Hope, Relief and Anger at the End of the Longest War: What Afghanistan Vets and Gold Star Families Have to Say

"It's the most significant thing that's ever happened in our lives," one former Marine Corps infantryman says of his service

Afghanistan Veterans Max Donahue and Don Jones
Max Donahue (left) and Don Jones.

War never leaves anyone it touches.

Here at the end of America's longest military conflict — after 20 years of invading, occupying, fighting in and helping rebuild Afghanistan — nine veterans and the families of soldiers slain while serving reflect on what it has meant to them.

After tens of thousands of people killed and trillions spent, the Afghanistan war, sparked by the 9/11 attacks, is not ending easily. As the U.S. has finished its planned withdrawal under an agreement with the Taliban, the insurgents swept back across the country in recent weeks.

The government collapsed with little resistance; and the Afghan army, worn down by institutional dysfunction and the brunt of the years-long fighting, could not sustain itself.

President Joe Biden says he has not wavered in his decision to end the war by Aug. 31, instead focusing on a chaotic and much criticized evacuation of Americans, allies and vulnerable Afghans.

Polling shows a majority of the U.S. supports an end to the conflict that Biden cast as irrational to continue. The future of Afghanistan, he said, was in the hands of Afghans.

Speaking with veterans and families of the dead shows a much larger range of opinions.

As they've witnessed Taliban fighters taking city after city — including Afghanistan's capital, Kabul — the former troops have viewed the withdrawal with a mix of anguish, anger and, in some cases, relief.

For many, the true conclusion of the 20-year campaign was a shock: a feeling of erasure after witnessing countless injuries and deaths and forging relationships with Afghan citizens they wished to help.

Still others say they are not surprised with the speed at which the Taliban took hold, and, what's more, argue that the U.S. never should have spent so much time there in the first place.

Here they are in their own words.

Dan Magoon

There needs to be a sense of pride for the service and sacrifice that we have made in that country since September 11. This can't be about 'it was all for nothing,' because it wasn't."

— Dan Magoon
US soldier from the 3-187 Infantry 101st Airborne Bravo Company sitting next to an Afghan boy during a patrol in Bangi village, Andar district in Ghazni province.
A U.S. soldier with an Afghan boy in 2011. Shah Marai/AFP via Getty

Dan Magoon, 39

Army sergeant who served in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, clearing roads and mines and searching for explosive devices.

"I was 20 [when I enlisted]. Back then, we were engaging the enemy who hated America and we were fine with that because our goal and objective was, 'Let's fight the enemy where they live, and not where we live.' Obviously, there was the hunt for [Osama] bin Laden. I think everyone knew the Taliban's strengths and their mechanisms of engaging and fighting.

"There needs to be a sense of pride for the service and sacrifice that we have made in that country since September 11. This can't be about 'it was all for nothing,' because it wasn't. I think we all left a piece of ourselves there, but we were definitely damn proud about what we did.

"We're for withdrawal. We knew couldn't be in an endless war, but it's the way we went about ending and exiting. I mean, we did this the wrong way. Right now, our allies are feeling it, our partners in Afghanistan are feeling it and, more importantly, obviously the people who served there and the families who lost someone are feeling it.

"To see [the Taliban] come back into power so quickly really, really stung and it hurt, regardless of when you served in Afghanistan or where you served in general, or even if you're a civilian. It's painful.

"I try to look at it as, 'Hey, it wasn't a waste.' Most of the military who have been there and been in combat would probably do it again, because they know it's going to manifest and they know the threat that could eventually come to American soil."

San Pao, 40

A Purple Heart recipient who served as a squad leader and forward observer with the Army National Guard in Afghanistan in 2010.

"When I first got [to Afghanistan], I was actually mesmerized by the mountains and I was even talking to some fellow war fighters over there. And I was like, 'Man, this is such a beautiful place. If you just put a ski resort here, how fun would it be?' And we're all just like, 'This would be an awesome place to come to if it was safe.'

