Washington, DC, United States – In three tours in Afghanistan, Marine Corps Lt Colonel Natalie Trogus worked with thousands of Afghan women to help build a future for their war-torn country.
“We saw a lot of recent advancements in women’s rights,” a frustrated Trogus said in an interview.
“Now, we’ve abandoned them,” said Trogus whose efforts to warn her superiors at the Pentagon what would happen when the United States pulled out of Afghanistan were frustrated.
“We’ve abandoned our own principles. We’ve abandoned our own law. We’ve abandoned our strategy,” Trogus told Al Jazeera.
Trogus is one of more than 800,000 Americans who served in Afghanistan for whom the sudden fall of Kabul to the Taliban and chaotic evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies has triggered painful emotions.
Veterans across the US reacted as the Taliban rolled into Kabul unopposed and many reached out to each other for support and remembrances of fallen comrades. Many are struggling with doubts about what they were fighting for, why their friends died, and whether it was all useless. Afghans they fought with are now at risk of revenge killings and attacks by the Taliban.
Some are coping to compartmentalise their experiences, acknowledging they were sent to do a job even as they remember losing friends and seeing Afghans suffer.
Matt Helder was a young lieutenant in a US Army 2nd Infantry Division artillery battery in Kandahar in 2012. His best friend Sean was killed by an IED bomb planted by a road.
Now, watching images of the Taliban take over Kabul “has been surreal but not completely unexpected”, said Helder, 33, who recalls seeing weaknesses of the Afghan army.
“We were taking one step forward and two steps back. We were there for a year and then we’d hand it off to the next group,” Helder told Al Jazeera.
The US lost 2,448 servicemen and servicewomen and 3,846 contractors killed in a war that cost upwards of $2 trillion and which now appears to many soldiers to have been largely a failure. More than 20,000 US soldiers were injured.
“I am unbelievably proud of the guys I worked with and I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Helder said.
Adam Weinstein, a former Marine, coordinated air attacks in 2012 for Australian special forces clearing the Taliban out of remote mountain valleys.
From perches on the sides of peaks above, Weinstein could see the battles unfolding below and witnessed the mountains shake when the bombs and missiles hit.
“Sitting back as a young Marine on a mountain, you think, ‘Wow, we have fixed-wing, rotary-wing aircraft flying overhead right now, and we have some of the best-trained soldiers in the valley below, and it’s really just to chase out a few Taliban in this incredibly remote corner of Kandahar’,” Weinstein recalled in an interview.
For Weinstein at the time, it did not make sense. Now 32, he works for a think-tank in Washington, DC, and has come to the view the US should withdraw from Afghanistan.
“The dysfunction we’re seeing in this withdrawal is a continuation of the dysfunction we’ve seen throughout the entire war effort,” Weinstein told Al Jazeera.
“It’s metaphor for the entire war effort, which is that our predictions are never completely correct. We think we have more control over the situation than we do,” he said.
Reflecting on their service, veterans of Afghanistan described a conflicting mix of powerful emotions ranging from disappointment to embarrassment and even shame, tempered in the end by pride.
Curtis Grace deployed twice with the US Army, first as an infantryman in Kandahar in 2012 and later as a helicopter pilot in 2017.
“I was very focused on making sure the guys to my left and right, or below me when I was flying, were good to go,” Grace, now 33, told Al Jazeera.
“I don’t feel like it was wasted. We gave the Afghan people 20 years of relative peace and prosperity.”
The Afghan government troops Grace worked with in 2012 were mostly Uzbeks, he said, who had little interest in contesting the territory they were assigned to.
Later in 2017, Grace fought with “incredibly professional, super competent” Afghans in the Khost Protection Force that gave him hope the Afghans would defend themselves after the US eventually left.
Lack of support
But as Afghan forces began to collapse in recent months, it became clear the central government was not providing adequate support, he said.
“We got info when Panjwayi fell back in July that they fought until they were out of food and water and then they had to leave,” said Grace, who produces a podcast on US soldiers’ stories from Panjwayi.
Amid an epidemic of suicides among veterans returned from Afghanistan and Iraq, the Defense Health Agency is now fielding hundreds of requests from across the US military for mental health support, an official said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who served as an officer in the US Army until retiring in 2016 and commanded US forces in Afghanistan, acknowledged the pain US veterans are feeling as they struggle to reconcile 20 years of fighting the Taliban with its return to power.
“I know that these are difficult days for those who lost loved ones in Afghanistan and for those who carry the wounds of war,” Austin said in public remarks at the Pentagon on August 18.
“Afghan war veterans aren’t some monolith. I’m hearing strong views from all sides on this issue. And that’s probably the way that it should be,” Austin said.