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U.S. Army Sgt. Matthew Roberts, a native of Huston, Texas, scans the hills surrounding the volatile Korengal Valley in Afghanistan's Kunar province, during an early morning patrol, Aug. 13. Roberts, and fellow members of Baker Company, 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, have endured some of the toughest fighting in Afghanistan since arriving to the valley in June. (Photo by Sgt. Matthew Moeller, U.S. Army)

Colorado is home to thousands of soldiers and airmen, many of whom deployed to Afghanistan over the past 20 years — some of whom did not return or came back mentally and physically scarred by the conflict.

The chaos unfolding in the South Asian country over the past week has left those veterans battling mixed emotions about their sacrifice. Some are frustrated that their service may have been in vain while others are elated to see U.S. troops leaving what they feel was a hopeless war. 

“This is a challenging time for U.S. combat veterans as we grapple with the meaning of the last 20 years and your service and your sacrifice,” U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, a Centennial Democrat and a veteran of the Afghanistan war, said Monday during a news conference. “You stood up, you raised your right hand and you served your country when you were called to do so and you should be proud of that. You made a difference in the lives of many people.”

Nearly 2,500 American troops were killed in Afghanistan through April, including 40 who were from Colorado and 95 who were stationed at Fort Carson, per a Colorado Sun analysis. Members of the military stationed at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora and Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs also were killed in America’s longest war.

The Sun spoke with three veterans of the Afghanistan wars this week to get their perspective on the country’s collapse: 

MORE: Democratic Colorado congressman on Afghanistan: “We didn’t need to be in this position”

“Most veterans could have told you that this would happen”

One of the things that sticks out most from Tony Adams’ deployment to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010 was the 5-year-old girl he tried to save after she was caught and wounded in a gun battle between the Afghan National Army and the Taliban. 

“Probably one of the harder things I had to do,” said the 39-year-old who lives in Colorado Springs. 

But there were moments that he looks back on with happiness, like his work to reopen a school that had been shuttered by the Taliban, and how he and his comrades ensured that Afghans could vote freely. 

“I don’t think my time there was poorly spent,” he said. 

Still, Adams, who was a sergeant in the 4th Infantry Division based at Fort Carson, admits that the chaos unfolding in Afghanistan in recent days has left him with “a lot of complex feelings.” 

He can’t help but wonder if his time in the country was for naught. His thoughts turn to the friend whose legs were badly injured when an improvised explosive device went off. That man still may lose his foot.

“I think a lot of people wonder if it’s worth it,” he said. “It’s hard because I think most veterans could have told you that this would happen if we pulled out.”

“It absolutely was worth it”

In June 2012, David Ortiz was an Army helicopter pilot flying a mission in eastern Afghanistan. He was tasked with checking out a report that the Taliban had deployed a Russian heavy machine gun. 

During the trip, the aircraft’s engine exploded and the Kiowa Warrior he was flying crashed. 

“My memory cuts out at about 20 feet from the ground,” said Ortiz, who is 39 and lives in Littleton. “I woke up three to five minutes later, dust in the air. I was feeling hot. I was covered in metal.”

Ortiz quickly realized that he had a spinal cord injury. He also had a fractured cheekbone and ribs, a laceration to his skull and a collapsed right lung. “I knew I was in bad shape,” he said. 

State Rep. David Ortiz flies a helicopter during his time in the Army. (Handout)

Ortiz spent months in the hospital as he recovered from his injuries. He lacks sensation and muscle control below his waist because of the crash. In 2020, he was elected as a Democratic state representative in Colorado. 

This week, Ortiz is feeling frustrated with the Biden administration and how it handled the withdrawal of U.S. troops. 

“I was optimistic,” he said. “We’ve been there for 20 years. I believed that we had done what we had needed to do to train the Afghan National Army. I believed that leadership wouldn’t be making this decision unless we could leave Afghanistan a stable country that could fight against the Taliban. Clearly that was not the case.”

Ortiz doesn’t buy that the war in Afghanistan had to end this way, or that the U.S. had to pull out at all. He pointed to Japan and Germany, where the U.S. has had troops since World War II. The American military still has a large presence in South Korea, too. 

“I feel like this administration stubbornly stuck to their decision and to talking points and to political campaign processes more than the reality on the ground. It’s been disgusting for me to see, quite frankly,” he said.

He said his “heart breaks for the Afghan people. It especially breaks for the women and girls who are going to have to live under this oppressive regime.”

State Rep. David Ortiz during his rehabilitation at Craig Hospital after a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. (Handout)

Ortiz, who was medically retired in May 2016 as a chief warrant officer, still strongly believes in what the U.S. military accomplished in Afghanistan.

“It absolutely was worth it,” he said of his sacrifice and the sacrifice of his fellow soldiers. “We have not seen a 9/11-style attack on our shores since 9/11, and that is no small part because of their sacrifice. That is directly correlated to the fact that we took the fight to them and we took the fight there for 20-plus years.”

He’s proud of the Afghan women and girls who were able to get an education because of the U.S. presence.

“Do not listen to the privileged who got to grow up here and spent most of their time in a relatively wealthy and safe country,” he said. “What you did mattered, even if it only lasted for 20-plus years. Your sacrifice was definitely worth it.”

“We should just pull out and leave them alone”

Matthew Smith always had his doubts about why the American military was in Afghanistan, even when he was deployed to the country in 2012 as a Marine working in aviation logistics.

“I never understood why we were messing around up there,” he said. 

Now, with the country falling back into Taliban hands, the 31-year-old who lives in Aurora thinks the U.S. should stay the course with its withdrawal.

A United States Army loadmaster stands on the rear ramp of a CH-47F Chinook and watches the sunset as it flies over Kabul, Afghanistan September 2017. (Julie A. Kelemen, U.S. Army photo)

“I don’t see a reason to send more troops over there to retake a place that can’t take care of itself,” Smith said. 

Smith, who reached the rank of corporal, said he and other Marines were told their mission in Afghanistan was to train Afghan troops so they could operate on their own and then the U.S. could leave.

“We seemed to never leave them alone,” he said. “We should just pull out and leave them alone. They’ll never stand on their own. We’re just wasting not only resources, but American lives to help them do something they’ll never do.”

As a Marine, however, he said what’s happening in Afghanistan is frustrating. 

The Afghan province where Camp Bastion is located — the base where Smith worked and survived a deadly Taliban attack — was captured by the Taliban last week.

“Something you fought for and cared for and you wanted to see stay safe isn’t anymore,” he said. “That time you put in almost seems like it was a waste. Almost like you did it for nothing.”

The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul