A US Chinook military helicopter flies above the US embassy in Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021. Several hundred employees of the US embassy in Kabul had been evacuated from Afghanistan, a US defense official said on Aug. 15, 2021, as the Taliban entered the capital. Photo by Wakil KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images.
As I watched the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, I realized that my own generation of service members is not the first to experience the anguish of witnessing our military efforts fall into chaos.
Vietnam veterans, upon returning home, watched the North Vietnamese sweep through the very land where they had lost so many of their comrades — the people who served alongside them and died for the same just cause as my own: freedom and democracy.
As a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, I never thought my experience would so closely mirror that of my fellow veterans who served in Vietnam, but I now know only they can truly empathize with the pain I feel. The history of Vietnam and the history of Afghanistan are inexorably connected by the wars we fought in those countries, and those of us who served in those wars are now forever connected by the feelings we must contend with.
In many ways, my experience as a veteran is vastly different from that of Vietnam veterans coming back to America. I was never cursed at, never spit on, never regarded by society as a “baby-killer,” never deemed as complicit in what was so often decried as an unjust war. Unlike many Vietnam veterans, I joined the military of my own volition and was not at all required to serve for fear of fines or legal punishment. I do not feel my country abandoned or neglected me when I returned home.
On the contrary, my service was celebrated, and I’ve been able to speak openly and proudly of my time in the United States Air Force. I have participated in parades honoring my service. I have volunteered with organizations that continue to give back to my veteran community as many of us transition to life beyond military service. I receive veteran discounts and am welcome to park my car in spaces designed to honor my service in a small way. In these and many other ways, my experience is nowhere near that of Vietnam veterans, upon whose sacrifices my own service and perspective have been able to flourish.
The terrorist acts that occurred on 9/11 — during my freshman year of high school — were a catalyst that brought my service and the service of others to the forefront of society. In many ways thanks to those Vietnam-era veterans, my service and the service of my fellow airmen, soldiers, sailors, and Marines was seen as patriotic, just, and honorable. We all chose to answer our nation’s call, to defend our country, and to root out the terrorism that had devastated our nation and denied the people of Afghanistan the dignity of human rights.
I was deployed to Bagram Airfield in August 2013. This was my first deployment, one of two during my career. In July 2021, I listened to a New York Times podcast in which reporters discussed the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. As I reflected on my experiences, I was dumbstruck by the memories I had long since pushed to recesses of my mind: the sounds of mortar alarms waking me in the night, the whir of my aircraft engine, the deafening silence of my noise-canceling headset while flying in complete darkness at night, the taste of Afghan desert after waking in yet another dust storm.
It all flooded back as I listened and realized for the first time: It’s over.
I thought of the local Afghan contractors I knew on base — cleaners and shopkeepers and food workers. While I might not have known all their names, I feel agony for their circumstances that I have no power to rectify. I hung on each word as Times reporters discussed the issues each of these local nationals were experiencing as US troops slipped away quietly into the night: difficulty selling their wares, refusing to sell the last flak jacket in their shop because they intended to keep it for themselves, for when the Taliban inevitably arrived.
As the Taliban took province after province, I imagined the despair of the Afghan people who want nothing more than peace and freedom. I thought of the many Afghans we promised safe passage to the US for their service to our country and theirs. I feel ashamed knowing we broke many of those promises and left many Afghans behind, still fearing for their lives. I’m tormented by the thought that their fears may be realized.
We killed Usama Bin Laden, and in that way our mission was accomplished. We worked with Afghan troops to build their military and special forces. But in the end, we abandoned the Afghan people to their own fate, which is not what I signed up for. I signed up to defend and root out the terrorism that devastated my country. That may have been an overly ambitious goal, but it was a just cause nonetheless, and one in which I and many others believed deeply.
Perhaps my faith in the justness of our cause — to extinguish Bin Laden, bring democracy to Afghanistan, and free its people from the cancer of terrorism — overshadowed an uncomfortable reality: We could fail.
And here again is where I feel connected to the experience of Vietnam veterans.
When I was struck by this sudden empathy, I reached out to a colleague of mine, a Vietnam veteran and friend, asking if I could talk to him about a personal matter and if I could close the door to his office. He obliged, and I let it out. I took solace in the fact that he understood my pain in leaving a country to the history we now all know. I told him I knew my experiences as a veteran were different. As I began to list the ways, he stopped me.
“You’re right,” he told me. “Our service was very different, but on this particular issue, there isn’t a nickel of difference between us. We never knew what happened to our Vietnamese allies, and we couldn’t do anything to change it. It hurt; sometimes it still does. In that matter, we are the same.”
After that conversation, I spoke to many more Vietnam veterans who feel as though they watched the fall of Saigon all over again and are heartbroken for Afghanistan vets. Several friends who served in Vietnam called to check on me and let me know they too are struggling with Afghanistan, asking if there is anything they can do to help me or our Afghan allies. When we talk, we reflect on the renewed pain they feel decades later, a pain I fear I am just starting to fully understand and one I don’t think will ever leave us.
It’s the pain of losing comrades to a war we did not win. It’s the devastating knowledge that we left behind so many allies and friends we fought for and beside. It’s the pain of loss, in more ways than one.
Yet even in that loss, I am encouraged by so many in our veteran community to continue connecting with and confiding in one another. As American veterans, we are defined by resilience in the face of adversity, and with every hurdle we cross, others will follow. By sharing our stories and commiserating together, we remind ourselves and past and future generations that we are never alone.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2021 print edition of Coffee or Die Magazine.
Gretchen Klingler is a former Tactical Systems Operator and a veteran of the Air Force Special Operations community. A born Buckeye, Gretchen graduated from Ohio State in 2019 with degrees in anthropology and Arabic and received the Young Alumni Achievement Award from the College of Arts and Sciences in 2022. She continues to use her experience in both advocacy and ethnographic research to build outreach programing within the veteran community, as well as work with refugee and military interpreter (SIV) communities. She is an avid supporter of veteran service organizations and can be found at her VFW Post when she has free time. Gretchen lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband, Aaron, and their small menagerie of pets.
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