Editor's Note: This past April, United States President Joseph Biden announced that all US forces would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by Aug. 31, signalling the official end to the 20-year conflict. While the US attempted to implement a plan to leave a stable government in place, the Afghan government collapsed due to pressure from an advancing Taliban force. The capital city of Kabul fell on Sunday, Aug. 15 to the Taliban, leaving chaos and uncertainty for thousands of Afghan citizens and foreign ambassadors attempting to flee the country. Prep News 86 Editor in Chief Jack Figge sat down with former ASC and SLUH alum Peter Lucier, a marine and Afghanistan veteran, to talk about his experiences serving in Afghanistan and where we go from here.
Jack Figge (JF): Mr. Lucier, thank you for taking time out of your day to talk with me. My first question is how long did you serve in Afghanistan?
Peter Lucier (PL): I was there from November 2011 until May 2012. So I was there for about seven months.
JF: For many SLUH students, I assume, Afghanistan seems like a very foreign place. What is the atmosphere and physical area like?
PL: It's different. Like the US, there are many different parts to Afghanistan. I was in the southern part of Helmand Province. But even there, from region to region, from province to province and district to district, the landscape changes. On my tour, I started out near the Pakistani border, where it was very mountainous and had a lot of desert. It was big and empty except for mountains on the border of Pakistan—supposedly the Taliban had pretty light defense up in the mountains. And then there was a cross border trading town that we didn't go to. We conducted some offensive operations there in a town called Bahram Chah, but we were doing mounted patrols out of a place called PB Wolfpack Patrol Base for only like a month, and then we demilitarized that patrol base, abandoned it, and moved further north up to what's called the fishhook region of the Helmand River, which is a Green River valley where the majority of the world's opium production takes place.
JF: Can you describe your feelings when you heard that US troops were withdrawing from Afghanistan?
PL: That announcement was made in April. It came right around the anniversary of when my friend was killed. April is always a time where me and my friends from that platoon reconnect and we remember Ramon T. Kaipat, we drink his favorite beer, we look at pictures, we’ll eat the Munchies Snack Mix because he liked that. So April is always kind of an emotional number of weeks just because it's bringing back memories.
You kind of go back to that space and you live in it, no matter how long it's been. On days like that, the pain of loss surrounding that deployment comes back. Then this year there was the announcement that the US was going to withdraw, which is in some ways a good thing, it adds some finality to this whole thing that we've been living through for, you know, 20 years since 9/11. This war is older than you are and now we’re putting a period on it. It's in some ways a good thing but also it's evidence of what we have known in our hearts for a long time, which is: that we lost. It was a confirmation. That was what was going through my head in April. Now things have changed pretty dramatically.
JF: Probably the most significant moment that many students will be able to recognize is the fall of Kabul two weeks ago. What was your initial reaction to that?
PL: Just an overwhelming sense of helplessness, of powerlessness, a really, really terrible feeling that something horrible was happening, and that I have no way to affect the outcome, in that immediate moment. Those things have changed, but at the time I was thinking ‘I can't do anything about this, there's a lot of people who are going to die, there's a lot of people whose lives are going to be ruined. There's going to be horrible atrocities committed in a place that I was in, some of them are going to happen to people that I know. And if they're not people I know there are people who helped friends of mine stay alive. And I'm 4000 miles away. And there's nothing I can do.’
There's nothing worse than, you know, feeling helpless, everybody hates to have that feeling. It is kind of like that helpless feeling when you get caught cheating or something and you're there in that moment and you're just embarrassed and ashamed and feeling like you've done something wrong. The feeling that you have no ability to affect the outcome. That you are facing down an adult who has all of the power and you who have none of the power, and you just don't know how much this is going to mess up your life.
You're just running through all the terrible scenarios in your head of how this could ruin everything, and you have no ability to affect it. Multiply that by the 80,000 lives of Afghans who are high priority targets for the Taliban, who are really trying to escape them at the time but have no avenue to do it. It was a bad day, I mean it was a sh*t day. We just texted each other (Lucier and his old platoon members) and it's just like, what can you even say? I just wanted to reach out to somebody who understands, and somebody who gets it and who's feeling the same thing, because it doesn't necessarily affect the American public in the same way that it might affect those of us who have a personal connection.