"So aside from that, gosh, it was a tough place. It's a different fight versus Iraq, in my opinion and experience.

"I think the withdrawal is absolutely scary for the Afghan people, even for us here, just watching it. It's because it's definitely an experience that we're watching as vicarious trauma. And then at the same time I find it that it can be extremely triggering to veterans. And that's what we need to do is also watch what veterans are doing and care for them in the way that we need to.

Nick Stefanovic

That country defines our purpose, those of us who fought there; it's the most significant thing that's ever happened in our lives."

— Nick Stefanovic

"I will speak for myself versus the rest of the squadron. However, I do feel that a 100 percent of my effort is well worth it then, and is worth it now. Every effort that we put in at that time and place was honorable. And that's what matters most.

"I fear for the people who are still there, the interpreters, my gosh. Everyone who has worked with the United States government, anyone who has ever worked with us — I feel that they should be first and foremost headed on any [flight] out, along with all of our contractors, American citizens and the like.

"We had a couple of interpreters, John is his first name. I believe he went by 'Johnny Pockets.' I feel awful for him and his family. And hopefully he's in a safe place. Hopefully he's crossed the border somewhere to head out. And I pray for all of the people in Afghanistan who are in this mess."

Nick Stefanovic holding one of the ballots from the Karzai election
Nick Stefanovic holding one of the ballots from an Afghan election. Nick Stefanovic

Nick Stefanovic, 39

Marine Corps infantryman who deployed twice to Afghanistan between 2003 and 2005.

"I was a kid when I went to Afghanistan. I think I was 19 when I joined the Marine Corps, and I might've just turned 20 by the time I did my first deployment to Afghanistan. 9/11 happened and I joined after that.

"I quickly figured out, with the current state of where things were, my family in America probably wasn't under much threat, but the people who really were under a threat were the Afghan people. And those Afghan people are in almost every way, except one, no different from me or anyone else in America: They happen to be born in another country.

"Especially in those earlier years, we took a population of people, we took an entire civilization of people and we brought them out of slavery for all intents and purposes, and we allowed them to vote and elect their own leaders. We provided the safety for them to do that. We provided the safety for young girls to go to school. We stopped the public executions. And as we watch these events unfold over the last few days, all of that stuff came at a great, great cost, and we're watching it all unwind.

"It's all being erased, and very, very quickly. And that of course is a very, very difficult thing to watch. It's a really severe, significant emotional pain that we feel. Because that country defines our purpose, those of us who fought there; it's the most significant thing that's ever happened in our lives.

"I use an analogy of a cancer patient. Somebody gets cancer and they go to the doctor and the doctor does chemotherapy or surgery and treats the cancer, and that person lives for 20 more years. And then the cancer comes back, and the cancer kills that person. If you had the opportunity to ask that person as they're dying, 'Was it worth it to get the treatment?' I bet that they would tell you that it was.

"We gave an entire generation of people the opportunity to be free and go to school and have children of their own. And the world has been a better place for it, and if everything goes back to the Taliban and the way it was it will still have been worth it.

"I've seen the pictures of the women protesting in Kabul. I think that there certainly is a flame that we have lit there, we've planted a seed within them and they're not going to give up their freedom as easy as they did."

Senior military official, 53

He worked in intelligence operations as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force who was in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003 and 2012-2013

"The first time I went there, I worked intelligence operation for special forces. Started out in Kabul and then moved down to Kandahar and worked in that area, working with the local populace and local officials less than a year after the U.S. had gone into Afghanistan. A lot of it was advising. There was a very heavy emphasis on counter terrorist operations, looking for certain individuals. But there were other things going on, nation-building type efforts, trying to assist the local populace and doing things as simple as establishing, at the time, schools, establishing hospitals or local clinics.

"Having worked very closely with the government officials and with the locals, I was not terribly surprised [with how the U.S. exit unfolded]. And I think most folks who are surprised probably did not understand the complexities of Afghanistan and its people.

