OCEAN CITY — Sitting in the living room of the condominium he’s called home since moving permanently to town with his mother in 2005, Bronze Star winner Ryan Daniel appears at ease, but according to the citation provided by his superior officers, Daniel’s value as a leader is that he is similarly at ease sitting with village elders in Southern Afghanistan, thousands of literal and millions of cultural miles away.
When Daniel entered the ROTC program at Dickinson College, joining his friend and room mate who had done the same, the war in Afghanistan was already becoming old news. His decision to commission while still in college, then, was not the glory-seeking kind but a way of identifying how to best put his skills into practice.
In retrospect it is easy to see how he came not only to be recognized by his superior officers but also by the elders in the villages to which he was assigned. But upon graduation he was not brought in to Army Intelligence, as he had hoped to be, but rather assigned to the infantry as a platoon leader.
When he landed in Afghanistan, he joked: “They gave me four villages and said, ‘Do your thing.’” His actual mission was clear but by no means simple — convince the hundreds of Afghans who have been at war since before he was born that a gun-toting occupying foreigner could be trusted.
As his mother, Kim Schlegal put it, this wasn’t walking around with candy in your pockets and handing it to kids. Daniel’s daily patrol took him to each of the four villages under his supervision where he met with the elders and simply built a relationship.
In what could be called his spare time he and his fellows were responsible for training the villages’ security forces, helping to stabilize the local economy in between being called upon to participate in missions that would take them into combat for weeks at a time.
As it turned out, Daniel was way better at it than any of his superiors could have hoped. It is not hyperbole to observe that when the war is over, success of the American mission will be attributable to Daniel and his kind.
Daniel has the genetic advantage of possessing what is best described as an open face. That is not to say he looks honest so much as he looks solid. When he’s listening, he is doing so genuinely and when he answers or asks a question he demonstrates that he has a grasp of both the conversation and its subtext.
While this is surely something a person can be trained to do, coming by it naturally is a significant asset when you have been appointed an armed politician. Although it took months, eventually Daniel established himself as a man of character, which might be even more important in a country that has experienced more endless wars than in any other instance. He is obviously suited to deal with people.
As Daniels gained the trust of the population of the four different villages he visited daily, the people began to accept his platoon’s presence as well as their help. While it might be a stretch to say his charges began to look out for them, it is a fact that Daniel became a regular recipient of lifesaving intelligence.
People started talking to him about where Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) could be found as well as information that led to the awareness and the eventual undermining of Taliban influences and forces.
When Daniel took his degree at Dickinson, it was in economics, and while he would be the last one to say he was an armed economist, he was able to help villagers from farmers to shopkeepers apply rudimentary practices that improved their businesses. Again, this is a value that can never be understated.
He explained that, for the most part, the people of Afghanistan are just trying to get by, to earn a living and to provide for their families. Each person he and his team helped to improve their economic circumstance was one less person likely to take a part time job planting IEDs.
It is also important to point out that this knowledge isn’t an accident of circumstance but rather part of an approach that demonstrates how the armed forces have come to learn to deal with the troubles of Afghanistan. Winning hearts and minds makes good copy but winning stomachs and wallets keeps the soldiers in your charge safer.
Daniel’s ability to be particularly successful in this is, again in retrospect, a secondary reason for his superiors’ decision to mark him as worthy of the Bronze Star, although it is not apparent from their commendation. The Bronze Star was established as an award for a soldier who shows other troops what it means to be an effective soldier. When Daniel received his award, his response was to recommend Sgt. David Fordyce, his “right hand man” for one. But that, frankly, is to be expected and is likely the primary reason Daniel was honored as he was.
The point of the award is to recognize someone who is so good at their job, they can’t see how critical their part in the war effort is. It is an award for dedicated naturals, which is an attribute better sensed than witnessed.
As if to emphasize that point, when asked about how things were going, the only thing that concerned him above the wellbeing of his comrades in arms, was how well the local relationships were holding up. Someone else is doing his job and, as any dedicated person knows, no matter how much you trust your replacement there’s always a fear of a wrong move that will result in a backslide.
Daniel and his platoon were fortunately — according to his mom — but frustratingly rotated home before a new expansion into the Horn of Panjwaii began. The Taliban is on the run in Southern Afghanistan because of the work Daniel and his colleagues have performed.
Where he offered honest, forthright advice about how to protect local economies, not to mention people, the Taliban can only offer heavy-handed superstitious writ and condemnation. Daniel and thousands like him have offered the people of Afghanistan an alternate way to deal with daily living. It is a difficult but honest way that has a future and those of us stateside are honored to call him one of ours.