Over the past few days, I have had an opportunity to chat with several fellow veterans, service members, military family members and Gold Star families. It is beyond obvious to say that these have been extraordinarily difficult times for those with a personal connection to our mission in Afghanistan.
Recently, a CNN reporter broadcast from a base in Andar, Afghanistan — this was a base that my soldiers and I built, and the base where I was wounded in 2006. Seeing it on the screen brought back a lot of memories — good and bad.
When we first secured Andar, we were using an open space adjacent to the district-center compound, where I lived with the local governor to land helicopters. Unbeknownst to us, that open space was a cemetery.
One day, the elder approaches me, saying we were landing helicopters in their cemetery and that it was deeply disrespectful. We talked for hours, and right as the villagers and the elders were satisfied that we intended no harm and we agreed on a new place to land, I heard the distinct sound of a far-off Chinook helicopter. Despite my best efforts to wave them off, two giant Chinooks land right in front of us in the cemetery, sandblasting the entire group of gathered elders in the process and effectively undoing all the goodwill I had just spent hours building. Of the 847 days I spent serving in Afghanistan, every single one was like that day. A few steps forward, a few steps back.
In my conversations with fellow veterans, their memories are about the same. The question that keeps coming up: Was this worth it?
Unfortunately, most are having a hard time answering that question. There’s a term for that: moral injury. Moral injury is the mind’s response to actions or memories that are in violation of a person’s values and beliefs — some might say it’s an injury to your soul. For 20 years, the weight of the War on Terror fell on the shoulders of less than 1% of us — 2.7 million Americans voluntarily answered the call to serve, and 7,057 never came home. Another 30,177 came home only to take their own lives.
As we reflect as a nation on the current situation in Afghanistan and on the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, I think it is more important than ever to remind ourselves of the unity that existed following the 9/11 attacks. Now, 20 years later, we should focus our efforts on those elements that unify us, those elements of our history that make us stronger, those elements that define American exceptionalism.
Pearl Harbor, 9/11, whatever the crisis — Americans have always stood up and found a way to overcome obstacles. Despite the fear, the heartbreak, the anger we’re all experiencing, we owe it to ourselves and to our fallen to be good stewards of our democracy. We must live up to their legacy. As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, all of us must find a way to serve.
After Pearl Harbor, our nation mobilized in support of the war efforts. Everyone made sacrifices in support of our common goal. When the war was over, we made up for lost time. For the greatest generation, there was no obstacle that couldn’t be overcome — and today, we have the opportunity to harness that same spirit.
To the brave men and women who served and to your families, as well as to the families of the fallen: The sacrifices you and your families made were not in vain. What we are witnessing today is not our failure; this is not our burden to bear. Having had the privilege of serving alongside so many amazing Americans and allied service members, quite frankly, I’m tremendously proud of what you were able to accomplish, and I hope you are, too. The fact is you carried more than your fair share — and you are stronger because of it.
It’s OK to not be OK right now. Take some time to reconnect with old friends or to remind yourself about that time you were handed a mission and somehow figured out how to make it work. Let’s take that problem-solving mind-set into our next mission. There’s work to be done — your country and your communities need strong leaders like you to tackle tough problems, and solving tough problems is what we do best.
I can think of no better way to demonstrate our gratitude for the sacrifices of our service members, veterans and their families than by reaffirming our commitment to service, to each other, to our communities and to our nation.
Joseph Reagan is the director of military and veteran outreach for Wreaths Across America. He served eight years of active duty as an officer in the U.S. Army, including two tours in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division.