"There are many people that thought, 'Well, we can build an allegiance, we can develop relationships that will be long-lasting.' But I think that the nature of Afghanistan the place, if you look at it historically, in my opinion, it's a matter of survival for both government and for local tribal leaders.

Afghanistan crisis
U.S. soldiers in August. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty

"The Afghan people are some of the nicest people you could ever meet. I've visited with families who have literally offered me what little food they had to eat as a guest in their house.

"And so, to see what happened and knowing the Taliban, how they think in particular with their views on women and young women or young girls, it's very bittersweet to me to see such a nice people and, quite frankly, a beautiful country underneath a regime as harsh as the Taliban.

"I think, unfortunately, Afghan leadership did not take advantage of the opportunity that was put before them. And if you think about, and I say this as a person that was in the Pentagon on 9/11, if you think about why we went in there in the first place, I think people forget that. And we have the anniversary of 9/11 coming up, and I think people forget why or fail to remember why we went in there in the first place. And I think it's important to understand that. So, to say that 'well, it's not worth it,' or 'it was wasted,' I would disagree with those comments. I think it was well worth it."

Laura Jedeed, 34

Served in the 82nd Airborne Division and was stationed in Afghanistan twice, in 2008 and 2009-2010.

"I joined right out of high school. [The 9/11 attacks] happened when I was 13 and I joined as soon as I could, which was 2005, but I mean, like everyone else at the time I was horrified. I grew up in a household with a lot of Fox News in it. I watched Bill O'Reilly every night and I bought it. I bought that what we were doing was good. I bought the thing about helping people get freedom and democracies. I bought that it was going to keep us safe. I wanted to be part of that.

"I joined in 2005 as a signals intelligence operator. They taught me Arabic and then sent me to Afghanistan twice, once in 2008 [and in] 2009-10, and then I got out at the end of my contract. I did a lot of analysis, which is not what I was trained in, but it's what I ended up doing. I also, especially the second deployment, I did signals intelligence collection. I did not see combat.

"My first reaction [to the U.S. exit] was relief. It's finally over. This was going to happen, it was going to happen in 10 years if we pulled out, it was going to happen five years ago. It happens now. I wish it had been five years ago. I'm glad it isn't 10 years from now.

Laura Jedeed

It's easy to have hindsight about going to at all. But certainly the effort to remake Afghanistan in our own image, a country that is nothing like our country, was really arrogant."

— Laura Jedeed

"It's also horrible to watch, especially the teams in Kabul. I know that this morning they fired on protesters, the Taliban did. It's just the rhetoric. It's horrible to watch. It's horrible. What's happening, I hate it. But we had to leave. Again, all we could do is prolong the inevitable and I don't think that was sustainable or wise.

"I definitely do not think this was worth it. I don't think we accomplished anything except possibly destabilizing the region more, probably. I think that we caused a lot of death and destruction in that country. I think that it was all for nothing, and that's really upsetting to me.

"I believe it was 20 wasted years. I remember September 11, I remember how it felt. I know why we went in, but the nation-building thing we did was ridiculous. And frankly, I mean, in hindsight, it's easy to have hindsight about going to Afghanistan at all. But certainly the effort to remake Afghanistan in our own image, a country that is nothing like our country, was really arrogant."

Afghan interpreters
U.S. Marines with an Afghan local and an interpreter. Kevin Frayer/AP/Shutterstock

Don Jones, 56

Served 27 years with the Air Force and did 14 combat deployments.

"I was in Afghanistan multiple times. The first time we were in Afghanistan, was with Task Force Dagger, shortly after 9/11. I worked with the 18th Air Support Operations Group at the time. We had what we called all the terminal air control, or tactical air control, sorry, tactical air control parties. Those guys were my guys. They were the ones calling in air strikes and doing that kind of stuff. We went back multiple times for different operations. The last time was in 2011-2012.

