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On 9/11 We Promise to ‘Never Forget.’ But Too Often We Forget the Post-9/11 Combat Veterans.
PTSD. Moral injury. Traumatic brain injuries. And the continuing struggle of reintegration.
I HATE 9/11. I hate the commemorations, the Facebook posts blaring “Never Forget,” and the empty declarations that we will stand vigilant.
I didn’t always feel this way. I used to religiously watch the annual ceremonies. And I’d rewatch footage of the horrific event itself. Seeing the iconic images again helped steel my resolve and propelled me to stay dialed in to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They motivated me to fight.
But ever since 2021, when Kabul fell, I have come to despise the public remembrances of 9/11. Why? Because almost nobody speaks truthfully about the wars that followed.
Now I use the anniversary to take stock of all that happened after that day of terror. I look back on my friendships and see what the wars did to us, the 9/11 generation. Specifically, I look at my two best friends, Mike and Alex, and wince at the toll these “forever wars” took on the few who fought them.
If we really want to “Never Forget,” we must remember not only the events of the day but also what we lost in the wars that followed, and what we’re still at risk of losing.
THE LAST TIME I SAW ALEX I nearly strangled him. It was earlier this year; he had only recently been released from jail after having been found guilty of his second DUI. Although he was an Iraq and Afghan combat veteran, the judge had looked at his rap sheet and rejected his lawyer’s request for veterans court. So Alex, a highly decorated Air Force veteran with over two years in the field, had gone to jail for three months.
I suspected something was wrong when he didn’t respond to my emails, texts, or phone calls for those three months. I prayed he was back in rehab; my heart sank when I finally got an email from him after he was out, informing me of what he had gone through. I told my wife I was going to see him.
I flew up to Detroit on a long weekend. Instead of coming to pick me up from the airport himself, he sent a car. I knew immediately he was likely drunk.
When I arrived at his house, I could see in his eyes—in that glazed look of despair—that he was on a bender. Despite multiple trips to rehab, his demons persisted. And they were destroying him.
In 2013, Alex separated from the military, out of disgust for what he saw during his year-long deployment to Nangarhar. Over the decade that followed, he never regained his footing. Immediately after separating he took a job with a defense contractor, but being part of “the business” made him even more disillusioned. After nearly receiving a DUI—it was reduced to reckless driving—he went back home to Michigan.
For the next nine years, Alex bounced in and out of rehab. The military had provided him with a sense of purpose and a community. When he left, nobody was there for him.
I tried to fill the void. We went to Israel together. I flew out to visit him regularly. But there was only so much I could do—there’s still only so much I can do for him.
He bounced between odd jobs. He worked at a construction company and then at a library. Watching him circle the drain triggered my despair. I’ve seen so many of my brothers-in-arms struggle upon leaving the military. But Alex, well, he was different.
Alex was the type of officer the military desperately needed. He was a voracious reader with a razor-sharp intellect. During our training school, he ran circles around the rest of us.
When we were coming up in the military, we daydreamed that he would run for president. We binge-watched The West Wing together. I would be his Leo McGarry, the tough adviser who could rein in his liberal pipe dreams.
We promised each other that once the war ended, we would begin our pursuit of political power.
But the 9/11 wars won out in the end.
Alex had seen enough to know that something was amiss with these wars. His commander in Afghanistan was too risk-averse. Instead of pushing for more operations, he held back his forces. It filled Alex with despair. If we weren’t there to win, then what were we doing? That’s a question tens of thousands of veterans would ask—but nobody ever really answered them.
For a while, Alex sobered up. He talked of going back to school and finally getting his master’s. Perhaps he could become a counselor for veterans?
Then Afghanistan fell apart—and so did Alex.
When we spoke after the fall of Kabul, it was nothing but despair, betrayal, and humiliation. I often took out my anger on him. I was so overwhelmed with Afghan evacuation efforts that I couldn’t stomach him anymore. He infuriated me—my best friend.
So when I saw him this year in Detroit after his release, I couldn’t handle my own rage at him. We went to a used book store, but he smuggled a bottle of vodka into the store. I cursed at him for sneaking it behind my back.
When we had dinner together, I could barely contain my anger when he brought up Afghanistan.
“Why doesn’t anyone care?” he asked, sending me into a tirade.
“I don’t know. But come to terms with it because it’s not going to change,” I angrily dismissed him.
He had sunk to the bottom of despair. If he didn’t drink, he would shake uncontrollably. I watched him drink whatever he could find while we watched TV and mused about the 9/11 wars.
I left his house in a huff because we had argued over something trivial. But really, I was angry at the world, and I took it out on Alex. Truthfully, I’ve wanted to wash my hands of him numerous times. His issues remind me of my frailty and the demons I’ve kept at bay, which are always hungry to devour another soul.
I told my wife that I couldn’t see him anymore. His despair triggered my own. How could my country move on from Afghanistan so effortlessly? I constantly asked myself. I thought we were going to “Never Forget.”
A few weeks after my trip, Alex checked into a four-month-long VA rehab center. He’s now in a three-month-long PTSD inpatient program. I hope he comes out on a better path. And whatever path that is, his country should make sure he reintegrates successfully.
He may have ended his service ten years ago, but the horrors of these wars continue for him like they were yesterday.
THERE ARE MANY DIFFERENT TYPES of leaders in the military. Some are servant leaders, always ensuring the people come first. Others are motivational leaders, floating somewhere between coaches and bosses. Too many are toxic; they destroy everything they touch.
A precious few are natural-born leaders, the type whom others just gravitate toward—and who can lead a group of men anywhere, regardless of the odds.
Mike, who also served in the Air Force, was a natural-born leader. His charisma, wit, and fearlessness attracted others to him. In a military full of type-A personalities, Mike didn’t need to strut around like a peacock. He was confident, and his confidence was contagious.
