The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My sons say their dad died ‘for nothing’ in Afghanistan. How do I respond?

Their words aren’t a question — just a statement of fact from my teenage boys, who have lived 10 years without him.

Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery on Aug. 15. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

“So, Daddy died for nothing.”

Not a question. Not a moment of reflection. Not a possibility to ponder for quiet minutes as we held each other and cried. Just a statement of fact from my teenage boys, who have lived almost a decade without their father.

On Nov. 1, 2011, I sat them on our big bed where my husband Dave had sung them silly songs before bedtime just a few weeks earlier. I held their tiny hands, and told them there had been an accident, and Daddy wasn’t coming home from Afghanistan. Our littlest looked at me and screamed the loudest, hardest, most heart-crushing “No!” a soul could make. He started sobbing so violently that his 5-year-old body shook the bed. Our eldest opened his eyes wider, staring at something I still don’t understand; his broken heart just poured out in silent tears that covered his face, his shirt, the blankets. All these years later, and the little one still cries for Daddy and the older one is still silent.

I stopped watching the news after Dave was killed, because it turns out that my watching the destruction of our world has absolutely zero impact on what is happening and just makes me feel even crazier. For the most part, I stopped paying attention to the daily news beyond what my weather app tells me is “trending now,” such as a stranded whale finding its way back to sea or maybe a tornado watch.

When a message came from an old co-worker of Dave’s a couple of weeks ago — someone I’d had no contact with since the interment in Arlington — I was confused. Then came a text from a friend I haven’t seen since we’d left the D.C. area, expressing her love for our family. Then an email from the law firm that represents our family and those of other service members killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, offering its support. Then a voice mail from an old boyfriend telling me he was praying for us.

This was a situation in which my weather app’s news feed was useless. While the videos of glacial melting make me sick to my stomach, it seemed an easier thing to watch than to try to figure out what all these people were talking about. But I had to know. I had to protect my boys.

I opened a new tab and navigated to a news site. I made it six lines into an article about the war — the first thing I saw on the homepage — before I violently slammed my laptop shut. That was enough to know that the keys to Afghanistan had been handed to the Taliban and refugees were falling off planes trying to escape. Enough to know that all the families I’ve met at Arlington, walking those rows of perfect white headstones in Section 60, were falling apart. Enough to know that all that those service members who had been in Afghanistan and come home, still fighting their own battles, just entered a new phase of hell. Six lines were enough to know that my boys’ world was about to be blown up again.

I grew up with my mom’s war stories. What will I tell my kids about my deployment?

When they were 5 and 7, I didn’t tell them anything about the attack. I didn’t tell them I kept the casket closed because, while Daddy had died from the impact of the explosion, the resulting fire didn’t leave him in viewing form. I didn’t tell them I signed a waiver to release the Army from having to do yet another knock-at-the-door formal notification if they found “more” of Dave. I didn’t tell them that words like “pieces” and “charred” had been used to describe his remains. I just told them he had been killed.

As they grew older, I answered their questions. I assured them Daddy didn’t know when the suicide bomber drove a truck with over 1,000 pounds of explosives into his bus, and it detonated on impact. He never felt scared. He never felt angry. He never even took a deep breath in surprise. His lungs were completely clear of smoke on the autopsy.

I explained why Daddy volunteered to go to Afghanistan. Why he fought so hard to go be with the soldiers he loved so much. Why his work as a shrink (as he liked to call himself), counseling and coordinating care for 10,000 troops on 10 different bases, was so important. How three people found me after he was killed, to tell me he had literally saved their lives through his compassion and commitment to helping them. He had been deployed for less than a month, and three families are still intact because their dad was so good at what he did.

But what could I say now to my boys, who have already been through so much? It was only a matter of moments before they found out what was going on — like every other high school student in America, they’re glued to their phones. It seemed critical that I tell them about how the war was ending, and that they didn’t learn about it from a TikTok video or a random Snapchat from someone who just could never understand. And I needed to talk to them separately; they have grieved in such different ways that each might need his own space to respond.

I went to each of their rooms, sitting on their bedroom floors, and said I needed to tell them something: The Taliban have taken over Afghanistan.

“So Daddy died for nothing.” The exact same words, in the exact same tone, with the exact same timing. The same look of confusion and desperation and sadness on their faces.

I didn’t — and don’t — know what to do. The reality is, no one really knows what should have been done, or when, or how or why. The whole war, from beginning to end, feels like one wild guess after another.

I’m not here to argue politics or strategy. I just need to assure my boys their flat statement isn’t true. I need to tell my boys these last 20 years made a difference. That the people of Afghanistan won’t fade from view in a week or two when this news cycle runs out. That U.S. service members and those that love them will be remembered. That the American public won’t forget there are broken families — in both countries — who will carry these wounds in our hearts forever.

And I need to believe all those things, too.

Read more:

Afghanistan is not the country the Taliban last ruled. Will that matter?

A program tried to cut opioid addiction among veterans. Did it cause suicides?

Five myths about the Taliban

Loading...