The turmoil in Afghanistan this past week has greatly affected me…saddened me. While there have been many large scale disasters and turmoil in decades previous, earthquakes in Japan and Haiti, hurricanes in Puerto Rico, flooding in Italy, car bombs in the streets of London and Baghdad…they were half a world away. Watching the nightly world news…It’d grab my attention for a few minutes…then I’d turn to SportsCenter. This is different. The collapse of Afghanistan, resurrection of The Taliban and their hostile takeover of Kabul breaks my heart. It breaks my heart because about 15 years ago I got involved with two different organizations…both of them Military centric. In those 15 years I had the honor of visiting and spending time with 100’s of military veterans. Some were fundraisers/charity events, concerts, motorcycle rides and so on to raise awareness of the challenges our soldiers face after service…and raise money. Those interactions were usually upbeat…I met a lot of good people and, always left with a deep sense of respect and gratitude. Other interaction, in those 15 years, with our veterans were not so pleasant. I visited 100’s of our wounded warriors at places such as Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, The V.A. Hospital in Los Angeles and, for the past 10 years delivered XMAS presents to bedridden soldiers at the Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital and Balboa Naval Medical Center in San Diego. At first, the hospital visits were extremely difficult. Walking into a large, sterile room and seeing dozens of war damaged veterans lying in bed, some covered head to toe in bandages seeping red or yellow, some with facial burns so bad it looked like a Halloween mask, some just screaming loudly in pain and some, lying under a sheet that flattened out right below their thighs…I often had to excuse myself to the hallway…and cry. On subsequent visits, my goal became don’t focus on the misfortune and feel overwhelmed with empathy but instead, sit down, interact and leave feeling overwhelmed with the joy of making a new acquaintance. The second year of delivering XMAS gift bags to Balboa Medical Center I sat and talked to Curtis…a soldier in a wheel chair, for quite some time. Curtis was a black man in his mid twenties. He had lost one leg below the knee, and both his arms below the bicep were now metal claws. His Humvee had been hit by an IED. Curtis was bitter and resentful. The following year, delivering XMAS bags to Balboa I asked if Curtis was still there. He was. I found Curtis sitting by a window, pulled up a chair and sat next to him. He remembered me…we sat and made small talk. I then handed him his gift bag. Now all products in bag are donated and this year contained a bottle of Jergen’s Hand Lotion. Curtis takes the bag and dumps it on a metal tray attached to his chair. He picks through the items then, with his metal hooks that now served as hands picks up the bottle of hand lotion…stares at it silently for a moment, then whips to me with raised voice and says “Man…I ain’t even got no mother fuckin’ hands!!! What the hell I’m supposed to do with hand lotion???” On the outside I was absolutely terrified…but on the inside I couldn’t help but chuckle. I wanted so bad to make Curtis laugh…so with ignorant confidence, I took a deep breath and cautiously replied “Well how bout some WD-40?” After a few tense seconds he broke in to a big smile and said “Now that’s funny my man!”
15 years ago, when I first started meeting and interacting with these disabled hero’s…the question “Was it worth it” burned in my belly. You’ll never walk again, you’ll never hug again, you’ll never see again, your face is burned beyond recognition, you may be in a facility like this the rest of your life, the memories will haunt you…and so on. The years that followed, and the 100’s of interactions with these brave souls who’s lives had been changed forever…revealed I didn’t have to ask. Most were more than happy to talk about their experience and motivation, despite the terrible, personal consequences. Many expressed 9-11 as a turning point. Something had to be done about foreign terror directed towards bringing down American freedom. Granted…some were rednecks who just wanted to shoot something and some were given the choice of joining the military or joining Block D at Leavenworth. But…for the majority…their participation came from love of country. They proudly speak of their involvement protecting Middle Eastern people from insurgents, killing Saddam Hussein and liberating Iraq, training Middle East soldiers, killing of Osama bin Laden and, most important, eliminating The Taliban. 10 years ago, a gloating President Obama took to the airwaves and pronounced “bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda is on the run.” Seems his V.P., who is now President is just as clueless. This war started 20 years ago. In the past two decades, the majority of those American soldiers who have lost lives, lost limbs, lost relationships…and had lives changed forever would do it again. They hold strongly to the belief any sacrifice on their part to keep others safe, here or abroad was worth it. An honorable cause that made a difference. And it did…until the past month when our Commander in Chief announced a complete withdrawal of all troops. By leaving no soldiers behind to guarantee a smooth transfer of power, or to supervise a safe evacuation of American civilians and Afghanistan allies, the Taliban quickly took control. They now celebrate from the steps of the American Embassy and, collect billions of dollars worth of American Military Weaponry hastily left behind. Watching footage of crowds of people clinging to the side of an American transport plane on the runway, fearing for their lives because The Taliban is back in charge…makes me want to again, step out in to the hallway and cry. Not for me but, for all the heroes I’ve met the past 15 years…the majority who remained upbeat believing they made a difference. I’m sure they’re watching the same footage…sadly realizing their sacrifices we’re all for not. We’re back to square one. Especially Curtis.