The Afghanistan Papers

‘We were right’

They experienced the war in Afghanistan on the ground. Here’s what they had to say.

For many who served in the Afghanistan war, The Afghanistan Papers were both revelation and confirmation. The documents revealed years of deception by senior U.S. officials, who assured the public that progress was being made — when it wasn’t.

The Post asked veterans, government workers, military families and others to share their reactions to The Afghanistan Papers. Many shared detailed stories of their experiences. Even while some took pride in their efforts, they still described constant frustration with how the war was being conducted. Here are some of their responses, in their own words. (Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.)

The story on the ground

“I was part of the initial invasion in December 2001. On the first night of our landing we had to set up a hasty perimeter around the airport. A lieutenant came up to me and my buddy on watch and announced, ‘There are reports of up to 1,100 Taliban in the area, stay alert.’ My buddy turned to me and said, ‘Who are the Taliban? I thought we were fighting al-Qaeda.’ Unsure how to explain the overall political situation on such short notice, I told him that if they had a gun it was probably okay to shoot them.”

— Philip Sturm, 39, Marine Corps combat engineer, Kandahar province, 2001-2002

“I was an embedded trainer for the Afghan army. Even then our Defense Department was more interested in the fight in Iraq than in Afghanistan. It was impossible to get pistol ammo for us or the Afghan army.”

— Greg Reedy, 53, Michigan Army National Guard infantryman, Kabul and Parwan province, 2005-2006

“A lot of our mission prep was not in alignment with what the reality was on the ground. Each member of the team was provided a set of hip waders for walking through marshes. There are no marshes. We brought a chain saw for logging projects, but there were no trees to cut down.”

— David Bentley, 41, Army combat medic, Konar province, 2009-2010

“They were telling us to go into the villages and ask them, where is the Taliban? And the first time we asked the question, they were like, ‘Oh yes, I’m Taliban.’ And we were like, ‘Uh, do we shoot this guy? He just admitted he’s Taliban.’ So we asked the [interpreter], and he said Taliban means student. They’re all students out here! So that was confusing.”

— Jonathan Rosario, 31, Army infantryman, Kandahar province, 2009-2010

“Our on-paper mission was one of those barely literate word jumbles that contained only vague references to what a mission might be. Our practical mission was to attack the Taliban between Highway 1 and the Arghandab River. The 101st took us about halfway to the river, we took it the rest of the way, and then the unit that replaced us gave it all back in under six months.”

— William M. Treadway, 33, Army armor officer, Kandahar province, 2011-2012

“For all of us that went over there and worked so hard, and put our families through so much, and there was never a strategy. We were just going through motions, chasing ghosts through mountains.”

— Shane Reynolds, 35, Army combat medic, Badghis province, 2010-2011 Listen

The mission unravels

“While we were there, I don’t think a single Marine I served with could have given you a working definition of counterinsurgency. I doubt they could even today. The phrase ‘hearts and minds’ was drilled into our head during training, without us ever really being taught what exactly we were supposed to be doing. The joke ‘yeah, two in the heart, one in the mind’ became a common response to that phrase.”

— John Motter, 32, Marine Corps infantryman, Helmand province, 2010

“We felt that there was no plan, there was no strategy and there was no will to change anything about that. All of our leaders — you saw them on television giving speeches on leadership and publishing their self-help books or their leadership books upon retirement. They had abandoned us, many of us before we even got there. The war to them, it was a box to check, it was something to do in their career. But for us, it wasn’t fake even though our time there ended up being worthless.”

— Shane Reynolds, 35, Army combat medic, Badghis province, 2010-2011

“Everything that we were told was bullshit, from the level of support we had to what we were allowed or expected to do.”

— Jay O’Brien, 41, Army infantryman, Kandahar province, 2013

“Now I realize that no one above us knew what the hell was going on either. It’s systemic willful ignorance all the way to the top.”

— Jay O’Brien

“The war was not going well. Nobody really knew what they were doing overall. Everyone was kind of winging it day by day.”

