Taliban takeover of Afghanistan brings complicated feelings for US military veterans

Former Navy SEAL predicts Taliban will control Afghanistan within three months

Former Navy SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden Rob O’Neill reacts to a report that the U.S. military is expected to send in forces to help with the evacuation of embassy staff.

U.S. Army veteran Sean Lee wasn’t necessarily surprised to see the Taliban sweep across Afghanistan during the past week. Instead, he was surprised at his own subdued reaction.

"I’m far more apathetic than I thought I would be," said the retired Sergeant First Class. "I did not have the hope for Afghanistan that I did for Iraq."

In the past week the Taliban have swept through the country, taking control of every provincial capital. On Sunday, the Taliban captured the capital city of Kabul, sending Afghan President Ashraf Ghani into exile and prompting the U.S. Embassy to evacuate.

Many veterans are left wondering if it was all worth it, and the answer isn’t always clear.

Some have wanted the U.S. to pull out of the country for years, while others would have supported a continued U.S. presence indefinitely. But many seem to agree that ending America’s longest conflict by apparently capitulating to the Taliban isn’t the way they wanted to see the U.S. leave Afghanistan.

AFTER MORE THAN $2 TRILLION SPENT BY THE US, AFGHANISTAN IS FALLING BACK TO THE TALIBAN

Mr. Lee recalled his deployments over the course of a career—once to Afghanistan and three times to Iraq, including during the initial invasion in 2003—and remembered that while there he connected with the people and sensed in Baghdad that the Iraqi people were regaining lives that seemed to have been put on hold under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

When he was in Afghanistan for nine months in 2012, he didn’t see any of those positive signs among the mostly rural people.

"It was like apples trying to talk to oranges, we have absolutely no understanding of their culture and lifestyle," he said.

While at the platoon level he felt his troops did their jobs, there was never a sense of higher-level success. Instead, it felt like the war reached its apex soon after the 2001 invasion and quick U.S.-led victories. Then it just slowly unraveled, he said.

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As America’s longest war draws down, the men and women who fought there are dealing with a reality many have expected for years, though few anticipated would happen so quickly over the past few weeks.

In 20 years of war, some 800,000 American troops served in the country with more than 2,000 killed in the conflict and tens of thousands wounded.

Kevin Brewington has been happy to see the U.S. pull out over the past few years, tired of seeing troops get injured in a war that accomplished what he thought of as the big goal of finding Osama bin Laden, the former al Qaeda leader and mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"What are we going to do, stay in another 20 years?" said the former Army paratrooper.

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He lost both his legs when he stepped on a 20-pound IED in Panjwai, part of Kandahar province, in 2011. But he was able to keep his injured arm.

"They call it a salvaged arm," he said. "Kinda like you’d salvage a vehicle."

The worst part about his double amputation, he said, was that it prevented him from making a career out of serving in the Army. He’d do it all again, if he had the chance.

"I’ve never been one to hold a resentment for what happened, it was part of the job," he said. "I tend to want to think we did some good and protected some village people and were on the good guy’s side. On the terrorist side, hopefully we took out as many as we could."

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Geoffrey Quevado was sitting at a bar during a recent fishing trip with a wounded warrior-support organization, sipping on a Long Island ice tea when news of the Afghanistan drawdown and Taliban resurgence came on the TV.

"I said, ‘Dude, can we change this?’ " he recalled. "Call it therapy or whatever, but I just didn’t want to see it."

He was a private in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division back in 2011, walking point on patrols with a mine detector to find IEDs when he and another soldier found a bomb that then went off, taking off his left leg below the knee and his arm right above the elbow.

He’s glad the U.S. is pulling out of Afghanistan after all these years, but his hope is that the final evacuation doesn’t lead to chaos and bloodshed for the final batch of Americans and their allies.

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"I’m hoping there’s not going to be another Benghazi," he said, referring to the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Libya.

Mr. Quevado said it is bittersweet to think about this as the way a 20-year war ends, and while he felt he and his fellow soldiers were making a small, positive change when he was deployed, it has always been frustrating to have little feedback from the Afghans.

"The people could never express their thanks because they’d be betraying their own people," he said.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D., Mass.), a Marine combat veteran, directly addressed his fellow veterans Sunday night in a statement.

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"To our Afghanistan veterans and their families, I am too honest to stand here today and try to convince you that your sacrifice was worth it," he said. "Others will forever ask that haunting question I heard too often from my own Marines in Iraq: ‘Why are we here?’ The best answer I could ever come up with was simply, ‘So nobody has to be here in our place,’ and while that was never an adequate answer, it is true."

Jordan Leitsch remembers sitting in eighth grade health class when Sept. 11 happened. As soon as he could, he signed up on an infantry contract and deployed to Helmand province with 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.

"I can’t believe we drew out forces when we did," he said. But that drawdown didn’t begin last week as far as he’s concerned; it began when President Barack Obama announced intentions to pull forces from the country a decade ago.

"I want someone to tell me now why we went," he said of his deployment. "If your job was making a part, like an engine part, and 10 years later you find out that, hey, we haven’t needed that part this entire time."

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The final, quick withdrawal hurts him to watch, he said, because Afghanistan is being left in shambles.

"We pride ourselves that America is a force to be reckoned with, that we have a backbone and know how to use it," he said. "We aren’t doing it."

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