Stephen Caldwell hugs his father, the namesake of his newborn son, after returning home from Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of the author.

‘I Daydreamed About Being a Hero’

Afghanistan fell this week.

It wasn’t a surprise to most of us, at least to the veterans. What surprised us was how fast it happened. I don’t know what Afghanistan came to mean to me. I’ve tried to figure out my “why?” When I came home, I had a hard time. I felt ashamed about that. It wasn’t supposed to be hard—it wasn’t a hard deployment in many regards. We had people wounded, but no one died; we didn’t face a tremendous amount of combat; most never feared for their lives except in a general sense. … And  yet I couldn’t relax.

The author and Sgt. Owen Gavagan, a machine gunner who works as a firefighter in his civilian career, as they wait to go out on a foot patrol.

The author and Sgt. Owen Gavagan, a machine gunner who works as a firefighter in his civilian career, as they wait to go out on a foot patrol. Photo courtesy of the author.

My dreams were haunted, and sometimes still are. I couldn’t articulate what happened. I went to see a war movie, and I had a complete meltdown in the theater, leaving me embarrassed and upset. What right did I have to react this way to coming home? I had all my limbs, no Americans I served with died, I was never in a firefight. Why was it so hard?

When I was younger, I dreamed of adventure. I wanted to be a self-sacrificing hero who did what was right in spite of the odds. History was my passion, and I dreamed of being a Davy Crockett or a Daniel Boone, or that I was standing shoulder to shoulder with King Leonidas at Thermopylae or low-crawling up the beaches of Iwo Jima. It made sense: I was an awkward child with no physical gifts, aside from my height.

Of course I daydreamed about being a hero.

I watched the news, but I had the impression the wars being fought while I was growing up weren’t all that exciting. In my mind, they didn’t compare to World War II. If I was going to go—I wanted to go—I wanted guaranteed action and bad guys to hunt down. Playing policeman in Iraq didn’t seem interesting to me. In college, I bought the book Generation Kill, and I was shocked. There was a war, there was constant combat and danger, and there I was, awkwardly sitting in my room, avoiding roommates I couldn’t stand, and working shifts at a Burger King between classes at a local college where I studied history because it was the only subject I was good at and could stand to sit in a class for.

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I began to train to join the military. I decided it would be the Marines: If I was going to go, I was going to go—I wasn’t going to half-ass it this time. I was so out of shape. I’d ballooned up to 230 pounds, and I couldn’t do 10 push-ups or run a mile. I got a new job loading boxes at FedEx. I began running with an Army veteran at 4:30 in the morning, and, when his schedule changed, four in the morning. I got ready to go to war. My mission to join was kicked into overdrive when someone I’d known when I was younger was killed in Afghanistan. He was 19 and had been in-country for less than a month.

I joined. I went to boot camp on Parris Island, South Carolina. I had an infantry contract and became a machine gunner. I was good at it and proud of that. I was convinced I was going to war. And then I didn’t. I was a reservist. It only sounded good on paper.

The author watches the sun set while on a security patrol on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan.

The author watches the sun set while on a security patrol on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of the author.

I was partway through college, and I would be able to finish my degree. Then I could become an officer, if I wanted. It sounded great. In my mind, I would go to war, and when I came home, I’d come home. I wouldn’t have to deal with the day-to-day of the military in the rear. Who cares about uniform inspections, anyway? Up until that point in the war, the military was so tapped out that they deployed reservists with rapid frequency.

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The year I joined, that changed. Troop levels went down, the war in Iraq ended. I was left showing up once a month to train for a war that I never knew if I would fight in.

My friends went. The ones on active duty deployed multiple times. Good men, in 1st Battalion, 8th Marines; 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines; and mostly 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines. All the machine gunners I went with to the school of infantry went to 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines. They all saw combat. They posted videos of themselves on the news, or of their motto videos at the end of their deployments. They got to measure themselves in the crucible of fire. They had a better sense of what kind of men they were. They wouldn’t be ashamed when their grandchildren asked them about their wartime service.

The author with Sgt. Cheick Diop, a mortarman, as they get ready for a mounted patrol in Afghanistan. Diop works as a police officer as a civilian.

The author with Sgt. Cheick Diop, a mortarman, as they get ready for a mounted patrol in Afghanistan. Diop works as a police officer for his civilian job. Photo courtesy of the author.

