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Veterans look back on Afghanistan, Iraq odyssey with strong emotions

After climbing a ridgeline, Pfc. Alexander Simpson, of 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment's Headquarters and Headquarters Troop reconnaissance platoon, scans a nearby valley in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan, shortly after sunrise July 13, 2007. Mark St.Clair/Stars and Stripes

By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 29, 2014

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — In the rings beneath his steely eyes lies the toll of Army helicopter pilot Steven Martin’s 10 years at war.

The chief warrant officer 2 is no longer the eager, untethered 25-year-old he was when preparing for his first deployment. Idealism has been replaced by pragmatism; the excitement of battle has given way to the imperative of making it home to his twin girls.

“I’ve changed dramatically. What once was a romantic, naive idea of going to war to defeat terrorists has disappeared,” the veteran of four Afghanistan deployments said in his unit’s planning room at Bagram Air Field. “And now I know my responsibility is just to my brothers in arms and to my family.”

RELATED: Stars and Stripes special report: Leaving Afghanistan

With pride, weariness, nostalgia and some bitterness, veterans are looking back at a 13-year odyssey of war. Those deployed in Afghanistan have a front-row seat to a transition from a campaign that, along with Iraq, defined the post-9/11 military generation and permanently altered many veterans’ lives, for better or worse.

On Sunday, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, an amalgamation of dozens of NATO and allied nations, announced the end of its mission in Afghanistan. From Jan. 1, the military mission will be known as Resolute Support, focusing on training, advising and assisting, though that last term leaves a lot of wiggle room. Whatever the details of the new mission, there will be far fewer international troops in Afghanistan under Resolute Support and, if it goes according to plan — as little has in Afghanistan, there will be no foreign troops in the country by the end of 2016.

Like the war itself, though, the end of Operation Enduring Freedom is ill-defined and hard to pin down. Despite White House rhetoric, U.S. troops will likely see combat next year and beyond, and the feelings of veterans watching combat fade are equally complex.

At the height of the U.S. troop surge in 2010, 100,000 Americans were fighting across the rugged mountains and yawning deserts of Afghanistan, and roughly 2.5 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. The war in Afghanistan has left more than 2,300 American troops and nearly 1,200 international allies dead. While the U.S. effort is significantly scaling down, there will still be about 11,000 American troops in the country Jan. 1 — about 1,000 more than President Barack Obama originally announced. Casualty figures could continue to rise.

The war has cost troops friends, limbs, marriages; they’ve missed birthdays and Christmases, and they’ve formed bonds beyond most people’s comprehension — all in a place that is still little more than a vague notion for many of their loved ones. Many grew up in war, spending most of their adult life on deployment or waiting for the next tour. For some, it is surreal to think they may be forever leaving a country that has so profoundly altered their lives.

“I hope that sometime in my life I can return,” said Army Maj. Rose L. Smyth, a 3rd Infantry Division medical administrator at Bagram. “To walk away from this — it will be a desire to show my children where I was and what I did and why it mattered.”

As the U.S. military was stretched between two wars after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, deployments became so regular that troops started penciling the next deployment into the calendar as soon as they arrived home from a tour.

“It’s like a home away from home,” said Air Force Tech Sgt. Richard Bennett, a flight-line ramp supervisor on his fifth Afghanistan tour, along with two in Iraq.

Those who served in the early days of Iraq and the pre-surge period in Afghanistan often look back fondly to that time of little or no Internet access, military rations and simple canvas tents. As the wars dragged on, blast-wall-encased bases grew, with such amenities as smoothie shops, massage services and even a TGI Friday’s to serve the increasing numbers of troops and contractors.

With each new unit, there were more rules. Large installations, like Kandahar Air Field and Bagram, started to resemble stateside garrisons without the traditional nod to certain rules being relaxed in a combat zone. God forbid you were caught without a reflective belt.

“It was simpler and it was more Army back then,” said Army Staff Sgt. Junior Casillas, a veteran of the 2003 Iraq invasion and three tours to Afghanistan. “Then you had (Military Police) handing out speeding tickets (at Kandahar Air Field) and you’re like, ‘What?!’”

Casillas, a 36-year-old flight engineer instructor, says he cherishes his time with his wife and 9-year-old son, time that has been limited by steady deployment that has spanned more than a decade. Still, like many troops, Casillas has found life in combat seductive and says it will be tough to adjust to life without the next deployment just over the horizon.

“I don’t mind it. You get used to it — sadly enough, you kind of miss it,” he said. “You get home and things are kind of complicated.”

Many Afghanistan veterans have seen what resembles two or three different wars, from the initial invasion and the relatively peaceful aftermath, to the violent years of the U.S. troop surge sent to quell a resurgent Taliban, and finally the slow pullback to a largely training-and-advising mission that has marked the past two years.

“All we worked for the past 13 years is happening since (the Afghan security forces) can stand on their own,” said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Gilpin, based at Baram with the 3rd Infantry Division.

Many troops, however, fret about the state of the Afghan National Security Forces, who are largely on their own to combat an insurgency that has shown no sign of subsiding, albeit backed by coalition air power, intelligence and logistics help. Afghan casualties are rising sharply — troops and civilians — and many experts doubt the ability of the ANSF to hold its own long-term without continued support from international forces.

For those who served at the height of the fighting in Afghanistan, it is the controversial counter-insurgency operations — battling insurgents with one hand while trying to win over the population with the other — that have defined the war, for better or for worse.

On his first deployment in Afghanistan, Martin, the helicopter pilot, served as a psychological operations soldier. He would sometimes find himself fighting his way through ambushes to deliver medical supplies and other humanitarian aid. In that microcosm of the war, troops were killing and getting killed just to drop off a box in hopes of winning the ever elusive “hearts and minds.” The results of such operations were murky.

Martin is proud of his service and his commitment to his fellow soldiers. What it all means, though, that’s for politicians thousands of miles from the dying to decide, he said.

“The idea that the war is over, mission accomplished? After 10 years in Afghanistan I’m still not sure what the mission is.”

druzin.heath@stripes.com
Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

'I don't mind it; you get used to it,' Army Staff Sgt. Junior Casillas said at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan on Dec. 23, 2014, about his 4 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and the struggles of coming home from deployment. 'Sadly enough, you kind of miss it.'
Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes

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