The Long War Comes to an End
Zimmerman. Castro. Nieves. Byrd. Solo. McAninch. Baysore. Garver. Sisson. Pierce.
All were young American men from the 1-506th who were killed fighting in Afghanistan years ago. I had the honor of serving alongside them, growing close to Zimmerman especially who was a mentor figure to me, but also knowing Nieves, Castro, and Byrd from our time in the unit prior to deploying. They were all good men.
The war didn't stop there, though. Boyle, unable to fully reintegrate into society after being kicked out for substance abuse, overdosed on heroin. Casey, one of my soldiers who later became my peer when he was promoted to squad leader, took his own life after years of alcohol abuse and all-consuming bitterness. And of course there's my cousin, Julian Ortiz, who was the baddest motherfucker I ever knew; he also took his own life back in the States.
And there are more. Thousands more.
Young men and women who sought a better life for themselves by enlisting were sent to fight a war that the American public didn't care about and that our leadership knew we couldn't win.
None of us came back unchanged. I've struggled with depression in the years since, and reintegrating into society was not easy--and not entirely successful either. Even now, I find it incredible difficult to relate to civilians, especially men who were fully capable of serving and yet allowed others to shoulder that burden instead.
Walking through life with such a chip on my shoulder is obviously not the healthiest or most rational thing. People have plenty of valid reasons why they didn't enlist. At the time I enlisted, dozens of soldiers were dying each month, and my friends told me that I was nuts to even consider it.
And now I can't help but wonder if they were right. What did we gain from 20 years of fighting?
I don't have an answer to that question at this point, only raw emotions.
The darkest moment in the war came for me in 2011. We got notification from our ANSF partners that there was a CIVCAS incident involving a large group of women and children. They were all packed into a truck which ran over a pressure-plate that detonated an IED intended for one of our MRAP vehicles. It shredded them.
I ran down and waited at the aid station with my buddies for the Afghan police to bring the casualties so that we could render medical aid. I helped another soldier pick up the body of a young girl from the back of the truck and load her on to a litter. I could hear her drowning in her own blood as we walked her into the aid station. She was dead before we even set her down.
That moment has stuck with me for ten years and I can't get it out of my head. There are times that I look at my youngest daughter and see that girl convulsing on the stretcher with her eyes lolling about her head and blood dripping from her mouth. It breaks my fucking heart to think about it.
How many thousands of times did tragedies such as this play out across Afghanistan?
Does the end of the war mean that Afghanistan will be free of tragedies such as this, or does the advent of Taliban rule signal a new era of brutality?
Will Afghanistan be more secure and less corrupt with the Taliban in power?
Were the sacrifices of my buddies in vain?
Was it worth it?
I don't know. I really don't fucking know.