As we approach Memorial Day this year, like many of you, I am filled with emotion and reflection. This day was set aside to honor those service members who died defending our freedoms. As a combat Veteran, like other Veterans, not a day passes where I do not remember those who remain ‘forever young.’
After 14 months of the COVID -19 pandemic, divisive political rhetoric, eroding race relations, and a host of other dividing issues facing our country, my hope is as we take time to remember this Memorial Day that we will become united once again.
This year, as I reflect on my own experiences during multiple combat tours, thoughts of Afghanistan have come more often and I am bracing for impact and a flood of emotions long suppressed. The President announced that we will end our involvement there on September 11, 2021, ending the longest war in American history. Most Americans have forgotten this war and by extension, those who saw service there in the past two decades. On Memorial Day we remember the sacrifices of all wars but I would ask each of us to also remember the sacrifices of those who served in Afghanistan.
For 20 years, I have been comforted by the personal conviction that the sacrifices of our brave service members there mattered. I tell myself that freedom and liberty were preserved and underpinned by their deaths and the lives that I and others took there. This year, on September 11 we will complete the drawdown in Afghanistan and will end America’s longest war, a war currently being fought by the sons and daughters of those who began it, and with very little interest from the American people.
As Memorial Day draws nearer, I have begun to see the faces of those who I knew who died there and those Afghans who stood shoulder to shoulder with us. Afghans who will in all probability face certain death for their alliance with us as the Taliban resumes its stranglehold. Advances in women’s rights will be reversed and much that we built, will almost certainly be destroyed.
There is comfort in the Veteran community in this regard and shared healing. As we talk to our Vietnam Veterans, for example, they will tell you that in addition to all of the other challenges they have faced, how they felt when Saigon fell. How they felt when they read how we failed to achieve our objectives there despite their actions. It has already begun for those of us who fought in Afghanistan, with more writers stating the war has been lost and that lives and American treasure have been squandered once again.
The beginning of any war and its ending has always been a civilian policy level decision. The time in between those decisions, however, has always been paid for by our fighting men and women, their blood, their sacrifice and their memories. So this year, on Memorial Day in addition to honoring our brave men and women from all wars, I and other Afghan War Veterans are bracing for impact and we will reflect on what it is we did, those we left behind, and we will ask ourselves, at some level, was it worth it.
As of this writing, we have lost 2312 U.S military personnel in the 20 year, 2.4 trillion dollar Afghan war. What you may not know is 241,000 Afghans and Pakistanis also perished, with 71,000 of them being civilians. 2.7 million U.S. service members served there, with over half of them deploying more than once there. 2.7 million men and women will all experience complex emotions this Memorial Day and in the months leading up to our final withdrawal this September. There is no victory celebration planned. Our Veterans have been thanked for their service, unlike our returning Vietnam Veterans and that has made an incredible difference. While that is appreciated, blood spilt on foreign battlefields in our youth, toxic memories along with proud service and camaraderie all need continued attention in our population. As events unfold in Afghanistan after our departure in September more emotions will follow.
This Memorial Day, seek an opportunity to stand with a Veteran as they remember the wars our Nation sent us to. Each and every one of us will be carrying our own memories of those we knew who never came home. To our Vietnam Veterans, each of whom have carried far too large a burden for too long with support that came too late….stand with an Afghanistan Veteran and let them know you understand, teach us to cope and find worth in our sacrifices.
As you contemplate your activities on Memorial Day this year please include a few moments of quiet time to remember the fallen. Each and every Veteran will be bracing for impact as the emotions of remembering come flooding back.
*Dan Williams is a 30-year multiple combat Veteran, serves as the Commander of Post 1980 American Legion, is a member of VFW post 6051 and is the Vice Chairman of the Teller County Board of County Commissioners
There will be a Memorial Day Remembrance Celebration at 11 a.m. in the Woodland Park Cemetery on May 31. The public is invited.