Guest post by Matthew Stroup
About 10 days ago, while shopping for a jacket at North Face, a short conversation with the man helping us – Roger – led to the discovery that both he and I served at FOB Farah, Afghanistan from 2012-2013. He served on a slightly different portion of the base than I did at the time, and while we didn’t know each other, we knew the complexity of the situation then…and now. He even asked at one point, “Do you remember the giant explosion in Farah City? We couldn’t even go out to join the fight because it wasn’t our fight and that the Afghan military/security forces needed to beat back the insurgents.” Boy do I.
His question was ironic because Roger didn’t know – or maybe remember – that our Provincial Reconstruction Team was out on a mission that day with the Deputy Provincial Governor, and two security force team members, an interpreter, and I were on a dismounted foot patrol outside the mission and found ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. We were the closest people from the coalition to the blast. I was separated from the security force team, eventually re-connected with them, and we returned back to the base. Hours later, the Afghan security forces diffused the situation, but not without many killed and injured. The explosion was on the front page of the NY Times the following day. Later, senior military leadership and Afghan President Karzai came to our base and also went out in the local community to reassure the local population. Needless to say, it was a weighty challenge for me personally to continue the mission while trying to process the reality of the situation.
Fast forward eight years, and here Roger and I were at the North Face. He an Iraq and Afghanistan Army veteran who quite honestly gave the best customer service I’ve received anywhere in a long time. Me an active-duty naval officer just returning to sea duty. There’s no way that either he or I could have known that we’d run into each other, and I’m sure that he, like me, doesn’t walk around assuming that people know where Farah Province Afghanistan is, though it sure is a personal place for the both of us.
Just a few days later, I received a note from my interpreter, Ahmad Shah, letting me know that the Taliban entered Farah City, were attacking locals, and seeking out those individuals who helped the coalition. The city, like many regional capitals, fell quickly to the Taliban. Like him, I was worried for the safety of his family and those Afghan friends that served the coalition to help make Afghanistan a better place. I was grateful that he was in the United States safely with his wife and new son as the result of a success in the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) system that not all have benefitted from. And I also know how excruciating it is for him to be distant from his family while the Taliban is making an example of those who were tied to the coalition in any way. Ahmad Shah relayed the story of one of his friends who knew the Taliban were after him, and as a result, grabbed a rope and climbed into a well as the Taliban seized the capital in hopes that he would not be killed that day.
In the middle of getting settled here in Virginia, this has been a lot. Jenny Lynne asked me the other day how I was doing with all the Afghanistan ‘stuff,’ and it’s taken some energy to process what I’m thinking. It wasn’t an easy decision to decide whether it was worth even going through the hassle of processing it with someone else. In the end, as much as I didn’t want to, I did spend some time looking through photos, gathering my thoughts, and eventually talking to JL about it. It was painful and worthwhile. I also think it’s important that I get these thoughts out there so others who have been there might not feel so alone. And so those who haven’t been there might understand the twists-and-turns many of us – in our own individual ways – feel about what’s happening right now.
My basic takeaways are this:
- I’m devastated for the Afghan people, especially those I met, worked with, and who were trying to make their country and communities a better place. There is no more noble calling than being a citizen, and it is a helpless feeling to watch the Afghan people struggle with what is going on right now in that country. The blowback from the Taliban will be fierce.
- I never wanted to go but I went. The best advice I got before going was that I could only do MY part. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less. I am proud of the work we did, and while not lasting in a strategic sense as the aim of our coalition efforts were designed to be, I do know the work we did as a team was lasting. Multiple interpreters received SIVs and are here in the states building families and leading productive lives as Afghan Americans. The bonds we built are lasting, and many of us have continued engaging in public service since we returned – guided, in part, by our experiences in Afghanistan. (More on this advice and bond can be found in an interview I did with Amad Shah recently.)
- Tacticians don’t lead the development of national security strategy – and great operations and tactics don’t make up for foibles in strategy. Which is to say, the lesson that many learned from Vietnam – that the guys on the ground were taking strategic guidance and implementing it – was a good one. I’m more than content with the way that I carried my portion of the load, and I’m proud of the way that my commander used basic principles of leadership and sound wisdom to execute our mission. We didn’t continue to put good money after bad, didn’t try to buy down the problem with infusions of cash, and we conscientiously put in the hard work alongside our Afghan colleagues to do the job. There was nothing more – or less – to do.
- When we remove the common citizen from being personally tied to the decision to use military force for an extended period of time – through their advocacy or dissension for it – the weight of war lands unevenly on the executive and legislative branches, while the physical and emotional costs are borne by those who are sent forward and their closest loved ones. The pass on true civic engagement for the fee of a kind word and a flag pin on a lapel falls short of the ideals at the heart of the American experiment in governance – a circumstance by which we ALL lose something.
I’m admittedly pissed off that the national outcry I’ve seen the past few days hasn’t happened with any regularity over twenty years, yet I remain bullish on the American experiment. The ideals embedded in our national DNA through our Constitution are far too important not to be fascinated or engaged in their preservation. However, it remains clear to me that as Americans we a lot of work to do on the home front – perhaps a national 4th and 5th step akin to the ones taught in the rooms of recovery? Whatever challenges come next, I will continue to invest in this nation of ours the best I can, wherever I can, and however I can. And I know that I’m not alone, because there are men and women, like Roger, that I’ll run into across the world that believe in America, too.
Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Stroup, APR+M is a prior-enlisted Naval officer with more than 14 years in service. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.