As the Taliban took control in Afghanistan, Andrew Zemore texted his best friend’s aunt to assure her his sacrifice hasn’t been forgotten.
Kyle Staples saw the video of an Afghan falling to his death from a U.S. military plane and puked.
Toby Sandifer fielded a call from a friend desperately trying to figure out how to help an Afghan interpreter flee the country with his family and pregnant wife.
Sandifer, who deployed to Afghanistan four times as a medic and physician assistant, said he’d do what he could. But what could he?
“We’re just seeing the badness. We’re not seeing anything we can do to help. It makes you feel helpless.” said Sandifer, who lives in Richmond. “What you’re trained the whole time is you leave no one behind. And all we’re seeing on the news is all the people we’ve left behind.”
More than 750,000 U.S. servicemembers have cycled through Afghanistan to fight America’s longest war. More than 2,400 didn’t return, and over 20,000 came back injured. Virginia is home to more than 100,000 veterans who served after 9/11, more than all but Texas, California and Florida, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Chesterfield, Henrico and Richmond all rank in the top 15 localities in the state for veteran population.
As they’ve watched scenes of thousands of desperate Afghans crowding the airport in Kabul, knowing thousands more can’t risk passing Taliban checkpoints to get there in the wake of the government’s collapse, those who deployed are wrestling with the legacy of their service.
The impact rippled through the networks of veterans and their loved ones in recent weeks, resurfacing old and fresh traumas along with feelings of guilt and betrayal; prompting questions with no good answers.
What did we gain? Was it worth it? How do we square individual acts of heroism and sacrifice with an ending that looks like failure?
For veterans, these questions aren’t political. They’re personal.
Staples worked in the combat hospital in Kandahar in 2014, most often treating blast injuries on soldiers, sometimes women and children.
On Mother’s Day that year, someone drove a truck bomb into the middle of an Army unit that was providing medical care to Afghans. By lunchtime, the hospital had 87 casualties. The hospital staff numbered just over 100, including dentists and lab workers. That day, everyone was on a trauma team.
Among the injured was a woman who extracted a promise that she’d be able to talk to her girls later that night, a promise her caretakers kept. Another day, Staples saw a soldier who’d been hit in the head by a sniper’s bullet. There’s no reason for him to be alive, Staples said. But last he heard, the man is training for a marathon.
The news out of Afghanistan has left him sleepless, exhausted and disgusted by the way we’ve treated our Afghan allies.
Some of his friends from the military have a gung-ho attitude, a ‘let’s go to Kabul right now because we know that’s where the Taliban are’ mindset. Others are more philosophical, saying we did what we were asked and part of that was to perform an impossible task. They take pride in what they did in the moment.
“I am trying to convince myself otherwise, but it’s hard not to think that it was all for nothing,” he said. “While I question at the end of the day was it worth it, I try to kind of appease that in my own head that regardless of the politics… we let [injured American troops] go home. We gave people back their sons and daughters and dads.”
He feels sick thinking of the interpreters and allies who remain in Afghanistan, desperate to leave before the Taliban finds them but fighting a sluggish U.S. visa process. He said there’s some solace in knowing that nearby Fort Lee is housing Afghan refugees, but too many remain in danger.
Staples urged people to figure out how they can help, whether that’s giving time or money to organizations trying to help the refugees who’ve made it to the U.S. and those who haven’t.
“I don’t think there’s ever going to be a getting past it,” he said of coping with how the war’s end is unfolding. “I think it’s just going to be a live with it. Like some disease that might not kill you but there’s no cure for it.”
Zemore, a former Marine who carried a metal detector on foot patrols in some of the most dangerous patches of Afghanistan, would scan the dirt for the bombs that killed so many. He’ll never forget the Afghan Army soldier who hid behind a wall while one of Zemore’s friends was dying. As Afghanistan collapsed, he wasn’t surprised that the military folded. And his mind turned to the Marines who were beside him when the air was hot with bullets and mud and blood.
He texted the aunt of his best friend, Joseph Whitehead, who was 22 when a homemade bomb stole his future. Whitehead was a badass, Zemore says. He and Zemore bonded over fishing, fitness and conversations about combat.
Zemore carries gold coins with Whitehead’s name on them that he sometimes gives to strangers. He wears a custom dog tag that has a picture of Whitehead’s face, and has tattoos on his chest in honor of his friend. Zemore gave his son the middle name Joseph.
“I want you to know that the Zemore family thanks you for your family’s selfless sacrifices to this country,” Zemore wrote in the text, while reminding her that his death wasn’t in vain. “Tonight I have bible study and I want you to know there will be a group of men like me, tonight, that will be praying for you and all that they sacrificed.”
And his phone lit up with texts from other Marines, including one that just said, “You ok?”
“To me, that’s an alarm. That either tells me he’s in a bad spot or he’s worried about me being in a bad spot. You keep an eye on each other. We have buddies that put bullets in their head,” Zemore said.
Seventeen veterans a day die of suicide, according to a VA report released in November that used figures from 2018.
His unit did what they were sent to do, Zemore said. The Taliban took over the land he fought for in Helmand province years ago, so his unit has had more time to grapple with what it was for. The answer: each other. Over texts they agree they’d go back again if they could go with the same group of Marines.
“It’s very easy to look at it black and white. You were there. You were supposed to take over land. Now it’s back to what it was, if not worse,” he said. “We have to cope with it no matter what. Because you’re going to kill yourself, you’re going to kill someone else, you’re going to be in the psych ward, you’re going to take it out on your family. You have to process this. It’s going to come out somewhere.”
