Reflections from an Afghanistan veteran
The past months have been extraordinarily difficult for those with a personal connection to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. I recently watched a CNN reporter broadcast from a base in Andar, Afghanistan — a base that my soldiers and I built, and the base where I was wounded in 2006. Seeing it on the screen brought back a lot of memories, good and bad.
When we first secured Andar we were using an open space adjacent to the district center compound to land helicopters. Unbeknown to us, that open space was a cemetery. One day the elder approached me and said, “You’re landing helicopters in our cemetery, and this is deeply disrespectful.” We talked for hours.
Right as the villagers and elders were satisfied that we intended no harm and we agreed on a new place to land helicopters, I heard the distinct sound of a far-off Chinook helicopter. Despite my best efforts to wave them off, two giant Chinooks landed right in front of us in the cemetery, sandblasting the entire group of gathered elders in the process and effectively undoing all the goodwill I had just spent hours building.
Of the 847 days I spent serving in Afghanistan, every single one was like that day. A few steps forward, a few steps back. In my conversations with fellow veterans, their memories are about the same.
The question that keeps coming up is, was it worth it? Unfortunately, most are having a hard time answering that question. There’s a term for that: Moral Injury. Moral Injury is the mind’s response to actions or memories that are in violation of a person’s values and beliefs. Some might call it an injury to the soul.
For 20 years, the full weight of the War on Terror fell on the shoulders of less than 1 percent of us. When 2.7 million Americans voluntarily answered the call to serve, 7,057 never came home and another 30,177 came home only to take their own lives.
To the brave men and women who volunteered and to the families of the fallen: The sacrifices you and your families made were not in vain. What we’re witnessing today is not our failure. This is not our burden to bear. The fact is, you carried more than your fair share and you are stronger because of it.
It’s okay to not be okay right now. Let’s take some time to reconnect with old friends, remind ourselves about that time we were handed a mission, given no resources to execute the mission, and somehow figured out how to make it work. Take that problem-solving mindset into our next mission. Your country and your communities need strong leaders like you to tackle tough problems, and solving tough problems is what we do best.
For those who lost their lives either to our enemies abroad or the demons within, their names inspire us. They sacrificed their tomorrow so that we could have our today. We have an obligation to live up to their legacy and to make those sacrifices matter. What we’re seeing today should only strengthen our resolve to do so.
As we reflect as a nation on the current situation in Afghanistan and on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I think it is more important than ever to remind ourselves of the unity that existed immediately following the 9/11 attacks. On 9/12 there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that we would prevail, there was no doubt that we were stronger together.
Now, 20 years later, we should focus our efforts on those elements that unify us, those elements of our history that make us stronger, those elements that define American exceptionalism.
Adlai Stevenson II said, “Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.” I can think of no better way to demonstrate our gratitude for the sacrifices of our service members, veterans and their families than by reaffirming our commitment to service, to each other, to our communities, and to our nation.
Joseph Reagan, Director of Military and Veterans Outreach for Wreaths Across America, served eight years on active duty in the U.S. Army, including two tours to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. This column was originally posted on WreathsAcrossAmerica.org.