A Terrible Year
Last June, I flew home from Afghanistan. The dread of Afghanistan’s fate haunted my journey home. I worried that our Afghan allies would struggle without American support. I prayed they would last through the fighting season, giving them time to rearm, refit, and reorganize a long-term defense.
When I landed, I told myself it was time to focus on the next chapter of my life.
Like many military families, my wife and I had spent years apart. We met back in 2016, during my time at Fort Leavenworth. I proposed during my two-year unaccompanied tour to Korea. After our wedding, we spent a year apart while I trained for my year-long deployment to Afghanistan. Midway through my deployment, our daughter was born. I was lucky to be able to come home for her birth before returning to the ’Stan. After four years apart, we were finally going to be a family.
There were more reasons to savor the future. Last July, I assumed command of a 240-man squadron. Nothing truly prepares you for the burden of command. It is a crucible that determines the rest of your career. Flourish, and many doors open. Struggle, and the road narrows.
I savored the rewarding challenges that were in my future. Moving my family across the country for my new gig. Living with my wife for the first time. Commanding 240 Airmen. Figuring out fatherhood.
This year was supposed to be different.
Then the Taliban’s blitzkrieg happened and the fall of Kabul pulled me back into a war I thought was finally finished with me.
Denial: 18 August 2021
It’s 0200 and I’m wide awake, playing God.
After watching Afghanistan’s provinces fall like a well-constructed series of dominoes, I’m fighting a rearguard action in a digital Dunkirk.
In downtown Washington, D.C., I sit in a dimly lit hotel room with my former interpreter, Hamidullah, working the phones. Hamidullah was recently in Afghanistan but left in the early stages of the Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO). Our former boss, however, is still in Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA). He will be our link to get some of our allies out.
Hamidullah and I work around the clock for the next two weeks. So do thousands of other Americans and Western allies, all of whom leverage their connections to get their allies inside the airport. Your rank doesn’t matter. Your background doesn’t, either. It’s a furious game of connect the dots, mixed with phone tag, crossed with hide-and-seek.
But before I started getting people inside, I had to create my own list.
The military is full of processes, rules, and regulations. There’s a form for everything, from getting permission for a routine medical procedure to getting a side hustle for more money.
But for this, there was no rule book. In those early hours of the NEO, I was deciding who would live and who would most likely die.
I started by scrubbing our list of contacts. Then I racked and stacked them based on my previous unit’s relationship with them, their commitment to the previous government, and the likelihood of them facing Taliban retribution. Senior Afghan officers, Afghan Air Force officers, and Afghan special forces members shot up the list because they were the Taliban’s top targets for retaliation.
After an excruciating hour, I created a list of 20 names. I prayed I would add more to the list. I never did.
There was no one for me to think this through with. Nobody even knew I had done it. It was just me, in a hotel room in Washington.
General K was a gregarious Afghan who spoke broken English but did it with the complete confidence of a native speaker. His English skills matched my Pashto and Dari abilities, so we were an instant match. I nicknamed him the Big K for his outsized persona.
Back in 2020, we often met to discuss the war’s lack of progress. Despite the Taliban’s gains, we tried to remain upbeat. As the end of my tour approached, that became more difficult.
There was a tinge of desperation in our last exchange. Instead of the obligatory “keep in touch” or “see you on your next deployment,” we could sense the dark clouds on the horizon.
“Goodbye, my brother!” Big K exclaimed.
“Da khoday pa amaan, zmaa wrora [May God keep you in peace, my brother],” I said as we hugged.
As I released him and tried to pull away, he brought me back and whispered in my ear so my interpreter couldn’t hear him, “Get my family and me out when the Taliban come.”
He stared at me, a few inches from my face. “Promise?” he asked.
“Of course,” I quickly responded.
General K was next on my list.
Hamidullah worked furiously to keep our contacts cool and collected. They texted and called him at all hours of the night. Many pleaded with him to take their children. Some tried to bribe their way further up our list. Hamidullah calmly held their hands throughout the ordeal, a testament to his professionalism.
We were running out of time. With each passing hour, getting people inside the airport perimeter became more challenging. Only American citizens, green card holders, and Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) were being granted safe passage. However, we had secured an exception for the Big K’s family. He would be the last man I could save.
I drank coffee and worked the phones, checking for updates and pushing the bureaucracy to get the Big K and his family inside faster.
“Tell him, one hour. Be ready to move in one hour,” I told Hamidullah, who quickly relayed the information to Big K.