"It's tough, because there's a side of you that has fought hard to try and give the Afghan people some semblance of freedom and some semblance of control. To get out from under this tyrannical type of setup, the way the Taliban was when we first went in there. So you're saddened by that.

"But on the other hand, you understand the culture is very tribal in nature. When we went in, there were five different enclaves set up around the country, basically five strong tribal leaders.

"For me, the real eye-opener was coming back 10 years later, after the first time I'd been there, and seeing that no real progress had been made. When I say that, we had been nation-building now for 10 years and this is how difficult it is to nation-build. In 10 years, it was still questionable as to whether they had [electricity] downtown, whether they had heat.

"We were going to government buildings. We were going to talk to the defense minister downtown and everybody had to make sure they got their long johns, and that kind of stuff, because we weren't sure if the building was going to have any warmth to it or not. That was 10 years after I had first been there, and I was just blown away. It was overwhelming.

"I guess that was the first time I had realized on the grand scale how hard it is to build a nation or to even pull people into something that they're not used to.

"It was worth it here on the home front, for the United States. You've probably heard this from other veterans and stuff, but if you look at the bigger picture, our mission was to go and get those responsible for 9/11: al-Qaida, bin Laden. That mission kind of got accomplished somewhere along the way.

"There are a lot of veterans that are left with the question of, 'Why did we go? What was accomplished?' and that kind of thing.

"And for the most part it's, 'Hey guys, we did what we... We went there on a mission to get bin Laden. That happened.' Now, the secondary mission of nation-building, we all kind of knew that that was just not going to be successful in that."

Cheryl Icenhour

We're allies, and now you have somebody who is looking to you to help them in a personal capacity, you feel so helpless. I've been trying to do as much as I can."

— Cheryl Icenhour

Cheryl Icenhour, 49

Retired Air Force intelligence who focused on Afghanistan from 2009 to 2014 before working on the country at the State Department until 2018. She is on leave from her current job to assist evacuating people she still knows in Afghanistan.

"The withdrawal, it's led to the situation that we have now and it's been hard, let's put it that way. I really don't want so much to focus on the policy side of it. What I'd really like to give you is my personal view.

"You really do get to know a lot of people, you're shoulder to shoulder and you're supposed to really work. The whole purpose of the program [in the Air Force while she served] was to build relationships with Afghans. The intent was to provide continuity of relationships.

"It's been devastating for so many of us. Even when we weren't in theater, we were supposed to maintain that continuity and that relationship. It's been hard.

"I was actually on vacation in Croatia when things really started to deteriorate security-wise and the calls started; Viber calls in the middle of the night, and WhatsApp messages, and Facebook messages, and screenshots of what's going on, and frantic appeals for help.

"You feel a moral obligation. We're allies, and now you have somebody who is looking to you to help them in a personal capacity, you feel so helpless. I've been trying to do as much as I can. I don't know how much of a difference it will make.

"I had two of my three friend's translators contact me. They're now U.S. citizens. They're trying to get their family members out.

"A lot of times their family members are in danger because they are related to somebody who was an interpreter. A lot of times, too, there are added layers. It's not just one factor that makes them high-risk. One of my translators, I'm not going to give names or anything like that, but one of my translators, his brother is a journalist.

Afghanistan Veteran Cheryl Icenhour
Cheryl Icenhour. Courtesy of Cheryl Icenhour

"I've been working with probably a dozen different individuals that are on the ground looking to get out, and then using my personal network of just friends at state department, friends at [Homeland Security], from the Air Force, anybody I can talk to; people on the Hill.

"I would hope, really hope that my government would do everything humanly possible to get people out; as many people as possible. Yeah, this situation that we have now, the question I ask myself is, how long is that situation going to last? What's going on right now, the Taliban haven't done a full onslaught of Kabul, which is good.

"As somebody who's talking to these people daily, the recurring theme is 'I can't get to the airport.' I'm just really frustrated and disappointed that, at present, it just seems hopeless.