JF: There have been a lot of images and stories that have surfaced about the horrors and the atrocities going on over there right now. Have there been any particular ones that have, like, especially touched you, or impacted you in any way, they would like to share?
PL: The one that sticks with me is a suicide bomb back in April that targeted a girl’s school and killed 90 high school girls. A friend of mine, named Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a fellow Marine veteran, is a reporter at The New York Times now. Side note: He's been a hero through this whole thing, he got evacuated by the Times and he was in Germany. But then he hopped back on a plane and went back to Kabul to get more people out, as a reporter, because he's just a champ. That's just what he does, he's fearless.
He covered the girl high school bombing and wrote a story about it. Now that is what most sticks with me. Since the fall, though, I have gotten involved in a bunch of different efforts to try to assist in any way that Americans can, including fundraising efforts for charities here in the United States that work with special immigrant visa applicants. That work has been so overwhelming for the past, however many days since the fall that, I mean all of the stories sound awful but there's not a particular one. What I'm paying attention to the most at this point is what's happening outside of Abbey gate at any given moment, and whether they're letting people through or not. There are so many stories of the Taliban beating people at the checkpoints before they let them get through to the American lines.
I think one story that just sticks with everybody is when you hear of a person that goes up to the gate and they have all the documents that they're supposed to have and they qualify for evacuation. However, they don't get in, they get turned away at the gate by American soldiers. Every time that happens, your heart just breaks because they qualify, they should be allowed to evacuate, but for whatever reason they're not let through, and there's nothing you can do about it.
You can get on the phone, and try and talk to the guy at the gate and be like hey I'm a Marine Corps veteran, like, I know that this happens, I've got a Congressperson on this person's case, let this person through, but often it just doesn't work. Those stories are probably what will stick with me the most, there's been other things that, like, I can't talk about until all this is done.
JF: How did you feel after you learned about the 14 US service members who lost their lives after the bombing at Kabul airport?
PL: Yeah man it really sucked. We were right in the middle of like all the stuff that I got involved with and people were moving and it was a chaotic night trying to help people. I think it was like eight o'clock in the morning when reports started coming in a little bit before it hit the news, and that there was an explosion and rolling gunfire. Then an hour later, the news said they had been able to confirm that four Marines had died and another hour or two later, they had the full count. So in total 12 Marines, one soldier and one Navy Corpsman died. That morning I had class and I sat in the back and just cried. It just sucked. This was very different from other times when you lose people in combat because this wasn't combat, it was an evacuation operation. All that they were there to do was to help evacuate people and they had been doing it day after day. It's never a good day when we lose Marines. We're just a tight knit family. So even if you don't know any of those folks personally you know, they are a Marine and it sucks.
JF: With the final true soldiers leaving Afghanistan, there's a powerful picture of a soldier boarding a plane, in the middle of the night. What were your thoughts and reactions just to know that this war is over? That in a sense it is finished?
PL: Somebody said on Twitter, ‘it started with an airplane and that ends with an airplane.’ There's a lot of things to say about that picture, he was a major general, his name's Chris Donahoe and is the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne. There's something to be said about that's what leadership looks like. He's literally the last one off the ground and he's a two star general. That he doesn't get on the plane until every single other person is on the plane. That's interesting and powerful in its own way.
Wars are funny, they are never really over. There are moments that feel like watersheds. The Greek word is eschaton and eschatology, meaning the end or the end time, something that marks the ending of an age. I think we as humans, we like eschaton, we like endings. The thing about wars is they just don't work like that. There's too many people, it's too messy. Yeah, a guy got on an airplane and there's no US military left there but the consequences of 20 years of war don't end when we leave. Somebody made a comment a couple years ago about the civil war in Syria, which started in 2011. They said that we're probably at about the halfway point. Civil wars take about 20 years. That's true in the US too. The US Civil War lasted five years but it didn't end at Appomattox. It just moved to a new vehicle. There was guerrilla fighting, then there was political fighting and there were still all kinds of stuff. The consequences certainly weren't trampled up. It took a long time even just for word to get around that the 13th Amendment had passed and slavery was illegal.