— John Sharplin, 26, Army infantryman, Helmand and Nangahar provinces, 2014, 2016-2017

“On a very small level, my lieutenant and my captain, they cared about us. But at the larger level, they don’t care that they’re sending all these enlisted guys to fight in the mountains. We’re out here fighting for our lives. We understand our mission. We’re fighting for those in our platoon. And we’re actually fighting really bad people. It’s fine that you’re going to send us there. That’s what we signed up for. … Don’t lie to us.”

— Marshall Steely, 36, Army infantryman, Wardak province, 2010-2011

“There’s a lot of feeling like you’re Sisyphus, like you’re just pushing the rock up the hill, and you go home for six months, and you come back and the rock’s at the bottom of the hill and you’re like, well, now I’ve got to start pushing it again. You know, why?”

— Gregg Frostrom, 44, Army intelligence officer, four deployments, 2006-2017 Listen

Making an impact

“Many Afghans had to create a government that worked for the people. The drug addiction and the illiteracy were and are major problems, but there are so many Afghans who worked with all their hearts to try to accomplish the goals set by America and its allies. Westerners tend to forget no one asked the Afghan people what their goals were.”

— Robyn L. Powley, Defense Department civilian English instructor, 2009-2010; contractor, 2013

“I think we had the right idea: We would win hearts and minds. I thought we were going to make an impact and, woman-to-woman, be able to get on their level and help them understand they are worthy of living a normal life. … They didn’t want to change.”

— Sonja Childers, 39, Army automated logistics specialist, Wardak province, 2010; Female Engagement Team, Kandahar province, 2012

“I was exceptionally proud of what we were doing and trying to do. I will always be proud of it; it was one of the best experiences of my life. I think far too often people only are shown a particular narrative about the war: an uneducated, rural, dysfunctional population fated to forever be in conflict, and unable to be governed. This is a flawed narrative.”

— Rich Schulte, 49, Counterinsurgency Center instructor, Kunduz province, 2011-2012

Shaky alliances

“It was the local forces we created that backfired on us. The Afghan National Army and police sabotaged the war effort. They were abusing the local population. I found that even they acknowledged that the Taliban were seen as defenders of the country. It almost felt like we went there, mobilized and built an oppressive paramilitary force. We lost our leash on this force.”

— Varis Ahmad, 27, Afghan interpreter for U.S. troops, Kandahar province, 2011-2012

“Liam was critical of the plan and strategy. But his loyalty was to his peers and troops and everyone who fought with him. He hoped his fellow troops were doing the right thing.  When he died, the official documents called it a green-on-blue attack. The problem with that is a green-on-blue is friendly forces attacking us. Actually, Liam was killed by men dressed in Afghan commando uniforms. But they were clearly the Taliban killing Americans.”

— William Nevins, 72, father of Liam Jules Nevins, Army 19th Special Forces Group, killed in Paktia province on Sept. 21, 2013

“It’s wrong and, frankly, immoral to force soldiers to live with people who want to do us harm. … In my brigade two Army captains were killed by an Afghan who literally lifted up a flap of a tent in the middle of what is supposed to be a secure base and started spraying with his rifle. They were sitting at their desks. The ‘joint’ concept made sense in theory but negligently exposed Americans to unacceptable and known risk.”

— Name withheld, Army officer, Kandahar province, 2011-2012

“I was a really blissful little naive hipster that went to Afghanistan. And like, I was so frustrated with everything — that I didn’t get to do my job, that my friends were all dying, and that these [Afghan] kids, you know, they betrayed me.”

— June-Celeste Spence, 29, Army automated logistics specialist; Female Engagement Team, Kandahar province, 2012 Listen

“What we left the Afghan National Army with was ridiculous. They were not trained well. They were not at all equipped to deal with the Taliban. It was openly discussed on base that they were not prepared to take care of Camp Leatherneck. We just let them fail knowing it would be a complete disaster.”

— Christine Hannigan, 30, Marine Corps logistics officer, Helmand province, 2014

Coming home, losing friends

“It was the day after I got home, I was visiting friends. And I walked into this Whole Foods and was like, ‘I hate you all.’ Those poor people. ‘I hate you all because none of you even remember that there’s a war happening. It’s so far removed, and why do you guys get to not care about it, when it’s your job, it’s your responsibility as citizens to care.’”

