As she watched events unfold in Afghanistan this week with staggering speed, Kristin Leone began questioning her 2015 deployment with the U.S. Naval Reserve Nurse Corps, tending to wounded American and NATO soldiers.
“Did I do enough?” the Berlin Borough nurse wondered. “Did we do all of this in vain?”
Like many veterans of the conflict in the region, Leone, 45, felt a jumble of emotions. Some said they are troubled by the chaotic end to America’s longest war with its enemy emerging as the victor. Others expressed relief that the United States and other Western countries are closing their missions and flying their staff and citizens to safety.
Many are pained for Afghans who are trying to flee the country after the Taliban seized power and dethroned the Western-backed government. The last American troops had planned to withdraw at the end of the month.
“I’m not gonna say ‘Was it worth it?’ I won’t say that,” said Air Force Maj. David Strawbridge, of Middletown, Del., who served outside Kabul during 2012 and 2013. “Let history define whether it was worth it or not, but right now it just hurts.”
Leone, a lieutenant commander stationed at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, spent six months at a combat hospital in Kandahar in 2015, treating intensive-care patients. She also is an ICU nurse at Virtua Hospital in Voorhees.
“The rational side of us says of course it wasn’t all for nothing,” said Leone, who was awarded the Navy-Marine Corps Achievement Medal for outstanding service. “We had a purpose and we had a mission.“
Retired Army Sgt. Dwight Peterson, a Philadelphia native who was deployed to Kandahar for five months in 2004, said he is devastated by the U.S. troop withdrawal. He was sent home after injuring his shoulder while repairing a vehicle and watched from afar with pride as fellow soldiers helped steady the tumultuous country.
“We’ve been there 20 years and with us pulling out, it seemed like the Taliban took it back in 20 hours,” said Peterson, 47, who operates a pediatric home health care company with his wife in San Antonio, Texas. “One side of me says it felt like a waste of time.”
Strawbridge says his service made a difference. He served as part of Operation Enduring Freedom at Camp Phoenix. He believes the country’s main goal was achieved with the killing of Osama bin Laden.
“We did what we were asked to do by our country,” said Strawbridge, 53, currently an operations officer. “We went over there and we gave it our all.”
The veteran of more than 30 years said news of the withdrawal of troops stirred shock, dismay, confusion, and hurt. He said his heart aches for Gold Star families who lost loved ones in Afghanistan.
What surprised retired Army Lt. Col Mike Bliss, who did two tours in Afghanistan, was how quickly the Taliban took control. Insurgents captured Kabul with little or no resistance. U.S. military officials say the Afghan military lost the will to fight.
”The overall end result is that they did not do what they needed to do,: said Bliss, 47, of Gloucester Township. “To see it unravel so quickly is just a sad thing to watch.”
Bliss was deployed to Kabul, where he helped improve the area near the international airport, where thousands are now scrambling to get flights out of Afghanistan. He also did a tour in Jalalabad, one of the last cities to fall to the Taliban.
Now an administrator at Solid Rock Baptist Church in Berlin, Bliss wants to refrain from harsh judgment on whether American forces should have been withdrawn. The thought, he says, has crossed his mind.
”When you look at the overall picture,” Bliss said, “you can’t help but wonder if the effort is worth it? Our goal was not leave and let it collapse.”
Several veterans of the war expressed regrets for those left behind, those they’d made promises to help.
Anthony McCloskey spent 13 months in the country as a Navy petty officer, first class, and felt when he came home in 2007 that he had made a difference.
“I helped create a program to teach Afghan women to read,” said McCloskey, 42, a Comcast director of cybersecurity. “We started getting Afghan women in classrooms. … All of that will be swiftly wiped away. It makes me feel awful.”