I'm still working on visa cases for people, there's still so many lives that are upset. There are so many people who are displaced, people whose lives are turned upside down. Nothing's really over. We're just not there anymore. But of course it is an end. There's a Marine friend of mine who's a reporter at Newsweek who tweeted out individually the names, by date of death, of every single service member who died in Afghanistan. It took, probably 48 hours each and every name, and the day that they died and more they were from in the US. I just cried again when the names of my friends appeared. It's a weird time. And it's weird to think about what this means going forward.
JF: You mentioned fundraising earlier so why are you so devoted to fundraising and helping the situation in Afghanistan and the people?
PL: I started fundraising, because, like I told you, I felt helpless. There are people who can pull strings and there's people that know about what is happening when a country falls and when there's a violent takeover of government. People who have seen this a dozen times in a dozen different countries and can predict with stunning accuracy the different waves of chaos that will ensue, and how everything will happen. Those people exist and they're doing good work right now.
But I'm not one of them. I went to Afghanistan one time, as a low level, junior enlisted infantry rifleman. At the time I didn't think I could be of any assistance with that kind of stuff, but I knew that there was about to be at least some number of thousands of refugees who were going to land here in the United States, and the very least that I thought I could do was if I can't help get people out, then I can come help when they get here.
Now, what I found out was, there is no barrier between resettlement and evacuation, because when you start fundraising for people to do resettlement, what you find out really quickly is the first thing people say when they get off the plane, isn't, where am I getting housed? Or, is there a job available for me? Or, can you help me? The first concern that people have is ‘my family's still there’ or ‘the Taliban is trying to kill my cousin, my nephew, my grandfather, my dad, my mom’.
So I asked myself: ‘what can you do right now? I'm an American and the government has all the power, so what can you do to help get people out?’ I wanted to just raise money, because it seemed like something I could do and some way that I could affect change and help people when they got here. That matters, and we should and we need to raise that money. Other people need to be worried about it. But you can't do that work and be involved with those people without immediately being sucked into the lives of people on the ground in Afghanistan which is what happened to me, kind of quickly.
One of the people for one of the charities that I fundraise for reached out and said, ‘hey, there's this person who's the family of some people that we helped to resettle, and they're trying to get out. And we've had dead ends. So, what can we do to help us?’And I thought: ‘What can I do to help someone that is 4000 miles away in Afghanistan under an active threat of being hunted by the Taliban? I thought: ‘Well, you know, I can try’.
All you can do is say yes to the thing that's in front of you. So you say yes to that thing and then you start asking people for help. Then you find out that not many people can help, but everybody else is in the same situation, and you start saying yes to more things because every single thing you come across is tragic, heartbreaking and urgent. Every single plea for help is one that involves people's lives. I mean how do you say no to any person when they're begging you for help to save their life? It's just tough.
JF: As men of Jesuit education and students at SLUH what is our calling? How are we called to respond in an event like this? What can a student do to help?
PL: I know it's cliche, at this point but we are called to be men and women for others or with and alongside others. There is a Jesuit, Greg Boyle, who wrote Tattoos on the Heart and said something like: No, we need to move from a people who judge the poor or the oppressed, and we need to be people who see the burden that the poor and the oppressed carry, and stand in awe of their ability to carry it. I think one of the first things is to try to put yourself in that mindset. Our first step is not to feel pity but to recognize the ability for the Afghan people to even carry the incredible burden that they carry and have carried for the last 40 years.
Of course there are things we can do to help. The easiest and the most simple is getting in touch with the International Institute, with ISTL. There's going to be Afghans who are arriving here. They're going to come with not a lot. The thing that we can do is do the neighborly thing and welcome people into our community and try to help them transition. ISTL needs money, furniture and lawyers right now. SLUH students can't really provide lawyers, but furniture and household goods for those arriving here, whether new or gently used, can be a big help. The first thing is just to put yourself in a mindset of appreciation, thankfulness and solidarity for the Afghan people and then the second thing is, give to a ISTL or other resettlement organizations.
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