I don’t know how or why, but I always knew there would be something more for me to do. As the war wound down and combat operations ground to a halt, I knew I wasn’t done. I don’t know why I had this peace, but I felt like God reassured me that I joined for a purpose. Slowly the war ramped back up again. The military got involved in Iraq and Syria again, and when Trump took over as president, he had a decision to make about Afghanistan: He decided to add more troops. A group of Marines went to Helmand to advise the Afghans and prevent the fall of the province to the Taliban.

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One of my friends went, and then another. I waited for the rug to be pulled out from under me. I kept waiting for it to be a lie—they always lied to us, always told us a deployment was right around the corner. They’d told me that for nearly eight years. I was afraid to tell my family, afraid to tell my friends. Afraid to admit to myself how badly I wanted it. It was going to hurt even more when I didn’t go; it was going to be another embarrassment. I was so afraid of it not happening.

Then it happened.

I don’t know how to express how proud I am of going—how I view it as such a significant achievement in my life, how I would have felt incomplete if I hadn’t gone. I feel guilty saying that, but this was going to be one of the defining experiences of my life, and I knew it would set me apart. I hoped it would give me insight and wisdom, and that it would make every day after a little bit more significant. I would get to be a part of a chapter of history.

Jack wandered on to the author’s base one day. His ears had been cut off, and he was so loyal to the author’s platoon commander that he would sometimes walk next to him on patrol. Photo courtesy of the author.

I got to lead a squad of Marines, sometimes imperfectly, but I did my best, and I’ll stand by that as one of the things I’m most proud of.

When I was 19, war represented adventure and a way to prove myself. At 29, it was a challenge to be overcome, and an opportunity to lead men I loved as much as my family. It was an opportunity to serve beside some of the best people I’ll ever know. Now, at 31… I don’t know. It makes me feel like an outsider. Like there’s layers to me that aren’t there in other people, and that they don’t understand and are intimidated by. It’s the expectant eyes as someone asks me how many people I killed, hoping for a war story that I know can never live up to their Hollywood expectations. It’s friendly fire and Afghan officials stealing money. It’s a girl caught in barbed wire, screaming. The more she struggles, the more tangled she gets. It’s Marines getting shot at, and the fire not being reported because the area of operations was “secured.” It’s your friend being blown up and the sound of his screams as you struggle through the smoke to his body. It’s him saying to tell his wife he’s sorry, because he thinks he’s about to die and blames himself. It’s knowing that he’s never met his youngest son. It’s sleeping with your rifle and kit in arm’s reach and waking up to the sound of the rockets that were intended to hit your base hitting the city nearby. Killing a little girl. It’s the rage in the voice of an officer as he’s told to turn over the boy to the Afghan Police who says he was raped by the Afghan police so they can investigate it because it’s a local matter. It’s never seeing the boy again. It’s meeting a young radio operator, who laughs and is full of smiles, and him being blown up after less than a week in-country and never able to walk on his own again.

The author’s squad at the edge of their landing zone shortly before leaving Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of the author.

It’s volunteering to go back while you’re awaiting your ride out of the country, because your replacements were attacked and you know they’re short-staffed. It’s tackling an Afghan because his vehicle is misidentified as carrying an improvised explosive device. It’s approaching another Afghan to search him, and then laughing afterward that if he had been wearing a suicide vest, we’d all be dead anyway, so I’d rather do that than shoot him.

It’s a dog with his ears cut off we named Jack, whom we always gave food to, and whom I regret not bringing home at least once a week. It’s loneliness, and sadness, and confusion.

Stephen Caldwell hugs his father, the namesake of his newborn son, after returning home from Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of the author.

Stephen Caldwell hugs his father, the namesake of his newborn son, after returning home from Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of the author.

And now it feels like it was for nothing, because there’s the shame of knowing that my war was lost. Those who helped us are in danger of dying. The history books won’t talk about our bravery; they’ll talk about our miscalculations. It was more than just a personal journey, and now I’m wise enough to know that.

If it wasn’t for Afghanistan, I don’t know if I would have that wisdom.

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Stephen Caldwell

Stephen Caldwell served in the Marine Corps Reserve from 2011 to December 2019. He served as an infantry machine gunner and deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. He has a bachelor’s degree in history and political science, as well as a master’s in education. He’s an avid reader, and his favorite authors are Sebastian Junger and Cormac McCarthy. He teaches middle school social studies and lives in Connecticut with his wife, newborn son, and two dogs.

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