Afghanistan veterans, refugees, aid workers reflect on loss in war – The Washington Post

Twenty years after the United States launched its longest war, militants are back in control in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s rapid return to power — beamed across television, computer and smartphone screens around the globe — was deeply personal for many who fought in the war, who helped the country rebuild or were forced to flee amid the violence.
Washington Post readers around the world — among them veterans, aid workers and refugees — wrote to tell us how they are processing the new reality in the country, at a time when thousands risked their lives to escape an uncertain future, some cramming onto evacuation planes or even tumbling from the sky after clinging desperately to U.S. military aircraft.
Were you involved in the Afghanistan war effort? Tell us your stories.
Their stories, shared in interviews, illustrate the ongoing, everyday impact of the war in Afghanistan on people spanning continents and communities. The war has left a mark on people who, despite being worlds apart, are bound by the same feeling — an overwhelming sense of personal sacrifice. Here’s what they lost.
Masood Mulaakheil watched the Taliban take over his home country on a live news feed from his room in London. The 21-year-old refugee had not seen his family members since they sent him away from Afghanistan seven years ago to spare his life.
The videos of the militants brandishing their guns in the streets, the pleas of crowds clamoring to get on U.S. flights, the distressed posts from friends on Facebook: It all streamed in on his phone, but he could not believe it. The day the militants marched into Kabul, he washed his face frantically to wake himself up before trying again to call his parents back home.
Later, when he spoke to his mother, he begged her to get herself and the family out. “She said: ‘Where can we go? Wherever we go, we will face them,’ ” Mulaakheil told The Washington Post.
The scenes of the Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover brought back searing memories from when he fled his village, crammed with others in the back of a smuggler’s truck. His parents sent him away at 14 years old after his father spoke out against the Taliban, fearing that fighters would come after him. As their eldest, Mulaakheil eventually hoped he could help provide for his family from abroad.
He wound up trekking through mountains in Turkey for hours to get to a place where he could claim asylum. After shuttling through many countries, over many months, he found himself in the United Kingdom.
“I sacrificed my childhood, my parents, my whole family,” Mulaakheil said. “I sacrificed everything, my school … the right to play, to go outside to play with friends, to enjoy life.”
But now, he said, he cannot sleep. He can do nothing much beyond stare at the news and scroll endlessly through his phone. He is crippled with worry for his younger sisters: His mother told him she would rather kill her daughters “with her own hands” than let Taliban militants take them. He remembered a relative who was killed when Mulaakheil was a child, his dead body hung in the village as a warning to others.
The chaos dashed his hopes of returning one day. He once dreamed he could help his siblings go to college. After the Taliban swept through, his family abandoned their clothes shop, huddling at home, afraid of what might come.
“Now, I totally lost hope and the dream that I had for my family, for my country,” he said. “One of my younger brothers wanted to be a doctor. I used to tell him: ‘Don’t worry. Everything will go right now.’ But when I saw what happened … I lost my dreams.”
— Ellen Francis
Former Air Force Capt. Christine Collins, a trauma and critical-care nurse, is intimately familiar with the anatomy of war.
She knows, for example, that a human body can appear perfectly fine when observed from the front, even when the back of the person’s head is entirely missing from a bomb blast set up by Taliban fighters. The same fighters bombing convoys would end up under her care, spitting and kicking in her direction as she treated them, too.
She also knows that any language barrier between injured Afghans and the American doctors holding their hands evaporated in moments of pain. She understands that a smile or a simple thumbs-up has the power to serve as a signal of love and hope in times of turmoil.
For her and many other medics, Collins said from her home in D.C., “it is an everyday struggle still.”
When Collins left for Afghanistan in January 2009, her youngest of three daughters, Reagan, was just 13 months old. “She was so tiny,” Collins recalled. “A baby.” During her time away from her family, she missed birthdays and anniversaries and other milestones. Reagan’s first tooth. The excitement of her first steps.
“I still have such guilt that I deal with over that,” Collins said. The regret only fueled her to perform to the best of her ability in Afghanistan, she said. “I remember telling myself that if I’m going to be away from my husband and three children, it has to mean something.”
Collins vividly remembers taking care of an Afghan teenager who was raped and became pregnant. Her brother later admitted to taking her to a cattle shed to remove the fetus with a razor, before sewing her back up with thick yarn. The 14-year-old’s mother was also accused. After the forced abortion, the teenager, who was around five months pregnant, suffered a dangerous infection that almost killed her. “We took care of her from the time that she almost died with sepsis to the time she walked out,” Collins said. “I pleaded with her, I begged her, not to go back.”