"[But] I can't say I feel hopeless, because that would signal that I've given up hope, and that they've all been left behind. I'm not willing to accept that at this point, I'm still on my computer day in and day out pushing to get as many out as possible, and to help in any way.

"It's an international coalition. I'm talking to other friends that I've made, who are non-American, who are the equivalent at their ministry of foreign affairs, Afghan desk, or working in their military. Across the board, it's not just Americans that are feeling this way. That's really, really an important point, that maybe hasn't been highlighted as well in the press.

"If it starts to get partisan, I try to avoid that. I don't think that's helpful right now. I think that we should just be focusing on, okay, this is not as bad as it could be. It's not as good as I'd like it to be, but what can we do to make this better and to fix this and get as many people out right now? That really has to be the focus.

"I talked about this with my father who's a Vietnam vet. He was in the military. We talked about it as somebody who served in uniform to another person who served in uniform and then also father to daughter, daughter to father.

"If I thought it was all a waste, that would just crush my soul. I have to believe that there has been — and there has been — goodness that's come out of it.

I've seen how much influence we've had on a young generation that grew up not under the Taliban; 20 years is a long time. It's painful to contemplate what happens to that now.

"I know I'm not the only one and believe it or not, in veteran circles, there's been a lot of talk of, 'Hey, if you're feeling very traumatized by what's happened and you need to talk to somebody…' It's no secret that unfortunately the suicide rate among veterans is pretty high and has been an issue that a lot of people focus on and are concerned about. And I think that trying to stress that if you feel stressed, if you feel depressed because of what's happened, it's okay to ask for help

"And then see the civilian side kind of only vaguely aware of what's going on. I think it's absolutely — that just encapsulates the divide that we had for the Forgotten War."

Julie Schrock, 63

Her son, Max Donahue, a 23-year-old Marine canine handler, was in Afghanistan when he was hit by an improvised explosive device on Aug. 4, 2010. He died three days later.

I was starting to spiral down [as the U.S. exited Afghanistan]. I was angry and sad, but then I took those feelings to God and just asked, 'Replace those feelings with your peace.' I've quoted members from that Texas church shooting and I love what they said: 'I've read the book and I know how it ends.' And I've used that quote throughout.

"I wish that the withdrawal had taken place much more methodically. I mean, they had time while the troops were there to get those people out — and why that didn't happen, I have my feelings about and they aren't good feelings. But I would've liked to see those evacuations take place prior to the troop withdrawal. And I don't think that would have been too hard of a thing to do.

"Max was there to serve and protect with his Marine brothers. And that's one thing I've really discovered through this, that that really is a brotherhood. I didn't understand that before, his loyalty was to his fellow Marines. I think they were all counting on policies and politics on both sides to have their best interests. And they went with that. It's hard for me to see people who have not served making decisions that impact those who are serving."

Julie Schrock

I was starting to spiral down. I was angry and sad, but then I took those feelings to God and just asked, 'Replace those feelings with your peace.' "

— Julie Schrock

Joe Kelley, 72

His son, Michael Kelley, 26, was an Army National Guard specialist killed during a rocket attack on an American base in Shkin, Afghanistan, in June 2005 some two months after arriving.

"When it first started I said, 'Oh my gosh.' I'm just thinking of the women and the children and the schools and stuff like that. I said, 'Jeez, do we have our act together over there yet? Have we tightened it up enough?' And then two days later, the Taliban took over Afghanistan and the reason for that is the Afghanistan army wouldn't defend their own country. So, I'm thinking, 'Wow, that's a real punch in the face for me.' I lost my son over there defending their country and they wouldn't stand up for their own country. I said, 'We should have been out of there years ago, then, if that's the case.' As soon as we got rid of bin Laden, we should have taken a hike, period.

"Why are we hanging around? We fight. We trained their army. We gave them all the equipment that they needed to defend their country.

