Brace yourselves for “Never Forget” posts from people who forgot.
In the US Embassy in Kabul there is a New York City Skyline model-memorial made from the steel of the World Trade Center columns. The other day I stared at it; standing in the atrium alone in quiet solitude, slowly running my fingers across the rough metal, wondering how much pain was melded into it. How much history embedded within it? How much future was dictated because of it — and the Global War On Terror, or GWOT.
My GWOT began in Bangkok. I was a Private in the US Army on mid-tour leave from South Korea. I had flown into Bangkok the night prior and by the time the planes hit their targets it was already late-evening in Thailand. I was several 24oz Heinekens into my night at a youth hostel, surrounded by fellow backpackers and local Thai hostel volunteers. At least three of the people there that night continue to hold a place in my life 15 years later.
Everyone turned to me as we watched the television and asked me, an American and US Army Soldier, what was going on — as if I had some red phone dialed into the White House with President Bush on speed dial. I was a Private for god’s sake. The following morning at the train station, all the English papers in their stacks at the news stand were screaming in capital letters “America Mobilizes for War!!”
It was terrifying. I tried to call back to my unit in South Korea to see if I had to return but I could not get through. I was away from the hostel for the 12th & upon returning that night I was told that US Embassy personnel came by to check on all the Americans and that the US Embassy had Armored Personnel Carriers in front of them. A week later I returned to South Korea where, at the airport the Korean National Police were walking around in combat gear with rifles.
I caught a bus from the airport to my town, Uijonbu where Camp Essayons, home of my Military Intelligence Battalion, was located. Hungover & jet-lagged from my R&R, I pulled up in a taxi at the front gate that normally was semi-inviting and non-aggressive, as far as pre-9–11 overseas military bases go; I saw 50 Caliber machine guns peeking out over barricades and armed Korean military and US guards and concertina wire surrounding it. I felt like I had just walked into a war zone. Or a Hollywood action set. This was the new normal.
I spent the next & last few months of my tour in South Korea pulling 12-on 12-off guard shifts, protecting the Ammunition Holding Area (AHA) where some 1,000 rockets lay stored, from terrorist attack. The notion at the time was that if terrorists blew up the AHA it would take out the entire town of Uijonbu with something like 200,000 citizens. I left Korea on January 1st 2002 to serve out the remaining 6 months on my two-year contract in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, the home of the Military Intelligence Training Center.
Upon arriving to Arizona, however, I learned I was stop-loss’ed & could not get out of the Army. In that short 13 months training Intelligence Officers, our military went from striking back at Al Qaeda in Afghanistan with a light foot-print to preparing for a full-scale invasion of Iraq. I re-enlisted and subsequently left Arizona to return to a combat unit, this time in Germany where I landed — the day we invaded Baghdad. I remember watching it on the news in the early morning in the barracks. I knew I would be there shortly.
I was supposed to serve a two-year service contract with the Army in a time of peace. Like many, if not most who signed up pre-9–11, that peaceful two-year tour became nearly 6 years active duty around the world in multiple countries and in combat. It then evolved into studying International Affairs at a university with a focus on Arabic, the Middle East & Islam, all the while being in the Army Reserves.
Then there were years spent as a contractor for the government, a tour in Baghdad, two gigs in DC with the Intelligence Community, a brief sabbatical in Yemen & four deployments to Afghanistan — where I am now — and where arguably the September 11th attacks spawned from.
I spent five September 11th anniversaries in Afghanistan including this one. The rest have been in Iraq, Yemen, DC or overseas as a soldier. My passport is a map of the Global War on Terror. Technically, I even studied abroad in Yemen & Afghanistan — the two birth places of Al Qaeda. My first adult tourist trip overseas was to Egypt — the home of Sayyid Qutb — arguably the modern father of “Islamic” extremism. The last 15 years of international security have been my life in so many ways.
As US Department of Defense jobs began to dry up the last few years, with Afghanistan forces drawing down I began thinking of the ‘Twilight of GWOT’ as I dubbed it. Every time I leave Afghanistan I think it will be the last. Though new jobs pop up they are no longer mass low-qualification types. They are mostly with State Department or in some small-footprint Special Operations or Intelligence field. Luckily these have been fields most of my experience is in — Intelligence, Strategic Communication & Security — but pickin’s are slim.
The War on Terror is not over & never will be. It will however, continue to evolve into Combined-Joint-Multinational-Soft Power “grey” engagements — otherwise known as Hybrid Warfare. But for those of us who served as warriors, diplomats, spies & aid workers in any fashion during the last 15 years — this is the twilight of GWOT as we know it.
We will be left with many memories but the most poignant will remain that September day — no matter where we were at the time. That day affected many different ways & my thoughts & prayers are always with the victims. For the first 21 months I spent deployed to Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan I kept a 9–11 flag with every name of the fallen on it, hanging next to my bed in my wooden “B-Hut”.
Many seldom think how much our lives were impacted by that day subsequently — in the small quiet ways. A few anniversaries ago I sat down and contemplated how much of my life was dictated by those attacks. I counted at least a two dozen lovers I had & lost, nearly every dollar I made, every dollar I lost. Almost every friend since that day, most of the books I read & places I visited. My entire university experience & chosen language to study. Every part of my life was given birth to that day — for better or worse. Therefore, no day passes I do not think of that day. There is no “Never Forget” for me. That would be like saying “Never Forget, Your Life.”
To all those who have sacrificed over the last 15 years for a better post-post-9–11 world I thank you. Whether you are the soldier, spook, statesman; scholar or aid worker overseas trying to expand Stability Multipliers to counter the drivers of the instability — I salute and thank you for being by my side and letting myself stand by your side, for the last 15 years.
Fifteen years of conflict, bases, FOBs, COPs, poor Wi-Fi, dead friends, missed family, lost friends, solitude, bottled water, porta johns, malaria pills, dust, sand-storms, CHUs, 0430hrs Call to Prayers, Toyota Land Cruisers, power outages, gunfire, explosions, spent brass, Monitoring & Evaluation, NGOs, Microsoft Outlook, MRAPs, HUMVEEs, cargo pants, sewage, fear, loneliness, Embassies, Consulates, immigration lines, airports, secondary screening, Reverse Culture Shock, PTSD, power converters, shitty local beer, seedy overseas parties, frozen Skype sessions, incoming fire — direct & indirect, lock-downs, alerts, alarms, The Big Voice, interpreters, acronyms, Kevlar, MREs, shitty air conditioners, Hescos, T-Walls, squat toilets, hand sanitizer, non-potable water, sweat, sand in places it shouldn’t be, sweat in places it shouldn’t be, 24/7 generator noise, shitty internet, dysfunctional cell phone connections, bureaucracy, visa stamps, passports, Dubai layovers, inshallahs and the general fuckery that is this way of life, that chose us.
We have never forgotten.
*Also published on Medium at https://medium.com/@BrandonScott361/15-years-the-twilight-of-the-war-on-terror-3935563b9e26