The fall of Afghanistan and our ignominious departure has left nearly every veteran I know who served there wondering what it is was all for. “I gave up years of my life for this?” One friend recently posted on Facebook.
Another wrote me, “I am in a really dark place…completely heartbroken. I think about all those missions flown, the recovery missions….the panicked radio transmissions ground guys had with me in the midst of their firefights….It can’t be all for nothing.”
I have been going from heartbreak to rage right along with my friends who wore the uniform of our nation.
I have never served, but I helped train those who did. I ran an all-volunteer OPFOR group in Oregon for twelve years that provided realistic support for infantry battalions, civil support units and civil affairs companies. Basically, we were their bad guys during field exercises, playing the role of attacking insurgents using tactical information I gleaned from personal sources in-country at any given moment. A decade of serving my country that way left me with seven concussions and multiple broken teeth.
In 2010, I embedded in Afghanistan in 2010 during the surge in Logar and Helmand Provinces. I came home and experienced many of the same struggles my veteran friends endured. Afghanistan totally reframed my friendships and my social connections. A decade later, the people I trust are the friends I made in combat.
They are hurting right now. The images on the news and Twitter are wrenching. My veteran friends are remembering those they lost in Afghanistan and thinking this was all a devastating waste. Energy. Lives. Treasure. The contact teams on doorsteps, bringing the news that a young woman is now a widow and her kids have no dad. These are burned into our souls, and we needed there to be a purpose for it. Meaning. Reason.
To those of you who served in Afghanistan, I offer this. You did your jobs with clarity, professionalism and a sense of idealism. I saw it everywhere I went in Afghanistan. Privates to colonels working in concert with one ambition: to make the lives of ordinary Afghans better while protecting them from the predations of the Taliban and its allies. You were successful at your level, and when necessary, you killed the enemy and won every battle and firefight.
I saw you perform your duties with the utmost courage. I saw you risk your own lives to save total strangers from a culture we never understood. I was amazed at the idealism resident in our army, even at a time when winning the war after nine years seemed already out of reach.
I saw how little girls would follow our female Soldiers with astonished curiosity. You set the example and dared those girls to dream beyond the walls their traditional culture imposed on them. You gave them hope. I saw it on every patrol.
The reasons for this catastrophe are above your pay grade. The failures are vested in our senior political and military leadership and the dysfunctional culture that promotes individuals entirely unsuited for the roles they are given. This defeat is theirs, not yours.
Everyone who served took crushing hits. Our people came home with devastation to their bodies and souls. For me, I was extremely fortunately to come home unhurt physically–thanks to the men and women of TF-Brawler. But I know the suffering that comes with loss. A young man I loved like a son was beheaded by an Iranian made IED in 2009. I still tear up thinking about him. We will live with the grief over those we lost our entire lives. It has become part of the fabric of who we are.
After this last week, I see that idealism is turning bitter among some of my veteran friends. How could it not when we see what has unfolded in Afghanistan?
“What a waste,” is the refrain I keep hearing.
My answer is this: no, it wasn’t. Not on a personal level. Our time in Afghanistan taught us the full measure of character. It taught us who we really were as individuals. It taught us we could push beyond our individual boundaries and grow. It taught us real-time compassion. It gave us loyalty in our lives that few people here at home will ever experience. It taught us how much we could endure, where our breaking points are. It taught us to fight through adversity, to rise to any challenge and be the measure of the moment. To set the example, to raise the standard.
There is a ruggedness I see in my veteran friends. I have seen them overcome disabilities–lost limbs, eyesight, facial trauma, etc.–to forge new paths through life. Every freaking day is a challenge for them. But every freaking day, they get up and they fight to make the most of their lives. I saw that with total clarity when I wrote “The Trident” with Jay Redman. Those men and women–they are inspirations to all of us, and examples to anyone who thinks of giving up.
My veteran friends are self-aware, capable, emotionally intelligent and devoted men and women. They think for the greater good—they came home to start new careers that serve the public and make our country better. Stronger. They carry the memories of what other parts of the world look like, how they function, and know the value of the American dream and our founding documents. The know our country is a special place, because they’ve seen how much of the world lives and how cheap the value of human life is in those places—something the woke generation has not.
In the years ahead, our veterans will mature and grow into positions of leadership. They will form the bedrock of the next generation of stewards who will guide this country in a million little ways economically, militarily and politically.
To my veteran friends, I have said this: Remember this day. Many of our senior leaders–generals and diplomats and elected officials have failed us all. They never, not once, were the measure of your value, devotion and professionalism. Not. Once. Never forget what that feels like, so someday, when they put that star on your shoulder board, or take your seat in Congress, your decisions will be informed by one guiding precept: Measure up to those you lead, and always ensure the mission is the measure of their willingness to sacrifice. Do that and there will never be a Saigon or Kabul again.