During My Three Tours in Afghanistan, I Become An Old Man

Matthew Komatsu
·7 min read
Photo credit: Author
Photo credit: Author
Photo credit: Author
Photo credit: Author

You watch sporadic drops of rain blotch the sidewalk outside your office on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, and think of watching for the first time as rain fell into the dust of Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, nearly nineteen years ago, in 2002. How it cratered into what the Afghan linguists half jokingly told you was the result of decades of artillery having pounded the soil into fine powder. How the raindrops disappeared into the parched stuff. How you could drive through the inches of it that seemed to cover the whole of the Shomali Plains, only for it to wash back over the tire tracks.

The news that President Biden will begin a military withdrawal that will conclude on September 11th came as no surprise. When he released his interim national security guidance last month, you tore through it, highlighting passages and making margin notes. Look, you told your squadron commanders and chief master sergeants during a professional development session: For the first time since 9/11, there’s no mention of combating violent extremism across the globe. “Afghanistan” twice versus “Russia” five times and “China” fifteen. A signal that perhaps the Forever War was ending, that after years of consensus across the national security establishment that the military needed to re-focus on preparing to fight rival nations, the moment had arrived.

Your wing has just ended an exercise of several days meant to prepare for that fight, which some believe is close. And you cannot help but consider yourself, a career airman who entered the profession of arms as an 18 year-old kid on a rainy Colorado Springs day in June of 1995 and commissioned four years later with a plan to do the five years he owed Uncle Sam as a graduate of the Air Force Academy, then jump ship. Who realized on 9/11 that he couldn’t voluntarily leave the military, and would deploy to Afghanistan three times between 2002 and 2012. Who somewhere along the way became the Old Man, trying to ready those you lead for an imagined conflict that won’t look anything like the very real war that your career will barely outlast. It’s a strange thing, being a lifer.

Photo credit: Author
Photo credit: Author

But all that’s too clean a narrative arc, isn’t it? One might picture you as a sure-footed military man with a passing appreciation for the past. A guy who says huh when he pauses to take stock of his life. It’s true in some regards (You’re a lifer after all, comfortable with the accompanying expectations.) But beneath the facade, you’re a bit of a mess.

God, but it all felt so righteous back in 2001 and 2002. So purposeful. The nation had rallied behind the mission to bring our enemies to justice. You were going to find bin Laden and everyone else on the rogue’s deck of cards and make them pay. As a 26 year-old first lieutenant, you stood at attention on Bagram Air Base saluting Old Glory on the first anniversary of 9/11. Never forget why we’re here, you told your team of counterintelligence agents. Many Afghans loved America, or so it seemed. You walked off-base for kebabs and naan wearing only pistols, brought rifles only when you wanted to show off, and asked your sources where the Taliban were. Pakistan, they said. Sure, there was unfinished business in Afghanistan. The sporadic rocket attacks. The occasional intelligence report of Taliban massing in the hills. But you shrugged it off. Nation building is messy.

You left a hopeful trail of footprints in a blanket of fresh snow when you walked to your awaiting C-130 on Christmas night of 2002. But when you returned in 2008 to the war you seemed to be winning when you left, the dun-colored landscape of Kandahar found you changed, having survived deploying to the war in Iraq that divided your nation, and nearly killed you. You were hardened: a cynic, survivor, and newly minted combat rescue officer trained to save pilots shot down behind enemy lines who instead found himself flying several medical evacuation missions a day to pull wounded Canadians and Dutch soldiers from where they lay dying in the Afghan dust. You almost died in a helicopter crash. And then you came back in 2012, and little had changed or improved but still you hoped, and once again, you almost died. You returned home once more, checked career boxes, ascendant, until it was no longer you headed out the door; it was the men and women you led who returned to Afghanistan. To the fight you never finished, and neither did they.

It’s okay to admit that you miss it. That once in a while you look at the ribbons emblazoned with “V” for valor, with pride and just a touch of wistfulness. You are not burdened with the killer’s guilt, for you never killed; your job only ever to protect and save. No, it is the fact that you survived when others did not that still cuts. You wear the names of dead comrades and grieve to think of your last memory of them. You do not ask yourself if it was all worth it—not just the war itself, but the refusal to leave it implicit in your decision to continue to serve — because the answer is complicated. You try not to think about the cost the Afghans have borne since 2001 by telling yourself that they've been bearing that cost since the Soviets showed up a half-century ago and yet they persist. You tell yourself it was always going to end this way, but you do not lie and say you always knew as much. Yet you cannot help but ask yourself how it came to this, because you always believed your calling was to ensure that it did not. You held on to the brief glimmers of hope―the schools, the wells, the roads―until the very end, until you finally knew for certain: American exceptionalism was no match for the Graveyard of Nations. The schools were abandoned, the wells ran dry, and the roads became battlegrounds. The land taken with the blood of the dead you bore was lost once again.

And yet you wonder, because you are a lifer after all: What if bin Laden had died in the Shah-i-Kot in March 2002, as was intended? Whether, if that happened, you’d have been home by Christmas of 2002, like you were told. You can just imagine it. Looking back over your shoulder at the C-130 through the snow on Bagram that night, and not seeing not much at all really. Maybe a couple of tents for the last of the last troops out. You can smell it, I know it — the drift of woodsmoke will never not remind you of the smell of the Afghans’ earth ovens — coming from the airfield tower, where the Afghans who received the base back from us are cooking a meal. Clear air above the Shomali, and the moonlit foothills of the Hindu Kush beyond. Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but tomorrow is not your problem. Tonight, it’s done.

If only.

It’s morning. Raining again. Or at least it’s gray once again. Spring, an ugly season, has arrived in Alaska once again. The snow’s disappearing and roads will go dry. A haze of dust has already risen off the gravel that kept the roads drivable over the long winter. In a few weeks, the landscape will turn from dirty white to green. Not long now until the birds sing: poo-tee-weet.

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