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Veteran Describes 'Futility' Of Serving In America's Longest War

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It seems likely that few people are watching the events in Afghanistan as closely as the people who serve there. At every point, from the invasion in 2001 to the recent terrorist attack at Kabul airport, they've risked their lives in support of the U.S. mission there. There are probably as many views of the mission and the way it is ending as there are people who served, so we're not going to pretend we know or can sum up what everybody thinks. We're just going to keep bringing you different views.

So today we hear from Laura Jedeed, a writer and Army veteran who deployed to Afghanistan twice and posted a powerful essay on Medium that's getting a lot of attention. It's called "Afghanistan Meant Nothing. A Veteran Reflects On 20 Wasted Years." And Laura Jedeed is with us now to tell us more about it.

Laura Jedeed, thank you so much for talking to us.

LAURA JEDEED: Thank you. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: What you say in the piece - I mean, let's - let me just start where you start. You say, I remember Afghanistan well. I deployed there twice, once in 2008 and again in 2009 to 2010. It was already obvious that the Taliban would sweep through the very instant we left.

Why do you say that?

JEDEED: Well, the second deployment that I went on, we were there to train the Afghan National Army and police. And this was the 82nd Airborne Division, which is not trained to train anyone. We're barely trained ourselves to do anything except for, well, what the 82nd does, which is destroy things. And so after some abortive efforts, what my unit ended up doing was what a lot of units did, which was we did the missions and then we said that we helped but that the Afghan National Army did most of it.

So that was one thing where it just seemed like we weren't really providing any kind of groundwork to keep things in check. It just felt like it was us versus people who wanted us to not be there anymore. And the people who didn't want us to be there seemed a lot more passionate about it than we did or than our ostensible allies did. And it just seemed like the whole exercise was propping up something that would fall apart the minute we left.

MARTIN: You talked about the sense of futility, the peace - you know, you write about that. You say, I remember how every year, the U.S. would have to decide how to deal with the opium fields. You could leave the fields alone and then the Taliban would shake the farmers down and use the money to buy weapons. Or you could carpet bomb the fields, and then the farmers would join the Taliban for reasons that, to me, seem obvious. But when all this was going on, like, did you and your fellow soldiers - did you talk to each other about this? Was this ever even discussed? Like, how did you deal with that, what's, like, right in front of your face?

JEDEED: Oh, I mean, that's the sort of thing that you joke about, right? Because there's no good answer. So you have to make it into a joke. But I do remember one very specific conversation that I had. This was - I had the privilege to do some support for the Marines Special Forces. And me and this Marsat (ph) guy had just figured out how to plug a pretty big collections gap in the province we were at. And we were very pleased. It was a good day. And we just sat there and looked at the plan.

And then he looked at me and he said, it's really too bad all of this is going to fall apart the minute we leave. And I said, yup. And then we're silent for a second. And then we left for our respective rooms. And it would just be at certain moments where, you know, even when things were going well, maybe especially when they were, it just - you'd become overwhelmed with the fact that no matter how well you did, it didn't really matter. And, sometimes, you brought it up. And mostly, you just joked about it or didn't.

MARTIN: And when you say Afghanistan meant nothing - I mean, nothing.

JEDEED: I mean, everything means something, right? It certainly changed America. It certainly influenced millions of lives in this country and especially in Afghanistan. But as far as accomplishing anything that we set out to, as far as making any kind of difference, bringing freedom and democracy or whatever we said we were going to do or making America safer, no, I don't think we accomplished any of those things. And I think it's like some kind of nightmare sitcom, where you don't just go back to the way it was at the beginning of the episode. Now everything is worse, and it breaks my heart. I didn't enjoy writing those words, but I stand by them.

MARTIN: Why did you go, by the way? I mean, you talk about that a little bit in your piece, but do you remember why you joined at the time you joined? Why did you join? And how do you feel about it now?

JEDEED: I was deeply affected by September 11. I was 13 when it happened. And the instant I turned 18, I signed up. I wanted to be part of this fight. I wanted to be part of bringing freedom and democracy to people overseas. My father was an immigrant from Syria, and I didn't know a lot about that side of my family. But I felt like, surely, they wanted what we had. Didn't everyone? And so I had this idea that by signing up, I would be, you know, defeating America's enemies and bringing freedom and democracy to people who were hungry for it. That's not what I found when I got there.

MARTIN: I take it you've gotten a big reaction to the piece. I know I certainly have seen people sending it all over the place, people that I wouldn't necessarily have expected that - like it was reposted in The American Conservative, for example. I mean, what struck you about the reaction? First of all, you tell me about what reaction you've seen from the piece and what strikes you about it.

JEDEED: I have gotten some private messages from veterans that do say that I maybe was able to capture something that they weren't able to express. Not every veteran feels that way, of course. I have some friends that didn't love everything about that piece. But I do - I mean, there's a lot that we couldn't say, especially in the aftermath of September 11 and even as we held out some hope that something good might come of all of our efforts. But I think that now at the end of the road, when people really see the starkness of it, maybe some realism was helpful. I hope so.

MARTIN: It's become I'm going to say customary to say - to thank service members like yourself for your service. I think that's an acknowledgement that a lot of people who came back - from Vietnam in particular, that the country did them dirty, you know, did not respect what they had personally sacrificed, even if people did not like or agree with the overall mission - right? - or the overall conflict. OK? So I think people want to do better. And the - it has been - you know, one thanks people who've served like yourself for your service. How does that land with you?

JEDEED: It's a strange thing because if you have mixed feelings about your service or you feel largely negative about it and you don't feel like you did it for the person who's thanking you, it can be very awkward. There was a period of time where I really didn't like it. At this point, I accept it in the spirit that it's given. I know that people are trying to find words to - it's hard to to deal with this sort of thing, especially in light of having lost two wars fairly dramatically.

I do think not making a big deal of it is always the right decision. Acknowledgement and then moving immediately past it. Most veterans that I know - we aren't in the Army or the military for a reason. We want to move on with our lives and be someone else now. And so acknowledgement is lovely. And then acknowledging the people that we are separately from our service is also really important.

MARTIN: To that end, that was Laura Jedeed, She is a writer, and she is a veteran of the Army, retiring at the rank of sergeant. Her piece, "Afghanistan Meant Nothing," is available on Medium. And you can also read her other pieces now. Laura Jedeed, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing these words.

JEDEED: Thank you so much for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "THOUGHT 8") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.