Editor’s Note: Saipan resident Albert S. Flores Jr. was mobilized from the Reserves in 2019 and away from home for 15 months to complete a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan with what became the last U.S. Marine Corps unit to deploy there.
This week has been tough. I took some time today to draft the following. For myself, my family, my friends, and my fellow veterans, to make a record of my reflections from this week. I hope it helps some. It helped me to put some thoughts on paper.
I had the privilege of leading the first U.S. Marine Corps Reconnaissance Company deployed to Afghanistan, and I was activated from the reserves to deploy with the final U.S. Marine Corps unit in Afghanistan. This is my perspective.
Afghanistan: now, the last 100 yards.
No one will question if we take a knee this week, to reflect and catch our breath. We earned it. Some solace from everyday life would be healthy for us. Our loved ones will never understand that, in a firefight, as we close with an enemy in the last 100 yards, the only thing in the world that matters in that moment is the warrior to our left and right. Period. Right now, once again, we are in those last 100 yards.
Anger. Disappointment. Anxiety. Confusion. All sentiments we are deservingly weighing as we watch Afghanistan collapse to the Taliban. Each of us will go through our own process. Yet, despite our differences in how we get through it, despite our political leanings, and despite whatever disparagement we feel toward our civilian and military leadership, we should be confident in a resounding commonality: we each took an oath to serve an idea greater than ourselves; we were relentless in our efforts to complete the tasks assigned to us; we fought like hell. We did our part, honorably.
This war changed each of us—for the good, and the bad. We were witness to unspeakable things. To bravery, violence, death, and dark humor found in every portable toilet stall, inexplicable to those fortunate to not have lived at a forward operating base. We have stories to tell, and they are experiences worth sharing.
Pick up your phone and reach out to fellow Afghanistan veterans. Be angry together. Laugh together. Remember freezing in the rain, helicopter rides through the desert, that awful egg omelet MRE, and the times we watched in awe from rooftops as fire rained from the skies. Some of us will struggle this week, and some will struggle later in life as certain memories resurface. But a simple text or Facebook message just might help another veteran win a different battle.
The question most of us are asking ourselves now is, “Was it all worth it?” While I respect each veteran’s prerogative to search for the answer to that question, my unequivocal response is, yes.
We rapidly and courageously responded to the terrorist acts of Sept. 11, 2001. During the last two decades, our persistent engagement of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and of terrorism generally in that region of the world, thwarted countless additional attacks on unsuspecting Americans. Most will never know the peril otherwise faced by Americans both at home and abroad.
The convoluted politics of Afghanistan will easily overshadow our successes if we let it. The media, politicians, and even our well-intentioned loved ones will root themselves in opinions based on misapplied facts. This can lead to doubt of our purpose. Do not let it.
A conflict spanning two decades with four separate presidential administrations resulted in a malleable strategic vision. We saw a change in senior military leadership in Afghanistan every two years, each commander with different ideas. This inherent fluidity would inevitably lead to a complicated exit of our military from Afghanistan. Our exit was going to be messy, cruel, and devastating, regardless of the execution of our final tactical missions. Strategic messaging of our exit over the last few weeks is another story.
We are in the last 100 yards. We must rely on each other to keep the phalanx strong. Stories of valor in Afghanistan will help to remind us of our goodwill, and the tenacious spirit of the American military. Read for example, the Medal of Honor citation for Cpl. Dakota Meyer of the U.S. Marine Corps, who in 2009 rescued 23 Afghan allies and 13 Americans while under repeated intense enemy fire. Or the Medal of Honor citation for Lt. Michael Murphy, a U.S. Navy SEAL who gave his life to radio for help for his reconnaissance team under fire by a far superior number of Taliban fighters in 2005.
This week is also especially hard for Gold Star families. I cannot imagine the despair they must feel. To the American families who lost a loved one serving in Afghanistan, we are with you. America is forever indebted to you. Your sacrifice, and the ultimate sacrifice of your loved one, matters. We think of you every time we see a flag with stars and stripes. Make no mistake, your loved one is the backbone of our freedom. I do not presume to understand what you are going through, but we will not quit you, and we will not forget your servicemember who gave all for our country.
One day my children will be old enough to discuss Afghanistan with me. I take comfort knowing, when that conversation happens, I can look my children in the eyes and tell them our service mattered. I will tell them we lived true to a particular inspiration of mine, a biblical passage, Isaiah 6:8: Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here I am. Send me.”
Veterans of Afghanistan, it was worth it.
Albert Flores is a Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan.