Afghanistan Vets From N.H. Share 'Sense of Futility,' Frustration At U.S. Withdrawal
"The way it happened was certainly a shock for many veterans, I think, and for many Americans and Afghans."
With the Taliban now in power in Afghanistan, many American veterans who served there are reflecting on their role in that long conflict. All Things Considered host Peter Biello interviewed two New Hampshire veterans to hear what they think of the U.S. withdrawal after almost 20 years of war.
Lynn Powers is an Army veteran from Brookline, who served in Afghanistan in Special Forces working with civilians in the Wardak and Paktika provinces for about a year in 2012. Phil Nazzaro is an Army veteran from Newmarket. He served in Afghanistan in 2003 and focused on force protection of the base at Bagram.
Peter Biello: Let's start with you, Phil. What has it been like for you to see the images in the news today and over the weekend?
Phil Nazzaro: Yeah, I have to say that having served in 2003, it's been almost 20 years now, which is hard to believe, I didn't expect them to be quite as emotional as they were when I saw them. You know, I've had a rational processing of the Afghanistan experience in my time since then and really come to a place where I was supporting us, leaving Afghanistan, maybe not in the way that it occurred, but supporting us, ending our mission there.
And I have to say that just witnessing what happened in such a rapid amount of time, based on all the work that we've spent there, the work that my unit spent there and all the units since 2003, really has hit me on an emotional level.
Peter Biello: How would you describe those emotions?
Phil Nazzaro: Complicated. I would say is probably the best way to describe my emotions. I've termed it as somewhat a sense of futility that I didn't expect to have of looking back and seeing the helicopters landing on the embassy and just thinking about like that image next to the image of the fall of Saigon and the helicopters landing on our embassy there.
It made me feel a kinship towards Vietnam veterans, I think, that I had not even considered when I was considering we need to pull out of Afghanistan. So definitely a sense of what did we do there, knowing that so much of who I define myself as is wrapped up in the work that I did in the military, specifically my deployment to Afghanistan. Definitely complicated in those ways.
Peter Biello: And Lynn Powers, same question to you. You served 10 years, roughly 10 years, after Phil served. What was it like for you to see the images in the news today and over the weekend?
Lynn Powers: I would say my feelings are actually very similar to Phil. And the last couple of days I really look back at my photos from my deployment. I was in the civilian population day in and day out. I actually lived in the village in a lot among the civilians and seeing the smiling faces and in those images and then putting them side by side with, you know, the horrific images of the people falling from the C-130 and the packed planes and people just absolutely desperate to survive and to escape.
It was much more emotional than I really expected. I was actually in the same place as Phil was, where it should come as no surprise that we were planning to leave. The way it happened was certainly a shock for many veterans, I think, and for many Americans and Afghans. But it definitely has left a mix of emotions inside me that I've been trying to sort through.
Peter Biello: And Phil Nazzaro, I understand that you know some people who are still currently in Afghanistan. What are you hearing from them, if anything, or what do you know about what they're going through right now?
Phil Nazzaro: Yes, so, I have a good friend who's on the ground in Kabul right now, he's still serving in the military. I don't want to like very sporadic communications or limited communications [sic]. I don't want to get into the details. Obviously, he wouldn't share with me over not secure communications, anything super detailed, the closest assessment or the best I can give an assessment based on what I hear from him is that one out of 10, it's about a 12, of lived experience over there. And he's a senior, seasoned combat veteran. So it's hearing things like that make me concerned for the service members that are over there, as well as as Lynn mentioned, like, we work very closely with a lot of local nationals who you form bonds with. I feel internally emotional around the lived experiences of people who are going to be left behind.
Peter Biello: Phil, how did you feel about your service in Afghanistan while you were there? And how does that compare to how you feel about your service in the overall mission now?
Phil Nazzaro: Yeah, it's sort of there's been an arc to it that the last week has definitely had an impact upon. It
was 2003, like September 11th was not a long time before that. It was [a] very real memory and truly felt like we were doing incredibly important work, felt very committed to that mission, which then sort of morphed over time from what had initially been combat missions into more of the nation building-type mission, but also commitments to the work we're doing for myself.
I think a lot of veterans, really a lot of our self-definition comes from the time we spent in the military, especially the time we spent forward deployed and seeing how quickly that unraveled the work of the time we spent forward deployed, it causes like almost like I don't want to overstate it, but a bit of an existential like - what did we do there? Was it worth it? For not just the sacrifices that we made, but like for those that made the ultimate sacrifice during their time in Afghanistan.
Peter Biello: And Lynn, same question to you. How did you feel about your work while you were doing it in Afghanistan? And how do you look back on it now?
Lynn Powers: It's complicated ... is probably the best way to put it on both sides when we were there, when I was there with my unit, we participated in village stability operations, we helped build clinics. We vaccinated children and adults. We taught women and children how to read ... the very basic level. I mean, we were there to improve their lives. And like Phil, we also questioned the sustainability of it all.
My hope is that maybe we affected the right people at the right time, that as they grow and are able to you know, we have 20 years, we have a generation, that had a taste of some semblance of freedom, maybe not what we understood understand to be freedom, but comparatively to what their lives were in the 90s and early 2000s, maybe as that generation ages, they can affect some change in their country. And that's what we can hope for.
Peter Biello: Phil, what do you think Americans should keep in mind as they hear these stories about Afghanistan in the news?
Phil Nazzaro: I think, like we can think globally and act locally, right. So what can we do, like here and now? And I think something to keep in mind is how much veterans, their self-identity is based upon their experiences there. And I don't think I can overstate how important hearing that their service mattered to somebody can mean to us.
Peter Biello: And Lynn, how about you? What do you think Americans should keep in mind in this moment?
Lynn Powers: I think Phil said it wonderfully. In addition to that, I'd like to add on the military families have really sacrificed as much as our veterans alone. We are indebted as a nation to them as well. And just with the theme of we're all humans and we should all be treated with dignity and respect, appreciate what we have and hopefully we can move forward as a nation, and so can Afghanistan.