BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Former Congressman Charles Djou is back from the war zone in Afghanistan and is focused on his race for Congress.
But his 6-month deployment in one of the most dangerous places on the planet is still vivid in his mind and the experience has changed his perspective.
A JAG officer in the Army Reserve, Djou was the only one in his unit deployed and he thought he would be in an office somewhere “pushing paper.”
But instead he was thrown into the most intense fighting in the Kandahar region with ruthless Taliban fighters willing to do anything to protect one of their main sources of funding for their terrorist organization – opium fields.
“I did not think I was going to arguably the violent district, in arguably the most violent providence, in arguably the most violent nation on earth,” Djou said, adding “It was an eye opening experience, to say the least. He said his unit was regularly the target of gunfire, bombs and rockets.
Interviewing suspected Taliban fighters who were captured by coalition forces so it could be determined if they were innocent farmers who should be freed or “bad guys” who should be detained, was Djou’s main responsibility.
“In the past, it was easy to determine who the enemies were,” Djou said, because of the uniform they wore. But Taliban fighters don’t wear uniforms, he said.
He said through these interviews, he encountered “some of the worst, nastiest, most awful individuals I’ve ever interacted with.”
One Taliban fighter he encountered waited outside the American base to stalk Afghan workers who primarily were hired to do manual work. Once they were home, he murdered them and put a nail into their forehead with a note attached that said “This is what happens to traitors.” The body was then dropped off at the doorstep of the local mosque.
“This is the nature of the enemy we face,” Djou said.
Coming face to face with Taliban terrorists, some of the most evil people on earth – and American soldiers, some of the finest and most patriotic people in our country – has changed his perspective on the war in Afghanistan because the time allowed him to see firsthand the importance of the work being done there.
Djou worked with a unit of 4,000 people – 1,500 Americans and 2,500 Afghan soldiers. He said it is clear “progress is being made.”
The Afghans are organized as an army and not warlord style. They are learning to fight with the rule of law, not just with swords and guns, he said.
It is unfortunate our soldiers don’t get the recognition they deserve because the only news the media reports is bad, he said.
In a half hour television interview with Hawaii Reporter, Djou noted he is the only congressman who had the opportunity to vote on “Operation Enduring Freedom” to fund the war and then be directly impacted by the legislation while serving in Afghanistan.
Djou’s stance on the war has been altered some since he was deployed. He understands even more intensely the level of sacrifice American troops make and he wants Americans to come home sooner rather than later. But if the process is rushed, chaos will ensue and the country will erupt into civil war.
We need to withdraw, and not be there forever, Djou said. But he is concerned by comments of some members of Congress who are saying to get out within 90 days. He said there is a plan and it has to be followed in an orderly manner so there is no “anarchy.”
Djou said he has returned to Hawaii more grounded and educated and is appreciative of his family and the basics he has such running water and falling safely to sleep in his own bed.
He wants to use his experience as a Hawaii soldier and lawmaker in Congress and plans to take on Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa this November in the general election.
If reelected, he will focus on breaking down barriers for travel and trade, on balancing the budget, on eliminating the deficit, on creating jobs and boosting the economy and helping Hawaii “live up to its true potential.”
“The average Hawaii resident is concerned about jobs, kids, kids schools, and they want to make life better, but we see all too often our Hawaii delegation ingratiating themselves with the Democratic caucus and forgetting about the people back here,” Djou said.
He said being “an average typical dad and dealing with taking kids to soccer, ballet, hula practice” is what grounds him.
“That is what I use as a perspective,” Djou said.
He will take on Hanabusa in the General Election for Congressional District 1.
He was elected in May 2010 in a three-way special election that also included then Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, and former Congressman Ed Case, 2002-2007.
Hanabusa then beat Djou about 6 months later in the general election after she was helped by Hawaii’s powerful Senior Senator Daniel Inouye.
Djou launched his campaign just as he was leaving for Afghanistan. He was the only member of his unit deployed. He could only read about Hawaii from afar. There was no fundraising, no campaigning, no responding to media inquiries from the battle field.
The race is expected to garner national and local attention, in part because this is the first time two former congressmen will be battling for the same congressional seat.