Now, the fate of that girl, whose dressing Collins changed hourly for weeks — and the fate of so many other Afghan nationals saved during the war — is again uncertain. Watching the news unfold from Afghanistan, a place full of people she knows so well, has been “brutal,” said Collins, who is now a captain in the Commissioned Corps of U.S. Public Health Service.
Since mid-August, she has wrestled with frequent panic attacks. Her husband, Clinton, recites facts about hummingbirds to her in a bid to calm her down. It’s like when he used to crawl into the closet alongside her after she returned from deployment, when she was seeking a safe hiding spot away from the rest of the world.
For Collins, the level of sacrifice is hard to put into words. “You can’t even put a price on that,” she said. “We were ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”
— Jennifer Hassan
Two-year-old Rowan Brown was in his grandfather’s office in Fayetteville, N.C., asking a lot of questions one day in 2018. “What’s inside that, Papa?” he asked him, pointing to a footlocker. Out came a Kevlar helmet and goggles. “Papa, when can I have my own?” Rowan asked, struggling to don the helmet that was twice the size of his head.
“You’re going to need one when you go to Afghanistan,” his grandpa said. Rowan had another question: “Papa, why do I have to go to Afghanistan?”
Rowan’s grandfather, Christopher “Kit” Pryer, now 57, was the first person in his family to participate in the post 9/11-wars, as a special agent for the State Department whose duties included protecting American diplomatic facilities. He was in Baghdad from 2005 to 2006. Then, from 2008 to 2009, he was in Karachi, Pakistan, in a country where members of the Taliban were sheltered and where Osama bin Laden was later killed.
Pryer said he had no idea that his children could be fighting the same wars. He wondered whether little Rowan would go, too. “It never occurred to me that this would be a multigenerational war,” he said. “I thought we’d deal with it and move on.”
Just a year after Pryer left Pakistan, his youngest son, Max — who was around 10 years old on 9/11 — deployed to Iraq as an Army paratrooper. Two years later, Max deployed again, this time to Afghanistan.
By then, Pryer could feel the emotional toll. “I probably consumed more alcohol than I should have,” he said. “It was infinitely more stressful to have my sons going into the military during a war than it was for me to deploy during the war.” (Max’s older brother also served in the Army but never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.)
Max reported to his parents on an almost daily basis from Afghanistan, via phone calls or emails. For Max, conversations with his parents were the rare moments of comfort in Afghanistan, the now-29-year-old said in a separate interview. But he shared the bad stories only with his dad.
He told him about how he was in a convoy with his unit moving from village to village in rural Afghanistan when the truck in front of him took the brunt of a roadside bomb and flipped. And the time when a sergeant in the company was shot through the shoulder.
Max told his parents about his bond with Jaweeh, an Afghan interpreter who served in his unit: “[We] got along so well because he, like me, was doing it for his family.”
Kit Pryer said he wasn’t sure whether it would have been worse “to be the way it was in past wars, where I waited for a weekly or monthly letter … or if it was worse being told in real time they were pinned down on a mountain and the helicopters couldn’t get in.”
Max got home safe in the fall of 2012. But as the war dragged on, Pryer started suggesting to his grandchildren that they might have to go fight. “Very rarely did our family get together that we didn’t tell the grandchildren they needed to prepare to deploy to Afghanistan,” he said. “I do it with a smile and they know I am not entirely serious — more a metaphor for the duty to serve.”
A few years ago, however, Pryer grew more concerned it could become a reality — right around the time Rowan, the son of Pryer’s daughter, started trying on that helmet.
With the United States having pulled out its final troops, that won’t happen. Now, Max is thinking again about Jaweeh. “If he wanted to leave, I hope he can find himself on a plane.”
The wars deepened the family’s bond. “I won’t pretend I know what it is like to lose a child to a war,” Pryer said. “But there was never any anger. I understand why people attack us. I hope they understand when and why we fight back.” Max urged fellow veterans not to feel anger or frustration, even with the Taliban back in power. “What is the alternative?” he asked. “Lose more American lives? I don’t think that is the answer.”
— Andrew Jeong
Mathijs Schuuring, a sergeant with the Dutch air force, would tense up every time he would hear the slap of helicopter blades. His workstation in 2010, when he was a supply specialist with an Apache helicopter detachment, was right in front of a medical evacuation site in Tarin Kot, in southern Afghanistan. Body bags were hauled out daily, right in front of him, once the choppers landed.
“Every day we saw wounded and killed people from all kinds of nationalities,” he said. “Our own, Americans, Australians, members of the Afghan National Army and Afghan civilians who either ended up in fights or were victims of one of the many improvised explosive devices.” Schuuring left his hometown of Rotterdam to deploy four times to Afghanistan, for a total of 16 months — twice to Kabul International Airport and twice to Camp Holland in the south.