The suicide bomber struck fifteen minutes later, killing 12 brave American servicemembers and shutting the door to innumerable American allies.
“Will, no more people inside,” read the text from my sleep-deprived boss inside the airport. “There’s nothing we can do unless they are American citizens.”
I stared at that text for ten minutes before reacting. I wept and cursed God. Then I started making the calls.
I’ve made a lot of tough phone calls. I’ve spoken with the families of recently killed servicemembers and tried to find the right words to console them. However, even those excruciating calls pale in comparison to what Hamidullah and I had to tell the allies that we were leaving behind.
Some cursed at us. Many cried out in pain. Others recited their entire resumés to us: the schools they had visited in the United States and the American soldiers they had saved in combat. Others filled our phones with pictures of their children in a last-ditch effort to save them.
None of their pleas worked because there was nothing we could do.
Today, almost a full year later, all of them remain in Afghanistan, trapped behind enemy lines.
When I returned from the initial sprint in Washington, I kept looking for hope. I latched on to groups of vets. I joined text chains with other desperate veterans trying to save their Afghan friends. Those text groups eventually morphed into the Afghanevac community.
As summer turned to fall, everything seemed possible. Veterans chartered planes. Others smuggled allies out in vehicles. It was the Wild West—a moment before the bureaucracy wrapped its red steel tape around Afghanistan.
Every day after work, I put in another six hours with a new team of ten former interpreters turned American citizens. These guys worked relentlessly.
It was like injecting purpose straight into my veins. The rush of meaning flows through your body and swallows time. Also, it prevents you from reconciling with the catastrophe flashing before your eyes.
Anger: October 2021
The Taliban commander who killed one of my troops is now the governor of Kabul.
In October, I saw the picture of Qari Baryal on my Facebook feed, the headline announcing that he’d been named the provincial governor of one of Afghanistan’s most important regions.
Qari Baryal killed hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Afghans.
I know this because after he led a group that planted an IED that killed my troop, I became somewhat obsessed with him. Even after I rotated out of Afghanistan, I kept up with the man.
When I returned to Afghanistan the next time, the hunt for Qari Baryal was still on. The raids always came up empty.
But now, in October of 2021, he sits atop his throne, having bested America’s most elite units.
And Qari Baryal’s victory pales in comparison to Sirajuddin Haqqani’s. Haqqani’s father, Jalaluddin, had been one of Osama bin Laden’s closest allies. America’s entire national security apparatus spent decades tracking this ruthless terrorist.
Today, Sirajuddin—a man with a $10 million reward on his head—feels perfectly comfortable appearing in public, even overseeing the graduation of Afghan National Policemen. Haqqani runs the Interior Ministry, historically the third most powerful post in Afghanistan.
It gets worse. Mullah Yaqoob, the son of the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Omar, now runs Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense. Yaqoob, a member of the more hardline wing of the Taliban, has been busy revitalizing the Afghan Army by fielding multiple suicide bomber units.
Seeing these men in positions of power infuriates me.
Somewhere in the background of life, my wife is raising our daughter. She makes hints that she needs more of my time.
I brush off her completely reasonable requests. I’ll get to my family, I promise myself.
Bargaining: January 2022
Despair and misery fill the Afghan evacuation text groups I’m on.
After nearly six months of nonstop work, people are starting to crack. Afghan allies are being disappeared by the Taliban. Women have entered into a real Handmaid’s Tale. All the men and women who spent the last twenty years fighting Shona-ba-Shona (shoulder to shoulder) alongside their allies cry out in horror—but nobody is listening.
I receive phone calls constantly, from very senior military officers and various government officials. They all need help. They’ve heard I know how to get people out. Despite my attempts to tell them otherwise, they’re convinced I can lead their Afghans out.
The phone calls from other peers and veterans are excruciating. Men who have spent their lives in far tougher fights than me weep on the phone. They’re suffering a psychic breakdown, as they struggle to reconcile our commitment to “leave no man behind” with the fate of their allies.
I have trouble sleeping because my nightmares have returned with intensity. My nightmares cycle through my four years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Often I dream of Afghan women hurrying their children inside their qalats, the telltale sign of an imminent fight. Or the ululating of Iraqi women after they identify their sons’ remains—and, more hauntingly, the scorn in their eyes because they see me allied with their sons’ killers, the Iraqi Police.
At night, when I’m alone, and the demons come, I can hear these wails. They haunt me. When I am awakened by their wails, I often remember the looks of disgust on these women’s faces. And I am ashamed.
I spend innumerable hours in therapy dealing with these issues—and the decisions I made.
