My stepfather, brother, and I served in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are still there, frozen in the suck—a boomer, a Gen Xer, and a millennial—ducking mortars, mourning dead colleagues, and waiting for care packages curated by Mom. For seven years, I was an aid worker outside the wire and embedded with the U.S. military inside the wire. In the mid-2000s, I overlapped with one or both of my family members in each war zone. We rarely speak of it.
In my multigenerational, vast military family, “the suck” strained the bonds of love and commitment. Our individual experiences, worldview, and the impact of the wars upon us differed such that only silence maintains family cohesion. In sleep, we cry out what we cannot express in daylight, fighting our way out of the same village, the same valley, the same unarmored aid project pickup truck, again and again.
In the summer of 2021, bearded Taliban fighters swaggered from the shadows where they’d been governing secretly for decades and into the presidential palace to make their takeover official. Commentators in America lamented, “How did we come to this?” I didn’t ask that question. I sat alone in the dark sipping bourbon, staring out the window of my house in the African country where I now work. No one I served with asked that question as we texted our heartbreak. How else could the suck have possibly concluded? Yet still, the callouses of our collective cynicism didn’t buffer the gut punch of watching it unfold in real-time.
The two halves of the war blur together in a sandy haze of beige frustration. Iraq was bonkers, but Afghanistan was a special kind of hell. Iraq wore me down with unceasing explosions so regular the coffee tasted like plastic explosives by the time I departed. Afghanistan made me rethink my own nationalism and question the cognitive abilities of our elected officials. I arrived there in 2010 hoping that rural provinces were somewhat permissive, hoping that aid projects could have more success than in Iraq.
A USAID-funded project needed an aid worker to assist military personnel on a joint U.S.-Afghan army outpost in Nangarhar province, on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. I had completed an 18-month tour on an embedded provincial reconstruction team in Iraq, so they selected me for the job in Afghanistan. My task at the Nangarhar outpost was to cover for a colleague who departed on an extended absence. I didn’t ask why, but I suspected the kidnapping of aid worker Linda Norgrove pushed my colleague’s mental resilience to the limit, necessitating a break.
My helicopter transport to the outpost included a U.S. Army personnel recovery team on a search mission for Norgrove, who’d been employed on another American USAID-funded project when she was taken. Fresh from Iraq, I wasn’t surprised. Aid workers are easy to kidnap. I hoped Linda would be found alive, and I wondered if this helo ride would finally be the one that killed me. Too many deployments made a person paranoid—each helo or convoy could be the last. But in my military family, I couldn’t show my face at Thanksgiving or survive my own mirror test if fear prevented me from completing an assignment.
The voyage began at Bagram Airfield and progressed to the outpost in Nangarhar. As we lifted off, soldiers barked instructions familiar to me from many years in Iraq—do not move, talk, complain, make noise, pass out, get in the way, demonstrate a need for any bodily function, or act like a fragile civilian female snowflake. I acknowledged with a smile. “Roger that.”
As we flew toward Nangarhar province, we dropped in on mountain villages. The soldiers searched for Norgrove and distributed pamphlets. Rooted in my designated seat, each time the unit leaped from the open doors and sprinted off, I counted minutes. I scanned mountainsides and brush for hairy, bearded mujahideen with Kalashnikovs or rocket-propelled grenade launchers. When the unit jumped back into the Black Hawks, I counted soldiers. After six nerve-bending hours of mountaintop sorties without locating Norgrove, the Black Hawks touched down for half a minute on an empty gravel landing zone at a Nangarhar combat outpost. A soldier kicked my pack out behind me and shouted, “Thanks for not being a shitty civilian. Don’t get kidnapped,” then lifted off.
Within days I discovered the aid project that brought me to this remote outpost couldn’t move the needle forward in rural Afghanistan any more than we could move needles forward in Iraq. I reread 30 pages of handover notes. Our aid projects couldn’t brand materials or equipment as American taxpayer-funded. There could be no sticker with the handshake and quote “from the American people.” Association with America meant a swift, guaranteed death of project grantees and beneficiaries.