Zemore leans on his Christian faith and says his new battlefield is everywhere he goes. His mission is to make people feel loved.
He boils what he can do into four words: “Reach out to humans.”
Jonathan Pucci of Richmond helped train the Afghan military as a Marine in 2017 and 2018. He said it was obvious that the country’s forces weren’t close to being ready to operate without American assistance. But on an individual level, he said, he saw brave soldiers who were willing to die for their country. He doesn’t think U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan forever, so at some point leaving was going to be the right decision. The chaos of leaving in some ways feels both unavoidable and terrible.
“The memory of these organizations you worked with is going to get flattened into people running in front of planes,” Pucci said.
He’s been feeling an overwhelming impulse to do something, but what that means when there are no more deployments to sign up for is more complicated. He’s not going to catch a flight to fight with anti-Taliban forces to keep the promises he made to Afghans. When he saw that Fort Lee would be housing refugees, he started asking how he could volunteer or donate.
Pucci joined a writing class for veterans in Richmond called the Mighty Pen to process some of his experiences in Afghanistan. The short story he turned in was about an American who goes to Afghanistan and learns to succeed means often not making moral judgments. He comes home and works through fundamental morality with his 4-year-old son who knows nothing about war or the world. What is right? Pucci is quick to admit he doesn’t always know, but his thoughts often turn to the people who are in danger because they worked with him. With us.
“I’m not foolish enough to think as a guy who was in Afghanistan a couple of times I’m responsible for this, but there is a little bit of guilt.” Pucci said. “Every American corporal or above who interacted with Afghans found themselves making promises. The promises tended to be of the nature of we are going to be with you until this thing is over.”
More than 15,000 Afghans have been flown to the U.S. But that’s out of about 34,500 special immigration visas that have been authorized and 18,000 others that are pending. The figure is expected to spike as Afghanistan descends into chaos.
Pucci urged people to consider volunteering or donating to places like No One Left Behind, a charity focused on helping Afghans and their families who assisted the war effort.
“It feels sentimental to harp on about the reassurances that there were so many brave Afghans, but there were. That feels so important to me,” he said. “The important thing to me is there are people to whom we have obligations… There are lives that we can save and we should save them.”
Like millions of others who watched the evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Todd Marcum couldn’t help but see the parallels to Saigon and the end of the war in Vietnam.
Marcum was part of the Army battalion that Bowe Bergdahl left in Afghanistan. During the search for Bergdahl, a rocket landed in front of him but didn’t explode. Another day, his vehicle drove over a homemade bomb, but he survived.
Reached by text Tuesday at a Canadian fishing lodge accessible only by boat, Marcum, a native of Huntington, W. Va., had mixed feelings about the recent developments, which he has been able to watch on satellite television. The rapid collapse of the Afghan government and military surprised him, because the ones he fought beside were a good group of guys, he said.
“It’s a bit arrogant of us to forcibly try and change a culture like that,” he said. “We just gave women the right to vote 100 years ago . . . and some would argue we still don’t have an equal society.”
After his deployment, Marcum would testify in a Richmond courtroom against an insurgent he shot in the butt in 2009. The former Soviet tank commander who had converted to Islam is now serving life in a maximum security prison.
The idea that the war was lost doesn’t sit well with Marcum. The point wasn’t to control Afghanistan forever. Killing Osama Bin-Laden and destroying Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan feels like a win.
“Biden had to pull out or escalate the war,” wrote Marcum. “We can’t stay forever. We also can’t allow a safe haven for people to attack us.”
Shawn Rosalez was part of a Virginia National Guard unit that watched over Afghans as they went to the polls in 2004 to choose a president. He’d done three years of active duty service in the 1990s, and like so many others, signed up to serve again after 9/11.
He said that in emails with others he served alongside, they all agree despite their political leanings that they’re proud of what they accomplished and disgusted by the betrayal of our allies.
Rosalez said he voted for Joe Biden, but he can’t square the administration’s actions with the president’s words saying human rights will be the core of U.S. foreign policy.
“If you want to get out and you’re committed to getting out, then do it the right way,” he said. “These people put their lives on the line. It’s not just interpreters. It’s people who worked on the base doing odd jobs or people who came and gave us intelligence. We betrayed all those people. It’s like a gut punch. I can’t believe my country did that.”
Rosalez said soldiers would line up to volunteer for a mission to go back and help get people out of Afghanistan. His wife, whom he met in Prince William County after his deployment, left Afghanistan when she was five but still has family there. Her brother’s wife is trying to get to the U.S., but they’re almost out of hope. Her visa paperwork is incomplete, and Taliban checkpoints make attempting to get to the airport in Kabul a deadly proposition. It’s more likely that people will be getting rid of their paperwork so the Taliban can’t find it, he said.
The news from Afghanistan has consumed his life in the past week: He worries about those left behind, about his family, about the children born in the last two decades in Afghanistan who have no real concept of the Taliban’s brutal leadership style.
“There’s days where it gets to you and you just got to kind of push it back,” he said. “I don’t know what to do about it. If I could, I would.”
Hamid Noori’s last memory of Afghanistan as a peaceful place is from 30 years ago in Kabul, when he donned a blue bow-tie, dark blue slacks an…
Staff writer Frank Green contributed to this story.