He worked at an ammunition dump that he said felt like a “wasteland, full of abandoned aircraft wrecks, trucks and unexploded ordnance dating back to the Soviet invasion in the ‘80s.” Schuuring would often fight waves of loneliness. Separated from his young children, Schuuring spent his after-hours with Afghan youths at an orphanage, playing games under the sun while helping to build metal roofing over the play yard. Their laughter helped alleviate his sadness.
But when his last deployment ended, his stomach sank as he registered how much he missed. His daughter was nearly 2. “It was heartbreaking when I returned and my daughter in her stroller didn’t recognize me,” said Schuuring, now 44. “She looked at me like I was a total stranger. … I remember her hair had grown a lot. She had already become a little lady. She wasn’t a baby anymore, and it was hard to see.”
Schuuring, who watched from Rotterdam as television channels broadcast the Taliban takeover of Kabul, says it may take years for him to come to terms with what he’s sacrificed for a war with this outcome.
He’s deeply troubled by what it may mean for all those who entered his life in Afghanistan: The cleaners at his unit who loved reading his magazines from the Netherlands, or the hairdresser on the camp site — were they able to make it out? “We simply didn’t succeed,” he said. “The goal was always to make Afghanistan a safe country and to keep the Taliban out. It’s something we have to live with. But somewhere in my mind, as I think of the Afghani people, I want to think that it wasn’t totally for nothing.”
He has been thinking a lot about the children at the orphanage. “Seeing all the dreadful images makes me shiver and leaves me with an empty and gutted feeling,” he said. “I wonder about the kids at the orphanage. They must be adults by now.”
— Grace Moon
The images of hundreds of Afghans running on the tarmac of the Kabul airport as thousands tried to escape the Taliban were painfully familiar for Jeff Le, the son of Vietnamese refugees. Le grew up hearing stories about the fall of Saigon — the final days of the United States’ now-second-longest war — in 1975 and the mad scramble of helicopters to ferry Americans and Vietnamese to safety aboard U.S. ships.
His mother called after hearing that the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan was toppled. “She told me seeing the videos of people running onto the tarmac to jump onto planes felt not just like the fall of Saigon but much, much worse,” Le said. “Think about this: This is my mother recounting the worst day of her life, where she lost everything. And she thought this was more horrifying.”
This was not how Le, now 38, thought the war would end. He departed — against his parents’ wishes — for Afghanistan in 2010 as a civilian supporting the U.S. Agency for International Development, helping build a sprawling network of roads with Afghan construction workers across 16 provinces and later providing legal-training services for Afghan women. His parents struggled to understand his decision to work abroad in conflict zones “when they had made sacrifices so their son could live the American Dream,” he said.
The Le family rice farm in the Mekong Delta area of southwestern Vietnam was seized by communist North Vietnamese forces just after Saigon fell. They escaped on a 32-foot raft with other families, bouncing from multiple refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines before landing in Southern California in 1981, the year before Le was born.
Le wrestled to digest the recent developments while scrolling through a slew of frantic text messages from his colleagues in Afghanistan. “Hey, we’re really scared,” one read. “We’re trying to get out. It’s getting crazy,” said another. Those messages went silent as the Taliban tightened its grip.
“It’s as if much of the work never happened 20 years ago,” Le said. He sacrificed countless life milestones — weddings, the births of best friends’ children, funerals of loved ones — while grappling with a deep disconnect from his life back home, the life his parents created for him by leaving theirs behind. “I certainly feel a sense of guilt.”
Aug. 15, 2021, will now be a new date seared into his memory — along with April 30, 1975. “Every Vietnamese American knows what that means,” Le said. “It’s a generational trauma. Losing the life and country you know you’ll never have again. You’re leaving everything you know, even if it’s in turmoil and uncertainty, to come to a place so different and that will misunderstand you in so many ways.”
Yet Le said it’s easier for him to try to remain hopeful — not just about the results of the work he did but that those who left everything behind will find a way to move forward. “I am confident the Afghan people will rebuild their lives, even if it means living with the trauma of lost promises of their home,” Le said. “I know this because my family feels that loss every day.”
— Grace Moon
Lt. Col. Kim Seoung Ki of the South Korean army had just returned from a rocky deployment to Afghanistan in 2008. And he was angry: He couldn’t understand why the woman that his troops had just risked their lives to help save never got in touch.
The woman had been abducted by the Taliban with around 20 members of her church when they traveled to Afghanistan as Christian missionaries in July 2007, despite South Korean government advisories that strongly discouraged travel to the war-torn country at the time. Once in Taliban hands, she and her fellow churchgoers were forced from one cave to another in the deep mountains of Afghanistan. The Taliban worked to keep them from the eyes of American satellites for weeks while the militant group conducted negotiations with South Korean spies and diplomats.