— Becky Zimmerman, 42, civilian researcher focused on Afghan security forces and U.S. Special Operations, eight deployments to Afghanistan, 2007-2019

“I had a hard time making friends, and I still do today. I try not to talk about Afghanistan to people because it makes them uncomfortable. If I’m in a group and I bring up a funny story from the war I can see all of their faces change, and the conversation is always a bit more forced afterwards.”

— Dustin Kelly, 30, Marine Corps mortar man, Helmand province, 2010

“Nobody listens to the people who are actually doing the work over there. You’re finally paying attention now because there’s all these ribbons and metal and brass attached to who said it, but you could go into any VA and pop down a case of beer and start asking recent vets about their experience, and it’s all going to be the same: We went over there and we’ve been doing nothing, we’ve been accomplishing nothing. It’s just people spilling blood.”

— Daniel Krouse, 37, Navy nuclear machinist mate on support missions for the war in Afghanistan, 2002-2008

“I was mortuary affairs in Afghanistan. I handled hundreds of fallen soldiers and ensured they made it home. I have so much pride in my job and so much respect for the soldiers that lost their lives. But eventually it’s like — what is this all for?”

— Amber Chase, 30, Army mortuary affairs, four deployments, 2009-2015

The reckoning

“Every deployment I come home angry. And then the inevitable feeling that sets in is guilt — guilt because you’re not thinking about Afghanistan every day.”

— Becky Zimmerman

“I was 25 when the Twin Towers fell, and I bought into the idea that we were going to bring those responsible to justice. I felt that my generation needed to step up, like my grandfather’s did in 1941. I still feel proud of what I accomplished by joining the Army, but I’m not proud of my deployment or what I did in Afghanistan. It wasn’t of worth to my country and it didn’t mean anything in the big scheme of things.”

— Jay O’Brien, 41, Army infantryman, Kandahar province, 2013

“It’s strangely comforting. I’m glad that we were right. These interviews confirmed what we were discussing on the ground, in those guard shacks, was correct. Eighteen years later, we’re still there, and we’re still sending people over there to do the same missions we were doing in 2005, just in a slightly different way. It’s all a rotating wheel.”

— John Sharplin, 26, Army infantryman, Helmand and Nangahar province, 2014, 2016-2017

“I’m glad I served and my family is proud of me. I just wish we had committed to a long-term reconstruction plan. Instead of a Marshall Plan we just repeated the first six months of a war 18 years in a row. Many who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns will have children retracing their parents’ steps in combat.”

— David Bentley, 41, Army combat medic, Konar province, 2009-2010

“The vague nature of the conflict, with an indeterminate end state, has left me with a hollow feeling. I know I had impacts in an immediate sense. But whether the lives of friends lost and dollars spent amounted to anything, I doubt. I am thankful for having the experience and serving with the incredible colleagues I did, but in a sense it seems like a glorified hunting expedition devoid of any meaning. In this way I am envious of those veterans of WWII who at least could believe they saved the world.”

— James Bacinski, 35, Army Special Forces medical sergeant, three deployments, 2009-2012

“Without a conclusion to the war, I ask myself every day, ‘Was it worth it?’”

— Jason Whitman, 50, Army Black Hawk mechanic, Kandahar province, 2002

Alex Horton

Alex Horton is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post. He previously covered the military and national security for Stars and Stripes, and served in Iraq as an Army infantryman.

Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn

Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn is the community editor at The Washington Post, with a focus on comments, live chats and reader submissions. She comes to The Post from Mother Jones, where she was the assistant editor for audience and breaking news.

Jenn Abelson

Jenn Abelson is a reporter for The Washington Post's investigative team.

Meryl Kornfield

Meryl Kornfield is a reporter at the investigative desk of The Washington Post.

Ted Muldoon

Ted is a sound designer, composer and audio producer for The Washington Post. He joined The Post in 2017. Besides his work on podcasts, he also sound designs for video and VR experiences. His work has been nominated for an Emmy, and played at The Tribeca Film Festival.

About this story

Editing by Mary Hadar. Design and development by Jake Crump. Photo editing by Nick Kirkpatrick. Audio editing by Ted Muldoon. Copy editing by Shannon Croom. Project management by Julie Vitkovskaya.

All photos provided by people interviewed for this story.