Most of us who served in Afghanistan did not specifically choose to go there. What location in Afghanistan we were assigned to and for what purpose was certainly beyond our control. At the least, we all sacrificed time with our families, missing countless special moments.
It also too often required a sacrifice of sweat, blood, tears, fear, and trauma. If, how much, when, and how…all out of our control.
The control we had was mostly illusionary. We were trained to spot explosive traps. Yet, a well-hidden one would kill us. We learned where the nearest safe bunkers were, but an enemy rocket at the wrong time would hit us anyway.
An attack on my base’s front gate would have killed me had it occurred 45 minutes later, or if my mission was earlier. Instead, it killed Afghan children, friends of mine. Two days later, I ate lunch with someone just before he left on the mission that killed him. I came home intact, physically anyway. Nothing we did decided which way it ended. It was beyond us.
Being there made the place real in a way it isn’t to most Americans. The people, the children, weren’t abstract. We learned their names. We trusted them. Distrusted them. Laughed with them. Laughed at them. Cursed them. Mourned them. Loved them. Just like all of us do with all people.
We all tried to do good. And we succeeded, and saw other good things around. And we failed. We saw or did bad things ourselves, or did nothing while bad things happened. Some of us believed in the mission. Some were disillusioned. Yet, each of us had an opportunity every day to “do something” about what was happening. Even if it didn’t matter in the end, it wasn’t nothing. That helped. Back home, we lost that.
The truth is we could never control our country’s strategy or whether the Afghan military believed it could win on its own, or whether their leaders would lead with dedication and without corruption.
It is all ending in catastrophe. The Taliban celebrate in the very places we struggled to prevent this exact result. We recognize those places in the pictures they are now sharing on the Internet because we’ve taken pictures with those exact backdrops too. We know, better than most Americans, what Taliban rule means for the Afghans, for the young girls, and for the thousands who helped us in any way despite the mortal risk that meant for them and their family.
As I type this, I look at the picture of an Afghan man who worked on my base and was so very tolerant as he helped me with my Dari language skills. I remember his name clearly, but won’t write it here. The Taliban are reportedly mining the Internet for the identities of our allies, swearing to hunt them down. What must he be feeling tonight? While I sit here in complete comfort and safety?
I imagine many Americans feel helpless about the horrible images coming out of Afghanistan. I believe we who have been there, civilian or military, feel that more keenly than most. We were once doing something about it. As my tears flow watching images of Afghan children, I rage that there is nothing I can do. I want to get to a different place in my head. One that remembers there are things that can be done.
Veterans and civilians who served in Afghanistan need to hold our heads up and tell all of our stories, good and bad. The good can’t be denied. The last twenty years of numbers behind life expectancy, health care access, cell phone and Internet proliferation, infant mortality, education overall and for girls in particular, all tell the story of the good we accomplished. The terrorist organization behind 9/11 that was based in Afghanistan and sworn to our destruction has been destroyed, unable to attack us again.
If we are struggling with our story, we need to reach out for help.
Plus, thousands of Afghan allies will be coming, as promised, to their new home here in the United States. We need to counter messages that they need to assimilate, are lazy, are taking our jobs, or any other tropes unjustly thrown at refugees from everywhere. They need our help and welcome instead, as they helped and welcomed us at great risk. There are organizations that all of us can support in this work.
It is much better than doing nothing.
James Seddon is a retired Navy officer, published author and resident of Southern California.