Photo courtesy of Leo Jenkins.
Don’t let this moment go to waste / you don’t know when the feeling will happen again.
I can’t keep myself from repeating the lyrics in my mind.
Like most veterans, I’ve been feeling a lot lately. The emotions seem to shift and bleed into each other. They’ve been daunting and heavy and distracting. Maybe I could drink them away? But as I’ve grown, I’ve realized the divine value in feeling, even when it is uncomfortable. Especially when it is uncomfortable.
I feel proud. I feel proud to be considered a friend to so many gallant humans whom I met because I went to war. Many are now doctors, highly successful entrepreneurs, or authors of the next page of history. I am proud of them, how they took the worst, most challenging human experiences and turned them into good, how they’ve used their pain to help others. I am proud of my friends, whom I suffered with, the leaders they have become, the shining lights to their community, those few who know solemnly the depth of darkness. I feel a deep love and admiration for them. I feel respect and am honored when they call on me.
I feel responsible. I was part of an occupying force. I believed we were doing the right thing, but innocent people died. Our country killed more innocent people in Afghanistan with drone strikes than the number of Americans who died on Sept. 11. Hundreds of children will never fall in love. I feel the weight of responsibility for that. If a bomb meant for someone else killed my child, I can’t say I wouldn’t dedicate the rest of my life to avenging her. As such, I feel empathy for a grieving father or brother or child who has picked up a weapon in opposition to the occupying force in their nation. Look at this deadly circle of vengeance.
Look at who keeps dying: the poor. Do you see who keeps profiting?
I feel anger. Who won this 20-year war? Seems obvious: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon — among other corporate giants whose business is war. Who lost? Seems obvious: the nation of Afghanistan, the US taxpayer, and the tens of thousands of Global War on Terror veterans who have killed themselves.
Defense contractors have used lobbyists to buy politicians who use the media to maintain a war instead of winning it. I am angry because I know we could have left Afghanistan in a better condition than when we arrived. Losing doesn’t bother me. I’ve lost plenty. I believe a person can win, or learn. Our best lessons, our greatest growth, can blossom from the fertilizer of defeat. In order for that to happen though, it is necessary to look loss in the face. I am angry because we are not doing that.
I feel disgusted. I am disgusted at the lack of accountability. “No excuse, Sergeant.” This was the only appropriate response for a lower enlisted member of the military when they messed up. Own the mistake. Take the punishment. Learn the lesson. Move forward a better version of yourself and, more importantly, a stronger member of the team. If and when a soldier attempted to use an excuse or blame someone else, the person they worked for would come down on them even harder until they accepted responsibility.
I knew a good Ranger who, on a particularly tough mission in Afghanistan, lost an old M9 pistol. It was probably worth all of $200, but that wasn’t why he was demoted, ostracized, and finally kicked out of the unit. It was because it was his responsibility to care for that equipment. He failed to do so, and he was fired. He actually had a great excuse, but it didn’t matter. His career in special operations was over.
Billions of dollars of equipment was intentionally left for a group well known for their draconian, oppressive, and barbaric tactics. Equipment that you, the US taxpayer, bought. I’m not sure how that isn’t disgusting to every single American. I am utterly confused by the fact that every single adult in the United States isn’t crying out to their leaders for accountability.
I feel sad. I feel that the eternal relationship between dark and light, good and evil, has shifted. The world today is empirically a darker place than it was before. I feel sad for every child of Afghanistan who will not know childhood in any other form but terror and oppression. I feel sad about a national policy of promoting illiteracy as a form of control. I feel sad for a generation who tasted freedom to now be wrapped about the neck by the chains of zealots.
I feel disappointed. I am disappointed in us, the American people. Perhaps our lust for comfort has created the conditions where we turn away from these horribly uncomfortable realities. I understand. After all, a woman being stoned to death in public for the crime of doing a job that women are not allowed to do is terribly uncomfortable. Or an entire family being killed by a drone strike ordered by the president in retaliation for the egregious and unnecessary deaths of 13 service members. I understand that it is easier to ignore the blatant human rights violation of hanging humans in the streets — or to sit and watch a helicopter flown by terrorists that we, the US taxpayer, bought — than it is to speak out against the policies and people who delivered us here. Have you thought that perhaps it is our constant pursuit of what is easy and comfortable that has brought us to this reality? Of course, it’s easy to see that our reality is different from the rest of the world’s. It is easy to see how willfully disconnected we are.
Twenty years ago, we watched in horror as our fellow humans leapt from burning buildings to escape the flames. We rallied together and said no. Why? Because we feared it could happen to us next. It is easy to turn away from those mangled, dangling bodies, and the parents handing their babies to strangers over razor wire in hopes they will live — because it’s not a threat to us. It’s not a threat to our dinner plans, nor Wi-Fi connection. It is not a threat to our privilege, our wealth, nor our comfort. Perhaps it’s unfair that I feel so disappointed. It’s just, I expect more from US.
How are you feeling?
This article first appeared in the Fall 2021 print edition of Coffee or Die Magazine as “How Are You Feeling?”
Leo Jenkins is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die Magazine, and the acclaimed author of Lest We Forget, On Assimilation, First Train Out of Denver, and With a Pen. Since his time as an Army Ranger medic, Leo has traveled through over fifty countries and competed at an elite level in both triathlon and CrossFit, while racking up over 10,000 hours of hands-on coaching experience in Olympic weightlifting, running, swimming, cycling, and cross-training.