Sorting out a new life back home

Sorting out a new life back home

After more than a decade as a civilian working in two war zones, uncertainty about what’s next

Published on March 28, 2016

Matt Sherman was in a hurry to get to Baghdad before the war ended, so he crammed the contents of his entire apartment in Rumson, N.J., into a climate-controlled storage shed.

It was 2003 and he had just quit his job with a big law firm for a position working for the American governing authority in Iraq.

Thirteen years later, almost all of that time spent working for the U.S. military and the State Department in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sherman, 44, was back at the shed. “This is my worst nightmare,” he said as he yanked open the door earlier this month. A dead bird stuck to the metal grate just over his head.

Above: Matt Sherman, center, and Gen. John Campbell leave a briefing last month in Afghanistan. Sherman, a civilian, worked for the U.S. military and the State Department in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Andrew Quilty for The Washington Post).

It was an uncertain end for a civilian who had served in the two war zones longer than virtually any other American. There was no big military celebration and no family waiting for him when he landed two days earlier with his four-star military boss at Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington. Still jet-lagged, Sherman had only the storage shed and questions: Where would he live? What kind of work would he do? How would he build a life that felt as meaningful as his years at war?

Everything felt strange. Sherman stared up at the hastily packed boxes stacked on top of one another — a teetering time capsule from a life abandoned.

“What’s in there, I have no idea,” he said.

The longest stretch of war in U.S. history has left the White House and presidential hopefuls struggling to satisfy an electorate that is both alarmed by the prospect of another terrorist attack and exhausted at the thought of any more fighting. And it has left thousands of Americans battling to restart interrupted lives.

Sherman had expected to be gone for only six months, the length of his first Iraq contract, so he had saved everything. There were 13-year-old bottles of salad dressing, 13-year-old cans of beans and a half-empty bottle of DayQuil that has crystallized into a brilliant orange. There were notebooks from his law firm filled with his neat script. At the top of one page he had written “Subcoordination Agreement” and on the next page he had been trying to teach himself Arabic, scribbling “Nam — yes, Lam — no” and “as-salaamu-lay-kum.”

There were suits and monogrammed shirts — still on the hangers — stuffed into boxes with the stereo from his apartment and old stationery from his law office desk. “It was a period in my life that I was making money and buying stuff I didn’t need and taking on debt,” he said. “I wasn’t happy.”

There were garbage bags of dress shoes and a talking George W. Bush doll — a gag gift from his mother, who died last year when Sherman was in Afghanistan.

Sherman tore into a box full of old copies of the Economist, New Republic and Foreign Affairs magazines. Before he left, he had been trying to read as much as he could on foreign policy, using all of his vacation time to work as a U.N. election observer in such places as Kosovo, Macedonia and Moldova.

“The Iraq thing was a way of getting rid of all this stuff and focusing on something else,” he said. “I wanted to do international affairs, and Iraq was the big thing at that time.”

Back at his storage shed in New Jersey earlier this month, Matt Sherman sorts through the possessions he hurriedly stashed away in 2003 after he quit his job at a law firm and accepted a job with the American governing authority in Iraq. Among the items that Sherman found: a bottle of wine that had been wrapped as a gift, a long-obsolete laptop and stacks of magazines that he had acquired before his departure, when he was attempting to read as much about foreign policy as possible. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

He dug deeper, pulling out Christmas presents from 2002. There was an unopened shower radio and a bottle of wine, still in its wrapping paper, from “Michelle.” “I have no idea who this is,” he said.

Sherman and a couple of young men, hired to help him, separated his 2003 life into three piles: “trash,” “donate” and “keep.”

“You live around here?” one of the young men asked.

Sherman told him that he had spent most of the past 13 years in Iraq and more recently had been in Afghanistan.

“I just finished two days ago,” he said.

“That must have been just insane,” the young man replied. “Was it crazy hot over there?”

“It’s fine this time of year, because it’s winter,” Sherman said.

“They have winter in the desert?” the young man asked.

“Actually I was in Kabul, which is in the mountains,” Sherman said.

The young man asked the questions that people always ask: Had anyone ever shot at him? Had he seen anyone killed? Sherman told him that there had been gunshots and roadside bomb attacks. A friend who had been standing next to him got shot.

The young man grabbed an Economist from 2002 that was sitting in a box atop the trash pile and held it up for Sherman. On the cover, Marines crouched for safety behind a mud wall.

“Did you ever see anything like this?” he asked.

Matt Sherman, left, walks to one of his final briefings at the Kandahar airport in February. (Andrew Quilty for The Washington Post)

Sherman had opened the shed a couple of times between tours, mostly to shove in new stuff before he headed back overseas. Near the front was a laundry basket with an unmatched brown sock, dirty shirts and a “Culture Smart Card” from Iraq that advised him not to talk about religion or use the “thumbs up” sign, which Iraqis consider “obscene.”

