As Eric Ortegren watched video footage of desperate Afghans clinging to the side of a departing American C-17 transport plane last week, he knew it was time to tune out.
“I had to kind of turn it off,” the U.S. Army veteran recalled, sipping a cup of morning coffee in his Santa Fe home. “That’s where it was: ‘OK, all right, that’s enough.’ ”
Ortegren, 43, possesses a face he says has seen a lot of living — and dying.
He turns away and gazes out a nearby window as he talks about his service in Afghanistan: the bombs, gunfire, shrapnel, death. The details are both big and small: He can recall the details of headlamps U.S. soldiers used in an otherwise near-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 to the Taliban and of terrified Afghans looking for somebody, anybody, to help them hit Ortegren hard.
“It hurts,” he said. “It was a sucker punch.”
Veterans from throughout New Mexico can relate. Nearly 20 years after the U.S. deployed troops to Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., the kickoff to what became America’s longest war, many are faced with renewed questions about what the conflict was about and the cost they paid.
“It’s just sad,” said Marine Corps veteran Joseph Jones of Las Cruces, who served in Afghanistan from 2008-09 and then again in 2010. “We didn’t keep our promises, and this is going to have far-reaching implications for years to come for our current allies, future allies and every terrorist organization that is watching us right now that will be emboldened because we look like fools.”
Los Alamos resident Ben Bateman, a former Army Special Forces officer who took part in a training program to prepare Afghan military troops for an eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces, wondered whether the lightning-fast fall of Afghanistan means a new generation of American troops someday will be called back to the country — history repeating 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 U.S. wars in both nations. “I don’t want my kids to see the darkness that is war. I don’t want them to make the decision that can result in somebody not coming home and live with that the rest of their lives. I don’t want people about to graduate West Point or ranger school to go fight the fights we don’t finish.
“And they’re going to have to.”
Leaving a love behind
Many veterans of Afghanistan share similar traits. They speak of building schools, digging wells and saving children from sex slavery in a nation where foreign troops had been repelled many times. Some saw beauty in the dry, mountainous terrain of the country, a place that in some places looks similar to New Mexico.
They encountered 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 — over the way events played out.
All of them left buddies behind.
Casey Moores, a U.S. Air Force veteran of the war who lives in Albuquerque, left behind a fiancée. In March 2003, Tamara “Tammy” Long-Archuleta, an Air Force lieutenant who flew helicopter rescue missions, was killed along with five U.S. soldiers while trying to save two injured Afghan children stranded in a remote mountain area on a pitch-black night.
Stationed at the time in nearby Pakistan, Moores had heard of a helicopter crash involving U.S. personnel earlier in the evening and sent Long-Archuleta an email, asking if she was OK.
He got no response.
When he was awakened a few hours later by his commanding officer and a chaplain, he knew. Their presence, he recalled, “kind of made it obvious to me.”
They were to marry that July.
Moores also flew rescue missions in three separate tours of duty in Afghanistan. He said he cannot judge the war based on his own personal loss.
“I try not to think of it in those terms,” he said.
But by the time of his final tour, in 2015, he said he realized “we had the choice of staying there forever. People talk about an exit strategy and winning. There was no winning at that point. We either stayed and supported whatever the Afghan National Army and police could become, or we left. I always felt if we left, what would happen is what is happening now.”
Married now — his wife, Cassie Moores, also served on rescue crews with the U.S. Air Force — with two children, Moores works in New Mexico as a civilian pilot trainer for the U.S. Air Force.
Asked what good his Afghanistan experience did for him, Moores said, “As much as Tammy’s death kind of crushed me in a lot of ways, it also gave me a strength in that I don’t think anything worse can happen to me again.”
Painting away the pain
Ortegren, an infantryman who now works as a clinical psychotherapist at Rio Grande Counseling and Guidance Services in Albuquerque, noted war rarely goes well on any given day, and even those who survive leave something behind.
“I came back. I’m here,” he said of his mindset today. “A lot of my buddies came back; we’re here. And that’s a beautiful thing. But there’s always going to be a big chunk of me on that mountain in Afghanistan.”
Coping with the memories of combat takes many forms. For Air Force veteran Dante Biss-Grayson, writing and painting helped express his feelings after serving several tours in Afghanistan.
Standing in Santa Fe’s Galerie Züger before his oil painting Soldier Caught In a Storm of Memories About the War, he quietly expressed his anger with the way the U.S. departed Afghanistan.
“We’re the one who left them [the Afghans] vulnerable,” he said. “We made the wrong decision and we did it incorrectly. We should have pulled out, but we should have been more strategic. Video of people falling out of the sky from that C-17 — that’s embarrassing.”
The Santa Fe native and member of the Osage Nation joined the military in 2000, before 9/11. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan over a 12-year period. He hoped he could make a difference.
“I could save somebody’s life,” said Biss-Grayson, who served in a rescue unit. “I pulled people out of [crashed] helicopters, pulled people out who were near death, stabilized them. If I could help save one more person, that’s what I was gonna do.
“To pull them out and get them home to wherever — Kansas, Nebraska, New York, all those places — was part of that.”
When he returned home, “I didn’t have a mission anymore,” he said.
Noting the number of veterans who take their own lives every day — the Department of Veterans Affairs puts the number around 20 — he decided he did not want to be a statistic as he wheels through “a cycle of trauma.”
Therapy, marriage, a child and art have helped anchor him.
“I can paint it, express it, verbalize it, get some awareness out there to people so we can do something about it,” he said of helping veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He can’t change the outcome of the war in Afghanistan, though. He doesn’t mince words in talking about the way it ended.
“Pull the Band-Aid, everybody is going to die, and screw everybody,” he said, describing the U.S. withdrawal.
Predictably, perhaps, opinions differ among the veterans about what, if anything, should be done next. Biss-Grayson said there is no reason for the U.S. to return except to rescue the Americans who remain and the Afghan civilians who helped the U.S. military.
Jones wants to go back as a civilian to help rebuild the country. He thinks a lot of American veterans would do the same.
“We screwed those people,” he said.
Moores said he doesn’t believe there is the political will to return.
“If it winds up being another hot training ground for terrorists, maybe we will need to go back,” he said. “And we’ll be right back to where we started.”
Ortegren thinks a level of higher, deeper thinking is in order when it comes to planning for the next war.
“We have a rich tradition of fine-tuning and learning exactly how to fight the last war just in time to be caught fully unaware just as we are moving into the next one,” he said, calling the exercise “the most nasty, difficult thing to see and participate in.”
Asked what advice he would give to those contemplating another war, he sat silently.
Then he responded.
“I don’t know how to answer that question,” he said.