The day you entered this world I woke to the news on my radio alarm clock. I listened, horror-struck, on my drive to school, then watched your carnage on the TVs in my high school auditorium. On the West Coast, most of us were privileged in our detachment, but the shock, the terror, the anger still burrowed deep.
A month later, the day after U.S. airstrikes began in Afghanistan, I turned 18. Shortly thereafter, I signed a military contract.
Every day moving forward, more who never knew life without you can pledge themselves to your wars. And they’re all yours now, aren’t they? Fresh young men and women who serve will earn the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal. They will join the growing band of post-9/11 veterans. You are an era, the end of which remains, as the service medal executive order states, “a terminal date to be prescribed.”
President George W. Bush gave his “mission accomplished” speech in May 2003 — before the vast majority of military and civilian casualties on Iraqi soil. In December 2014, President Barack Obama hailed the end of combat operations in Afghanistan. In the years since, 79 U.S. military personnel have been killed there and 465 have been wounded. The most recent death occurred Sept. 5. Your reincarnate wars spawned new wars and operations — with names such as “New Dawn,” “Freedom’s Sentinel” and “Inherent Resolve,” unfit metaphors for a tired nation that mostly just wants to forget.
My decision to serve wasn’t because of you, but you were part of it in ways I’m only now, a lifetime later, beginning to understand. With an ROTC scholarship, I didn’t expect you to still be raging four years later when I was commissioned as an officer. But by the time I deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, you’d more than made it clear you were sticking around. Still, who would have believed you’d dig in your heels for another decade?
On a U.S. Air Force base, I saw your influence every day: the names on the base memorial wall, streets rebranded for the fallen, the clockwork regularity of troops leaving, and then, three or six or 12 months later for many, returning. In Afghanistan, we learned the faces of your casualties in framed photos on the forward operating base conference room wall. We stood in formation on the helicopter landing zone to commemorate the eighth anniversary of your arrival.
The majority in my unit had volunteered to be there. Our reasons were simple and nuanced, idealistic and calculated, instinctive and mindful. Many of us came of age in your wake. Some, like me, were not the first generation in our families to serve.
None of us expected that the next generation would literally follow in our footsteps.
There’s a reason the military recruits the young, before pure certainty falters and cynicism sets in. Now that you’ve tainted us, can that crystalline idealism of youth still exist? With no context of “before,” can your wars possibly be seen as just or noble or winnable? Even a means to an end? Are we, after 18 years, any closer to defining that end?
For America, this is entirely new: a generation that knows only a time of war. Though fought mostly abroad, discerning eyes need not look far to see evidence of the damage at home.
To the newest young Americans, we pass the torch and our failures, a mighty burden to bear. Some will join the ranks of the armed forces. All will join the ranks of the body politic, that which, whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, is complicit in shaping and perpetuating your legacy.
My generation, the first of the post-9/11 veterans, and those who came before: We are the memory-keepers. We remember airports and mass transit and public gatherings before the see-something, say-something era. Of a time when peace was more than an ideal. When we were not so polarized by rage and fear. When tragedies such as Columbine were the unfathomable exception.
My hope is that we never forget. My fear is that we already have.
Lauren Kay Johnson is a Seattle-based writer who served with the U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan.