In an emotional program, the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Institute of Politics gave the stage to U.S. military personnel who served in Afghanistan and are members of the HKS community. IOP Executive Director Setti Warren, who served as a naval intelligence specialist in Iraq, moderated a panel of five who told their stories of grief, anger, and gratitude. “In 2008, I did a year-long deployment and I'll never forget civilian brothers and sisters, family members, saying, ‘thank you for your service,’” recalled Warren. “While I appreciated that very much, I wondered if there was some way I could share with everyday people, voters, public policymakers, elected officials, perhaps those making decisions to send troops into harm's way, what it was really like on the ground, in a combat zone. That’s what this conversation is about this evening.”


Tomorrow is not promised

My mission was with a field hospital, and my responsibility as the commander was to set up Level Two care for our brigade, which is probably 4,000-plus service members, to include our Afghan partners and a vast area in Kandahar. The injuries that we saw were mostly due to improvised explosive devices. And then I got injured. I laid there and I realize how foolish it was to think that death cared about my life plans. As I laid there, I learned that dying wasn’t scary. It was just sad. I felt overwhelming regret knowing that I wasn't going to be able to be that husband, that father, that I've always wanted to be. Luckily for me, I was given a second chance, and not everybody gets a second chance.

Edward Figueroa is a Belfer National Security Fellow and U.S. Army foreign area officer specializing in the Western hemisphere and political affairs.

Looking out for Afghanistan

When it became evident that Afghanistan was going to fall, a few things had happened. The first is panicked Afghans who had spent the last 20 years supporting the U.S. forces there as interpreters or in a variety of capacities scrambled, went into hiding, because they knew that they would be systematically hunted and killed by the Taliban. The second thing that happened is that they reached out to us, U.S. military and veterans, and within a few hours we were literally getting this barrage of phone calls. We had never worked with one another before, but we organized  to form evacuation efforts. No matter what you think you know about how the evacuation went, no matter how much you watch the news or are plugged in online, I promise you it was exponentially worse than you could possibly imagine. The chaos, the violence, the carnage: it was bad, and it is bad.

Joseph Stenger III MPP/MBA 2022 served with the U.S. Air Force and flew 77 combat missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Moral injury

I joined the Army specifically because I wanted to be on the ground. I wanted to witness and partake in this effort firsthand. In 2008, the Department of Defense still very much had a women-in-combat-ban policy. So, I was barred from about a third of the jobs available in the Army at the time, purely based on being a woman. The best I could do was go into the military police. So, I had a chip on my shoulder. After the attack on September 11th, the U.S. Army special operations announced a new pilot program called the cultural support teams. So, I took that chip on my shoulder and deployed to Afghanistan. My job was to go on night raids with the Rangers because only a woman could tactically question and search the women and children. I realized what we are doing is scarring children for life, who will forever remember the night the Americans kicked in their doors, where some people were killed, and it was violent. And I was a part of it. And I knew we were creating more of an insurgency, rather than thwarting one. It's hard to make sense of the loss. It's hard not to feel guilty.

Shelane Etchison MPP/MBA 2022 served 11 years with the U.S. Army in security, intelligence, and combat functions.

Thomas Bishop wearing mask and speaking at the JFK Jr. Forum.

“We are implements of American foreign policy. If we aren’t representing you, then that is a problem.”

Thomas Bishop MPA 2022

Failure to understand

I realized very quickly how this war was going to end, even in 2012. I knew it a year ago. I know it today. I've never been so viscerally shocked by something that I have known was going to happen for nine years. And that's been a very confusing conversation to have with myself and with others. We’re the fifth world power to fail to take Afghanistan. The first was Alexander the Great about 2300 years ago. And he is on record saying that Afghanistan is an easy place to march into and a tough place to march out of. The country reverted to what it was when we first got there. It is an impossibly complex nation. They don't recognize their borders or Afghanistan as a nation. To them, it's not province to province or even district to district. In many cases, it's not even tribe to tribe, it's valley to valley.

Soren Duggan MPA 2023 served with the U.S. Army for nine years in an array of intelligence and special operations roles.

American consciousness shocked

September 11, 2001, shocked the American consciousness. Recent events in Afghanistan again shocked the American consciousness. The legacy of the war should leave an unforgettable impact. I hope that we remember what happened. We [service members] are instruments of American foreign policy. Less than 3 million people deployed and served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. That is less than one percent of the nation. But that number isn’t even correct because our families deploy with us. Most people didn’t hear about the war on the news or in their everyday life. You have to stay engaged and keep these conversations going. So If we aren’t representing you, then that is a problem. In the future, I hope we don't forget what the war actually looks like and that we make sure we check on those families and that they have a community of support when they deploy again. And when they get back, we take care of them and their families. I hope that is the legacy and what we do. You know, we can talk about winning and losing, but what we do with people matters.

Thomas Bishop MPA 2022 has 20 years of enlisted and commissioned duty experience.


The live Forum was co-sponsored by the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and is now available online.

Banner photo by Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/U.S. Marine Corps via AP; inline photo by Martha Stewart

A Veteran Talks About His Experience In Afghanistan

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