In the early days of the NEO, I decided that I could only afford to get half of Hamidullah’s family out because I didn’t know how many spots I could fill. I should’ve taken all of them out. He was my interpreter for nearly a year. What the hell was I thinking?
I also decided not to help my first Pashto instructor, Hamid, even though he was in my wedding. He is very well connected, and it seemed like he would successfully maneuver the maze and get his entire family inside HKIA. However, his wife and mother remain in that dystopian world. I did little to help him during those two weeks. He is my brother. How could I have failed him like that?
These “should’ve and could’ves” are merely the latest in a career filled with them—the what-ifs that can frazzle the most resilient of men.
My therapists tell me I did everything I could. They encourage me to step away from the evacuation community. But I don’t listen.
My wife tries to get me to spend more time with my daughter, but I don’t know how. Playing with a child is completely foreign to me. And, like it always has, the war takes precedence.
My mother is worried about me. She’s seen me like this before, lost in the war. She tries to nudge me away from it, but I won’t hear it.
I push them away. I sink further into the mission.
Depression: March 2022
Some days the grief is overwhelming. As my mind wanders over the memories of my four Afghan deployments, I’m haunted by the Afghans I pushed to accomplish the mission. During my first deployment, I tried to get a road paved into the Nijrab Valley. The contractor, a middle-aged Afghan, was taking some of the funds and paying off the Taliban so he could finish the project on time. Under pressure from higher-ups, I told this man that if he didn’t cease paying the insurgents, I would cancel the project. He pleaded with me, told me that the Taliban would delay the project or, worse, attack the workers if we didn’t pay the bribes. I didn’t budge. Reluctantly, he agreed and took some of the money to hire security guards.
A month after he restarted construction, a Taliban assassin killed him and his brother. They were hung in front of their houses, their bodies dangling from a rope for the villagers to see, a stark reminder that the Americans couldn’t protect you from Taliban vengeance.
I wonder how many Afghans met similar fates at the behest of overeager young officers trying to accomplish a poorly crafted mission.
General K never made it out of Afghanistan. Eventually, the Taliban found him.
He is now a Taliban senior officer. It was the only choice he could make if he wanted his family to live.
This transfer of allegiance leaves me little room to maneuver. I inform the bureaucracy of his new affiliation with a few keypad strokes. Any avenue out of Afghanistan for him is slammed shut.
I don’t blame him. I understand it. Completely. So why do I tell the bureaucracy? Because I have to preserve the integrity of those remaining on my list, who may someday qualify for relocation, should policy change. I have to keep them clean. Just in case.
I’m convinced this is the right choice. And I know it will haunt me forever.
In my closet sits a gift General K gave me before I departed Afghanistan. It is a beautiful, handmade garment. I don’t know what to do with it anymore. I see it, and I’m ashamed. Ashamed that I couldn’t get him out, despite promising him I wouldn’t forget him.
And now he is part of a terrorist group.
Acceptance: May 2022
On a beautiful hill in a quiet corner of Lafayette, California, lies Senior Airman Jonathan Yelner’s gravesite. I rendezvous with my former interpreter, Ritchie, who lost both of his legs in the same IED strike. Now an American citizen, Ritchie embodies the American dream: He’s raising a small family in a quiet California suburb.
Ritchie’s arms are draped over my shoulder as I help him navigate the slight descent into Yelner’s final resting place. We lean on each other as we did nearly twelve years ago. As we follow Yelner’s stepfather to his grave, memories of Yelner overwhelm me. His propensity to describe himself as a Puerto Rican heartthrob. His immense pride in being out in the middle of the fight, helping Afghans rebuild their society.
Jonathan Yelner believed.
Four months into his first deployment, the Taliban killed him.
I kneel, weep, and place my hand on his gravesite. I put my unit’s coin on the tombstone, alongside the rocks and pebbles, as per Jewish custom.
As I stand up, I search for the right words to say to Yelner’s stepfather. I had visions of a stirring soliloquy that encapsulated duty, honor, and courage. Something grand that could meet the moment.
“Sir,” I stammered for a second, choking back tears, “I will always remember him.” It’s all I could say.
He carefully places his right hand on my shoulder and whispers, “That’s all a parent can pray for. That the world doesn’t forget their child.”
For Iraq and Afghan veterans, Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery is a sacred place. Section 60 is the final resting place for thousands of Iraq and Afghan heroes.
It is our place. Our place to mourn. Our place to grieve. Our place to remember.