When I inquired about local municipal approval and improving community participation in projects, my Afghan counterparts said—in a tone indicating How many times do I have to explain this to ignorant Americans venturing outside of Kabul—that the municipal government had no real control over the area. The “shadow government,” the Taliban’s parallel governance structure, needed to “allow” any project to take place in any area, or they’d attack the project site, the grantee, and the community beneficiaries. I put my head down on the plywood desk, defeated. Shadow government? Awesome. Same shit, different war zone.
When soldiers and I ventured out of the rural Nangarhar outpost on foot to meet with Afghan officials, they received us with polite rudeness, commanding painted tea boys to serve chai as they scowled at us across a low table. As in Iraq, visits from Americans marked Afghan counterparts for reprisal. We talked in circles through an interpreter whom they refused to look in the eye.
While we were hiking to a nearby town with soldiers to discuss the rehabilitation of local government buildings, kids threw rocks at us until I let down a waist-long braid from under my Kevlar helmet, my femaleness providing cover for the soldiers closest to me. Those in the rear took rocks in the face until we exited the town. At another meeting, the “shadow government” stepped into the day shift when the mayor looked at the Army captain to my right and asked why he brought a woman and a piece of shit (our Afghan interpreter’s eyes were slanted, his accent wasn’t local).
Two thoughts occurred to me in that moment. Go fuck yourself, Mr. Taliban—and, If a soldier and an aid worker meet Taliban shadow government officials like it’s cool, we’ve lost the whole damn war.
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The Taliban shadow government, like the militias in Iraq, circled our aid projects and military outposts like sharks, sinking in their teeth on occasion, reminding us of their presence. Every project and village we assessed and placed on our stability continuum charts fell back into the red one after the other. In Nangarhar, the Taliban collected a protection tax from the population, surveilled aid projects, and took control of, or ruined, most of what any project managed to accomplish. The Taliban, like militias in Iraq, happily claimed new wells, rehabilitated clinics, and better roads, and blew up girls’ schools and women’s nursing colleges. Back in Iraq, soon, the black flags of ISIS would fly over many other USAID project locations.
In Nangarhar, locals unleashed their fury on the first American they could. For every Afghan grateful for the assistance provided, others spat at us because a drone strike or military operation killed their family members at a wedding, in their fields, at a funeral, or while they were driving down the road. Afghan kids had a name for our drones—buzzbuzzak. If children heard that unmistakable buzzing sound, they became inconsolable. Walking back to the outpost from one meeting, while kids shouted “buzzbuzzak” at us and chucked rocks, I asked the soldier ahead of me, “Captain. What the actual fuck are we doing here?”
Never taking his eye off the path ahead, he said, “Ma’am, I was gonna ask you the same thing.”
At the outpost in Nangarhar, we received incoming rockets or mortars every other night, with no sign of the glossy Kabul-like progress, no women graduating from colleges on the nearby Afghanistan-Pakistan border, no cappuccinos in cafes. One night, I bear-crawled from the female shower latrine to a bunker during a rocket attack, soaking wet and fully clothed because I always washed myself and my clothing in the shower. Covered in soap, I clutched a switchblade given to me by my Marine stepfather under my jacket sleeve, blade against my soapy wrist. Next to me, a shaking Army boot lieutenant, smooth-cheeked and barely out of college, held his weapon at low ready. A senior enlisted soldier, older and insubordinate under fire, commanded the young lieutenant to stay put and guard me, the only female civilian in the outpost, while all remaining soldiers manned the outpost perimeter. I contemplated suicide instead of captivity. I sure as hell wasn’t going to accept an extended slumber party with the Haqqani All-Stars.
