By Dennis Anderson

As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, there is a cloud that hovers over our heads. It’s the unfortunate fact that the exit from our 20-year occupation in Afghanistan ended tragically. We’ve all seen the videos and read the stories.

Compounded by the loss of thirteen members of our military on Aug. 26, another bomb exploded at a hotel near the Kabul airport, injuring eighteen more soldiers. It was the deadliest day for the US military in Afghanistan in 10 years. The exit strategy was a failure.

Last week Alaska U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan stopped by our office in Wasilla, Alaska to speak with members of our newspaper staff, and I attended via phone. Sullivan is a colonel in the Marine Reserves. Sullivan was a lawyer in Anchorage the day of the 9/11 attacks. He has served in the Marine Corps since 1993. He was recalled to active duty three times from 2004 to 2006, early 2009 and a six week tour in 2013.

“There’s a heaviness right now among veterans,” Sullivan said at the start of our interview. “Afghan veterans — but I would say all veterans. I was in Ketchikan (AK) the last two days. There’s an American Legion post there, and I met with their leaders. There were a couple of Afghan veterans there, and they literally said that there’s a heaviness in their hearts. You can’t turn the TV on and think about positive notions of service when you see what has clearly been a chaotic and botched withdrawal. Whether you were for leaving or you thought we should continue to stay there, it doesn’t matter.”

There are the political differences between the current administration and Sullivan, a Republican with strong conservative values. He emphasized that this isn’t about throwing fire on the political climate but his concern for his fellow veterans who now believe their service was in vain.

“Imagine if you are a Gold Star family member. One of whom I sat next to on the plane ride from Anchorage to Ketchikan. An Iraq Gold Star father, he’s even struggling. The big thing that I have been pressing in every engagement is… I mean they’ve come to me with that look and they say, ‘Can I talk to you?’ One guy who did three tours was despondent. We need to make sure that what we’re saying is this sacrifice was not in vain. They need to hear this.”

He said it’s not in vain for two reasons. One was the mission. The mission was to go to Afghanistan and take the fight to them so that Afghanistan would no longer be a safe haven for international terrorists and so that the United States wouldn’t get attacked again.

“That was successful. We are at the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and we haven’t been attacked since then. When we were hit on 9/11, the intel was that we were going to get hit again next week. We were going to get hit again in two weeks. Everybody thought that this was going to be a common aspect of American life, and it isn’t. Why? Because of the brave men and women who took the fight to the terrorists, so that’s number one.

“Number two is a more philosophical one, a broader one. It was something that I first heard when I was recalled in 2004. I was a staff officer to General Abizaid, who was the Central Command commander.”

For an 18-month period Sullivan served in various war zones from Afghanistan to the horn of Africa.

“We were at an outpost, and the soldiers there were very sad, and one of the soldiers mentioned that his buddy was killed,” Sullivan explained. “General, we’re concerned that our sergeant died in vain. I’ll never forget this. General Abizaid looked at these guys and said, “Here’s my view: if you’re an American citizen who has sacrificed for the national security of this country, for the freedom of this nation or for the men and women next to you on the battlefield, whether it was Valley Forge, Iwo Jima, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, by definition you have not died in vain. It’s really important to get that message out because right now our Afghan vets are really struggling. We do not want some guy one more time to watch the news and look at his blown off leg and say, ‘Damn it, what the hell was that all about?’”

As a veteran myself and the son of a man that served 21 years and in Vietnam who came away with two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star the Senator’s words hit home. Those who have served and sacrificed over the past twenty years you were not in control of the decisions that lead to our departure from Afghanistan. You served valiantly and with honor and we, the people of a grateful nation, cannot do enough to show our appreciation.

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