Watching Afghanistan Fall Reminds These Veterans Of Who They Left Behind

Aug 26, 2021
Originally published on August 27, 2021 5:13 am

Timothy Griffin has been having a lot of long nights.

"I probably have not slept since it happened," Griffin says, "since I woke up and the headline was Afghan president flees the country, Taliban are in Kabul."

Griffin did a tour in Afghanistan under an Obama-era program where he learned Pashto to help the Americans better communicate with Afghans. He was stationed out of Fort Campbell, an Army base outside of Nashville, Tenn.

He says he hasn't been sleeping so that he can bridge the time difference with the translators he worked with during his tour.

"Some of them are trapped in Kabul trying to get on one of those planes," he says. "Some of them are, unfortunately, too far away from Kabul to even attempt to get out."

Griffin has been trying to put their names in front of politicians and the U.S. State Department — anyone who could help them escape.

"We decided to completely abandon them"

He says his heartbreak about what is happening in Afghanistan is eclipsed by worry for those translators.

Even though he believes it was time to withdraw, he wishes more could have been done for the people being left behind.

Griffin says there is a "weird duality" in the way people assume there were only two options with Afghanistan: stay 20 more years, or abandon the country.

"We decided to completely abandon them," even though, as he puts it, there were "a million other options."

This is a familiar refrain for veterans who served in Afghanistan: More could have been done.

They walk around with constant reminders of their service — a list of physical injuries from what they did, or emotional scars from what they saw and who they lost. Now, those wounds feel fresh again as they watch two decades of work unravel in days.

"It's a little hard not to be cynical," says Alex Dudley, a veteran who spent six months in Zabul Province in 2010.

Dudley lives in Nashville now. When he heard the news, his thoughts turned to one of his friends and fellow soldiers who died years ago.

"If we hadn't been over there, he'd still be alive," Dudley says. "It's kind of hard to talk about."

He tears up, apologizing, and says his friend didn't die in combat.

"He did end up taking his own life," Dudley says. "The situation he was in, he would not have been there if we had not been in Afghanistan."

Remembering the good

Healthcare providers worry the government collapse in Afghanistan might push more veterans into crisis. They are encouraging those who served to seek help and to check in with one another.

That's what Dudley has been doing. If his friend were still alive, he believes he would probably feel the same way he does — let down.

"You feel like there was something else we could have done," he says. "But at the same time we've been there for 20 years, and I don't think another 20 years would have necessarily made a difference."

Students at a girls school in Shah Joy District, Zabul Province, Afghanistan where U.S. soldiers handed out school supplies in 2010.
Alex Dudley

During his time in Afghanistan, Dudley carried his camera with him, taking photos. His images show little girls in brightly colored clothing, staring inquisitively at the camera. Their small hands grip the green pencils he handed out.

He laughs as he remembers helping one girl fend off a bully who was trying to take her pencil.

"Helping to provide those opportunities for those young girls...I definitely from time to time still think about that experience and wonder where those girls are," Dudley says. "Especially within recent events."

Those memories were once comforting, but now they're also a source of worry.

That's why veteran Ross Schambon prefers not to think about Afghanistan at all.

Leaving Afghanistan behind

"It was a complete waste," he says.

He criticizes President Biden for the withdrawal, saying he should have left more troops in place to stand up to the Taliban.

"They just kind of lay down. They're laying down for everything," Schambon says. "Whereas the previous president, he actually had a backbone."

Schambon has unsentimental opinions about the war. He says he has to.

He served in Afghanistan with the Rakkasans out of Fort Campbell and moved back to Glasgow, Ky., after his service. In his brigade combat team, he was a military sniper. He remembers watching from a mountain top as one of his fellow soldiers was hit by a mortar and died.

He is reminded of the things he saw with every step he takes — he has stress fractures in his legs, bone fragments in his knees, damage to his lower back and more. But he tries to ignore the pain and the memories, and move forward.

"I've got my kids to think about," he says. One is 6 and the other is 10 months. They are his future, he says.

The war is over, and no matter the outcome, he says he just wants to leave it in the past.

U.S. Veterans struggling with the news out of Afghanistan can talk to a counselor at the Veterans Crisis hotline. The number is 1-800-273-8255

Copyright 2021 WPLN News. To see more, visit WPLN News.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is a painful time for people across this country who served in Afghanistan. Paige Pfleger from our member station WPLN in Nashville spoke with some of them.

PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: Timothy Griffin has been having a lot of long nights.

TIMOTHY GRIFFIN: I probably have not slept since it happened, since I woke up and the headline was "Afghan President Flees The Country, Taliban Are In Kabul."

PFLEGER: Griffin did a tour in Afghanistan under an Obama-era program where he learned Pashto to help the Americans communicate with Afghans. He was stationed out of Fort Campbell, an Army base just outside of Nashville. He says he's been staying up late talking to the translators he worked with during his tour.

GRIFFIN: Some of them are trapped in Kabul trying to get on one of those planes, and some of them are unfortunately too far away from Kabul to even attempt to get out.

PFLEGER: Griffin is trying to get their names in front of politicians and the State Department - anyone who can help them escape. Even though he believes it's time to withdraw, he wishes more could have been done for the people being left behind.

GRIFFIN: There's this weird duality that I really don't like is that there was only two options with Afghanistan - one, we stay there for 20 more years or, two, we just completely abandon them. We decided to completely abandon them. The reality is there was a million other options that could have been done in between.

PFLEGER: This is a familiar refrain for veterans who served in Afghanistan. They feel something more could have been done. They walk around with constant reminders of their service - a list of physical injuries or emotional scars from what they saw and did, who they lost. And now those wounds feel fresh again as they watch 20 years of work unravel within days.

ALEX DUDLEY: It's a little hard to not be cynical.

PFLEGER: Alex Dudley is a veteran who spent six months in Zabul Province. He lives in Nashville now. When he heard the news, his thoughts turned to one of his friends and fellow soldiers who died years ago.

DUDLEY: If we hadn't been over there, he'd still be alive. So it's kind of hard to talk - sorry (crying).

PFLEGER: He tears up and says his friend didn't die in combat.

DUDLEY: He did end up taking his own life.

PFLEGER: Health care providers worry the government collapse in Afghanistan might push more veterans into crisis. They're encouraging those who served to seek help and to check in with one another. That's what Dudley has been doing. He believes his friend would probably feel the same way he does if he were still alive, the same way many veterans do - let down.

DUDLEY: You always feel like there's something else that we could have done. But, you know, at the same time, we've been there for 20 years, and I don't - I honestly don't think another 20 years would've necessarily made a difference.

PFLEGER: Another veteran, Ross Schambon, calls the war a complete waste. He criticizes President Biden for the withdrawal, saying he should have left more troops in place to stand up to the Taliban.

ROSS SCHAMBON: The previous president we had, he actually had a backbone.

PFLEGER: Schambon has unsentimental opinions about the war. He says he has to. He served in Afghanistan with the Rakkasans out of Fort Campbell. He was a military sniper in his brigade combat team. But he doesn't like to think about those memories.

SCHAMBON: I've got my kids to think about.

PFLEGER: Schambon has a 6-year-old and a 10-month-old. They are his future, he says. The war is over, no matter the outcome. He says he just wants to leave it in the past. For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger in Nashville.

INSKEEP: And we'd like veterans to know that they can, if they wish, talk with a counselor at the Veterans Crisis Line. The number is 800-273-8255. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.