Emptiness, Anger, Relief: Afghanistan Veterans Wrestle with Coming End of 'Forever War'

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Marine during a memorial service in Afghanistan
U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Dustin Hanson, a section leader with Charlie Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, observes a moment of silence in respect of Lance Cpl. Ramon T. Kaipat, an infantryman who served with Charlie Co., 1st LAR, and 22-year-old native of Tacoma, Wash., during a memorial service in Afghanistan, April 16, 2012. (Alfred V. Lopez/U.S. Marine Corps)

When the news broke that the United States planned to pull its remaining troops from Afghanistan, Marine veteran Peter Lucier's thoughts drifted to his old platoon mate, Lance Cpl. Ramon Kaipat.

Kaipat was "an incredibly funny character," Lucier remembered; a big guy who immigrated from Saipan and was beloved by their platoon during their deployment to Helmand province in 2011 and 2012.

But on April 11, 2012 -- almost exactly nine years before President Joe Biden would announce the final troop withdrawal -- part of Lucier's platoon was on patrol. They passed a dirt mound that, the previous year, was the site of a patrol base they had used, and was since bulldozed.

The Taliban had planted one of their signature white flags on the pile of dirt, Lucier said, laying claim to the patch of land that once housed U.S. Marines. Kaipat approached the flag and pulled it out of the ground, triggering an IED that killed him instantly. He was 22.

"This is always a weird time of year for me," Lucier said. "It's really surreal because this [withdrawal] is coming on a really important date for me and my unit."

In interviews with Military.com last week, Lucier and other veterans wrestled with the complex -- and sometimes contradictory -- emotions they felt about the end of a 'forever war' that has occupied much of their adult lives.

Veterans described feeling everything from happiness, to grief, to anger and confusion -- in some cases, many at the same time -- as they processed the news.

For some, untangling those feelings was difficult.

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Like Lucier, Army Sgt. Maj. Jason Baker, a public affairs officer who deployed as part of the initial invasion in 2001, described the announcement as "surreal."

"It's always been there," said Baker, who was a 25-year-old private first class on 9/11 and when he deployed soon afterward as part of the 49th Public Affairs Detachment to Bagram Airfield. "For the last 20 years, it's been this constant: Somebody you know is serving in harm's way. If not you, then one of your buddies, or someone you served with, or a neighbor down the street. It felt like, at a certain point, it was just always gonna be there."

Lucier, who has lobbied Congress to end the war as part of a veterans advocacy group called Common Defense, said he always thought that he would feel relief or satisfaction at the announcement of a final withdrawal date.

But when the news actually came, Lucier had a different reaction: Emptiness at first, he said, and then, to his surprise, anger crept in.

"And I don't know why," he said of the anger he felt. "This is what I wanted."

Lucier wondered whether he's angry that the war didn't end sooner, or because he thinks the war has been lost for some time, or if he's upset with those arguing that troops should stay.

Or, he said, perhaps he's angry over the loss of his friend Kaipat.

Every year, when the anniversary of Kaipat's death rolls around, Lucier said he and the Marines he served with text one another, make Facebook posts, and share stories to remember him. Some members of their platoon send cards to Kaipat's family in Tacoma, Washington, around that time, and send his mom cards on Mother's Day.

"This is one of the times of the year that I reconnect with people who used to be in my unit," Lucier said. "When you've been out of the Marine Corps for, coming up on eight years for me, you lose touch with people. So it's kind of a time when we all come back together."

Years Overdue

Joe Plenzler, a retired Marine officer who served as Marine Gen. Joe Dunford's speechwriter when Dunford commanded the International Security Assistance Force in 2013, said he was excited to hear the news and felt it was years overdue.

After 9/11, Plenzler said, the United States had a clear global mandate to hunt down every al-Qaida member in Afghanistan. But problems began when the goal expanded beyond a limited counterterrorism mission to nation building, he said, requiring tens or sometimes even hundreds of thousands of troops to deploy, as well as the significant infrastructure required to support and protect them.

"Once it becomes [nation building], it becomes too big to fail," Plenzler said. "And we saw that happen in both Afghanistan and Iraq."

Felix Figueroa, who deployed with Baker as part of the 49th in 2001 and went back to Afghanistan three more times in subsequent years, said the part of him that made lifelong friendships with Afghans and has "been in the trenches with Afghan commandos" and saw how American backup helped them was saddened by the news.

"I know what it's like to be in the foxhole, and ... I've seen the highs and lows and emotions when their back is up against the wall," Figueroa said. "And then in comes a U.S. airstrike and takes out a determined enemy. I know what it feels like to feel that sigh of relief and know you have a big brother, a big ally, in your corner backing you up should you start to lose the fight. That feels amazing."

But at the same time, another part of Figueroa -- the part that became frustrated dealing with red tape, bureaucracy and tribalism when dealing with the Afghan government -- felt relieved and happy to hear about the war's end, he said.