I’ve been here many times, but this is my first pilgrimage since the fall of Kabul.
I take a knee in front of Captain Jesse Melton’s grave. Jesse was deployed to Kapisa with me in 2008. Like me, he was not in combat arms but had volunteered to serve on the front lines.
One day in early September in the Nijrab Valley, his Humvee struck a double-stacked anti-tank mine, killing everyone in the vehicle.
As I kneel in front of Jesse’s gravesite, I see a group of high school students to my left. Their teachers appear to be lecturing them.
While the gaggle of high school students gingerly walk through these hallowed grounds, an older gentleman, possibly their teacher, makes eye contact with me. I steel myself for the ubiquitous “Thank You for Your Service” mantra.
As his students move quickly through the field, this man stops, kneels next to me, and says, “I’m sorry for your loss.” But he continues. “If you don’t mind, could you tell me about your friend?”
I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. Nobody has ever asked me about my slain friends before. Most people recite the usual bromides and move along.
But this man didn’t. So we spoke about Jesse. How humble, yet proud, he was to be out there on the edges of the empire. Jesse was the prototypical Marine officer—always leading from the front, no matter the risk. He had an infectious smile that could light up any room.
I told that stranger everything, holding nothing back.
Upon hearing Jesse’s story, the man stood up, placed a hand on my shoulder, and said, “Thanks for sharing that with me. I’ll never forget him.”
A Year Later: August 2022
At the closing ceremony for America’s war in Afghanistan, General Austin Scott Miller, the last American commander in Afghanistan, said, “Our job is now just not to forget.” He continued, “With the families that have lost people across this conflict, it will be important to them they know that someone remembers, someone cares, and that we’re able to talk about that in the future.”
General Miller’s request mostly goes unanswered in American culture. No one wants to talk about this war. And that is a tragedy.
A generation of men and women shouldered repeated deployments. They lived and fought alongside strangers, who often became brothers-in-arms. And now they have to shoulder the mourning on their own, too.
I text with these veterans daily about the fate of our allies. The most common response I get is that “nobody cares.”
It is little wonder that, according to a Brooking Institute survey, 73 percent of Afghan veterans feel betrayed, 67 percent feel humiliated, and 56 percent feel like they’re a stranger in their own country.
Americans should fix that.
The “Thank You for Your Service” handshakes, the yellow ribbons, the halftime show patriotism—that’s all fine. But it’s not what we need. We need the United States not to let its sons and daughters grieve alone. We should be helping them shoulder the sorrow and blame and join them in advocating for their allies behind enemy lines.
The next time you meet an Iraq or Afghan War veteran, don’t thank them. Instead, ask them to share their story. Listen. And if they let you in, then grieve alongside them.
I spend my evenings playing with my daughter, enjoying the quiet moments with her before bedtime. I’m still involved with the Afghan evac community, but it’s no longer a 24-hour emergency. After a year of turmoil and despair, I sense a quieter chapter of my life approaching.
I’m a family man for the first time in my life. A new sense of purpose and wonderment fills me with gratitude.
Without my wife’s love, patience, and forbearance, I would’ve careened into an abyss of misery. I don’t know if I can ever thank her enough for enduring this past year of mood swings, late nights, and depression. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to repay the grace she gave me.
After we put our daughter to bed on quiet nights, I often ask my wife, “What will I tell her about these wars?”
She always responds, “When she reaches the appropriate age, you will tell her the truth. You will tell her your beautiful stories of courage and also those of despair.”
I will tell her about my friends who died fighting a vicious enemy while simultaneously trying to rebuild a war-stricken nation from scratch. I will tell her about the Afghans who saved my life, kept fighting after I returned home, and died fighting for the dream of a free Afghanistan.
I will tell her about the people in the Afghan evacuation community, who still have not given up. I pray that she grows up to be like my friends, Kate and Heidi, two of the strongest people I’ve ever served beside, even though I’ve never met them in person. These two women have led our efforts to relocate our allies – and they are my personal heroes. Kate, a civilian, and Heidi, an active duty military officer, have relentlessly advocated for our allies– and neither of them ever served in Afghanistan.
Over the past year, they comforted me through the valleys and celebrated each of the 287 Afghans I’ve helped rescue. Their service and dedication fill me with hope and steel me against the inevitable losses that will continue to unfold.
More importantly, I will tell my daughter that fighting to uphold your country’s promises and most cherished principles is a noble pursuit, no matter the cost.
Because being a bulwark in defense of your country’s honor is worth it, even if your country has moved on.