The call came early in the morning, not long after I had spent the entire night wandering the hallways of my home. No pleasantries were exchanged, just the gruff voice of the sergeant I knew from my time overseas.
“I assume you’ve seen the news?”
I nodded, realized he couldn’t see me, and then answered with a belated, “Yeah.”
“What a mess,” he stated. “What a damned mess.”
The man on the other line was Paul “Gonzo” Gonzalez, the team sergeant who ensured I came home alive from Afghanistan. Despite having a Hispanic last name, Paul was an Irish American with pasty white skin and dark brown hair. What made him most intimidating was the way his jaw muscles flexed when he was irritated. I imagined — at that moment — his jaw was clenched so tight his teeth might break, given the current news cycle.
Gonzo was there with me on a fateful day in Afghanistan. He found me standing on a makeshift helicopter tarmac covered in blood and clutching another soldier’s rifle to my chest. Holes torn through my shirt and hands drenched in viscera, he rotated my head from side to side until I swatted his arm. “I just got my bell rung,” I told him. This made Gonzo raise an eyebrow, given that my responses were slow, I was swaying from side to side, and I looked like hell. “Okay, I went headfirst into a wall. Seriously. I’m fine.”
The Taliban had hit our small forward operating base, and I took the brunt of a 107mm rocket, as did another soldier. The other man had to be medically evacuated due to the gravity of his injuries, and I helped patch him up as best I could. Then we hoisted him on a litter and ran to the helicopter. I don’t remember portions as I was slipping in and out of lucidity, unaware that I was even injured. We both survived, but now, some 18 years after the event, my past was coming back to haunt me.
Gonzo waited on the other end of the line until I said something. “First Ramadi, and now this? It’s embarrassing,” I spat.
Gonzo and I also fought together in Ramadi, Iraq, from 2006 to 2007. In 2015, we watched helplessly as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took over the city. Now a repeat scenario was happening in our other war. We watched with horror as the Afghan government collapsed overnight and the Taliban seized control of the capitol. Iraq hurt, but Afghanistan delivered the killing blow to the morale of most veterans.
Neither Gonzo nor I could put into words the anger, frustration, or fruitlessness we felt. Instead, we were two combat veterans lamenting events unfolding in Kabul. Little did we know just how bad it would get, and how hard it would hit so many other veterans.
A year removed from the withdrawal in Afghanistan, a question I’m often asked is, “Was it worth it?” When people ask, my mind goes to names like Seitsinger, Mancini, O’Neil, Thomas, Fuller, and Meister — men who died in Afghanistan that I had served alongside.
There’s an old Metallica song from the critically acclaimed album, “Master of Puppets,” entitled “Disposable Heroes” that I sometimes listen to. The song details young men being fed to the military industrial complex only to die in battle. The album has once more become popular after the most recent season of “Stranger Things” in which social outcast Eddie Munson shreds to the title track. But much of the album is about how war — and drugs — manipulate you.
I suppose that looking back now, I feel like the U.S. government was the “Master of Puppets,” manipulating those of us who fought in the war, only to watch it explode in our face. In fact, we got sold an ever changing narrative throughout four different presidencies.
During my time in Afghanistan, a focal point became the poppy fields and drug trade through the Silk Road. That ended disastrously, so the narrative changed. Minerals and commodities, stabilization efforts, democracy, rooting out terrorism, or anything to slap lipstick on the pig of war was used as a tool to rewrite or change the focus. The story about what we were doing in Afghanistan and why became so convoluted that the American populace checked out and sort of forgot we were still there. That was, until 13 service members died in an explosion at Abbey Gate during the evacuation process in August 2021. Suddenly everyone gave a damn about our dead service members because the media’s Eye of Sauron turned its gaze once more to Afghanistan. But all those names I just rattled off? No one set out beers in their memory at local taverns. They were just… disposable heroes.
I suppose that’s why many veterans are salty about the way the withdrawal happened, because for almost 20 years our efforts didn’t matter until that loud alarm at the 11th hour. Then, perhaps more importantly, our politicians and military leaders fumbled so hard we became a laughingstock to the international community. We capitulated to the demands of the Taliban on their timeline, abandoned our allies and interpreters, and ran out of the country like a dog with a tail between its legs. Then when we tried to flex our muscles, we had a retaliatory airstrike that solely killed Afghan civilians. The thing I remain baffled by is the fact that we could have withdrawn in a manner that didn’t have such disastrous results. We should have told the Taliban to pound sand and that we’d leave once we had everyone out. 13 service members died because of ineptitude and lack of leadership, not because they had to.
But back to the question everyone wants to know — was it worth it?
In some respects, I think we can say yes. Despite an unclear mission and embarrassing withdrawal, there are small silver linings. We gave young girls the opportunity to get an education, ended human rights violations, and bore the sword in defense of the marginalized and oppressed. Continuing the war the way we did, however, was based on decisions of complacent old men and women who’ve never seen combat. Perhaps that’s the greatest fallacy we’ve embraced as a nation: we send our young to die based on the whims of politicians who’ve never served in the killing fields.
Please don’t mistake this critique as not being proud to have served or that I don’t love my country. I do. In fact, I often have this dream where I return to Afghanistan, much like how Vietnam veterans have taken trips to find their healing in the rice paddies of Vietnam. When I daydream about it, I imagine I’d visit the places where my friends died and my own blood stained the ground, just as our grandfathers visited the hallowed sands of Omaha Beach.
But these days I don’t know if that’ll ever happen. I want it to. I imagine most who fought in the sands and mountains don’t want to be trapped in the mental prison of the past. But I suppose – as many of us have learned – we must become content with our dead brothers and sisters being nothing more than disposable heroes.
Portions of this article are adapted from the book, Where Cowards Go to Die, by Benjamin Sledge (Regnery Publishing, July 2022).
Benjamin Sledge is a wounded combat veteran with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving most of his time under Special Operations (Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command). He is the recipient of the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and two Army Commendation Medals for his actions overseas. Upon returning home from war, he began work in mental health and addiction recovery.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.