What to say? As I sit down on September 11, 2021, to contemplate what to write about September 11, 2001, that’s what’s going through my mind. Over the past two weeks, I’ve given two speeches and conducted four interviews where I shared my thoughts on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11.
America’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan in the weeks leading up to this anniversary provides plenty of fodder. I’ve said in those speeches and interviews what I felt was important. I’ve explained that no matter how America’s involvement in Afghanistan closed last week, I knew what my service stood for. I know the good that our military operations did in Afghanistan – for America’s security and the Afghan people’s security and well-being. I’ve been careful in talking about this to point out that I didn’t want to speak for all veterans because I can’t pretend to know how all veterans feel. But today, on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, I’m OK telling all veterans that they should be proud of their service because we all know what we accomplished in our own area of operations — the good we did — despite how it ended. I know I’m proud of my service. I’m proud of all that my Marines and Sailors accomplished. I’m proud of the team that they were, the immense sacrifices they made, and the honor and pride that is now their legacy.
I worry about the future our Afghan security forces partners now face — the future all the Afghan people face. When I commanded 1st Reconnaissance Battalion in Afghanistan, we were assigned an area of operations (AO) in the upper Sangin Valley in Helmand Province. My battalion was responsible for providing security for the people that lived in our AO and for working to connect them to the Sangin District and Helmand Province Governments. I remember how the hundreds of Afghan farmers who attended our weekly shuras were able to loudly and passionately express their differing opinions about how things were being run in the district. These shuras were stressful because the Afghans who attended them had no qualms about expressing their passions and opinions — loud and clear. I’m proud that the security we provided them allowed them to speak their minds without fear. I’m saddened and angry that they can no longer do this living under the yoke of the Taliban.
I remember how one of the three patrol bases we established in our AO became the center of commerce and communication in our AO. That patrol base — occupied by a small platoon of Recon Marines and commanded by a young Marine Captain (I’ll refer to him as Captain T) — is where the local Afghans went when they needed help or when they wanted to see change happen. I’m immensely proud of the work that Recon Platoon did in establishing and maintaining trust with our local Afghans. That trust was reflected in the rock-star status that Captain T earned in our Area of Operations. He was someone the locals knew they could trust because he and his Marines worked tirelessly to maintain security and see to the needs of the local Afghans who were scratching out their hardscrabble lives in our AO. The Afghans gave Captain T a nickname in the local language, Pashto. The nickname sounded like “Zurgei” and it means “Heart.”
Evil cowards murdered thousands of our fellow citizens on September 11, 2001. The military operations conducted by the millions of Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, and Coastguardsmen who deployed to Afghanistan punched a hole through that terror, pushed the Taliban, Al Qaeda and their evil horde on their heels, and held them by the throat for the two decades we were there. The violence we dealt on the Taliban and Al Qaeda created the conditions in Sangin that enabled the local Afghans to trust and rely on a Marine Platoon Commander who they affectionately referred to as “Heart”. You’re damn right I’m proud of what my Marines and Sailors did in Afghanistan.
I’m angry and saddened that we walked away, abandoned the Afghan people, and threw that trust away. It didn’t have to end this way. But after weeks of reflection on 9/11 and Afghanistan, I’ve realized that individual Warriors cannot value their service based on the strategic outcome of the wars they fight in. That’s a fool’s errand that is best left to the 4-star generals/admirals and our elected officials. That’s their province. Ours is the province of our individual AOs, the sacrifices we made, and all that we accomplished while we were there.
Brian L. Gilman
Colonel, USMC (Ret.)
CEO, Warriors & Quiet Waters Foundation