I can smell the grass like it’s spring, and smell the rounds going down range. I can hear our endless chats during the waits between action: What will you eat when you get home? What’s your dream meal?
I can remember the camaraderie and the jokes. And those little miracles, like the time the Army sent us beautiful T-bone steaks. But we had no fridge, so us 20 guys had to eat them all right away. The little plastic knives and forks we had didn’t work too well on steaks; we ate them with our hands.
Or how we couldn’t shower for weeks when we were away from the main base, and how after a while, we just didn’t care.
It’s not what most people would expect, but those are the moments I think about when I remember my days serving in Afghanistan. I’ve done that a lot in recent weeks since President Joe Biden announced plans to pull the last of our troops out by Sept. 11.
One thing I don’t obsess on is my injuries. I lost both my arms and both my legs when I set my backpack on an improvised explosive device in 2012. I should have died, frankly.
But my guys wouldn’t let me die.
The ninth anniversary of my injury (my “Alive Day”) has just passed — April 10. It comes just four days before my birthday — the same day I regained consciousness after being blown up. Some guys drink on their Alive Day, angry about the injuries they suffered. It’s a bittersweet thing. You are alive but you think, “Man, that sucks.”
Biden ends Afghan ‘forever war’ for US troops
President Joe Biden says he will withdraw remaining U.S. troops from the “forever war” in Afghanistan, declaring that the Sept. 11 terror attacks of 20 years ago cannot justify American forces still dying in the nation’s longest war. (April 14)
Drinking is understandable but that’s not my style. I have a beautiful wife and two children, and I’m thankful for every day with them.
But I don’t have a party, either.
My Alive Day is just another day.
Am I angry we are pulling out after I sacrificed so much? I’m lucky — more than 2,300 service members will never come home at all to their spous and parents and children. So no, I’m not angry.
And I see the point of those who argue that we need to keep a military footprint in Kandahar and Bagram. This is a volatile part of the world sandwiched between other volatile parts of the world, and we need some kind of presence.
But beyond that, I agree with the president. It’s time to go.
This was not a war we could win, really. How many more good men and women should go through what I’ve gone through? Not one.
It was hard enough fighting a determined enemy in remote locations when they used hit-and-run tactics and were ready to kill any civilians who helped us, and their families, too.
But the rules of engagement we took into battle made it especially challenging for us to protect ourselves.
Once we detained a group of Taliban fighters in a farmhouse who had rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47s and 600 pounds of explosives.
One had burns all over his hands — clearly the result of making bombs. We had to shoot our way out of there. But then the local authorities released the men because we hadn’t taken even photographs of all the weapons and explosives to document the evidence.
Soon after that I got blown up. My bomb was one of 13 buried next to a road. Dogs found the other 12. Forensic evidence linked to the man with burns on his hands was all over them.
By the end of my deployment, before my injury, we were ordered not to use our night vision goggles because it upset the populace. And the minute any fighter dropped his AK-47, he ceased to be an enemy combatant, so we couldn’t engage him. Some nights we could do nothing but watch Taliban guys bury bombs.
I’m not here to debate whether those rules of engagement made sense. I know, on a strategic, international level, there were reasons for these orders. But man, it made fighting on the ground damn near impossible.
So instead, I think back to those days in Afghanistan before my Alive Day.
Those days were not wasted.
We built wells so Afghan villagers could have fresh water. We built schools where, for the first time, Afghan girls were taught along with boys. We built state-of-the-art hospitals.
See? It wasn’t all firefights, IEDs and weeks without showers.
Do I have any regrets? Of course I do. I totally regret dropping my rucksack on that bomb.
But it is what it is. I don’t need any soldier to honor me by doing the same thing. I hope in my heart that the Afghan people can stand on their own, and that those wells and hospitals and schools help them.
But now it’s time for us to go.
Travis Mills, a quadruple amputee, is the author of “Tough as They Come.” He founded the Travis Mills Foundation, which runs a camp for injured post-9/11 veterans and their families in Maine that is about to undergo a $5.7 million expansion.