Alaska-based vets reflect on Afghanistan, resurgence of Taliban

Eagle River resident and Silver Star recipient Roger Sparks (center), with fellow PJs at Forward Operating Base Joyce in Afghanistan November 2010. (Roger Sparks)

The withdrawal of the U.S. military from Afghanistan has been watched closely by veterans of the 20-year war, who’ve expressed a range of emotions and opinions as the Taliban have once again swept into power.

That includes many based or formerly based in Alaska, which is said to have a higher percentage of veterans than any other state.

National Guard Infantryman Thor Johnson, of Kodiak, in Afghanistan in 2011. (Thor Johnson)

One is Thor Johnson, who lives in Kodiak. He was in the 6th grade when terrorists attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. A decade later, he deployed to Afghanistan as an infantryman with the National Guard.

“Politics aside, I knew that we were trying to help people have a better life,” Johnson said. “I guess I thought we were doing the right thing for those people at the beginning.”

Johnson was stationed at Camp Nathan Smith in the Kandahar region, and his job was to protect members of a Provincial Reconstruction Team. Close to the end of his deployment, while providing security to workers visiting a dairy, two men on a motorcycle attacked Johnson’s convoy.

“So, the doors were just about shut and these two gentlemen kind of popped up, and the one with the rifle started shooting at us,” Johnson said. “And the ricochets are going by, the rear gunner reported it, you know, ‘Enemy firing at our rear,’ and he was returning fire.”

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Everybody in Johnson’s convoy was OK that day, but he knows people who didn’t make it back. He also badly injured his shoulder later — not in combat — but it still affects him today. And he’s had friends, who were suffering from the lingering trauma of war, commit suicide.

Air Force pararescue jumper Roger Sparks, of Eagle River, in Afghanistan. (Roger Sparks)

Now, what bothers him the most, he said, is that it seems like many Afghans didn’t care enough to put up a fight of their own, and the U.S. withdrawal happened so quickly, it handed the country right back to the Taliban.

“For the investment of 20 years to go down the drain in what amounts to less than a week’s worth of fighting is devastating,” Johnson said. “It’s very upsetting. It’s frustrating that a lot of people gave their lives, their youth, to this.”

Air Force pararescue jumper Roger Sparks, an Eagle River resident who deployed to Afghanistan over a dozen times, saw the mission differently.

“I was never going there to improve the lives of the Afghan people, you know, I was going there to pursue people that would do citizens of this country harm,” Sparks said. “I was pursuing people that wanted to project violence upon people of this country. And we just happened to be pursuing them in Afghanistan.”

With the special forces, Sparks saw his share of violence. Men died in his arms. A fellow PJ survived getting shot in the head through the bottom of their helicopter. In an operation called Bulldog Bite, Sparks lowered down from the helicopter under heavy fire and grenade attacks to tend to nine badly wounded men, saving five of them. He was awarded the Silver Star.

Sparks said it’s deeply unfortunate for the Afghan people that the U.S. is now pulling out. But he doesn’t think American soldiers lost their lives for nothing, because he says they knew what they were getting into, and for him, violence was the point of being there, not the reconstruction.

“Was this all just a giant rat race? Well yeah, most of it was. But, you know, just don’t ever lie to yourself for the reasons that we’re really there,” Sparks said. “We’re coming up on the anniversary of September 11th. That’s the reason we’re there.  … You know, if you have someone that’s trying to project violence on you, you’re going to absorb that violence unless you project violence upon them. You can’t talk your way out of that. And so I think we were very effective at doing that in Afghanistan.”

Still, it’s complicated and there are no easy answers, Sparks said.

“It’s just, if you’re going to try to solve problems with violence, it gets very esoteric in the fact that you’re just creating more problems, you know,” he said.

Army Capt. Tom Berry (right) with an interpreter in Afghanistan during the war. (Tom Berry)

Tom Berry, formerly an Army captain stationed at Fort Wainwright, also wasn’t surprised to see the Taliban swoop back into power in Afghanistan. He was deployed there in 2011 about 20 miles from where the Taliban started, and he could see that in the rural, agricultural area his unit patrolled, things on the ground had changed very little since the initial U.S. invasion 10 years earlier.

“And you saw the government, while well intentioned in many ways, was not functioning,” Berry said. “So a big reason why I left military service the year after my deployment was, you could just see, or I could see, that I couldn’t possibly lead soldiers into a cycle where every year, a new American unit comes in and declares victory. But victory wasn’t really achieved. And then a new unit comes in and repeats. That already happened about seven times in the village that I was in.”

A lot of the problems with the long U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, and now the rapid withdrawal, are the result of American citizens and politicians not caring enough or not paying enough attention, Berry said.

“Like, ‘Oh, we’re here for a year. Someone else will be coming for the next year,’ (the) absence of caring as Americans, caring at the highest level,” he said. “Maybe it’s easier to just prolong this war than to be honest about the fact we have no strategy and people are dying.”

For Berry and many other veterans, it still isn’t over: He’s trying to help his Afghan interpreter, Walid, and his wife and their nine children escape the country.

Walid and his family are in hiding while Berry and his former colleagues in the U.S. try to get them special visas. Even then, Berry said, they’ll have to somehow evade the Taliban and get to the airport.

“I think the way that this is going down is, it shows that if I just care through this final step, no matter what happens, very least, I want to have one more nightmare to deal with coming out of this week,” he said.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.

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