As the U.S. continues to seek a peaceful resolution to years of fighting in Afghanistan, American forces are nearing 20 years in the war-torn country. The U.S. still has more than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Many of the U.S. forces who have served and continue to serve there are in the National Guard or Reserves — among them, Lt. Cmdr. Roger Reinert of Duluth, who is in the Naval Reserve and has spent much of the past year in Kabul.
Reinert is a former Minnesota state representative and senator; he also served as a Duluth city councilor. He had been going to law school on weekends before his deployment; he said he'll take the bar exam when he returns to Minnesota.
Reinert spoke with MPR's John Wanamaker as he was preparing for the end of his deployment as a public affairs officer.
As you near the end of your deployment, what's going through your mind?
"I'm ready for it to be done. I'm proud to have taken my turn; I think anyone who's in active-duty Guard or Reserve these days knows that that's just going to be a part of your career. ... But it's hard. I've been here for nine months; we work 12-plus hour days, every day. It just wears you out. You get toward the end of it, and I'm just perpetually exhausted."
"I think one of the hardest things for us is I'm an IA — an Individual Augmentee. So unlike a unit that deploys — there's no send-off event. ... My wife dropped me off in front of the terminal in Minneapolis, and I could get emotional now just thinking back — we just stood in traffic and held each other and cried. We knew it was going to be a year; we knew I was going to be in a dangerous place; and we didn't know what was going to happen. ... She's been a rock star. ... It's hard on us, but it's harder on the spouses, especially, that are left behind. She's had to do the job of two people. All the stuff I normally do like the finances, all of those sorts of things — that's now on her plate, as well as working full-time."
How is the transition going from U.S. and coalition forces to the Afghan government and military?
In about 2014 there was a transition from U.S. and coalition forces doing the bulk of the security work, to the Afghan forces taking that role. "They're struggling. When you work with the Afghans you can't help but admire their courage. They are taking the bulk of the hit from the war. 2018 was the deadliest year in Afghanistan since 2001. And oddly enough — the persistent peace talks have made it more deadly. The Taliban wants to come into the conversations with the upper hand, so the number of attacks have gone up in Kabul and throughout the country. And the (Afghan forces) — you've got soldiers and cops wondering what happens to them if there is some sort of deal with the Taliban, and that has raised what to us is the biggest concern, and that's green-on-blue — Afghans attacking American or coalition forces. ...
"A buddy who was here maybe four years ago talked about how, 'we'd just get into a car and we'd drive to the airport and we'd pick up a reporter.' You don't do that anymore. If I go somewhere in a vehicle, it's an organized ground movement with a convoy of several up-armored vehicles and a personal security detail. And we're nervous if we're in a traffic jam, because that's when somebody puts a sticky bomb on your vehicle. You're just a target. So typically, we take a helicopter everywhere."
Do you think people back in the U.S. have an idea of the hazards American troops are facing in Afghanistan?
"No. And I don't mean it in a negative way. I just know that people at home aren't tracking. And we talk about that. We all laugh... some people have a bad day and they'll be like, 'no one at home is paying attention.' Unfortunately unless U.S. service people are killed — that's what it takes after 18 years to (get people's attention). It's not even old news — it's just not news."
What do you expect when you get back?
After leaving Afghanistan, he's in Germany and then will spend several weeks in Norfolk, Va., before returning to Duluth. "I know I've got some friends and family that are going to be there, which is great. So there will be a little bit of a welcome home, and I'm looking forward to that. But then, honestly, it gets a little bit scary, because it's like — the next day, for everyone else, life is normal and life has been moving forward. But for me it's not normal and for me life has been on hold for a year and I don't know... But my wife is amazing and I've got great friends that I know will get me out, and we'll go for some runs. I just know I'm going to have to have time to kind of unpack this all. As one of my friends who was here a year ago said, he said it took him a year — he called it poison — to get the poison out of his system, all the negative things that came along with deployment. ...
"I think the biggest challenge, and I think this is a challenge a lot of veterans face, is finding people you can talk to that get it. A lot of people are sympathetic and they're appreciative, and that's genuine, and I don't discount that at all. But they have no reference point.
"What I hear a lot of veterans who have been here, specifically in Afghanistan, say, is, 'no one's going to get it. They're going to have no point of reference.' ... For me, I've got to find those people I can talk to and talk through it. Whether that's counseling with the VA or other friends who have been here. And I really hope just to do some talking about my experience. I'm going to put it out to friends and organizations at home — if you want an update, if you want to hear from someone who just came back, I'd love to talk about it. ... If I can help educate, if I can help people remember that we're still at war here, and that people are still dying, and that this is real — I will feel better about my experience, and that will be like therapy for me."