The past couple of weeks have been difficult for me. I served in the Marine Corps, spending a deployment in Afghanistan. That mission was the overarching reason for much of my time in service. Once I received my honorable discharge in August 2013, I moved on — pursuing my studies, career and personal interests. Then, to my initial surprise, recent events brought memories, feelings and past friendships back in a way that was overwhelming. I have teetered in feelings of anger, despair and sadness, wondering what it was all for.

I would not be where I am today nor had some success if it were not for Operation Enduring Freedom. Over the years I have often thought about Afghanistan and my role in the war. I have often wondered about mistakes I may have made and whether I contributed to unnecessary harm. I have not been too hard on myself, however, because I know that I and my fellow service members tried our best to do the right thing.

What affected me the most in recent days was witnessing the situation of Afghans caught off-guard with the sudden victory of the Taliban. I remember many Afghans that I served with. They include language training instructors, who were Afghan-Americans and former refugees. Plus the Afghan nationals and Afghan-American translators I worked with, relied on and grew to love like my fellow Marines. And I remember normal everyday people in Afghanistan who were just trying to live the best way they could for themselves and their families.

I served as a linguist in the Marines. I was taught to understand and appreciate not only Afghan culture, history and religion, but also to respect the people themselves. I had the unique experience of being able to speak directly in frank, open and sometimes difficult conversation with many of the Afghan soldiers, as well as the shopkeepers and contractors working on our base. I can honestly say that I love the Afghan people as much as my own people — Americans, veterans, Catholics, Hispanic and Mexican Americans, all groups I have established community with. There are good people in Afghanistan whose lives and families are in danger and who display tremendous courage, faith and generosity. Though I find these days heartbreaking, I have seen signs of hope.

U.S.-based nonprofits and religious charities have stepped up to help Afghan refugees, including the International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Social Service, Catholic Charities, Islamic Relief USA, Veterans of Foreign Wars and many Afghan American community centers. Even local groups have shown tremendous compassion, such as the International Institute of Minnesota, the Minnesota Council of Churches and the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. These charities are providing funds and supplies like clothing, hygiene products, prayer rugs and Qu'rans. They are resettling Afghan refugees in several locales. Some educational institutions like Georgetown University have sent volunteers to Dulles International Airport to assist refugees. One charity, the Mustafa Center in the District of Columbia, is overwhelmed with material donations, though it continually needs volunteers.

The most remarkable efforts I've witnessed have been from service members and Afghan Americans. Digital Dunkirk ( is a network of former service members, intelligence community members and government workers assisting with Afghan special immigrant visas and with U.S. citizens trapped in Kabul, helping them make it to the airport. I am a member of an online community of past and current members of the three Marine Corps radio battalions (or RadBns). This group posts volunteer opportunities on Facebook, in partnership with our former interpreters as well as online communities begun by Afghan American activists. They have already successfully assisted many of our former interpreters and translators in qualifying for resettlement in the United States.

Off the web, I have seen people I served with — former Air Force members — partner with Afghan community centers and veterans organizations to meet the needs of incoming refugees. They also lobby political leaders so that more refugees can escape harm. Although a good amount of this is done in person, some work that potentially saved lives has been done virtually. It is a sophisticated process of posting questions, finding answers on the internet, establishing connections with legal experts, embassy workers, translators and State Department employees.

Even though the U.S. military's 20-year involvement in Afghanistan war did not turn out well, the examples of many fellow veterans and of many Afghans remind me that we can always serve, even in little ways. It is a testament to the great love and fidelity that many service members have, even when they no longer wear the uniform. The community that we veterans establish among each other, shoulder to shoulder, is still alive and strong, and we are devoted to fighting for what's right, though this time we are doing it with computer keyboards, with plowshares and not swords.

Sergio Barrera is a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Minnesota. He's at On Twitter: @sebarrera77.