Figueroa, like other veterans who spoke to Military.com, said Afghanistan's problems run too deep for U.S. troops to fix.

"Afghanistan has been at war with itself and throughout the region, quite frankly, for hundreds of years," Figueroa said. "And no amount of [American] money or years spent training and advising is going to change the systematic problems of tribalism, religious radicalism and corruption crippling the country. I feel it's time that Afghanistan and the Afghans figure it out on their own."

The administration's decision was criticized by some, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who said a full withdrawal risks allowing a civil war to reignite and could give the Taliban an opening to overthrow the government in Kabul.

Some veterans who spoke to Military.com felt that, while a risk of a Taliban takeover exists, a U.S. troop presence would not change the ultimate outcome of Afghanistan -- only delay it, at the potential cost of more American lives.

"If you're not going to make it better, it's probably time to go," Plenzler said. "I don't see us turning the long-term arc of the trajectory of Afghanistan. It's gonna go where it's gonna go, and I think the longer we remain there, the more misery we cause."

'We Just Can't Do It Forever'

Tom Porter, executive vice president of government affairs for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and a Navy Reserve officer who deployed to Afghanistan, said he understands why Biden chose to withdraw troops, and knew it would eventually happen. But he always envisioned that it would happen because the conditions on the ground had improved to a point to allow a withdrawal.

But other vets, such as Lucier, felt Afghanistan might never have reached that point.

"There's a very real possibility that the Taliban are going to gain more ground," Lucier said. "But they've already gained an incredible amount of ground, and we've shown very little ability to combat that. And we just can't do it forever."

Figueroa also felt that it's time to pull most troops from Afghanistan -- but doesn't think everyone should go. He would prefer to see a small force of advisers and troops to protect them stay to help Afghanistan maintain security.

Porter said it's clear that much of America -- including the public, decision-making officials in the government, and "frankly, people in the military" -- had a limited appetite for continuing the war.

He said he has been particularly disappointed in the lack of a significant debate in Congress on the war and America's role in Afghanistan.

Porter said that as he prepared to board an Amtrak train last year, before the pandemic, someone asked him about a patch on his backpack with the American and Afghan flags side-by-side and didn't recognize the Afghanistan flag. When Porter told him what it was, the man appeared embarrassed and said he probably should have known that.

"I think people have been detached for a while," Porter said.

'We've Made a Lot of Promises'

But even if U.S. troops aren't there, he said, the nation has an obligation to continue supporting Afghanistan in diplomatic and humanitarian ways.

"We've made a lot of promises to the Afghan people, and the Afghan government, when we went in there in the first place," Porter said. "I've communicated those promises when I was deployed there. I hope that we continue our commitment ... [by] helping them keep the gains they've made over the years, in terms of national security, their military's training, the rights of women and girls, [and] the economy."

Veterans of the Afghan War are not a monolith, Porter said, and their opinions about whether their service there was worth it vary. IAVA surveyed its members last year and found about 60% of those who served in Afghanistan felt their deployment was worth it.

Porter, who was on Capitol Hill the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and knew someone who was on the plane that hit the Pentagon, said he felt enormously satisfied with the work he did in Afghanistan.

But Plenzler said that even during his deployment as Dunford's speechwriter, he was skeptical that he was having a positive effect, and said he even felt like it was a "waste."

"It's like sticking your fist in a bucket of water," Plenzler said. "While it's there, you're displacing space and having an influence. But the second you pull it out, it's going to go back to what it always was."

As the veterans processed the news of the coming withdrawal, some were still grappling with how -- or even if -- they would mark the occasion when the final U.S. service member leaves Afghanistan.

Lucier said he may simply continue to remember, reflect on what happened, and write to try to process his war and how it continues to intrude into his life today.

"I'm a different person now, not the 22-year-old kid who went to war," said Lucier, who was in sixth grade when 9/11 happened. "I'm a law student, I'm trying to get married to my girlfriend, I'm trying to pass classes, and then this happens. It reminds me that this thing that I was a part of 10 years ago ... still has the ability to reach me now, still has the ability to affect my life and my mental state."

Some planned to reach out to their old teammates, the families of those who were lost, or Afghans they befriended over the years.

Figueroa said he'll have a "heavy heart" when he has those conversations with his Afghan friends.

"Stay strong, stay in the fight, don't give up," he plans to tell them. "Better days are on the horizon; you just have to get up and fight. And don't forget everything we taught you."

But above all, Figueroa will be happy that his younger son, who is in the Army's Honor Guard -- he just graduated from Ranger School and is set to graduate from Army Airborne School -- will not have to fight the same war he did.

"No father who has served, or mother -- any soldier who has served in these endless wars -- none of us want to see our children inherit a war like that, and go to a place that we came from and went back to time and time again," Figueroa said. "We fight these wars so that our kids don't have to."

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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