Twenty years ago, I was three weeks into my freshman year in college. I remember waking up Sept. 12 — the morning after 9/11 — and listening for the roar of military planes. But I was safe in my dorm room; I heard no sounds of war.
It would have been impossible then to imagine myself 20 years into the future: an Army chaplain, married to another Army officer, with four tours in Afghanistan between us.
For the hundreds of thousands of service members and veterans who have been touched by Afghanistan, it’s the sacrifices that mark our memories. Missed births, graduations and funerals. Anniversaries and birthdays celebrated over spotty internet. And countless other moments lost, never to be known.
This is the cost of serving.
As a military spouse, I delivered my son without his dad by my side and then moved alone across the country. These experiences and others transformed my idealism into a tough appreciation of reality.
The concept of sacrifice encapsulates all that I have seen and experienced in the decade or so I have served in the military. The ultimate sacrifice — laying down one’s life for friends and country — has been on my mind recently.
As we grieve the 11 Marines, the Navy corpsman and the Army soldier who died as part of the final mission in Afghanistan, and as we remember all of those who died during our country’s longest war, we are left wondering how we might honor their service and sacrifice most fittingly.
These past few weeks, I — like so many — have watched the news coming out of Afghanistan with bewilderment and sadness. These scenes are the opposite of the victory celebrations marking the end of WWI and WWII pictured in our textbooks.
The end of our involvement in Afghanistan has come without celebration or fanfare. In fact, it feels as if we have gone back to where we started. Some of us wonder: Was all of this for nothing?
Reflecting on my deployment has been enormously helpful. Ten years ago in Afghanistan, the situation was bleak, as it is today. My unit was tasked with interrogating detainees, hoping to get intelligence that would save American and coalition forces lives.
Most days, we struggled with the question, “What is all of this for?” Winning didn’t seem possible, and leaving wasn’t an option for us. What we experienced there helped form my future expectations.
None of us knew when, if ever, the war would end. But being in Afghanistan helped us put aside any rose-colored glasses we may have had and focus on the reality before us.
In the midst of this impossible situation, I witnessed the indelible spirit of some of our country’s finest sons and daughters. Countless examples of servanthood rose from the clutter of our confusion and disappointment.
Young soldiers gave their free time to tutor Afghan girls learning to read for the first time. Sailors volunteered at the Korean and Egyptian hospitals, sharing thousands of backpacks filled with school supplies, winter coats and blankets. Airmen led pickup soccer games for kids visiting family at the detention facility.
Hardly anyone allowed the crushing challenges to steal even faint possibilities for hope’s birth. This work was one child, one backpack, one gesture of love at a time.
Now, a decade later, the impact of this work of hope persists, perhaps more than anything else. These were opportunities to plant seeds, even as small as a mustard seed, and trust that God can make a way for growth.
One question hanging in the air now is, “What would victory in Afghanistan have even looked like?” It is easy to despair at the chaos and desperation in Kabul and throw up one’s hands.
Not only do we not have celebrations in our streets, but we have more deaths, of both our own troops and many of our Afghan partners and their families.
There is almost no calculus that would deem these days victorious.
I can’t help but feel that this ending in Afghanistan is in step with the 20 years we have spent there.
Stories of veterans groups risking their lives to help Afghan partners and their families get to safe ground. Images of soldiers sharing water bottles with thirsty kids. Maybe the most poignant of all, the picture of a small child on a cargo plane, sleeping under an airman’s uniform jacket.
These are moments of hope’s birth. They are the “victory” — the mustard seeds — we have to hold on to. This is what kept us going while we were serving in Afghanistan, and it’s what should inspire us to continue to serve in the days, weeks and months ahead.
Most importantly, I am reminded that the work that started in Afghanistan 20 years ago is far from finished. The ones fortunate enough to make it out safely are starting over in a strange place, often with nothing.
Thousands of families have gone from being our global neighbors to being actual neighbors — those beside whom we will shop at the supermarket or with whom our kids will play on the playground.
In the midst of an already difficult housing and job market and a devastating pandemic, a refugee crisis seems like a daunting addition. Yet in every community where the gospel is proclaimed, there is plenty of work to be done, plenty of seed to be planted still.
Years ago, in preparation for an Easter service, a pastor colleague asked members of her congregation to describe resurrection. But there was a catch: “big” resurrection, Jesus being raised from the dead, couldn’t be the answer. She wanted to hear the smaller stories of resurrection, the ones that might get overlooked when we are not paying close attention or are too distracted looking for the big story.
We all want to witness big resurrection, an indisputable victory over death and darkness. But if that is all we are looking for, we are bound to miss the resurrection that is happening all around us.
Nothing can take away 20 years of sacrifice made by our military and their families. Even though so much seems lost, hope’s birth is possible. How we all respond now has the power to honor, and even to multiply, the spirit of those who have served. We are called to continue our planting, trusting that, with God’s help, even the smallest seeds can grow into tall trees.