Also in the laundry basket was a PowerPoint briefing from Sherman’s first Iraq tour: “The 30 January 2005 election was a great success for Iraq,” read one of the slides, which featured a photo of a grinning Iraqi policeman, posing with half-empty ballot boxes and flashing the “thumbs up” sign.

During that first tour, Sherman served as an adviser to four Iraqi interior ministers. His final minister, ushered into office by the January 2005 elections, had presided over a police commando force that built a secret prison in Baghdad to torture Sunnis and other political opponents. Sherman watched in late 2005 as the top U.S. general in Iraq dumped whips, shackles and other torture devices discovered in the secret facility on the interior minister’s desk in an effort to shame him.

After the meeting, the Iraqi minister tried to justify his actions.

“No one was beheaded. No one was killed,” Sherman recalled the minister saying. The Iraqis’ actions were the same as the Americans’ at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, he insisted.

“That is fundamentally different!” Sherman remembered shouting at him.

Back in Washington, public sentiment was turning decisively against the war. Sherman returned home crushed, convinced that the rush to hold elections, arm security forces and withdraw U.S. troops had inadvertently helped create death squads intent on seeking revenge on minority Sunnis and sparking a civil war.

He was “flailing around,” he said, his mind still focused on Iraq. So he accepted a job offer from a U.S. general to work as a civilian political adviser to the Army division assigned to Baghdad during President Bush’s surge.

The second tour was war as he imagined. He saw a friend shot by an Iraqi sniper and attended dozens of battlefield memorial services for fallen soldiers and Marines. There were so many services that Sherman began tracking them in a file on his computer — a tally that would grow to 187 services over his years of war.

Sherman’s parents threw a party for him to celebrate his homecoming from Iraq in 2008. “My mom and dad said some nice things, and they asked me to talk, and I couldn’t speak,” Sherman said. “I was just bawling. I tried for a bit, and I just couldn’t.”

For Matt Sherman, in Kabul on March 2, a sense of perspective in Afghanistan seemed to be lacking throughout his time in the country. “I wish I could have visited Kabul or Kandahar during the Taliban regime just to have a sense of what it was like,” he said. (Andrew Quilty for The Washington Post)

He never emptied the storage shed because he assumed he would go back overseas. In early 2009, Sherman shifted to Afghanistan, where he served alongside U.S. forces in the provinces just south of Kabul. A big focus for him during that tour was the Taliban-dominated village of Baraki Barak.

Sherman was part of a brigade that overwhelmed the village with soldiers, who pushed out the insurgents; civilian aid workers, who built schools and wells; and money. Baraki Barak soon became a regular stop for the Pentagon brass, European diplomats and congressional delegations eager to see a counterinsurgency success story from the war.

“It was the perfect jelling of civilian and military,” said Sherman, who oversaw the State Department aid workers in the region. “We really saw it as a model that we were all proud of.”

Last month, Sherman and Gen. John Campbell, the sixth American commanding general to lead U.S. troops in the country since Sherman’s 2009 arrival in Afghanistan, flew from Kabul to Sherman’s old base near the village.

U.S. troops began pulling out of Baraki Barak several years ago, allowing the local Taliban commanders who had deep roots in the area to return. The American aid money dried up, and an important Afghan elder who worked with the Americans was killed.

U.S. troops advising Afghan forces in the area now described Baraki Barak as “the center of mass for insurgents” in the provinces around the capital.

Campbell and Sherman shared a farewell lunch with the Afghan general and police commander in charge of the region. “You’ve been fighting for 38 years,” Campbell told them. “We’ve got a little more to go.” The two then climbed back into the helicopter, which flew low over the barren rocky terrain.

Campbell had first come to Afghanistan in 2002 as a colonel when the mission was hunting down Osama bin Laden and Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader. Soon his son, who was in elementary school during that first Afghanistan tour, will return for his third deployment in the country.

A lone, mud-walled compound clinging to the side of a mountain below caught Campbell’s eye.

“You wonder how they can live like that,” he said.

Sherman often had similar thoughts about the country where he had spent most of the past six years. “I always wish I could have a sense of perspective,” he said. “I wish I could have visited Kabul or Kandahar during the Taliban regime just to have a sense of what it was like.” He wanted to see Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s reign or Afghanistan during the brutal civil war of the 1990s.

He wished he could go back to Baraki Barak and try to piece together exactly what had happened. Why had a place that seemed so promising and received so much American attention and aid faltered? What had he missed?

“The war doesn’t end, and that’s why I am conflicted leaving,” Sherman said. “There’s still so much to do, and there’s still so much more that I don’t know. I don’t know a smidgen of this country. Do I know a lot of Afghans? Absolutely. But in my mind what I don’t know is the same as when I first got here.”

