This year marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on America and my 21 years of military service in the United States Air Force. As I listened to President Biden discuss his reasons for the withdrawal and his decision to end the war in Afghanistan, I found myself reflecting on my personal involvement and how Afghanistan has shaped my career. First, I retraced my deployments as a pilot flying both the KC-135 tanker aircraft and C-17 airlift aircraft in Afghanistan. Second, I reflected on my role as a casualty notification officer.
I began my Air Force career as a young officer, standing next to my fiancé — whom I would marry four days later — as we watched in horror as the World Trade Center towers crumbled. I remember not taking my eyes off the television and saying, “This will change our future,” and “this will define my career.” At the time, I had no idea how true this would become. As I and others around the world watched the towers collapse, I was unable to absorb what was unfolding. Just shy of a year later, after completing initial and mission qualification training, I began my deployments flying KC-135 missions over Afghanistan.
As an unfledged pilot on my first deployment, I was both eager and elated to perform the role I was trained to do. When I deployed with my squadron, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride, enthusiasm and camaraderie in the missions we flew. I would earnestly depart from a staging base, fly to an orbit over Afghanistan, refuel multiple formations of fighter or bomber aircraft and then spiritedly return to the staging base. I recall receiving granular level intelligence briefings detailing the high-value targets, compounds or buildings the fighter and bomber aircraft had killed or destroyed. The dichotomy and realities of war became quickly apparent. On one hand, I felt a sense of accomplishment and pride and on the other a sense of sadness and sorrow over the loss of life and chaos unfolding in the arena around me. During my deployments, this was my cyclic “deployed life.”
However, as my deployments, both as a pilot and as an operational war planner, became more frequent throughout the next months and years, the intelligence briefings became vague and ill-defined. Then, at some unrecognized time, the missions had become routine, patterned, commonplace. The missions were more focused on “presence” and “opportunity” than a specific target or objective. At one point in 2005, both during and after missions, the crews’ conversations would often turn to why we were still in Afghanistan. We often asked ourselves, “What was our real objective?” As the war forged on, many of us felt we were only there to be a presence, just in case, rather than to accomplish a specific task or meet an objective. By the time I was a major, I would amass more than 1,000 combat hours flying KC-135s and C-17s, in and out of the Middle East, primarily Afghanistan and Iraq.
One deplorable truth of war is that military casualties are inevitable. I witnessed this for the first time in April 2011 as a casualty notification officer and again, just four months later, when I transported the human remains of special forces members to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Both events will remain with me for the duration of my life.
On April 27, 2011, an Afghan pilot trainee killed eight airmen and a U.S. contractor at Kabul International Airport. I was stationed in the Pacific Northwest at the time. Due to the time difference, I was called on the same day the atrocious attack occurred. As a field grade officer in the Air Force, one is eligible to volunteer to serve as a casualty notification officer — the Air Force representative who has the duty and sacred responsibility to notify the next of kin when an airman dies. To be honest, most officers who volunteer hope that day never arrives. For me, it had. After receiving the disturbing call and changing into my service dress uniform, I arrived at base and met both the chaplain and nurse who were assigned to accompany me to the next of kin’s house. I received a briefing on the situation, who had been killed and which family member I would be notifying. It turned out I was to notify this fallen airman’s mother.
While the chaplain and nurse sat in the front seat of the car, I sat in the back trying to come to terms with the gravity of the situation and the unthinkable news, the worst possible news, I was about to deliver to an unexpecting mother. I vividly recall whispering his name repeatedly and that of his mother, because I was anxious I would misspeak. But more than that, I remember asking myself questions: What kind of man had he been? What kind of father had he been? What kind of son had he been? I also could not help wonder, what if this airman was notifying my mother? To this day, more than 10 years later, I distinctly recall setting my feet on the front step of the house. I paused, looked down at my shoes, and took in a deep breath and let it out. After I knocked on the door, a man answered and, surprisingly, said over his shoulder to the next room, “the Air Force is here.”
As his mother began to comprehend the horrific finality of my words, she physically struggled to maintain her balance. You are taught as a casualty notification officer to be stoic, stick to the facts as you know them, and offer the grieving family religious or medical services. But as she began to tell me stories about his childhood, her mind struggling to find memories and words, I could not hold back tears. I stood, in front of her, and listened. It was only when the chaplain put his hand on my shoulder, breaking the connection between the mother and I, that I turned and made my way back to the car. To this day, I think about her from time to time and wonder how she feels on the anniversaries of 9/11. I also think about him often. At every promotion ceremony I have, and at every career milestone, I wonder how his life would have unfolded.
For every mission I flew over Afghanistan, there were soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen on the ground jeopardizing their lives while executing their missions. Too many of them had multiple deployments, risking their lives day in and day out. I am not unique. Every person who served in Afghanistan has a reflection, memory or story from their time there. How many of them asked, “Why are we still here?” For each of the 2,372 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan, there was a casualty notification officer with a story like mine.
I’m a career military officer who is deeply proud to serve in the United States Air Force, and I stand in awe of what the U.S. military has accomplished recently in Afghanistan. As we mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11, let us take a moment to reflect on what our military and their families have both accomplished and sacrificed. We needed to end the war in Afghanistan. Not because it was not worth it — our original objectives were met long ago. Not because America does not care about Afghanistan — we do. We needed to end the war in Afghanistan because it was past time to do so and the risks of losing more American lives outweighed our reasons for still being there.
Jacob M. Thornburg is an active-duty U.S. Air Force colonel and currently a fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard. He served in NATO at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe and in Air Mobility Command Headquarters. He’s flown both the C-17 and KC-135 in combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan.
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