'I'm a Former U.S. Marine, I'm Devastated By How The Afghanistan Exit Happened'

The war in Afghanistan may be officially over but so is "normal" life for the families of the service members who died on August 26 outside the airport in Kabul. As a former U.S. Marine, it's difficult to put into words all the emotions I've been feeling: pain, anger, sadness and despair.

Marines are taught to keep their emotions in check, but after news reports, images and details—in particular ranks and ages—began surfacing about the Marines and service members killed in the airport bombing attacks that day, my tears started flowing.

It's rare that I get this emotional, I've heard of many service members who have died over the years but some of those who were killed that day were the same rank and age that I was when I joined the Marines. My mind naturally started drifting to my own time in service and I began recalling my early days in service and the very unique pride that followed each day as I put on the uniform. I remembered the motivation I felt and the calling inside of me to serve my country. I know those men and women would have been feeling the exact same emotions I had as a young Marine, but they would not have thought they weren't coming back. The Marine Corps is a brotherhood and a sisterhood, as the saying goes, "we all bleed green." We are a military family, so if one of us hurts, we all hurt. So I was in pain.

I joined the Marines almost a year prior to 9/11, right after high school. On September 11, 2001, I was stationed in a non-deployable unit at Camp Johnson, part of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. When we found out a few days later that the attack was coordinated from Afghanistan, a place that borders the country I was born in, Pakistan, it started connecting for me in a very personal way. How could people who resembled me, and worse, claim my Islamic faith as their faith (when Islam forbids terrorism in any form), do this much harm to thousands of my innocent fellow Americans? I immediately notified my command of the skills that I had. I can speak Urdu, I understand the culture and, as a Muslim, I have the same religious background. I told them to use me as they saw fit.

As a young, patriotic, active duty Marine I had a natural desire to go to Afghanistan. My nation had been attacked. I was ready to serve and if that meant death along the way, then so be it. I was ready to die for my country. But because I was in a non-deployable unit, my hands were tied—I couldn't go to Afghanistan. My unit was involved in the training of Marines, and if those units are deployed, who was going to train future Marines?

Those who've never served often wonder how it is that young men and women are willing to put themselves in harm's way even if it means giving up something as sacred as their own life. It's hard to explain, but it's a deeply ingrained military culture of selflessness. From day one, we are instilled with the sense that we are only as strong as our weakest link. Race and religion are irrelevant.

But in August, those Marines and service members weren't in Afghanistan to fight anymore, they were risking their lives to help Americans and other Afghans depart safely. Some fear may have been present, that is natural. But this was their moment to do something heroic for their country. To see them killed, feels like a punch in the gut. It hurts.

I think I am with the majority of veterans in thinking that the Afghanistan war went on for too long. I left active duty in 2004 but my official discharge from the Marine Corps was in July 2008 and I don't think anyone anticipated that we would be talking about this 20 years later.

I am not upset that the U.S. left Afghanistan, but I am disappointed seeing the way it's been conducted. What especially pains me is that as service members we live on a certain set of values: honor, courage and commitment. These are etched into us from day one as Marines. So, when the U.S. leaves thousands of people behind, such as the Afghan interpreters who risked their lives and in many cases received a commitment that they will have safe passage to the U.S., it feels like a contradiction of the ethos that the U.S. military lives by, and that's very upsetting. One Afghan interpreter, Janis Shinwari, saved the life of a good friend of mine, Matt Zeller. Shinwari made it back, but thousands more haven't.

I have chatted to and exchanged messages with service members in my circle and the emotions and feelings I have are present in them. The vast majority agree that leaving Afghanistan was the right thing to do, it's the "how" part of it that we are struggling with.

I also feel a conflict of identity because those that our fellow service people were sent to take out, the Taliban, are the same people we have handed power back to. It makes no sense to me. So naturally the question of: "what were we there for?" runs through your mind.

Mansoor T. Shams is a former Marine
U.S Marine veteran Mansoor T. Shams founded MuslimMarine.org after leaving active service. Mansoor T. Shams

While I know I can speak for the pure and selfless spirit of my now dead brothers and sisters in arms, I cannot do the same for our political leaders, and in particular our Presidents, who've put the military community in these situations over the past 20 years. I'm extremely troubled and pained by their consistent failure in leadership. For me, the war in Afghanistan was clearly justified after 9/11. But I cannot comprehend why we were there for 20 years.

Presidents and members of Congress have long talked a big game when it comes to our military and their sacrifice, but their decisions have resulted in numerous deaths of U.S. service members along with thousands more returning home with life impacting disabilities. So many livelihoods have been destroyed as a result, and hundreds of thousands of innocent Afghans have also been killed in the last 20 years. Their lives were not any less precious than those of our American family.

The war in Afghanistan may be officially over, but there are people left behind and wounds reopened for those who have lost service members in the past. For the families of those who lost their lives in August, the process of healing has just begun.

Mansoor T. Shams is a Muslim American U.S. Marine Veteran, the founder of MuslimMarine.org and a public speaker. He also serves as a Term Member on the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Follow him on Twitter: @mansoortshams.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Additional details in this essay as told to Jenny Haward.