The long hours and the simplicity of war-zone life — including a tiny room in Kabul — agreed with Sherman. (Andrew Quilty for The Washington Post)

Sherman thought he was leaving war zones for good four years ago when he and a woman who worked for the United Nations in Afghanistan decided to move in together in New York City.

During the 11 months back home, Sherman took boxing, meditation, cooking and improv comedy classes. He had one line in a Bollywood film called “English Vinglish” that was shooting in the city. Many days he just walked from his apartment in Brooklyn to the northern edge of Central Park and back, taking in the city and listening to audiobooks.

“I enjoyed doing that stuff, but I didn’t have a purpose and that really ate on me a lot,” he said. “I thought I would have a personal life and go to a lot of dinner parties, and I realized that’s not me.”

An American general offered him a job in Afghanistan, but Sherman turned him down and instead decided to drive across the country. Back on the East Coast a couple of months later, he called the general and said he would take the Afghanistan job, figuring he would remain there until the end of that general’s one-year tour. Then the general’s replacement asked him to stay, and so did the next general and the general after him.

Sherman liked the long hours and simplicity of war-zone life. His room in Kabul was smaller than his storage shed, just big enough for a bare mattress, a sleeping bag and a coat rack to hang his shirt and ties. His possessions could fit into his gray duffel bag.

“You don’t have to worry about food or housing or laundry,” he said. “The lifestyle allows you to stay completely focused on the job. You don’t get that back home.”

Sherman’s even temperament, his analytical mind and his long time in country, meanwhile, made him an invaluable asset. The Army typically rotated officers through the country every 12 months, purging much of the institutional knowledge amassed over the previous year. A critique often leveled at the U.S. military was that it didn’t fight a 15-year war in Afghanistan, but 15 separate wars in the country, each lasting one year.

Because Sherman didn’t have a family or a career with the military or the State Department, he could stay as others rotated home for rest or new assignments and had relationships with senior Afghans spanning years.

In late February, just before he left the country, Sherman received a phone call from a younger Afghan officer whom he met several years earlier and was widely respected by the U.S. military.

Matt Sherman, second from right, is part of a group greeting President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul last month. (Andrew Quilty for The Washington Post)

At the urging of top U.S. military officers, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had pushed the officer and several of his colleagues — all of whom had been sent to military schools in Europe and the United States — into positions of higher authority. Now the officer was complaining that he and his colleagues were being undermined by his superiors because they had not bribed them for their positions. The cellphone call cut off several times before Sherman promised that he would arrange a meeting for the officers with Campbell.

Sherman and other top military officers often described Afghanistan as “a generational conflict,” reasoning that it would take at least a decade or more to build up Afghan government institutions and replace corrupt Afghan military and police commanders with a new generation of younger leaders. The officer who called Sherman was part of the generation that the U.S. military hoped would survive.

A meeting with Campbell wouldn’t fix his immediate problems, but it would give the young officer and his colleagues a chance to vent and the confidence that the U.S. military would protect them.

“Nothing here is easy,” Sherman said as he hung up the phone.

Campbell met with the Afghan president as often as three times a week, and always took Sherman with him. Unlike his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, Ghani was desperate for American assistance and worried that the West would tire of Afghanistan and abandon him. Sherman helped Ghani negotiate his relationship with a White House that often had higher priorities than Ghani’s struggling government and the distant Afghan war.

Sherman played one other role for Campbell. Because he’s not in the military chain of command and his career doesn’t depend on a positive evaluation from the general, he can be both an adviser and friend; someone Campbell can talk to while sitting on helicopters or in his office late at night. “Sometimes you just want to scream and yell,” Campbell said. “Matt comes in here, and we can commiserate together.”

Gen. John Campbell and Sherman bump fists as they begin the journey from Afghanistan back home to the United States. Campbell had decided to retire after nearly 37 years of active-duty service. (Andrew Quilty for The Washington Post)

A few days before Sherman and Campbell left Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, the newly promoted four-star commander, arrived at the base. The two officers had known each other since they were 18-year-old West Point cadets. Campbell went out to greet him at the helicopter landing zone, hugging him and thumping his chest, which carried his new four-star rank.

“Looks good,” Campbell said. “Welcome back to Afghanistan.”

They walked a short distance past groaning generators, spools of razor wire and thick concrete blast walls to the American Embassy. Campbell’s tour was done. He had turned down an offer from President Obama to head U.S. Africa Command and, according to the paperwork that the Army had sent him, would retire from the military with 36 years, 10 months and 25 days of active-duty service.

Sherman didn’t have to leave Afghanistan. The new commander asked him to stay on in his current job for another year, but Sherman declined, knowing that the war in Afghanistan would grind on without him, its outcome still far from certain. During the 2015 fighting season, the Afghan army and police forces had lost ground to the Taliban in Helmand province and briefly surrendered the Afghan city of Kunduz before taking it back with help from the U.S. military.

