(Over the summer, The Driftless Journal ran a series of advertisements calling for Afghanistan Veterans to share their experiences in the war, their viewpoints on the conflict and the current issues with the U.S. Military withdrawal. Two Veterans came forward and agreed to be interviewed and a letter was submitted.)
The phrase “You don’t know unless you were there” is something that rings true, especially in events such as war. In feeling that sentiment, this article seeks to share the perspectives of those Veterans who served in the War in Afghanistan.
The War in Afghanistan was active for nearly 20 years, until August 2021 when President Joe Biden opted to leave the country and end the occupation. On August 15, the Taliban forces retook Kabul and declared victory. In those almost 20 years, trillions of dollars were spent, and thousands of lives were lost on both sides. For those who were there, this issue is deeper than almost anything.
Norma Klein, of Protivin, is a US Air Force Veteran, a member of the Gold Star Wives of America—an organization that provides support for the spouses and children of those who lost their lives while serving in the Armed Forces—as well as a member of TAPS, which stands for Tragedy Assistance for Survivors. Norma is also a military widow herself. She noted, “My Afghanistan perspective isn’t from physically being in the middle east, but through TAPS, getting to know the women whose sons, husbands and brothers who have died while serving there.”
Norma stated that the week of the withdrawal from Afghanistan she spoke with several women who had lost loved ones in the war, reassuring them “their loved ones didn’t die in vain, they contributed to keeping this country safe for almost 20 years from having another 9/11.” She spoke of the lack of confidence these people had with the leadership and the decision to leave Afghanistan.
Gerad Voltmer, president of Voltmer, Inc., was active duty in Afghanistan, after spending time in the Army Reserves. While he was a senior in high school, Voltmer decided to enlist in September of 2002. He cited his
grandfather, a World War II Veteran who served on the USS Yorktown, as his primary reason for joining the service. Another motivation? The September 11th attacks, which happened while he was a junior in high school. “It cemented the path,” said Voltmer.
From 2002 to 2010, Voltmer was in the Army Reserves as a combat engineer. In early 2010, he was sent overseas, and by August he was stationed in southern Afghanistan. “I was ready to do it,” said Voltmer, “that part didn’t bother me for some reason We had a good group of guys, we were diverse in life experiences and skills, and we were capable and ready to go do it.”
Voltmer spent a year in Afghanistan, working in a Route Clearance Patrol. This team of approximately 30 soldiers was in charge of clearing the roads and routes of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), one of biggest killers in the war. He and his team would wake up in the morning, get briefed on what route they were taking, and set out. Voltmer noted that he had missions last anywhere from 6 to 36 hours, often while under enemy fire. “It just depends what you find,” he said.
Additionally, Voltmer was also in charge of the translator for the group. Apart from giving other troops “freedom to maneuver” in the Route Clearance Patrol, Voltmer’s job, as well as all the other soldiers, was to “win the hearts and minds of the people”. Voltmer would go in with the translator, explain they were there to help, and attempt to get information from the people of the different villages they patrolled through.
Once he left Afghanistan, Voltmer said he kept tabs on things, but made sure to “keep busy”. “It seems like the guys who did that did better. Some sat and dwelled on things, which doesn’t help,” he added. Now, it has been harder than ever to ignore what is going on over there. “The biggest thing that bothers me is leaving people behind. That’s the biggest thing we’re taught not to do.” Hundreds of US troops remained in Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul to guard the airport, ensuring people could flee the country. However, Voltmer noticed they weren’t set up for success.
“We took away the support structure for the Afghan national army and it fell apart,” said Voltmer, “it takes a lot to keep a military machine moving. If you take away support structure and just leave the combat troops there, they lose all their support.” In doing so, Voltmer says the withdrawal from Afghanistan is “an example of how not to do it.” Voltmer added, “Do I think we need to be drawn out in 20 years of conflict? No. But, if you look at the history of it, it’s this generation’s Vietnam … I think we should probably think about analyzing that and seeing how we get involved in conflicts like that in the future.”
Apart from the American losses, Voltmer also expressed sympathy for the Afghan people, saying “I think about my interpreters. What are they doing now? What is the Taliban going to do to them? That’s a lot of personal sacrifice and desire [they showed] to help your people by doing that.”
The theme of Voltmer’s thoughts is disappointment, frustration. “It’s just a sore subject right now. I feel we’re better than that. A lot of people had a lot of time and their own personal skin in the game. To have that all fall apart is a hard pill to swallow. No less than a dozen of my guys, we’ve talked and for lack of a better term they’re madder than a hornet. [They’re asking] ‘why did I spend time over there?’ ‘why did I leave my legs over there?’ you know?”
Winneshiek County Deputy Sherriff Byron Hook enlisted as a combat medic in 1997, after graduating high school. In 2000, he moved to Iowa and reclassed to be a combat engineer. He was deployed to Iraq in 2003, then after spending several years in the Army Reserves, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011.
While in Afghanistan, Hook’s job was to build Forward Operating Bases, or FOBs. An FOB is essentially a base for infantry, located further in the desert than the main bases. Hook likened his job to working for a construction company, stating that most of his job was to “go out into the middle of the desert, build the base, then return back to the main base and get supplies.” Hook built “around eight or nine different FOBs” by his count, some from the ground up and some as additions to already existing bases.
Hook echoed an earlier sentiment of the possible dangers of the desert, saying “It’s nothing to have rockets fired at you from who knows where. There was always that chance over there. Having rounds shot at you was typical.” Yet, despite the danger, Hook noted “we were pretty fortunate to not lose anybody over there.” Hook found himself in more of a support role in Afghanistan, saying “I was out there with the guys laying their lives on the line … it was my job that when they got back to wherever they were sleeping at night that they were safe.”
Now, nine years after he left Afghanistan and five years after leaving the Army Reserves, Hook sat and watched the withdrawal from Afghanistan from afar. “At first, I was like “it’s about time.” I don’t think you can go in there and change people’s minds in 20 years. They’ve been like this for thousands of years. To change that, you have to have a people willing to want to change,” said Hook, “I don’t see how you can change [their way of life] without them being willing to change.”
On the topic of how the withdrawal was handled, Hook called it “absolutely ridiculous.” Yet, Hook said he wasn’t surprised by how quickly things fell apart. “it wasn’t like we didn’t know that was coming. Anybody who’s been over and tried to train with the Afghan forces … they’ll say the same thing. They’re just not the same [type of soldier].” “You kind of had an idea this was going to happen. When we pulled out, there was little resistance. It was like the writing was kind of on the wall.”
In closing, Hook said “I’m really indifferent [to the situation]. I feel like my time in the service was, whether you agree with it or not … it was an honor for me to serve. Whatever job I did while I was over there, I tried to do it as best I could. [As for my] thoughts or feelings on what’s going on over there now, I’m hurt for the people over there.”
Since August, the Taliban have remained in control of the country, and the effort of getting all American forces out has continued. Yet, for the perspectives shown here in the Driftless, the emotion is still there.