As the last U.S. troops begin returning home from Afghanistan, some Dubuque veterans of the country’s longest conflict are left torn over the outcome of the war in which they served.
In recent months, President Joe Biden led the U.S. armed forces in withdrawing from Afghanistan. The U.S. will still have a presence there until Aug.31. He was the fourth commander in chief to oversee the conflict and the third to prioritize ending the nearly 20-year-long war.
The conflict — first Operation Enduring Freedom, from 2001 to 2014, then Operation Freedom’s Sentinel — was initiated by President George W. Bush in response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Biden announced the withdrawal, or drawdown, of troops in late April. Since it began in earnest late last month, it has happened quickly.
“Our military commanders advised me that once I made the decision to end the war, we needed to move swiftly to conduct the main elements of the drawdown,” Biden said on July 7.
The speed at which the withdrawal, and the response from Taliban forces, has happened surprised Ben Drury, of Dubuque, who served in Afghanistan as a specialist with Army infantry from 2004 to 2005.
“It didn’t feel ‘real’ to me until I saw the report of a base outside the city I was stationed at getting taken over (by Taliban forces),” he said. “They didn’t specify which base, but I had a feeling it was the one I was at in ’04. Probably so much has changed since then that I wouldn’t even recognize it, but it was a funny feeling.”
But the return of troops is real, according to Master Sgt. Sarah Robinson, of the Iowa National Guard.
“About a year ago, we had a whole bunch of going-away ceremonies,” she said.
Some of those troops from Iowa were headed to Afghanistan.
“Now, we’re preparing to welcome a whole bunch home,” she said.
A 31-year veteran, Rick Ernst, of Dubuque, said the sheer length of the war made it seem almost permanent.
“From 2001 to 2014, that was my life — helping units prepare to deploy,” he said. “That was a large portion of my adult life. Then, my son and daughter both joined and served for six and 12 years. So, it became a multi-generational thing, more so than other conflicts.”
Drury, too, had started to think about the next generation fighting in Afghanistan when Biden announced the withdrawal.
“To me, the scary fact is that in one year from now a baby born while I was over there could have been sent to the exact base I was at,” he said. “Maybe even sat in the same guard towers. Maybe read the same graffiti under the table in there. At some point, we had to leave.”
Randy Rennison directs the Dubuque County Veterans Affairs Department now but served two tours in Afghanistan. He wonders what will happen to the place that changed so much throughout the United States’ presence there.
“A lot of the younger generation, who aren’t even 20 years old, have never not known us to be there,” he said. “It’s not heartbreaking (the withdrawal), but you would think we could have done a lot better. Obviously, I don’t want to see the Taliban regroup, come to the U.S. and hold it against individuals. Hearing on the news the different things, some of the Afghan government almost giving up, gets you down. You would think with all of the money and technology we’ve put in, they would be ready. I hope they are.”
One of Ernst’s jobs when he served in Afghanistan was to train Afghani noncommissioned officers to then train local troops.
“They, like anybody, were married and had children, wanted their daughters to be able to go to school,” he said. “They had a lot of pride in their country and were already fierce fighters. The things we were teaching them were the periphery items like intelligence gathering, military planning.”
Ernst is watching discussions about the U.S. giving sanctuary to those officers, families and others who worked so closely with U.S. troops in recent decades.
“Right now, the big stories in the media are getting the interpreters out and those who helped the military,” he said. “We should do a better job of that. But part of me thinks that we can’t have all those smart, patriotic people leave the country. Then, who would be there to try and help rebuild a stable government?”
In general, Ernst and Rennison both said they were torn about the U.S. military’s departure from Afghanistan. But they said they thought trusting the Taliban to agree to any treaties would be ineffective.
“My hope and prayers are that we haven’t exited so ungracefully that the last 20 years were all for naught,” Ernst said.