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‘Darkhorse’ vets reflect on Taliban overrunning Afghanistan: ‘It’s just heartbreaking’

Staff Sgt. Nathan Stocking from Lima Company, 3rd Battalion 5th Marines, checks on his junior Marines. (NELVIN C. CEPEDA/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Their Marine battalion paid a heavy price during the Afghanistan War — 25 dead, 200 wounded. So they couldn’t help but wonder Monday, as they watched the Taliban overrun the country, if all that bloodshed had been worth it.

To Juan Dominguez, who lost both legs and much of his right arm to an improvised explosive device in October of 2010, the answer was yes.

“In the time we were there, we did make a difference in people’s lives,” the 37-year-old Temecula resident said. “It sucks seeing all that hard work disappear, and disappear so quickly. But I don’t believe our sacrifices were in vain.”

John Torres saw it differently.

“It doesn’t feel like it was worth it,” the 32-year-old resident of Thompson Falls, Mont., said. “We didn’t leave the country better off than it was when we arrived. So it feels like a waste to me.”

Afghan War vets throughout the country have been wrestling with their emotions as they watch a foe they had chased away return to power. Some saw it as inevitable, based on the way things have been going in recent years. Others were surprised at the speed of the collapse by the Afghanistan military and government.

Almost everyone used the same word: “It’s just heartbreaking,” Dominguez said.

Reaching out to each other through social media, they’ve been trying to help the Afghan interpreters who helped them during the war and are trapped now at airports, unable to flee. They worry about what whether the country will be able to withstand whatever the Taliban has in store.

“I do think it takes an entire generation to understand what it’s like to fight for your country, and to be willing to die for it,” said Marcus Chischilly, 34, of San Diego. “It’s not to say we didn’t train them, or provide them with enough resources. It comes down to the bottom line of instilling in them, whether it’s the police or the national army, why you do that job. And they aren’t there yet.”

The three veterans were all part of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment out of Camp Pendleton, the Darkhorse Marines. They went into Sangin in the fall of 2010, replacing British troops that had lost more than 100 soldiers there — a third of their war dead in Afghanistan.

During seven months in Sangin, the 3/5 suffered the heaviest casualties of any battalion during the war, most of them in the early going, before they learned new tactics for dealing with improvised explosive devices planted under dirt paths and in fields. By the summer of 2012, the Taliban had mostly been routed from the area.

But in the spring of 2017, it was back in Sangin. U.S. and NATO troops had relocated, part of an overall draw-down in the forces there.

The Taliban’s return is one reason Torres wasn’t surprised by the events of the past week. “After they sacked Sangin again, you could tell this wasn’t a war we were winning,” he said. “It was just a matter of time.”

That viewpoint is shared by other vets, although it isn’t universal, said Travis Horr, director of government affairs for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a national advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

“I think there’s a lot of mixed emotions out there,” he said. “It runs the gamut, everything from those who believe it was inevitable to those who think we should have stayed in there and kept working to change things.”

Horr, a former Marine who served in the war in 2010 and 2011, said it’s been especially hard for vets whose deployments involved training the Afghan military. “To see how quickly some of the cities were taken, no shots fired — it’s tragic,” he said.

But he wasn’t second-guessing.

“It’s hard to put yourself in their frame of mind,” he said. “It seems clear to me the Afghan army thought the government had their back, and that wasn’t the case. And seeing the U.S. pull out so quickly had to make it hard for them, too.”

His group and similar organizations have been reaching out to Afghan War vets because of concerns about what the latest developments will do to those struggling with mental health issues, such as post traumatic stress disorder.

“This can be really triggering to those who spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears over there,” he said.

Nation’s Finest, another support group, quoted Dr. Sonya Normal, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ PTSD Consultation Program, as saying that veterans and their families should pay attention to changes in behavior.

“Those experiencing difficult memories or struggling in any way should not hesitate to reach out for help,” the group said in a statement.

Dominguez said the recent events haven’t changed his feelings about his time in the war.

“I think we’re all proud of trying to make Afghanistan a better place,” he said. “The people there want to live like us — they just want to be free.”

But mistakes were made, he said, in terms of understanding the culture and history of Afghanistan, and in terms of the mission there as it evolved across 20 years.

“There are always lessons to be learned, and as long as we learn them, we can figure out a way to be better,” Dominguez said. “History can teach us a lot, but if we don’t teach it, if we don’t learn from it, history tends to repeat itself in the most horrific ways.”

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