Afghanistan present, Vietnam past: Thoughts from Garfield County veterans
Two wars, two Garfield County veterans, one conclusion: war never ends
Separated in age and wartime experience by five decades, two Garfield County veterans share the same conclusion about America’s hasty pullout of Afghanistan: We never learn.
Rifle resident and former U.S. Marine infantryman Kasey Brueggeman, 28, patrolled Afghanistan throughout 2014 with a complement of troops from the nation of Georgia.
“I think we went to Afghanistan to win, but our hands got tied, because it’s such a political game,” Brueggeman said, explaining he believes the war was unwinnable. “Our guys did a lot there, installing infrastructure and piping water to crops. But that’s all going to the Taliban now. I don’t feel like we made a difference.”
Randall Reimer, 76, a Glenwood Springs resident and Vietnam veteran, served as a photographer for the U.S. Army during two tours in Vietnam from 1969-1971.
“It’s the same s— all over again,” Reimer said, recalling America’s pullout from Saigon, Vietnam, in 1975. “We didn’t learn anything between Vietnam and Afghanistan.”
The Afghanistan people’s willingness to work and work hard when given the right tools and instructions surprised Brueggeman.
“I’d always heard they were lazy and just looking for handouts,” he said.
But the more he interacted with the locals, the more he realized “the legit Afghanis” just wanted a normal life — growing crops and raising livestock to support their families. He was told his mission was to win the “hearts and minds” of the people, and he started to understand why.
Empowering the people to pursue a quality of life free of the extremists embedded throughout Afghanistan society proved to be a challenge, however.
Allied combatants were issued rules of engagement that made stamping out the insurgency difficult. Brueggeman and his fellow Marines could only fire at an insurgent while the insurgent was holding a weapon and posing an imminent threat to Allied lives.
“They would shoot at us, drop their rifles, run and hide,” he remembered. “We would find them, but couldn’t do anything because they were no longer armed. They would just smile at us and shake our hands, because they knew we couldn’t touch them.”
Even if an insurgent was killed, Brueggeman said a dozen more would step up to take his place. Like spinning wheels in a muddy rut, the efforts of his fellow Marines felt futile. But his wartime experience was not without high points.
“We had this interpreter, Said (pronounced SI-EED), and he was pretty cool,” Brueggeman said.
Said attended school in the U.S. and returned to Afghanistan to teach English, and he believed in the Allied mission. Brueggeman remembered Said as a young man in his mid-20s who wanted Allied forces to know his face, even if it put him at greater risk among the insurgents.
“He was the kinda guy who was always in it, always looking for a way to be involved,” Brueggeman said. “I heard he died shortly after we left, but I can’t confirm that. If he didn’t, the Taliban will for sure kill him now.”
For Brueggeman, America’s expedient evacuation of Afghanistan isn’t a personal defeat. It’s a slap in the face to people like Said, who put their lives on the line for the Allied mission.
“I think this is about all the mothers and fathers of slain soldiers, and the engineers who put their blood and sweat into building up that country for decades just so we could hand it over to the Taliban,” Brueggeman said. “The people we helped, they’re either dead because we helped them, or they’re helping the Taliban, because they will be dead if they don’t.”
In 1975, Reimer watched the televised evacuation of Saigon, South Vietnam, as U.S. troops pushed unmanned helicopters off aircraft carriers to make room for incoming helicopters loaded with evacuees.
“There are a lot of similarities between Saigon and Kabul,” Reimer said. “But with Saigon, we had been dwindling our involvement for a while by the time the Viet Cong and [North Vietnamese Army] troops pushed in.”
Reimer said he questions why America took such a drastic approach to evacuating Afghanistan, suggesting it might have worked better as a drawn out, staggered withdrawal.
On the other hand, Reimer said he didn’t agree with former President Donald Trump on much, but Trump got it right when he said “enough was enough.”
“We’ve been there too long, and for what?” Reimer asked.
Neither Reimer nor Brueggeman believe this most recent retreat will be an end to America’s hopscotch campaign of wars abroad.
“Just look at social media,” Brueggeman said. “People can’t agree on anything. Preventing war is impossible. There will always be another.”
Wherever there is power to be obtained, there will be war, he said.
Reimer said he hopes the Taliban will keep its promises to treat the Afghanistan people with dignity, but he’s not optimistic.
“War is human nature,” he said. “How long before the next one? A day? A week? A year? I don’t think it will ever end.”
Reporter Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.