Linda Norgrove didn’t survive. Aid workers died when captured in the suck, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and later, Syria. I’d given Iraq seven years of my youth. I decided not to waste what remained in Afghanistan. I completed my duties and refused follow-on assignments to Kandahar. I supported the program from Washington, D.C., and conducted the project close-out after-action review years later. I didn’t return to Afghanistan. But our military counterparts, like my stepfather and brother, cousins, uncles, and family friends, didn’t get to choose to go home. For our men and women in uniform, refusing a bullshit assignment or asking our leaders to take responsibility led to losing rank, clearances, jobs, and benefits.
I know the havoc endless war with no outcome wreaks on a military family. Born the year after the Vietnam War ended, I suffered its aftermath in fists across my four- and five-year-old face. My mother, a veteran herself, cried many nights, broken on the floor, both of us at the mercy of an enraged two-tour Vietnam veteran. A few years later, I watched a stepfather, a towering hulk of a Marine, crying in front of the television as his fellow Marines pulled body parts from rubble in Beirut less than a day after he left that same barracks to catch a flight home. During the Gulf War and Somalia, I watched my mother anguish, my brothers act out, while yet another stepfather packed his gear in the garage. The divorces, wars, and military bases blurred together as they do in military families. In Afghanistan and Iraq, I wasn’t surprised to see the familiar suicide watch posters plastered everywhere. I’ve known since childhood that when people return from a deployment, military or civilian, they’re different. Some don’t make it.
As I continue to process the heinous conclusion of the forever wars, rage and nightmares haunt me, as distracting and painful as the weeks and months after my deployments ended. I’ve lost hours and days in emotional emails with colleagues and family members or overthinking our American anomalies. I’ve woken up yelling and thrashing as I held my infant daughter. I struggle with our American habit of turning victory upside down and the decades spent squandering our legacy and mind-fucking the men and women who fought for it. Now that it is over, and America has gained nothing for the effort, I check military suicide rates. There are no statistics for the aid workers and other civilians who deployed. I hear by word of mouth that they are dying, too.
Like my family and me, many of those who served bounced between forever war zones. We lost spouses, legs, custody of children, memories, and bits of skull. We returned to find we had less freedom than when we deployed. While we wasted our youth in the suck, the Supreme Court and certain state governments showed their appreciation with an epic Thanks for your service, but fuck you by gutting the Civil Rights Act, reducing rights and access to voting, and eliminating reproductive independence. Those of us who served represented America in the best way we could. We returned to a budding authoritarian state at war with itself, upending a lifetime of American ideals and freedoms that we carried with us into war because we believed them to be everlasting. When we returned, we didn’t recognize our own country.
The anger this generates is such that when anyone says “Thank you for your service” to anyone who served in the suck, resisting the urge to throat punch them is difficult. At best, it sounds like they are saying, “Thank you for a bit of lucky success, thank you for volunteering to be trapped in a nasty ideological-political experiment.” Thank you for surviving a 20-year bipartisan shitshow so they could stay home and train with a government-hating militia or play with the newest smartphone and eat avocado toast. The worst is a “thank you” with indifference from the politicians we voted for, who can’t bear to face mangled bodies, the twitch of trauma, or the poverty of a veteran.
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Civilians like me—the aid workers, diplomats, intelligence officers, and defense contractors—we box up our traumas, hide them behind a game face like military kids. We aren’t veterans; therefore, we aren’t permitted a sloppy PTSD breakdown or suicide. But we didn’t evade despair. We know the sum of loss from the 20-year forever wars is immeasurable, and contemplating it bends the brain into psychosis. All the years sacrificed, dead and disappeared Afghan and Iraqi colleagues, battle buddies and youth lost, wasted money, and squandered American reputation and global leverage.
It’s been 21 years since the invasion of Afghanistan, 20 years since the invasion of Iraq. I am not over it. My family is not over it. The United States is not over it. America’s been fighting the same war in different iterations since Vietnam, wrecking military personnel and federal employees along the way like we’re all expendable deep-state trash. Because this is what we do in America. We pause. We forget. Then we begin the next war.