‘We put so much into that country’: Midstate veterans react to fall of Afghan government

  • Julia Agos

(Harrisburg) — Midstate veterans who served in Afghanistan are grappling with the fall of the Afghan government. Over the past few days, many have been reaching out to colleagues and sharing posts on social media. WITF’s Julia Agos talked to two men who were stationed in Afghanistan about how they’re reflecting on their service and now the collapse of the Afghan military they helped train.

Sergeant Tom Bourke is a Marine Corps and Pennsylvania National Guard veteran who was stationed in Afghanistan in 2010. And Lieutenant Colonel Cory Angell, the spokesperson for the Pennsylvania branch of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, also served two tours in Afghanistan with the Army.

witf · ‘We put so much into that county’: Midstate veterans react to fall of Afghan government.

Below are highlights of the interview, edited for length and clarity.

Sergeant Bourke, how are you feeling about this renewed attention on the mission in Afghanistan?

Bourke: As a veteran returning directly from Afghanistan back in 2010, there was not a lot of attention put on Afghanistan even while I was there. So, as a returning veteran, I noticed that the American public was fairly unaware of the situation that was going on there.

What I saw while I was there was the building of schools, the paving of roads. America was there to help. So now that there’s more attention paid to Afghanistan with the fall of the country – it’s sort of heartbreaking and you wonder all those roads and schools and bridges that American taxpayers helped pay for, what’s going to happen to those things?

But that’s just, just the hard infrastructure. The real important question is what’s going to happen to the people? The people who worked with us to build those roads schools, the interpreters who were there at our side as we patrolled the streets and interacted with people.

It’s a tragedy for the American veterans, but it’s an incalculable tragedy for the Afghani people.

Lieutenant Colonel Angell, how are you feeling about all of this?

Angell: Boy, we put so much into that country, and we love the people. I remember my first patrol in 2002 and it was just north of Kandahar. And I remember we had stuff to hand out and I had a teddy bear, which is so American, I mean, it’s named after Theodore Roosevelt.

So, I hand the teddy bear to this little girl, and she just grabbed it and hugged it up. She knew what a teddy bear was for and she was in the middle of nowhere. And I wonder where she is and how she is.

President Biden in his address to the nation on Monday, said our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to be about nation building. Was that how you understood the mission at the time?

Bourke: President Biden might’ve said we’re not in the business of nation building, but the country of Afghanistan is a country, not just a nation or a government. We built the roads and the schools and the bridges and the dams. Those things are still there and they’ll still be used by the Afghan people.

So, we did build an infrastructure and a country. Was it worth the American cost and treasure? Well, you know, that’s to be debated. So, though we didn’t build a nation, we helped the people there. A nation is more than just the country and a government. It’s the people and that’s who we were there to help. And I believe we did accomplish that to a certain degree.

The U.S. spent two decades and over $2 trillion in Afghanistan. And then over the weekend, it seems like it all just melted away. What was your impression of the Afghan forces while you were there? Were they reliable and prepared to stand on their own?

Bourke: So, one of our missions on a frequent basis was to go to various military outposts around the area where I was in Gardez, which is in Paktia Province. So the provincial capital there, Gardez, had military compound there. And as part of our security task, it was oftentimes my job to sort of guard the room, patrol around through this Afghan military building. And I frequently interacted with these Afghan military guys. From what I could tell, the sense that I got from these guys, was they were nervous, but prepared to do violence. I got that sense. So, to hear that they just melted away – it surprises me because from the interaction I had with them, they seemed rough and ready.

Lieutenant Colonel Angell, I want to ask you about the psychological experience of veterans over the past few days. I cannot imagine what it’s like to dedicate two decades of your life to a cause and having it seemingly, as we’ve been saying, melt away over the past few days and weeks. Are there support groups for veterans in the midstate? And what is your message to those grappling with these emotions right now?

Angell: Well, I can tell you that Tom and I, we started talking right away. But, in any event, over social media, I’ve seen a lot of stuff with friends of mine popping up just sharing photos and memories. And I think I go right to what Tom was saying was that it’s the people, you know, that’s what matters. We care. It’s hard on your heart really to see this happen. It really is key that veterans seek out other veterans and that if they need any help or anything, go to the VA. We have veterans service officers with the VFW.

So if anybody needs any assistance, they should contact the VFW. Every VFW has a service officer that they can help you find assistance if you have any need for counseling or anything like that. So, it’s important that guys and gals should just look for that assistance.

Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking to me today. Lieutenant Colonel Cory Angell and Sergeant Tom Bourke. Thank you so much for your time.

Angell: Thank you for telling the story.

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