"The only thing I care about at this point is the Massachusetts Army National Guard built a school in Afghanistan [named for his son] It's in Paghman, it's a 10-classroom school for elementary children. I believe it goes all the way up to the sixth grade. When it first began, one of the agreements was with the elders of the village that this school is to allow girls to be educated, and they agreed to that. And so in the very beginning, we're talking 10 years ago, the school opened and there are just a little over 100 children attending that school. Today, there's well over 600 children attending the school of which over 200 are girls.

"That's very pleasing to me and over the years. My wife and I have been helping the school stay open. They had a couple of real problems and they were almost forced to close. They lost water. We had a well drilled in and a pump.

"The biggest issue they had recently was the roof gave way and started leaking and they lost two classrooms because of the heavy water. So I raised some money and it was almost $8,000 to rebuild the roof and repair the classrooms and all that sort of a thing. It came out beautiful.

"Because it might be an issue with the Taliban, it's just called right now the Paghman school.

"My understanding currently is the Taliban have had a meeting with the elders of this village. I guess they're called elders, the head guys of that village. They said, 'We'll allow the school to remain open now and allow girls to be educated,' but no more than, I think, the fourth or fifth grade right now.

"These peoples, it's like switching a light off and on. These people change with the wind. Dealing with these terrorists, nothing is ever sealed in stone.

Joe Kelley with drawing of his son Michael Kelley
Joe Kelley holds a photo of his son Michael. Joe Kelley

"We're talking 16 years ago when Michael was killed and we got the knock on the door. Over the years, I came to respect more and more Michael's decision. He made that decision and I have to honor that. And not have to — I want to honor that. People have said to me, 'Geez, Michael died and it seems like he died for nothing.' I said, 'No, no, no, no, no, no. Michael did not die for nothing.' I believe in that. I really do believe that. I believe he and the other thousands of soldiers that were deployed to Afghanistan planted seeds of freedom. I believe that, and those seeds are going to spawn.

"There are some real good quality people in Afghanistan. A very small minority are terrorists. The majority of these people are fantastic people.

"I don't want to speak for other Gold Star Families, but many other Gold Star Families absolutely feel the same way I do, especially if it hasn't been a real recent loss.

"There was some good involved. Believe me, I'm not happy and I feel bad for the good people of Afghanistan that they have to live through this.

"My son, Michael, went to Kansas for some training on the equipment that he was going to be using in Afghanistan, and that's it. But he volunteered to go [in 2004] because after 9/11, these National Guardsmen were meeting once a week and at the armory the lieutenant said, 'Hey, we need some volunteers for Afghanistan.' He raised his hand.

"The thing is there's some 6,000 troops back over there right now, trying to straighten everything out. And basically all they're doing is trying to find the people or evacuate the people, whether they're Americans or allies to America, to get them out if they would like to get out.

"I hope they get them out safely, the folks that want to leave. They risked their lives when we were there trying to defend their country. They stood up — a lot of those people stood up to defend their country and to help us understand a little bit better about their country and to help us talk to the elders in these different villages. The communication is critical.

"I'll leave you with this. One thing we hold on as a family is to keep Michael's memory alive. And every day we talk about Michael some way, somehow, and it's therapy for our family to help us get through the day.

"I'm grateful that there's a school in Afghanistan in Michael's memory because he loved children. He wrote a couple of children's books — never got them published, but he wrote some books. He did his own drawings and stuff like that inside the books, illustrations.

"In our town, there's a beautiful bridge that goes from one town to another, from Scituate to Marshfield, over what's called the North River. It's a pretty big bridge. The bridge is named after Michael. And it was dedicated back in 2007 or 2008 And there were a two F-16 flyover the bridge, artillery cannons. It was a big, big thing. People still talk about it today.

"I was told years ago, the day Michael's name is not mentioned is the day he dies. And as long as I'm still kicking, Michael's not going to die a second time."

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

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