Like an aircraft struggling to move the weight of two decades’ worth of cargo, the news reports lurch forward in fits and starts. I recognize the familiar names—Lashkar Gah, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad, Helmand, Ghazni, Sheberghan, Bagram, and others—as the aircraft gains speed, well on its way to becoming an unstoppable mass hurtling toward the end of a runway and certain disaster.
Throngs flood the airport, faces bearing the familiar blend of hope and fear. I stare at the image of the tired, huddled masses in the belly of an aircraft, the soft interior glow revealing their relief and sadness, an unknown future scratching at the edges of known safety. I separately watch their checked baggage of fear fall away from the aircraft, listlessly returning to the Earth on the wings of gravity, an image that recalls a New York minute from almost 20 years ago.
And I feel numb, lost.
I returned from Afghanistan for the last time in 2018, but I think of it often. If not every day, then most days. I think about the friends made, and the teammates lost; the lighthearted moments, and the somber occasions; the lives saved, and the deaths caused; and nameless more. But some things can never find a way out, can never catch a flight, can never return. Those things are forever lost to geography and time.
Before leaving Bagram, I walked a dusty stretch of Disney Drive. As I passed shipping containers-turned-housing units and prefabricated buildings, a barbershop and crude gym, the hospital and Afghan bazaar, I wondered what might happen to all of it after we departed. Would the Afghans maintain the infrastructure investments, or would it all fall into disrepair, another pockmark on the landscape like the abandoned military equipment of empires past? The thought didn’t linger long then, but it returns now alongside grief, some of the cargo carried by that overloaded aircraft.
With the fall of Bagram, and the whole of Afghanistan, comes a loss of self. It’s a sentiment I suspect many veterans of that war can understand.
There’s an ocean of difference between what is and what once was, between the soldier who deploys and the soldier who returns. Though the causes may differ, the effect is the same: We all leave some part of ourselves over there. And so, identity hangs on the precipice of purpose. We sacrificed, our families sacrificed, and we want to believe those sacrifices had meaning. We want to believe the missed births and deaths, birthdays and anniversaries, holidays and celebrations, anxiety and strain were worthwhile. We want to believe the torn limbs and shattered minds served a greater good. We want to believe the losses of sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers at the hands of the enemy—whether without or within—weren’t in vain. We left wanting to believe. Instead, with the fall of Afghanistan, we are left believing that what remains are lives lost, blood spilled, minds haunted, suicides still.
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So, for the moment, I’m grieving. I’m grieving for Afghanistan, for those unable to escape a Taliban future stuck in the past; for the everyday Afghan who desires little more than peace and security, for a marginally better quality of life hard-won, but easily lost; for the women and young girls who will again suffer under draconian rule, denied basic rights, liberties, and self-determination; for Afghan partners who fought by our sides and now face Taliban injustice. I’m grieving for the Afghan dead and their families; for the victims of the cowardly and indiscriminate extremist attacks; for the innocent victims of my participation in that war and, if I’m honest in my base humanity, the guilty ones too. And, perhaps above all, I’m grieving for the families of those who made the ultimate sacrifice under our nation’s banner; for those who sacrificed relationships and dreams, love and happiness, time and attendance at the altar of duty; for those who never came home whole—whether physically, mentally, or spiritually.
But I’m also grieving for me. Like the wraiths of soldiers’ former selves interred behind the Hesco barriers of far-flung combat outposts and concrete T-walls of more developed bases, part of me never returned from that war. I once was what I am not now. And perhaps that’s what makes watching the Taliban’s resurgence so painful: That part of me—of who I once was—can never return. He remains trapped in a wasteland among the violence, the corruption, the infuriating return to Taliban rule; forever fated to wander the ghost town with the itinerant souls of the living and dead in search of purpose and lost time.
And I’m struggling. I’m struggling to sift through the overwhelming and frequently conflicting emotions I feel watching that plane hurtle toward the end of the runway without me. I’m struggling with what it means when a part of me can never come home. I’m struggling with how to process the disjointedness that comes with an identity split asunder across physical and metaphysical spaces, with moving forward into a future when part of me lingers in the past.
In working through it all, I am reminded of a line from Alfred Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses”: “Tho’ much is taken, much abides.” We can never recover the part of us left behind in Afghanistan. We can never recover the lost time. We can never resurrect the dead, replace lost limbs, or even remove from our rucks the full weight of mental and spiritual baggage we carry. The losses are great. Yet much of who we were before remains who we are now. And while I don’t know with certainty, something tells me that the answer to this struggle is in grieving the loss of those parts taken.
This grieving cannot be done alone, though. It must be done as a community. Not just as a community of veterans, but as a whole. Because the loss suffered is more than an individual one, more than a loss for the families affected. It’s a collective loss for our nation—a loss of years, of youth and innocence, of loved ones in part and in whole. It must be a loss ingrained in our national consciousness, one recognized not through, “Thank you for your service,” but rather, “I’m sorry for your loss, for our loss.”
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Only by grieving the part of us that never made it on an aircraft can we accept that which was beyond our control, and find comfort in knowing we did our best for those we loved on our left and right. Grieving won’t replace what’s left behind, or provide purpose or meaning. But perhaps it will allow each of us to finally move forward, comfortable in the new us. Because, as Lord Tennyson concluded:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.