After Afghanistan: Veterans open up about U.S. military withdrawal

Published: Sep. 8, 2021 at 8:29 PM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - “On my orders. The United States military has begun strikes against Al Qaeda terrorist training camps, and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.”

On October 7, 2001, just shy of a month after the September 11 attacks, President George W Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom.

It was a broad war, not against the country but a concept: terrorism.

At that point, Americans were familiar with Iraq, but as the U.S. hunted Osama Bin Laden and sought to eliminate the Al Qaeda threat, we quickly became familiar with Afghanistan, and the war there would claim in the lives of nearly 2,500 U.S. service members.

“I didn’t want to see that type of fear. I wanted to go do something about it at its root,” said Army veteran Jakob Spraggins.

Spraggins, Navy veteran Aaron Rollins, and Marine veteran Rolando Hernandez, all served in Afghanistan.

“We’d go patrolling the areas. We were dismantling IEDs. We would meet with the people and meet with the farmers, and then also help train with the Afghan National Army,” said Hernandez.

Rollins said, “I was part of a medically embedded training team and as a Navy corpsman myself, I was qualified to teach field medicine, and combat medicine fundamentals to the Afghan Army, police.”

Spraggins told us, “We were in a small town and our job was to set up and establish a regional government, and to help maintain a force there after we left.”

They worked alongside Afghan nationals.

Hernandez said, “my translator, as I told you before, his name, they couldn’t use a real name so his name was John Rambo. John was a very unique person. But he got the job done whenever we needed help.”

“We worked pretty closely with some Afghan National Army and police figures and one of them was an instructor for the course that we were helping them maintain.

His name was Akhmed if I remember correctly, he was a really, really solid dude,” Rollins recalled.

And they got to learn about them, their way of life and their world.

Rollins said, “encountering these people that live off bags of rice, and they make their own bread in some sort of oven that they’ve made by hand. You know, they live with clothes that they’ve spun themselves, they live off the livestock that they raise, it really is a different world. And you, you respect it because it’s, it’s so austere but it’s also disciplined and dignified.”

Now these veterans are worried about the future for those left behind.

At the same time, they know the cost of long term commitments all too well, and what the future may have looked like if the U.S. chose to do it again.

“Once it is planted and can never be killed. But you’re pretty much asking indefinite. You can’t go into a place and expect to change an entire culture, especially when it’s been around for thousands of years,” Spraggins said.

Rollins added, “it would have to end up with a situation like we have bases in Germany, Japan, England, we would need a permanent base there, you know, and people willing to support it.”

Now 20 years after the war in Afghanistan first began, a Taliban controlled country remains where a fledgling democracy once stood.

Rollins said, “I personally felt that we should have stayed longer, we should have been spending our money more wisely, and we should have had a lot better planning.

But they do not believe their efforts were for nothing.

Spraggins said, “If a doctor works on a cancer patient for 20 years, and that cancer patient after 20 years of work finally passes, does that doctor chop up 20 years and say he lost, or does that doctor say ‘hey, I gave that guy 20 years.’ Yeah, I think we had a huge impact there.”

Now there are some 800,000 U.S. veterans who served in Afghanistan processing what they’ve seen unfold and what they experienced.

Hernandez explained, “when I first heard about it before I saw anything, I said well you know that’s good. I’m glad we’re glad we’re finally getting out. But then when I saw how we’re getting out, I got to see some pictures of the stuff we left behind. And you know right there was a gut punch. I’m like, how the heck are we leaving this stuff, you know? Now that it’s been done, what can we do? You know, hopefully we have a plan to figure it out how we can stop any further loss of our equipment, of our people, and help out the Afghanistan people that are stuck or left behind.

When asked what they want Americans to know about the sacrifice by the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Spraggins said, “that it’s continuing. Just because the war is over doesn’t mean they came back. I lost one of my really good friends last year because the fight never left him. That sacrifice is continuing because it’s within the hearts and minds of everybody who was there.”

Still the thoughts of these veterans turned to the people of Afghanistan.

And they hope sense can be made out of the world people in the country find themselves in now.

Rollins said, “my hope is that they can come to a place where they don’t have to live in fear every day because there’s so much evil going on over there. My hope is that something happens that they can take all that training that we gave, and all that equipment that’s left behind and they can rally up and fight back against their oppressors.”

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