“We can’t let 2015 be like 2016,” Campbell testified to Congress earlier this year.

Sherman, however, also saw signs of hope. He was proud that the Afghan forces, despite heavy casualties in 2015, didn’t crumble. He was proud that he and Campbell had helped persuade Obama to cancel plans to withdraw the vast majority of U.S. forces from the country before he left office. They had convinced a skeptical U.S. president that Afghanistan was still worth billions of dollars in aid and thousands of U.S. troops; that a country decimated by nearly 40 years of war was still worth trying to save.

Now, Sherman had concluded it was time for him to leave. “You can stay too long in these positions and lose perspective,” he said. “You can’t keep your face pressed up against the glass forever.” He needed some distance to see Afghanistan; he needed to build a life that was bigger than the contents of a gray duffel.

Matt Sherman glances out the window of an Air Force C-130 as the plane leaves the airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in February, shortly before he left the country for good. (Andrew Quilty for The Washington Post)

That new life would start with the storage shed.

After a day of meetings at the Pentagon and the White House, he made the four-hour drive from Washington to southern New Jersey. His first stop before he got to the shed was the home of a childhood friend, Tom Van Glahn, who had agreed to store whatever was worth salvaging from the shed. Van Glahn ran a small body shop in the town where they had grown up, and he raised goats in his back yard to bring in a little extra money. Sherman rolled down his long gravel driveway a little bit after dark.

“That’s it?” Van Glahn asked. “You’ll never be back over there.”

“That’s it. That’s it,” Sherman said. “I’m done for now.”

Van Glahn peppered him with questions about his life in Afghanistan: Did he get off the U.S. military base much? Did he like the local culture? Did the women on the base wear body-covering burqas?

“On base it’s not like that,” Sherman said. Even in Kabul, some women chose not to shroud themselves. “It’s not mandatory like Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“Where did you get food?” Van Glahn’s teenage daughter asked.

“Are you going to live in America?” Van Glahn’s mother pressed. “Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Simplicity,” Sherman replied.

Sherman’s plan for the moment was to spend a week with his father, who had moved to North Carolina from New Jersey, and then walk the Appalachian Trail alone. “I’m going to walk until something comes up,” he said. “If nothing comes up, I’ll keep walking.”

“Like Forrest Gump,” Van Glahn joked.

Over the summer, Sherman’s father had scattered his mother’s ashes and erected a gravestone for her at the family plot in town where Sherman’s brothers, both of whom died as infants, were buried. “Have you been to the grave yet?” Van Glahn’s mother asked.

It had been decades since he had visited the grave site, Sherman said.

“Do you need directions?” she asked.

Matt Sherman carries boxes of his belongings, stashed in a shed in New Jersey when he went to Iraq in 2003, toward a trash bin belonging to childhood friend Tom Van Glahn. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The storage shed was now mostly empty. In the back there was a copy of the 2001 indictment from former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic’s war crimes trial at The Hague. Sherman had taken a mid-semester break from law school at the University of North Carolina to catch a few days of the five-year marathon of a trial. There was a case of motor oil that he kept because his 2003 car had a slow leak, some 20-year-old letters from a college girlfriend, a 1997 phone bill, and more boxes of foreign policy books and magazines.

“Why would I keep all this stuff,” he said as he tossed the box onto the trash pile. “What was I thinking?”

When he was finished with the shed, he drove through town, past the house where he grew up and to the small cemetery where his mom and brothers were buried. “It’s over here somewhere,” he said, and then he spotted the gravestone with his mother’s name in big block letters.

He stood over the stone for a few minutes and then got back into the car. Just before he turned onto the road leading back into town, he paused to call his father in North Carolina. Van Glahn’s mother had mentioned the night before that she spoke with him on the phone at least once a week. “He needs to get out of the house,” she told Sherman. “He needs to volunteer. Maybe at the library? Something quiet that suits his personality.”

Sherman’s father answered on the first ring.

“I just drove up to mom’s place,” Sherman told him. “The stone looked nice. I like how you placed it there next to Mark and Paul.” They talked about the North Carolina-Duke basketball game and how the owners of their old house had kept the stained-glass windows that Sherman’s mother designed for the front door.

A few minutes later he was back at Van Glahn’s house, where his friend was handing him a beer.

“You’re just going to start walking?” Van Glahn asked.

“That’s the plan,” Sherman replied.

“So do you think you accomplished something?” Van Glahn asked. It was not clear whether he was talking about Sherman’s years in Afghanistan or the now-empty storage shed a short drive away in New Jersey.

Sherman took a swig of beer and stared out at the goats bleating in the back yard. He was exhausted and overwhelmed by the chaos of coming home and the decisions ahead.

“I feel like I got a monkey off my back,” he said.

Soon he would drive to North Carolina, see his father and then walk the Appalachian Trail alone.

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