Editor's note: Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican, represents the 3rd District of Utah in Congress and is appearing in CNN.com's "Freshman Year" series, along with Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado.
Jason Chaffetz says a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan gave him a new appreciation for those living in the war zones.
(CNN) -- I spent a week during the congressional recess in the presence of true heroes -- men and women serving in our armed forces who live in the war zone, fight the enemy, risk their lives and depend on our support.
We see images from the theaters of battle, and we hear stories. But standing there in my helmet and flak jacket, surrounded by weapons and hearing about IEDs that had detonated just a day earlier, gave me a new appreciation for those living in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.
I felt a profound sense of responsibility. I am now in a position to cast a vote on how this war is fought. Nearly 5,000 U.S. troops have lost their lives in this fight. Thousands more are forever changed because of their experiences here.
In Afghanistan, I met a Utah woman who had left her young children in the care of her ex-husband while she fights in one of the most dangerous places in the world.
I recognized the longing in her tear-filled eyes as she talked about her children. Being away from my own children has been the greatest challenge of my job in Congress. But it pales in comparison to this woman's sacrifice for her country.
We have to get this right. I'd love to believe that we can right all the world's wrongs and somehow save the planet from poverty and strife. But we have to pick our battles. We have to decide where our resources can make a difference and where they can't. Going to the theaters of battle was a critical step for me in understanding the depths of the individual policy initiatives.
Our first stop was Iraq. I was very encouraged as we listened to the generals on the ground. Gens. Raymond Odierno, Charles Jacoby and Frank Helmick explained the goal: to return the country to Iraqis with an internal security force capable of protecting the country.
On this goal, I stand with President Obama. He's right to follow the advice of the generals on the ground rather than the pundits in the newsrooms. The objective is clear, the goal within reach, and the exit strategy aggressive.
Afghanistan, on the other hand, is a completely different situation. There, we seem to be doing two things: fighting the enemy and building the country. I support the first goal, but I have grave reservations about the second.
Al Qaeda and the Taliban have proved to be dangerous enemies. Our military and intelligence services need to continue to do what it takes to root out these forces and to make sure they have no haven anywhere in the world. Resources spent pursuing this objective are well spent.
Nation building, on the other hand, is unrealistic and, in my opinion, would take decades to accomplish. This is a country with many strikes against it. There is a high mortality rate -- with an average life span of only 47 -- minimal infrastructure and limited tools for economic development.
The country has been at war for more than 30 years. It's a dire situation that would take decades and untold billions of dollars to rectify. Even then, there is no guarantee our efforts would be successful.
I applaud the great work done by the troops on the ground in Afghanistan, ensuring there is no haven for terrorists. But after visiting the war zone, I have serious questions and reservations about participating in long-term nation building there.
There is absolutely no substitute for seeing the war firsthand. Two years ago, I could never have imagined the experiences I have had in the past few months. These are complex problems with costly solutions. Given the gravity of our job in Congress and all that is at stake in these wars, I applaud each and every member of Congress who has taken the time to visit the region.
More importantly, may God bless the men and women who are voluntarily serving the call of their country at great personal cost. Their efforts ensure our safety and security here at home.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jason Chaffetz.
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