Then he went to Afghanistan and saw the war machine up close and personal. He spent a year hopping along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. His language skills helped him bridge gaps with Afghans. His instinctive charm made them trust him. He was a natural.
The Afghan-Pakistan border was the Wild West. Often, the Afghan Border Police were of little use in a gunfight since they were poorly equipped and led. The Taliban, on the other hand, had the help of Pakistani intelligence operatives who provided guidance and material support.
Mike’s superiors pressured him to alter his reports about the border. They wanted to close down our efforts aimed at interdicting arms shipments that were maiming thousands of Afghans. Mike disagreed with their assessment, but it didn’t matter.
Eventually, we withdrew from these outposts, boosting the Taliban’s ability to smuggle arms through a porous border.
When Mike returned in 2013 from his year-long deployment, he separated from the military. He’d seen enough: a war effort that had been mailed in. Only a few truly believed. We were losing slowly but surely—and everyone knew it.
But the war wasn’t through with Mike yet. His PTSD and moral injuries wrecked him, and he became lost in despair, alcohol, and drugs.
Mike and I met in college, so our friendship has lasted through many different stages of life. We were in the same unit together. And we had deployed together to Afghanistan, although we served in different areas. Our friendship runs deep. So he listened when I insisted he go to rehab. After a stint in rehab, he lived on my property in rural Texas, but the isolation and despair ate away at his sobriety. He left my property and any type of stability that it offered.
For nearly seven years, he wandered around working various blue-collar jobs in some of the toughest environments in Texas. During this time, his close-knit Afghan team members started having issues. One of his teammates committed suicide. Another got into a fistfight with a man armed with a gun. He had survived numerous gun fights as a Green Beret with nearly a decade in the field, but this altercation at home shattered his life: in an instant he became a paraplegic.
When your friends start dropping like flies, you begin to think about when your turn will be.
Mike didn’t have to wait too long.
One day in his apartment in the midst of a bender, he had a flashback. He pulled out his handgun and started shooting.
Luckily, nobody was hurt. But the cops responded. And they surrounded his apartment.
Mike quickly regained his composure. He surrendered without incident, thanks to the professionalism of a police department that wanted to de-escalate a volatile situation.
Mike’s good fortune continued. He qualified for veteran’s court. Mercifully, he went on probation. He went to Alcoholics Anonymous religiously. He found a great therapist.
He’s been sober now for over two years. He’s found a beautiful girlfriend, and he’s on a path to fulfilling his dream of returning to school.
Mike survived. I had been there for him through his years in the wilderness. I never left him behind.
Now it was his turn to return the favor.
MILITARY FAMILIES ARE FORGOTTEN HEROES. They endure repeated deployments, late nights, and jobs done in secrecy. Even when their service member is physically at home, he or she often cannot be present.
I haven’t been present for years—and it nearly cost me my family.
The 1,500 days in Iraq and Afghanistan combined with two arduous years juggling command and Afghan evac business drove me to the brink. At work I managed to hold it together. It was a struggle, but I made sure the mask of command remained tight.
But when I came home from work, all of the rage, despair, and anger came tumbling out. My wife walked around on eggshells because of my mood swings. I struggled to connect with our daughter. All she wanted was for me to be present. But my mind remained in Afghanistan, still fighting the war.
I seethed with anger. I protected my family by self-isolating. I didn’t want to worsen things, but that strategy didn’t improve the situation.
I tried everything to quiet the beast inside me: counseling, meditation, journaling, prayer, strenuous exercise, etc. But the carnage in Afghanistan combined with moral injury and PTSD was too much.
Luckily, I had Mike. Earlier this year, during a commander’s conference, I started having a flashback. I had to excuse myself from the auditorium. I called Mike, who helped walk me through my crisis. He’d been there before.
Ironically, I thought I had it together for years, especially compared to Mike and Alex. I had deployed more, stayed in the military, and rose through the ranks. But my time had finally come to take a knee.
Mike encouraged me to go to inpatient therapy. He told me it was time to heal. And, more importantly, that I had done enough. It was my turn to heed his advice.
So this summer, after my command tour, I went to inpatient treatment for a month. Then, I spent three weeks in an outpatient program on my base. Now, I’m doing a month of hyperbaric therapy. I’m hoping all of these treatments will help quell my rage.
Most service members aren’t lucky enough to get three months to heal. As I stare at retirement in the face and prepare for my transition, I’m grateful for this opportunity.
My family deserves the best of me. And I’m determined to be present for them. They’ve more than earned it.
September 11, 2023
WHEN PEOPLE ASK ME what’s the hardest part about spending so much time downrange, my answer remains the same as it was after my first deployment in 2006: Coming home is the hardest part.
How do you explain combat to people who have no concept of it? How do you turn off that propensity for violence, especially if you excelled? How do you return to a society engulfed in one culture war after another? We were brothers. Americans are strangers.
Many veterans of the post-9/11 wars could never answer these questions. They are still struggling to reintegrate into modern American society. So are their families.
So this year, when we take a moment to remember 9/11, let us be honest with ourselves. The Taliban and their allies defeated us. We left too many of our allies behind. We failed in our quest to “Never Forget.”
After we speak the truth, let us pledge to do better. Yes, there are ways that we can spend more money on our post-9/11 veterans, and there are institutional reforms and improvements that can be made to provide them with better support. But if we genuinely want them to have a better reintegration than their Vietnam brethren, then it is up to society to spend its most precious resources on them: time and attention.
The post-9/11 combat veterans, their families, and their Iraqi and Afghan counterparts who made it here deserve your time and attention. The government cannot hatch a program to spur a better, more connected society for our 9/11 generation. It is up to each of us to make their transition better.
If we did that, then we would truly “Never Forget.”