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Afghan War Veterans Reflect on Their Service

5 vets, ranging in age from 53 to 62, share lessons learned as 20-year conflict comes to a close

spinner image collage of photos from afghan war veterans that a a r p interviewed
Courtesy (clockwise from top left) Andrea McClam, Tom Porter, Jim Wiltraut, Tony Vizcarrondo, Jim Saenz


The Afghanistan War, the longest war in U.S. history, spanned 20 years and saw 2,461 soldiers killed and 20,744 injured among the more than 800,000 Americans deployed. For the youngest service members, a country at war is all they knew. For the oldest, experiences that predated the start of fighting in 2001 helped shape their understanding of the complicated conflict that has now come to an end two decades later.​

Fresh off the U.S. withdrawal of forces from the country, we spoke with five veterans of the Afghan War about their experiences serving as older — and at times the oldest — members on their units and asked for their thoughts on what Americans should know about the conflict. Their responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jim Wiltraut, 62, of Alexandria, Virginia

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Jim Wiltraut pictured in Afghanistan (left) and today with his wife Karen and their son Henry.
Courtesy Jim Wiltraut

From March to October 2017, Wiltraut was the head of public affairs for the Combined Security Transition Command, a U.S.-led multinational organization that equipped Afghan forces to fight the Taliban. He retired as a captain from the Navy earlier this year, after 44 years of service.  

How did Afghanistan compare with your previous deployments?

There was direct combat all around. We say that we were there to train, advise and assist, but the enemy was there to kill us.

How did your age and experience prepare you for the mission?

With so many years under your belt, you can't help but be adaptable. You have to be ready for anything. At the same time, you know your day is going to be filled with surprises. The more you're prepared, the less surprised you'll be. The day I stepped into Afghanistan was a week shy of my 58th birthday. I walked off that helicopter with kids who were in their early 20s. There were things that they could do that I couldn't do, based on experience and rank, although I was senior to many of them. We all walked off that helicopter knowing that we were part of one.

What should Americans know about the war?

It’s frustrating to look back at the sacrifices that so many people have made and see all of that frittered away as the Taliban sweep across the country, virtually unopposed by a force we spent so long to create, fund and train. 

What I hope the American people will remember is that 20 years ago, when we were first attacked, there were people willing to give their lives to make sure it didn't happen again. And for all of our political and social divisions, you can count on the fact that people from 18 to whatever age are going to be willing to make that call again.

What is your most vivid memory?

On May 31, 2017, a truck bomb detonated about 1,000 yards from where I was standing on a rooftop. I saw the energy plume clear the top of the building between me and that bomb. Once it reached me, I was thrown about 15 feet. Being on a rooftop, there wasn’t a whole lot of real estate to give up. Once the scramble in my head cleared, I went into the door where all my colleagues were. There was chaos for a little while, and then we grabbed gear and listened to what we were supposed to do next. Soon we found out what it was and what the implications were.

What is something you think all Afghan War veterans might share in common?

It’s like they say, "All generalizations are untrue." But I hope that they share a pride in what they did.

Jim Saenz, 56, of Arlington, Virginia

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Jim Saenz in uniform in 2014 (left) and today as a retired veteran.
Courtesy Jim Saenz

As a Special Forces officer, Saenz was deployed to Afghanistan several times throughout the mid-2000s. He previously served in Operation Desert Storm among other deployments, combating terrorism and on counter-narcotics missions. He retired from the Army as a colonel in 2017, after 30 years of service.

What is something that Americans should know about the war in Afghanistan?

Having been on many deployments in other parts of the world, I think it's important to understand that people are people. No matter what part of the world you travel to — their economic status, prominent religion or cultural norms — we're all people and we're all looking to have what we may define as a better life for our families.

What is your most vivid memory?

I have lots of vivid memories. But being able to experience a different landscape and culture was a very positive experience. However, I think the most impactful experience was having to say goodbye to fallen friends and comrades as we placed them on an airplane for the last trip home.

What is something you think all Afghan War veterans might share in common?

It's difficult to put in words, but a commonality of understanding that you walked the same ground and experienced the same difficulties and dangers.

After 30 years of serving my nation in many different capacities and places around the world, I still find service to the nation something that compels me and, I think, compels most people who have served in the military, especially those who have served in dangerous places.

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Andrea McClam, 59, of Chicago

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Andrea McClam served as the only female member of her crew.
Courtesy Andrea McClam

As the only female on her crew, McClam served as loadmaster between 2003 and 2005, transporting personnel and cargo throughout Afghanistan, the Middle East and even Europe. Her military career supported the U.S. efforts in Operation Desert Storm and the invasion of Panama. She retired from the Air Force in 2009, after 27 years as a senior master sergeant.

How did Afghanistan compare with your previous deployments?

Afghanistan was really different. A lot of my operations were at night, requiring us to stay on the different bases we flew into. My crew and I did everything together, and we were very close. We were like a little unit. I tell people my deployment prepared me for this pandemic because everybody around me complains about being in the house. It’s like I’m deployed.

How did your age and experience prepare you for the mission?

Life experiences prepare you to be in a space where you’re not so anxious about things. You just look at things in a different picture. As a young person, you’re real excited about things that you want to happen. But as a result, you tend to focus more on your fear rather than the particular situation. We all have levels of fear. People ask me all the time, "Were you afraid?" I say, "Not outside the norm. For the most part, I focused on my job and what I had to do to complete my missions." 

