GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Over the course of two decades, as the U.S. was embroiled in its longest war, West Michigan soldiers were sent to Afghanistan.
Now, many of those who served are struggling with how the conflict ended: a chaotic withdrawal as Afghanistan fell to Taliban control once again with little resistance from Western-back Afghan forces.
RYAN VELTKAMP: 2000-2008
Ryan Veltkamp of Hudsonville was among the first servicemembers from West Michigan to fight in the war.
Veltkamp served in the U.S. Navy from 2000 to 2008. He had just graduated from boot camp when the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks forever changed the nation.
“At that point, you know there’s something coming, (that) there’s going to be a war or something coming after that,” Veltkamp said.
He spent the next several years aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, the first aircraft carrier deployed to the Persian Gulf. He and his brother were electronics technicians who worked in the ship’s reactor department.
“We started bombing Afghanistan at that time,” he said. “It seemed like a constant run of planes coming on and off the carrier.”
In those early years, he said, the mission was clear. A March 2003 headline in the Grand Rapids Press echoed widespread sentiment toward the war as the nation continued to reel from the tragedy of the terror attacks: “Bush: Our duty is to strike first.”
“I remember when (President) George Bush landed on our carrier,” Veltkamp said. “It was the whole ‘mission accomplished’ back in the day.”
But the mission was far from over. More than 15 years would pass before the U.S. withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in August 2021. The world watched the chaos as the U.S. scrambled to evacuate American citizens and Afghan allies. Even now, the federal government is still trying to get some Americans out.
“I knew the decision to withdraw was coming and I thought that was good, we don’t need to be there anymore,” Veltkamp said. “(But) as quickly as they withdrew, they had to of known that would’ve caused more backlash and more trouble.”
A father of two, Veltkamp can’t help but think about how the families of fallen soldiers must have felt watching the Taliban overtake Afghanistan in short order while the Western-backed government and security forces crumbled.
“My heart goes out to them because they’ve got to think, ‘What did we do all this for?'” Veltkamp said.
It’s a question he asks himself.
“It’s one of those things I think about,” he said. “We did this for 20 years. Are the Afghan people any better off there? It’s hard to say if that’s the case or not because we just left them there, (but) I know we did our best to help them.”
BROOKE WALTERS: 2011-2020
After enlisting in the Michigan National Guard in 2011, Brooke Walters was in basic training when she found out her unit would be deploying to Afghanistan. Walters, of Ada, served as a medic with the military police unit.
When she arrived in Afghanistan in January 2013, she said she and her fellow soldiers thought the war was almost over.
“We were under the impression that we were pulling out of Afghanistan shortly after we (left) in 2012. A lot of us thought of ourselves as the ‘clean-up crew’,” she said.
When she returned home to West Michigan, she slowly realized that wasn’t the case.
“When I got back, I took a job in a call center, and it just really surprised me that … these soldiers were calling to cancel their cable because they were being deployed to Afghanistan,” Walters said.
She grew frustrated watching more and more people get deployed to Afghanistan.
“It didn’t seem like we were making progress and then all of the sudden it’s 10 years later and we’re still there,” she said.
When the U.S. finally announced its plans to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2021, Walters said it was about time. But she said how it was carried out was hard to watch.
“I’ve kind of just tuned it out ever since I heard what was going on at the (Kabul) airport,” she said.
While trying to focus on all the good her unit accomplished on the ground, she can’t help but think of the Afghan people and allies left behind.
“On an individual level, I feel that we definitely changed lives,” Walters said. “I’m so grateful to see the interpreters I worked with are back in the states.
But, she continued, “in the long-term picture, I don’t think we left (Afghanistan) better than we found it.”
MATHIAS MAPES-PEARSON: 2013-2018
After graduating from Rockford High School in 2013, Mathias Mapes-Pearson enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was first deployed to regions within Europe and Africa to reinforce and protect American embassies. Around 2017, he was sent to Afghanistan.
“My main mission was to protect those marines that were advising the Afghan army units,” he said.
Even then, he said, it was hard to see a winning way out. Nonetheless, he continued to serve his country, fighting in a war that had been going on since he was 7 years old.
“We defeat the Taliban and they went away for a little bit and then they resurge and it’s just this constant cycle where you’re not necessarily getting anywhere,” Mapes-Pearson recalled.
While the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan seemed inevitable, he said its execution was horrifying.
“You have people literally bum-rushing a gate (at the airport), you don’t know who’s who,” he said. “It was chaotic and unfortunately it led to what happened.”
While the weight of the withdrawal weighs heavy on all three veterans’ hearts, they remain proud of their service.
“At the time when we were in control of Kabul, girls were going to school and women were allowed to walk around and express themselves freely,” Mapes-Pearson said. “They got a taste of what that’s like and whether or not they’re able to do anything with that, that’s what the future will be, but I think in that sense it was worth it.”