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Watching Afghanistan Fall Reminds These Veterans Of Who They Left Behind

U.S. soldiers enter a compound for a security meeting in Shah Joy District, Zabul Province, Afghanistan in the fall of 2010.
Alex Dudley
U.S. soldiers enter a compound for a security meeting in Shah Joy District, Zabul Province, Afghanistan in the fall of 2010.

Timothy Griffin has been having a lot of long nights.

"I probably have not slept since it happened," Griffin says, "since I woke up and the headline was Afghan president flees the country, Taliban are in Kabul."

Griffin did a tour in Afghanistan under an Obama-era program where he learned Pashto to help the Americans better communicate with Afghans. He was stationed out of Fort Campbell, an Army base outside of Nashville, Tenn.

He says he hasn't been sleeping so that he can bridge the time difference with the translators he worked with during his tour.

"Some of them are trapped in Kabul trying to get on one of those planes," he says. "Some of them are, unfortunately, too far away from Kabul to even attempt to get out."

Griffin has been trying to put their names in front of politicians and the U.S. State Department — anyone who could help them escape.

"We decided to completely abandon them"

He says his heartbreak about what is happening in Afghanistan is eclipsed by worry for those translators.

Even though he believes it was time to withdraw, he wishes more could have been done for the people being left behind.

Griffin says there is a "weird duality" in the way people assume there were only two options with Afghanistan: stay 20 more years, or abandon the country.

"We decided to completely abandon them," even though, as he puts it, there were "a million other options."

This is a familiar refrain for veterans who served in Afghanistan: More could have been done.

They walk around with constant reminders of their service — a list of physical injuries from what they did, or emotional scars from what they saw and who they lost. Now, those wounds feel fresh again as they watch two decades of work unravel in days.

"It's a little hard not to be cynical," says Alex Dudley, a veteran who spent six months in Zabul Province in 2010.

Dudley lives in Nashville now. When he heard the news, his thoughts turned to one of his friends and fellow soldiers who died years ago.

"If we hadn't been over there, he'd still be alive," Dudley says. "It's kind of hard to talk about."

He tears up, apologizing, and says his friend didn't die in combat.

"He did end up taking his own life," Dudley says. "The situation he was in, he would not have been there if we had not been in Afghanistan."

Remembering the good

Healthcare providers worry the government collapse in Afghanistan might push more veterans into crisis. They are encouraging those who served to seek help and to check in with one another.

That's what Dudley has been doing. If his friend were still alive, he believes he would probably feel the same way he does — let down.

"You feel like there was something else we could have done," he says. "But at the same time we've been there for 20 years, and I don't think another 20 years would have necessarily made a difference."

Students at a girls school in Shah Joy District, Zabul Province, Afghanistan where U.S. soldiers handed out school supplies in 2010.
/ Alex Dudley
Alex Dudley
Students at a girls school in Shah Joy District, Zabul Province, Afghanistan where U.S. soldiers handed out school supplies in 2010.

During his time in Afghanistan, Dudley carried his camera with him, taking photos. His images show little girls in brightly colored clothing, staring inquisitively at the camera. Their small hands grip the green pencils he handed out.

He laughs as he remembers helping one girl fend off a bully who was trying to take her pencil.

"Helping to provide those opportunities for those young girls...I definitely from time to time still think about that experience and wonder where those girls are," Dudley says. "Especially within recent events."

Those memories were once comforting, but now they're also a source of worry.

That's why veteran Ross Schambon prefers not to think about Afghanistan at all.

Leaving Afghanistan behind

"It was a complete waste," he says.

He criticizes President Biden for the withdrawal, saying he should have left more troops in place to stand up to the Taliban.

"They just kind of lay down. They're laying down for everything," Schambon says. "Whereas the previous president, he actually had a backbone."

Schambon has unsentimental opinions about the war. He says he has to.

He served in Afghanistan with the Rakkasans out of Fort Campbell and moved back to Glasgow, Ky., after his service. In his brigade combat team, he was a military sniper. He remembers watching from a mountain top as one of his fellow soldiers was hit by a mortar and died.

He is reminded of the things he saw with every step he takes — he has stress fractures in his legs, bone fragments in his knees, damage to his lower back and more. But he tries to ignore the pain and the memories, and move forward.

"I've got my kids to think about," he says. One is 6 and the other is 10 months. They are his future, he says.

The war is over, and no matter the outcome, he says he just wants to leave it in the past.

U.S. Veterans struggling with the news out of Afghanistan can talk to a counselor at the Veterans Crisis hotline. The number is 1-800-273-8255

Copyright 2021 WPLN News

Paige Pfleger is a reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.
Paige Pfleger