Military Veterans in New Mexico Reflect on Time in Afghanistan, Recent Events | Local News
As Eric Ortegren last week watched video footage of desperate Afghans hanging from the side of a departing US C-17 transport plane, he knew it was time to switch off.
“I had to kind of turn it off,” the US Army veteran recalls, sipping a morning cup of coffee in his Santa Fe home. “That’s where it was, ‘OK , okay, that’s enough. ‘ “
Ortegren, 43, has a face that he says has seen a lot of life – and death.
He turns away and looks out a nearby window as he talks about his service in Afghanistan: the bombs, the gunfire, the shrapnel, the death. The details are both big and small: he can recall the details of the headlamps used by American soldiers at an otherwise almost dark base in the Korangal Valley, which Ortegren calls “a special little corner of hell.” . He was stationed there for nine months in 2007-08.
The images of the nation falling into the hands of the Taliban and terrified Afghans looking for someone, anyone to help them hit Ortegren hard.
“It hurts,” he said. “It was a punch.”
Veterans from all over New Mexico can identify with each other. Almost 20 years after the United States deployed troops to Afghanistan in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, the start of what has become the United States’ longest war , many are faced with new questions about the object of the conflict and the cost they have paid.
“It’s just sad,” said Marine Corps veteran Joseph Jones de Las Cruces, who served in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009 and then again in 2010. “We broke our promises, and that is going to have far-reaching implications for years to come for our current allies, our future allies and all the terrorist organizations watching us right now who will be emboldened because we look foolish.
Ben Bateman, a Los Alamos resident, a former Army Special Forces officer who participated in a training program to prepare Afghan military troops for a possible withdrawal of US forces, questioned whether the rapid fall of Afghanistan meant that a new generation of American troops would one day be called home – history repeats itself.
“I don’t want my sons or daughters to go back to Iraq or Afghanistan,” said Bateman, a West Point graduate and veteran of the US wars in both countries. “I don’t want my children to see the darkness of war. I don’t want them to make the decision that might prevent someone from coming home and living with that for the rest of their life. I don’t want people about to graduate from West Point or Ranger School to go fight the fights we don’t finish.
“And they’re going to have to do it.”
Leaving a love behind
Many Afghanistan veterans share similar traits. They talk about building schools, digging wells and saving children from sexual slavery in a country where foreign troops have been repeatedly pushed back. Some have seen the beauty of the country’s dry, mountainous terrain, a place that in some places resembles New Mexico.
They met many Afghan citizens who they said supported them: men, women and children who just wanted to live in peace and be left alone.
But with the nation now in the hands of the Taliban, many veterans share a collective sense of disappointment – even depression – at the way events unfolded.
All of them left friends behind.
Casey Moores, a US Air Force war veteran who lives in Albuquerque, has left a fiancee. In March 2003 Tamara “Tammy” Long-Archuleta, an Air Force lieutenant who carried out helicopter rescue missions, was killed along with five American soldiers while trying to rescue two injured Afghan children. stranded in a remote mountainous region on a pitch black night.
Stationed at the time in neighboring Pakistan, Moores had heard of a helicopter crash involving US personnel earlier that evening and emailed Long-Archuleta asking if she was okay.
When he was awakened a few hours later by his commander and a chaplain, he knew it. Their presence, he recalls, “made it obvious to me. “
They were due to get married in July.
Moores also flew rescue missions during three separate tours of duty in Afghanistan. He said he cannot judge the war on the basis of his own personal loss.
“I try not to think of it in those terms,” he said.
But by the time of his last tour, in 2015, he said he realized that “we have a choice to stay here forever. People talk about an exit and victory strategy. There was no victory at that time. Either we stayed and supported whatever the Afghan National Army and Police could become, or we left. I always thought that if we left, what would happen is what happens now.
Married now – his wife, Cassie Moores, also served in the US Air Force rescue teams – with two children, Moores works in New Mexico as a civilian pilot trainer for the US Air Force.
When asked what good his experience in Afghanistan had done for him, Moores said: “As much as Tammy’s death kind of crushed me in many ways, it also gave me strength in it. feel like I don’t think anything worse could happen to me again. “
Paint the pain
Ortegren, an infantryman who now works as a clinical psychotherapist with Rio Grande Counseling and Guidance Services in Albuquerque, noted that war rarely goes well on any given day, and even those who survive leave something behind.
“I’m back. I’m here,” he said of his state of mind today. “A lot of my buddies have come back; we’re here. And that’s a beautiful thing. But he there will always be a big part of me on that mountain in Afghanistan.
Dealing with memories of combat takes many forms. For Air Force veteran Dante Biss-Grayson, writing and painting helped express his feelings after flying several missions in Afghanistan.
Standing in the Züger Gallery in Santa Fe before his oil painting Soldier caught in a storm of war memories, he softly expressed his anger at the way the United States left Afghanistan.
“We are the ones who left them [the Afghans] vulnerable, ”he said. “We made the wrong decision and we did it wrong. We should have pulled out, but we should have been more strategic. Video of people falling from the sky from this C-17 – it’s embarrassing. “
The Santa Fe native and member of the Osage Nation joined the military in 2000, before September 11. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan for 12 years. He hoped he could tell the difference.
“I could save someone’s life,” said Biss-Grayson, who served in a rescue unit. “I removed people from [crashed] helicopters, lifted people close to death, stabilized them. If I could help save one more person, this is what I was going to do.
“Taking them out and bringing them home anywhere – Kansas, Nebraska, New York, all those places – was one of them.”
When he returned home, “I had no more mission,” he said.
Noting the number of veterans who kill themselves each day – the Department of Veterans Affairs puts the number at around 20 – he decided he didn’t want to be a statistic as he went through “a cycle of trauma.”
Therapy, marriage, a child and art helped anchor it.
“I can paint it, express it, verbalize it, educate people so that we can do something about it,” he said of helping veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder .
However, it cannot change the outcome of the war in Afghanistan. He doesn’t mince words when talking about how it ended.
“Pull the bandage off, everyone is going to die and fuck everyone up,” he said, describing the US withdrawal.
As might be expected, opinions may differ among veterans on what, if anything, should be done next. Biss-Grayson said there was no reason for the United States to return except to save the Americans who remained and the Afghan civilians who aided the United States military.
Jones wants to return as a civilian to help rebuild the country. He thinks a lot of American veterans would do the same.
“We fucked these people,” he said.
Moores said he doesn’t believe there is a political will to return.
“If this turns out to be another training ground for terrorists, we may have to go back,” he said. “And we’ll come back to where we started. “
Ortegren believes a higher and deeper level of thought is required when it comes to planning for the next war.
“We have a rich tradition of honing and learning exactly how to wage the last war just in time to be completely oblivious by the time we enter the next,” he said, calling the exercise “more wicked. , difficult to see and participate in.
When asked what advice he would give to those considering another war, he sat in silence.
“I don’t know how to answer that question,” he said.