But as the talks dragged on, the Taliban seemed to get frustrated. They started executing the hostages. Two were killed. “The Taliban kindly notified us where they had left the bodies,” said Kim, who was commanding 60 or so South Korean service members deployed to the country at the time.
He was tasked with retrieving the South Korean hostages’ remains. “You could see the small bullet holes in the front torsos, the chest of both men,” Kim, now 60 and retired, said in a recent interview in Seoul. “But the backside of their bodies was blown to pieces.”
Six weeks after the abduction, negotiations succeeded in persuading the Taliban to halt the killings and release the surviving hostages, who included the woman. She and her church members flew home within days of their liberation. “One of my men was newly married. And one day he started crying, after a rocket-propelled grenade almost hit his helicopter,” the colonel said. “He said: ‘Why are we trying to save them? They ignored warnings not to come here. This isn’t our mission.’ ”
When Kim returned home, he read in the newspaper that the woman was getting married. “I was furious,” he said. “My men had just saved her, risking their lives. And she had the guts not to even say thank you.”
The colonel left his phone number with her church. When she called back, she started sobbing, Kim said. “She said she was sorry for not thanking my men,” he said. “She said she had been suffering from PTSD after her ordeal with the Taliban.”
It was clear then to Kim that the trauma of war extended on both sides. Kim felt guilty about forcing her to relive the tough experience, too. Of their call, he said, “I thought that was thank-you enough.” They’ve never spoken since.
The colonel’s reflection appeared to represent his own internal struggle about Afghanistan: On the one hand, he expressed pride in having helped hundreds if not thousands of Afghans. His unit, which consisted of an army medical clinic and a South Korean marine platoon that provided security, offered Afghans modern treatment that was otherwise difficult to receive. The patients, some of whom had traveled hundreds of miles to receive care, would wait in lines in front of the South Korean military hospital every morning at 5 a.m., Kim said.
He also is saddened by the memories of Afghans that he or his colleagues couldn’t help. He talked about a young Afghan father who had brought in his dying daughter, begging for care. South Korean army nurses provided CPR and emergency care before the toddler died minutes later. The father thanked the nurses anyway. Kim said that memory has never left. “I’ve forgotten some stuff, but not that.”
And he’s still struggling with lack of recognition he and his unit often received upon returning home after such a difficult experience, in a country where 3,900 had fought in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan since 2002. Now, with Afghanistan “in the news so much, I’m suddenly being contacted by all kinds of people — academics, reporters, NGOs,” he said in a two-hour interview with The Post that was interrupted by at least five phone calls. “I don’t know what I should feel.”
— Andrew Jeong
When Col. Cathleen Labate was stationed in Vicenza, Italy, in 2006 as a U.S. Army dentist, she treated many soldiers who were between deployments. But Staff Sgt. Michael Gabel, of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was her favorite. He called her “Mom,” as many other soldiers there did, and Labate recalled him fondly as “the happiest person.”
“He was so Louisiana,” she said, citing his distinctive Cajun accent. “He was a country boy in Italy, and for him it was a fabulous time to be alive.”
Though Gabel was in his late 20s and Labate in her 50s, the two forged a friendship over long talks about fishing and hunting and music. Gabel would steal Labate’s water flosser from the dental tray to splash her as she worked; Labate taught him about the importance of flossing. “We had our issues,” she joked. “But I did get him to improve his dental hygiene.”
In the summer of 2007, just weeks before Gabel was sent to Afghanistan and Labate was flown to Iraq, Gabel needed a crown — she remembers it was on No. 19, the lower left first molar. “He asked me why I was fixing his teeth — he was only going to get killed on deployment,” she said.
Labate recalled telling him: “No way! I have another crown to finish on the other side, and we will see each other when we both return.”
That December, Sterling was scanning a Stars and Stripes when she saw an article about nine soldiers killed in a roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan’s southeastern Paktika province. Gabel’s name listed was among the dead.
She had no place or time to grieve. She did what she had to — kept on treating the soldiers going back into battle. “I can be philosophical here about lives lost for a fool’s mission,” she said. “But when he deployed, bin Laden was still out there, so there was an urgency to his mission. He did not die in vain.”
But now, with the Taliban back in control of the country, she can’t stop thinking about Gabel, in the prime of his life, and the other people she treated who went on to be killed. “War is always a waste,” she said.
Hassan and Francis reported from London. Moon and Jeong reported from Seoul.
Read more:
Nearly 20 years of war, 10 days to fall: Afghanistan, by the numbers
The Taliban says it will rule under sharia law. What does that mean?
‘Why did my friend get blown up? For what?’: Afghanistan war veterans horrified by Taliban gains


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