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'It was not for nothing': Montana vets reflect on Afghanistan War's end
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'It was not for nothing': Montana vets reflect on Afghanistan War's end

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As the U.S. military scrambles to secure the international airport in Kabul and evacuate Americans and Afghans in recent days, retired Montana Army National Guard Battalion Chaplain Ryan Luchau of Helena has intentionally avoided the news lately.

Luchau, who served in Afghanistan from June 2018 to March 2019, said the reports coming from that country regarding the U.S. military's withdrawal and the subsequent swift collapse of its Western-backed government are disheartening.

"I'm not watching the news; it certainly has an effect on my demeanor," he said. "That's not to discount the importance of what's happening over there. There are other things that need my attention."

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Tomy Parker of Ronan, who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, said he has felt the sting of those reports as well.

"Everything completely changed in the last two weeks," Parker said.

Parker said he sympathizes with his fellow Montana veterans who might be shaken by the recent events.

"There's possibly hundreds more (Montana veterans) deeper in the bottle right now," he said.

Helena's Tim Graff, a retired Chief Warrant Officer 5 in the Montana Army National Guard, expressed similar frustrations.

Graff piloted data gathering aircraft "full of looking and listening equipment," as he put it, in Afghanistan in 2015. For nearly seven months, Graff and his fellow C-12 crew members "kept eyes and ears on the bad guys."

"You always hope there's a way to end it," he said. "It could have been handled a little differently."

These Montana veterans reflected this week on what is happening in Afghanistan, the country they served in, and how it has drastically changed since the United States decided to pull its troops after nearly 20 years.

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani in his first public address since fleeing the country said the international community failed his country.

Although the U.S. military has maintained control of Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport, Pentagon officials stopped short of guaranteeing the ability to evacuate Americans, Afghans who aided the Americans and other foreigners outside the airport perimeter.

The United Nations is also scrambling to evacuate its aid workers.

Gun-toting Taliban fighters waltzed back into the presidential palace. 

And President Joe Biden in an address Monday acknowledged the withdrawal has been "hard and messy," but defended his decision to end the country's longest war.

Although the current state of affairs in Afghanistan may be a hard pill to swallow for veterans of the 20-year war, Parker said "I urge you to change your perspective."

'Connections over there'

The counterinsurgency work Parker and other U.S. and NATO soldiers conducted in Afghanistan was intended to change the hearts and minds of the local population.

Parker and a team of fellow Marines arrived in Sangin, in the middle of Afghanistan's dangerous Helmand Province, on Sep. 28, 2010.

"We pushed out farther than NATO forces had previously," he said, adding that their mission to "befriend the local population" was "hit or miss."

Parker said though he never saw it firsthand, he and his fellow troops were informed by higher-ups that their work was having a positive effect in the area: markets were reopening and children, including girls, were going back to school.

While that certainly helped him, Parker said it was not his primary concern.

"I wish that I could say that my individual motives were that altruistic," Parker said. "I was more concerned about ensuring the Marines I was deployed with came back safe."

By Dec. 11, 2010, Parker stepped on an improvised explosive device. His left leg had to be amputated at the hip, his right leg was amputated at the knee, and he lost four fingers on his left hand.

He said he suffered while lying in an American hospital "knowing I had bros I care more about than some family still over there."

Parker said it took the advice of a close friend to help him realize that worrying about things he could not control and focusing on the negative was only hurting him.

Graff, the National Guard pilot, described the scene at Kandahar Airfield during his time there in 2015 as "fairly secure."

He said while walking from his living quarters to the chow hall about seven buildings away one would occasionally be confronted with the sounds of incoming rockets and artillery fire.

"There were little bunkers along the way always within running distance," Graff said.

That environment likely helped forge the strong bond Graff said he continues to share with fellow members of his C-12 unit out of Montana.

"I've known those guys for 30 years," he said. "Our wives are still friends. I've watched their kids grow up."

As a chaplain, Luchau said it was critical to forge those relationships in such an atmosphere.

"Even when things don't go as planned, you still have to focus on the positive," Luchau said. "When an individual's struggling, the job of the chaplain is to draw out those positives."

He said some of the more difficult times during his deployment came at the mortuary at the Bagram Airfield.

"I had the honor of supporting individuals helping to prepare fallen soldiers for the trip home," he said.

But his compassion did not stop at the perimeter of Bagram Airfield.

"I still have connections over there," he said, adding that he has recently kept in touch with a "Muslim Afghan friend" who managed to escape to Germany. "I care deeply for the folks in Afghanistan. I'm praying for them."

'One of my best years'

Though Biden's decision to end the war has resulted in a speedy dismantling of Afghanistan's police, military and government, Parker said he chooses to focus on the undeniable benefits that came from America's 20-year campaign against terrorism.

"In the time since the war started, hundreds of thousands of children were born who got to live in a world that was just a little bit safer," Parker said.

Luchau said his time in Afghanistan made a lasting impact on his life.

"It was one of my best years in service," Luchau said. "I got to grow in my faith and my role as a chaplain. I grew tremendously as a man and in my faith."

Graff also expressed pride over America's involvement in the Middle Eastern country's civil war.

"We put forth a hell of an effort," he said. "We showed those Afghans what it could be like."

Parker echoed those sentiments.

"We planted the seed in the minds of Afghans that things can get better," Parker said. "It was not for nothing."

The long road home

After his retirement from the Marine Corps, Parker, now a double amputee, said he fell into a dark hole.

The 31-year-old managed to claw his way out of depression, addiction and incarceration through help from family, loved ones and a robust network of veteran advocacy and support groups in Montana.

He first credited his girlfriend, Dara Rodda, with helping him out of the hole.

With her help, Parker started racing in marathons, since completing two full marathons and 10 half marathons, and the couple is in the midst of starting their own company.

They are creating wheelchair bags and accessories and hope to have products available for sale within the next year.

Another contributing factor to Parker's comeback was Impact Montana, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to supporting not only service members and veterans, but also their families.

The organization stresses the importance of what it calls "veteran thrive factors," of which there are six: physical, career, family, financial, social and spiritual wellness.

"When paying attention to those, the propensity for veterans to thrive increases exponentially," said Luchau, who founded Impact Montana and serves as the organization's board president.

Luchau said the organization strives to complement existing health care options for veterans with nontraditional methods such as sensory deprivation therapy and hyperbaric chamber therapy.

He said now is a critical time for Afghanistan war veterans.

"That 20 years of blood, sweat, death and toil has come to this is a tough situation for some to watch," he said.

But both Luchau and Parker encouraged people to connect with any of the many such organizations throughout the state, and that does not apply just to vets.

"If civilians out there want to know how to support their vets, by all means give us a call," Luchau said. "There is an abundance of resources and support that's not just for vets. Don't be shy."

Parker, a fellow Impact Montana board member, said Americans need to focus on the eventual repercussions at home that the Afghan War's end is sure to bring.

"As Americans, it's our job to remind our vets that their service was not for nothing," Parker said.

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Local Government and Crime Reporter

Nolan Lister is a reporter at the Helena Independent Record with an emphasis on local government and crime.

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