The end of the war in Afghanistan brings a whirlwind of confusion, heartache and hopelessness to Missouri veterans, especially at a time when the nation marks the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks on America.
"I'm in a wheelchair for what?" asked Tyler Huffman, a 2010 Afghanistan veteran from Jefferson City. "Nothing. I went over there and gave up half the use of my body for nothing. I can't say yep, I helped do that — I helped Afghanistan."
The war came about immediately following the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil.
After 20 years of U.S. occupancy, President Joe Biden announced in April the United States would be withdrawing its remaining 2,500 troops in Afghanistan by Sept. 11.
By Aug. 15, the Taliban had captured Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, and the Afghan president fled the country.
The following day, Biden addressed the nation.
"I stand squarely behind my decision," Biden said. "After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That's why we were still there."
The deadline for getting U.S. troops out of the country was moved up, and the war was over by the end of August.
Huffman, who said he loved his time serving — particularly the locals he regularly interacted with — was deployed in Afghanistan for roughly five months.
While conducting a patrol to clear explosives from road ditches, Huffman was shot in the chest by a sniper, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
Like many Americans, Huffman joined the United States Marine Corps after the 9/11 attacks.
"A big part of it was of course 9/11 and the big impact it had on us," Huffman said. "Everybody in my family does their part in the military, and that's kind of why I joined as tradition, but 9/11 was definitely a big pusher."
While he remembers the falling towers like it was yesterday, Huffman said the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan was too long and last month's efforts to get out of the country were rushed.
Huffman said the military should have started withdrawing troops after Osama bin Laden was killed, expecting the process to take at least a year.
"We should've never pulled out of the country that fast," Huffman said. "A lot of people shouldn't have been left behind, a lot of our stuff shouldn't have been left behind because now we just wasted 20 years and it's now worse than it ever was. We caused 20 years of chaos and left it in worse condition than when we got there."
Don Hentges, a 1968 Vietnam veteran and local military activist, said he has mixed emotions about the 20-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and the recent events in Afghanistan.
"We had a mission after 9/11 to get Osama bin Laden, and we went to Afghanistan to do it, and right after we got there, he left. But we stayed 20 years," Hentges said.
Hentges agreed troops would have been better served returning home in 2011 after the U.S. military killed Bin Laden in Pakistan.
"We lost a lot of lives, spent a lot of money and crippled a lot of young men and women, and now the country is right back to where it was before we started," Hentges said.
Jake Vogel, a local veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, also said the withdrawal of troops wasn't well executed.
Vogel was a freshman in college when 9/11 occurred. He said that experience, along with a series of military welcoming events he attended with his father, drew him in to enlist after graduating.
"I do remember 9/11 like I think our parents remember JFK," Vogel said. "I just always thought about it, and I just wanted to serve."
He was deployed a total of four times — twice in Afghanistan and twice in Iraq — and said the circumstances in Afghanistan made for a more action-packed theater than Iraq.
Vogel was a sniper based in Kabul at the Bagram Air Base working with various intelligence and military groups to track and eliminate targets engaging in terrorist behavior.
He said the U.S. forces knew they would have to leave eventually, but it was a matter of how and when.
"I didn't think it needed to be that hasty," Vogel said. "It seemed rather chaotic just from the images at the airport, whether you watched CNN or Fox it doesn't matter."
In his address to the nation, Biden also said the process moved too quickly.
"This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated," Biden said. "So what's happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision."
Huffman said many veterans, himself included, believe the sacrifices they made were for nothing.
"It seems like we just went over there and caused a whole lot of damage," Huffman said. "We kept it to the point where the Taliban was scared of us, but now that we're not there no more, there's no one to be scared of anymore, so it's like what was the point?"
Huffman said he understands the feeling of betrayal other Afghanistan veterans have experienced since the U.S. decided to end its occupation.
Vogel said he also found the withdrawal of troops frustrating, particularly because the plan was so openly communicated without regard for operational security.
"It is a little frustrating, like what were we doing there after all that time, like what were we trying to accomplish?" Vogel said. "I don't know, it's kind of sad."
If the Taliban does support women's rights and invests in education, infrastructure and other public goods, Huffman said, he wouldn't feel like the mission was a failure. But he doesn't see that happening.
Vogel agreed, predicting the U.S. will likely be back in Afghanistan in some shape or form in the near future.
Hentges said he hopes the U.S. takes time to strengthen its troops because he believes additional terrorist attacks could be likely in the future.
"I think it's going to happen," Hentges said. "Maybe not to that magnitude, but I'm afraid there's going to be a lot of small attacks. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm afraid of that."
Huffman said he is also sympathetic to the Afghan allies that were left behind.
"There were people in the towns, town leaders, school teachers, there were kids that would help us, that would help spread the word, that would help us better their town. And we promised to protect them," Huffman said. "I hope they're still alive. I really do."