Afghanistan used to haunt my dreams. Now it hurts my heart.
This war in central Asia claimed the lives of my friends and left me riddled with anger, injury, and shame, stealing years away from my family. Every day is a conscious effort to manage the impact of it. I thank God for reclaiming my damaged heart and for renewing the family I almost lost on a battlefield so far away.
Like so many other American veterans, my heart broke as I watched innocent and terrified Afghans desperate to flee the Taliban’s cruelty after the country fell. How awful it was to see people’s terror drive them to cling to American aircraft as they lifted off toward freedom.
Their fear was justified — rooted in a painful understanding of the Taliban’s oppressive ideology. We’ve all seen what the Taliban are capable of doing. We know that religious abuse creates extremism and that extremists stop at nothing to satisfy their mandates, especially when enabled by the most advanced arms and equipment of warfare on the planet — our equipment.
This is sad, infuriating, and perhaps shameful, but this is not our shame to hold. We accepted the burden of executing US policy, and we operated in earnest amid an impossible situation. There is no shame in that.
When I reflect upon the hundreds of daily decisions we made over there — some life-or-death — to guard and serve the people of the United States and the people of Afghanistan, I can be satisfied. Most of those decisions ended with us not pulling the trigger, though we could have. We often showed restraint while completing our missions — a true sign of power. And when we needed to pull the trigger, we did — a testament to our discipline.
That is a source of pride in our efforts and something to remember when haunted by the Afghanistan I see when I close my eyes or by the Afghanistan we saw collapse on the news before us. We can remain proud of our service while disappointed by this outcome. We did our duty. Shame would have us enmesh the two, tormenting our thoughts and our souls. Shame is the muck that evil uses to turn us against ourselves and away from one another.
I reject the evil that wants me to feel ashamed.
I reject that voice telling me that it was all for nothing. That Jay, Dave, Kris, James, Brian, Lance, and everyone else’s brothers and sisters died for nothing. That the injuries we sustained were for nothing. That the sacrifices my family made were for nothing. And that I am a failure because this war is a failure.
That evil and insidious lie aims to isolate us from one another with the intention to kill, steal, and destroy our souls. God help us remember that our service is connected to, yet not bound up with the outcomes of this war; nor is our service bound up with the decisions of policymakers. I didn’t serve to satisfy policymakers, and I never asked their permission to fight for our country in the first place. Did you?
Why did we serve? Why did we fight?
I fought to defend the weak, the downtrodden, and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. Psalm 82:4.
I fought for my country, my loved ones, and for my brothers and sisters on my left and right.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:13.
I fought for a better life — to be a part of something greater than myself.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. Matthew 16:25.
And if you have any dust in your bones from Afghanistan, having served to the best of your ability there too, I’m willing to bet you also fought for honorable reasons. I am proud to have served with you. I am proud of you.
We can be proud of what we did while saddened by the final outcome of the war. There is more than one truth to this situation. It’s complex, and we have to acknowledge that. I am proud of my service to our country, and I am disappointed at how this war has been mismanaged. I am disappointed by our poor withdrawal from Afghanistan, and I am happy that we have finally withdrawn.
I feel helpless, but I am not hopeless.
That sense of helplessness takes me back to the war; I felt helpless then as I did watching our chaotic withdrawal. A few rotations in, I couldn’t really answer why we were there, and I was determined to win the war.
Today, with helplessness and hopefulness stirred in my heart, I am actively rejecting the shame that tells me I am a failure. Though the Afghanistan of my memories and the Afghanistan on the news ignite the inside of me with anger, fear, sadness, and horror, I have to see this clearly. I have to differentiate my efforts in the war and my self-worth from the results in Afghanistan.
I did the best I could with what I had. I’m confident that everyone else involved did too.
I care deeply now, and I accept my limitations.
I am not sitting on my hands doing nothing. I am doing what I can do — loving others as I have been loved while grieving for the innocent people of Afghanistan and my fellow veterans who gave much for their betterment.
Today, I pray for justice, peace, and renewal.
I pray for the people of Afghanistan, while reaching out to my family, my friends, and the people I served with. I pray for all who served in this war. I hope you are connected. If not, please reach out today.
If you are buried under the weight of that bastard shame as it tries to trick you into believing you are a failure and torments you with thoughts of hurting yourself — don’t. Please call a friend or loved one, or call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255.
Today, I am recognizing my limitations and fighting the good fight.
Afghanistan. I surrender.
Shame, get back!
But The Lord has been my fortress
and my God the rock of my refuge.
He will repay them for their wickedness,
and will annihilate them in their evil.
The Lord our God will annihilate them.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2021 print edition of Coffee or Die Magazine as “Afghanistan. I Surrender.”