Some Iowa veterans 'absolutely heartbroken' as they watch Taliban seize Afghanistan areas they fought for
Iowa veterans of the Afghanistan War were in disbelief Monday as chaos engulfed the country they fought to protect from the Taliban.
"I'm heartbroken. Absolutely heartbroken," former Iowa National Guardsman Matt Smith said. "This is not how it was supposed to end, or how it had to end."
Along with countless other veterans, Smith has watched on TV as Taliban fighters race across Afghanistan. They've seized nearly the entire country, including bases where hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops served. They've even taken the Presidential Palace in Kabul, after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.
Veterans who spoke with the Des Moines Register Monday said they worry about the Afghans who helped them and are now prime targets for the Taliban. They also worry about the morale of their fellow veterans.
Smith, 42, of Monroe, served two tours in Afghanistan with the Iowa National Guard, then returned there for a stint as a security contractor at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
He retired from the Guard a few years ago as a sergeant major. His duties included helping lead joint American and Afghan Army patrols in a mountainous region near the Pakistan border during the Iowa National Guard's 2010-11 deployment there, its largest since World War II.
Many of the places where Smith served are now firmly under control of the Taliban, the very people the American and Afghan Army troops fought against.
"It's a literal nightmare," Smith said.
He said he understood why the American mission was being drawn down, but he can't accept that the chaotic transition was inevitable.
The military is known for making extensive, detailed plans, he said. But it appears U.S. troops were yanked out without regard to what would happen next. It's as if instead of checking out of a hotel properly, he said, "we tossed our keys on the bed and flipped out the lights."
Smith now works for a nonprofit group called "Hope for the Warriors," which helps veterans and their families. He said many Afghanistan War veterans are worried about friends they made during their service.
Smith dismissed claims that Afghan soldiers or police didn't care about defending their country. Anyone who says that, "never fought shoulder to shoulder with the Afghans," he said. "The soldiers that I fought with wanted a better life. They wanted a better Afghanistan."
However, he said, corruption among Afghan leaders rotted the military, leaving it vulnerable to collapse.
Smith fears Afghanistan could quickly become a bastion for terrorism, "the likes of which I don't think we've ever seen."
"The Taliban will say, 'All we had to do is wait,'" he said.
'Now it could be even more dangerous'
Todd Eipperle, who was one of the most highly decorated veterans of the Iowa National Guard's 2010-11 deployment to Afghanistan, also worries that the country will resume its role as a terrorism base.
"The Taliban is probably better off than they were before. They've got our equipment, and we left a lot of it," he said in an interview Monday.
Eipperle, 57, of Ankeny, was shot in the hip and knee during an attack by a rogue policeman in 2011 in Afghanistan. Two Americans, including Iowa Guard Sgt. 1st Class Terryl Pasker of Cedar Rapids, were killed in the attack. Despite his wounds, Eipperle was able to stop the attack by shooting the gunman. He received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with a "V device," honoring outstanding valor.
It took Eipperle about two years to convalesce from his wounds, but he remains in the military, as a sergeant major in the Army Reserve.
He saw firsthand how challenging it would be to turn Afghanistan around. That was especially true in rural areas of the rugged country, where people live in villages and have little contact with the central government, he said.
Still, he said he was surprised the U.S. suddenly pulled all troops out of Afghanistan.
"I know the popular thing was to get out of there. I understand that," he said. "But now it could be even more dangerous." He pointed out that the U.S. still has troops in Japan, Germany and Korea, many decades after wars ended there.
Eipperle wonders if the outcome in Afghanistan will give Americans pause before going to war in the future. They may ask, "when we go in there, will it be for nation-building? Because maybe we're not so good at that," he said.
Veterans urged to focus on their good work
Dan Grinstead of Iowa City, a mental health professional who deployed to Afghanistan with the National Guard in 2010, said he shares others' shock at seeing the Taliban suddenly control former U.S. strongholds. Those include Bagram Airfield, a huge, heavily fortified base near Kabul where he spent several months counseling soldiers.
Grinstead, 71, was in the Guard from 2008 to 2014. He's now retired as a social worker.
He said many veterans are probably discouraged by the Taliban takeover of areas they worked so hard to protect and improve.
"They'll be asking, 'Why did my buddies give their lives?'" he said.
Even if they're shocked by the current tragedy, everyone knew the war would have to end at some point, he said.
Grinstead said he would advise anyone who's feeling anxious or depressed to seek professional help as well as the support of people they served with. He'd also advise them to focus on the positive things they did for Afghanistan.
"We did the best we could, and we did it very well," Grinstead said.
Grinstead said he would remind veterans they were responsible for their own missions, not the overall result.
"What I have to remind myself of is: Politicians start wars and politicians end wars," he said.
Tony Leys writes about health care for the Register, and covered the 2010-11 deployment of the Iowa National Guard to Afghanistan. Reach him at email@example.com or 515-284-8449.