As the Taliban allows some Americans to leave Afghanistan, the picture isn’t as clear for friends of Americans in the country.
The fate of Afghans who served as interpreters, drivers and partners is particularly important to U.S. veterans who served on the ground in the South Asian country, including U.S. Army veteran Robert Couture. He’s now working in communications and public affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Couture remembers deploying to Afghanistan with hopes of giving Afghans a better future. He says it’s “heart-wrenching” to see the war in Afghanistan bookended by terror — starting with Americans plunging to their deaths out of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and ending with Afghans falling to their deaths from planes as they try to escape Kabul.
Part of the mission was to provide a better life for Afghans, he says, while also preventing another attack against his fellow Americans.
“Myself and as well as many other Afghan vets, we remind ourselves to hold our head high, that for 20 years that wasn't another 9/11 on U.S. soil,” he says. “There wasn't another attack to that magnitude.”
The father of four children recalls some of the Afghan kids whose faces he can’t forget. In one instance, Couture saw a little girl no older than 4 years old who was likely sick with the flu, he says. Her face was covered in mucus and dirt, and she was crying. The scene “broke his heart,” he says, because no one was there to care for her.
There are a number of veterans across the VFW and other organizations that are processing the current situation in Afghanistan. All generations of U.S. veterans have endured a similar scenario — witnessing the blood that was shed and now feeling helpless at home as terror unfolds once more, he explains.
Whether it be Vietnam War veterans watching the fall of Saigon or Iraq War veterans seeing ISIS sweeping the country again, “it's a tough time for people to look at that and not say, ‘man, what did we go there for?’ ” Couture says.
“With that shared experience, it's important for us to reach out to one another,” he says. “And if [you] know someone who's an Afghan war vet, it's important for you to reach out and check up on [them].”
He fears for the Americans still trapped in the country and for the Afghan aids who have been left behind, clinging to the promise of refuge. He says he hopes the Biden administration remains true to its word in providing them with safe passage to the U.S.
Inside Washington, the political conversation surrounding Afghanistan falls along familiar partisan lines. Veterans had no choice but to follow orders no matter who is in office, he says. During his 24 years of service, Couture says he served at least four presidents.
“We left our family. I told my children I'm going there so someone else can come home to their children. So we do our mission, we keep each other safe, we try and get everybody home,” he says. “It doesn't matter who's in office.”
President Biden has suggested the Afghan army folded and allowed the Taliban in without fighting. Couture says it’s difficult to say that the Afghan forces simply gave up. The veteran has seen them serve with “valor and bravery on the battlefield” and give their lives for their country, he says.
A public reckoning in the U.S. has unfolded since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban one region after another. Couture says the public needs to demand more from leaders and hold them accountable.
But no matter what people in the U.S. or abroad think about the war in Afghanistan, Couture says he’s proud of his country and fellow service members for their sacrifices.
“I think that when the time comes and we're called upon to do a mission that is right, that the U.S. military is going to move out and we're going to win,” he says. “We have to have people that believe that we are the greatest fighting force on the face of the Earth — even in the face of what we're seeing in Afghanistan today.”
This segment aired on August 20, 2021.