan police. That's a constant threat over there, especially near the Pakistan border.”

In one ambush, said Fisher, a bunch of soldiers on civil affairs duty were getting out of the back of a truck when gunfire erupted. “One of the local imams [Islamist leaders] was paying his buddies in opium to shoot us. Two Albanian soldiers with the unit who jumped out first were killed, then one of our American soldiers was hit when he was pointing out the direction of the gunfire. It all happened in a matter of seconds, but of course it seemed like slow motion.”

Fisher said the American soldier hit in that gunfire received several wounds including a severe hand injury. “He's in the hospital at Bethesda and I go see him and others there from time to time. His doctors are actually sending him to Beebe for hand surgery. They say Beebe has one of the best hand surgeons on the East Coast.” [An article on Dr. Scott Schulze appeared in the Nov. 20 edition of the Cape Gazette.]

A long year

Fisher said his battalion, which does everything from bringing electricity to small communities to setting up businesses, micro-banking and limited governance, lost nine mine-resistant vehicles during the yearlong deployment. The explosions that destroyed those vehicles didn't cause direct injury to the occupants, but the concussions broke a number of legs.

“It was a long year,” said Fisher. “We all went over together and we all came back together. I miss the camaraderie of the unit and the people who were there, but I'm glad to be home and would prefer to be home for a while.” A former police officer and teacher, Fisher, 46, has served in the Army Reserve for 29 years, many of them on active duty.

“I think great strides are being made, in terms of self-sufficiency. But you can't use an American measuring stick. It's not 21st century self-sufficiency. It's more like 17th century. For example, the town books - where there were none before - are now at least being kept, but in longhand and on paper. And electricity - it changes everything. The first thing they want is TV, and they love the Indian movies from Bollywood. News - they know more about what's going on with the American government than we do here. Just watch Al-Jazeera [Arab news broadcast] for a while and you'll see.”

Kabul very polluted

Fisher is thankful he is no longer making trips to Afghanistan's capitol, Kabul, in the winter. “There are no trees there, for miles around, and they burn anything they can for heat. It's the most polluted place I've ever been in my life - and at one time decades ago it was known as the Paris of the Middle East. Now they burn garbage to keep warm, animal and human waste, old tires, plastic, crank case oil. Ten to 15 feet of visibility - it's awful. But it's nice in the summer when they don't have to burn everything. It's actually a beautiful country, with soybean fields being planted in the north and orange groves in the south. One of the English officers working with our unit called it 'heaven run by the devil.'”

Fisher said the response from local Afghans being helped is impressive. “The locals love you. We wear American flags on our shoulders, and that impression will last a lifetime for them. We get right in there with the local population - stand shoulder to shoulder with them - see their trials and tribulations. It's hard for people here to put themselves there.

“I think it would be beneficial for everyone in this country to serve in the military or the Peace Corps, to see conditions in other parts of the world. They would see how lucky they are to be an American - how blessed they are.”

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