What should Americans know about the war?

A lot of times, you talk to people who say they don’t even know why we did this. But it is a history lesson. A little research on the history of our relationships with countries would help people understand why we go to the places that we go and do the work that we do. We helped women gain more rights and spread democracy. But now, all that work that was done is all being taken away.

What is your most vivid memory?

The environment required us to constantly be on high alert in this survival mode mentality. Not doing anything to bring attention to yourself in the night. Stuff like you see in movies. You just got to do what you got to do to stay safe. It was kind of funny because when I first came home, I was still kind of in that mode. I’d look under my car before I’d get in. Doing a lot of stuff that we would do over there. And I was, like, "Oh, wow. I need to really transition to being a civilian again." 

What was it like serving in Afghanistan as a woman?

As Americans, we just take so much for granted. When you go to a place like that, especially as a female, and you see how women aren’t spoken to, it's like they don’t exist. And then here in America, we’re just free. We can do everything.

I was the only female on my crew of six. I once got the opportunity to join an all-female crew, out of Qatar. They kind of snatched us from our crews and put us together to fly this one mission. When we flew that mission, we had this certain pride about ourselves and were really excited that the leadership thought enough of us to fly combat and that we could handle the mission. The few females that I talked to when I was deployed mainly talked about home, because a lot of those ladies were in their early 20s, while I was in my late 40s.

They kind of looked up to me, too, because I am a very spiritual person. So I would always find something to say to encourage them. I told them I have two young sons at home. But I utilized email, Skype and wrote letters. The best thing about being deployed was getting mail.

Tony Vizcarrondo Jr., 57, of Manchester, New Hampshire

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Tony Vizcarrondo holds the unit colors (back to camera) and in uniform in 2013.
Courtesy Tony Vizcarrondo

Vizcarrondo served two deployments in Afghanistan — the first in 2010 and the second as sergeant major in 2012. During the 33 years leading up to his retirement in 2015 from the Marine Corps, half of his 12 deployments were in hostile fire areas, including Beirut in 1984, the Gulf War, and the Iraq War from 2006 to 2008.

How did your age and experience prepare you for the mission?

It put me in direct contact with some of the most remarkable young men and women this nation has to offer. I was able to pull from my earlier service experiences to mentor them as they confronted challenges in-country and stateside. How these marines and sailors performed daily in some of the harshest conditions was genuinely inspirational and followed a long legacy of warfighters that preceded them.

What is your most vivid memory?

There are aspects of Afghanistan that are breathtaking — from the mountain ranges, the wadis [valleys] and the incredible ingenuity of the Afghan people to thrive in the most hostile environments. Then there are also the sandstorms that blot out the sun and the extreme heat and terrain. In particular, while on a route recon in November 2010, we were directly engaged by a hostile force after our lead vehicle hit a large IED [improvised explosive device]. One crew member ended up losing his leg, and another was knocked unconscious, which has had effects post-service. Myself and our Corpsman HM3 [hospital corpsman third class] Paul Gomez made our way to the vehicle, provided basic first aid and evacuated the injured to the medivac site for further treatment. I remember how that marine clutched the collar of my Cammie blouse and looked into my eyes and spoke to me as we extracted him from the destroyed vehicle.

What should Americans know about the war?

War and combat can be extremely complicated in general. With Afghanistan in particular, you might start the day meeting with local tribal leaders, eating and sharing tea. Then on your movement to another location, you might encounter IEDs, recover wounded in action, engage the enemy and have to call in medivacs [helicopters] for your wounded. Then you might move onto another area where you are rebuilding roads, bridges and buildings, or providing medical assistance to the local population, knowing full well that not all those you encounter are friendly to you or the cause.

What is something all Afghan War veterans share in common?

That is a complicated question and would garner all sorts of responses depending on that service member's personal experiences. Many service members maintain a deep and abiding respect and love for their fellow service members that served alongside them. They also share a deep sense of pride in having endured some of the most challenging experiences of their lives while serving alongside one another. Many of us also developed close relationships with some of the locals.

Tom Porter, 53, of Springfield, Virginia

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Tom Porter’s military service brought him to the halls of Capitol Hill as a veterans’ advocate.

Porter served as a public affairs officer for the Navy in Kabul from 2010 to 2011, running media operations theater-wide. He was previously deployed to Bahrain in 2007. This year marks the captain’s 25th year as a Navy reservist. Today, he is also executive vice president of government affairs for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

How did being on the ground in Afghanistan compare with previous deployments?

Afghanistan was radically different. Wherever you're deployed in Afghanistan, you don't live in the town — you live on the base or your combat outpost. You don't travel around by yourself. If you're traveling, it's either by convoy, armored vehicles or in helicopters. In Bahrain, I would be out on my own and drive around in my own car.

What should Americans know about the war?

I think we accomplished an enormous amount of good while we were there. I don't speak for every veteran, but my personal concern is that we lose all of that by what's going on right now.

What is your most vivid memory?

My vivid memory was the number of girls that I saw going to school from the beginning of my year there versus the end. It was a noticeable increase in the number of girls going to school and of boys and girls walking together.

What is something you think all Afghan War veterans might share in common?

It will be hard to find one thing that all Afghan War vets share in common, other than the pride in their service. I think if you talk to one vet, you've only talked to one vet. ​​

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