Afghanistan | A Grammar of Regret

Afghanistan was my honeymoon. My husband and I moved our wedding forward when orders dropped for me to deploy, so I arrived a day before the 2010 elections. I had deployed to Iraq the previous year and spent the eve of my twenty-fifth birthday in the prone position during an indirect fire attack, certain death would come before midnight struck. As terrified as I was then, Afghanistan was a different creature altogether.

On my second day in country, I was assessing attacks across the eastern region—Regional Command-East—in my sector of responsibility as insurgents lit up election posts while droves turned out for the sake of democracy. We were thrilled by the indelible purple ink on the fingertips of voters; we were terrified, knowing what their actions could cost them. The number of troops in contact that day seemed astronomical. But what did I know?

A week later, a 107-millimeter mortar crossed the skyline with a tail reminiscent of a shooting star and impacted a nearby generator. I watched this from my room—my room built from stacked shipping containers pieced together by the lowest bidder—and I was left in the dark while the mass casualty alarms sounded for what seemed like hours. Though truly I was helpless to do anything if another one came and struck my four walls of flimsy metal, but I hunched in my bunk, unsure of anything and knowing that I wasn’t even in the thick of it.

That was my baptism in Afghanistan.

As time slurred, I would look out the bus that transported us around the base and see the empty eyes of the Afghan children by the fences, see the herders by the security outposts with their sheep. Some of the sheep were marked red for reasons I never learned but unsettled me all the same.

We were told we were doing something important. We believed in something—that we were helping the men, women, and children oppressed by extremist ideologies. And we thought we were making a difference, and it was pretty to think so at the time.

The country’s leadership wasn’t strong enough. The Taliban were only in hibernation—pushed back but not defeated. The people were not being heard, but this I wouldn’t come to understand until seven years later when I had sloughed active duty to learn where I fit in the world. People have called it the Forever War, and I had seen it materialize—saw the truth on the horizon. We would never win this without some radical shift in paradigms, in government responsibility. We didn’t know the answer.

Still—

Three years after I returned from Afghanistan, I was in graduate school but still in the Air Force Reserve. I never completely severed ties because, like my name, the military was a part of me and always will be. My Shakespeare professor learned of my military background when the subject of Afghanistan surfaced, and I cringed because these conversations often go in two directions: I am a patriot. I am a killer, though my intentions are always good. As I braced for the verbal slap, my professor beamed and exclaimed how vital this mission was. “The women and children!” she said. “If we don’t help them, who will?”

I think about that moment often.

And I have thought about this conversation over the years, and I have thought about it more over the last few days as the decision to finally sever our ties was made, and America made its exit swiftly. As the news that we cannot pull our eyes from revealed the happenings in Kabul, at the airports—the thousands of Afghans clambering for spots on planes—I saw the apocalyptic scenes, the last ship preparing to depart a dying planet.

I think of the families pressing their children forward, the people crippling the staircases. Eight hundred humans stuffed into a C-17 barreling across the tarmac.

I think of the aircraft in flight, the deep gray against an azure sky. The tiny specks that grew as they separated from the vessel. They were people like me because they aren’t anymore. Such is the grammar of regret.

What I have learned over my career is that the horrific never fades. Like a body shorn of face save a hovering jaw. The knife to the neck. The gelatinous remains post sticky bomb—hair, teeth, and eyeballs.

I cannot forget the sight of the freefall—suicide because they could choose it.

I am not alone in these thoughts. I fear for the soldiers witnessing this and ushering as many as they can into aircraft. This is the good they can do amid the other promises we could not deliver. And I, like many others who have served, are watching much of our life’s work unfold for naught, more connected with our predecessors in Saigon, broken for reasons we cannot express.

Alas, though, I do not know the answer to these cold equations. As I mentioned before, this is the plight of the soldier: We are saviors and villains. We are antiheroes. We either leave or stay forever.

It is a dark place to exist—in this uncertainty. Yet I have lovely memories within me—memories with gravity that ache because I was so hopeful then of what we were doing and could do. On Valentine’s Day of 2011, the Hindu Kush were capped with snow, and a snowball fight erupted in the Close Air Support compound around noon. Third-country nationals, host-nation workers, and Americans alike for a moment paused and relished in this pocket of peace despite the war.

We were happy then. We were invincible.

But now I’m not sure anymore.

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