Army 1st Lieutenant Holly Hernandez wrote this dispatch from Afghanistan.
Osama bin Laden is dead. The news was announced in tickers, as I entered my office at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on Monday morning. Everyone was gathered around the television, intently sitting on the edge of their black swivel chairs. “All right, let’s pack up now — it’s time to go home,” one of the Sergeants in the room said. “I want to see a death certificate,” our chiseled former infantry First Sergeant said. “We all know Donald Trump is going to demand to see one.” The blond newscaster described how Bin Laden had been hiding in a luxurious compound 60 miles outside of Islamabad. She exclaimed, “Who would have thought he would be hiding in Pakistan all along?” One Sergeant jumped up, muttering, “I would have thought that.” We all laughed.
It is difficult to watch some of these news stories. President Hamid Karzai’s reaction to the capture was to say: “Every day we have said that the war on terror is not in Afghan villages, not in Afghan houses of the poor and oppressed. The war against terrorism is in its sources, in its financial sources, its sanctuaries, in its training bases, not in Afghanistan.” And yet I am still here. Here in Afghanistan, a country that by its president’s own admission is “war weary.” This is my first deployment; I have been here 10 months, and I can assure you I am tired of working every day. Weekends don’t exist in war zones. It is difficult to fathom the degree of exhaustion for a country continually at war for years.
Our First Sergeant turned off the television for our daily meeting, full of discussions far removed from Bin Laden. At the end, a Sergeant sprang out of his chair, tapping his water bottle against the wooden table and proclaiming: “Why the glum faces and grumbling. Let’s celebrate. Be happy! He is dead!” Everyone responded with a small shrug as they turned back to their computer screens to work. The television droned in the background, posing a question: “Is the war on terror over?”
“Oh come on,” people murmured simultaneously. “Does the media really think it is over?” someone asked.
I thought back to 9/11, when I was a freshman in high school discovering in my morning debate class that something had happened. An expression of inexplicable horror twisted on my teacher’s face as she had to confront her students with explanations. All day, our teachers were transfixed to the television trying to piece together the story; classes were canceled. At 14, I was old enough to realize a momentous day had occurred, but not old enough to understand its significance.
I understand now. I looked around the office and asked the NCOs in the room which deployment they were on. The responses ranged from their first to their eighth. One Sergeant asked, “Can you imagine being away from your family for eight years?” I shook my head.
“What do you remember the most from your deployments?” I asked them. One Sergeant answered: “We drove in full biological and nuclear gear towards Baghdad. When we got there, all I remember were the children and the zoos. Americans are suckers for these things. I remember all the animals in the Baghdad Zoo. We were there in the center of Iraq freaking cooing over these animals. We cared about them. Those animals were like starved. We threw them our M.R.E.’s through the fence. The great thing is they were all rescued tigers, lions, and bears.”
“I will never forget the faces of the dead,” another Sergeant in his 30s said. “It wasn’t like one or two. They were everywhere. Bodies dismembered. Once I was in a firefight with the enemy, and one of my Soldiers was like, ‘Hey man that’s a piece of flesh.’ It was a forehead, attached to my uniform, charred. I brushed it off, and kept fighting.”
Eager to tell his story, another Soldier interrupted. “I remember the children the most,” he said. “I can’t believe they lived through it. I remember these two children around 5 and 6; they came up to a barricade I was manning. They just looked around them all scared like. We made sure to protect them, but I couldn’t take it. Them being there, their faces, their expression haunt me.”
“Can you imagine growing up like that?” he asked, his eyes leveled at mine.
I didn’t grow up like that. Ten years have passed from my youth. This time, I can’t stop classes. I have to continue working despite the celebrations in America. A new spring offensive has begun. Just this past Sunday, the Taliban claimed in a two-page statement that they will be attacking ISAF convoys and bases, targeting officials and members of the government peace council. We don’t have time for celebrations here. One sergeant explained it morosely, “Did America stop running when Kennedy was shot?” No one answered. “Then why is everyone so ready to admit that Al Qaeda will stop, because of the death of one man?”
“So what does this mean, his death?” I asked. “Nothing changes for us here. We still have to fight. It might even inflame the insurgents to fight us harder,” one officer said. But a 21-year-old Private joyously exclaimed: “I think I want to get a tattoo to celebrate this day. I am so very happy.” Indeed, on the television, Americans were joyously united tipping back beers, parading in the streets in jubilation in a bond of solidarity. I couldn’t feel the same. Make no mistake, Bin Laden committed unspeakable atrocities. But the sobering reality of his death is that it entailed nearly a decade of sacrifice from families across the world. I have heard the last sound of taps more than I care, witnessed the last plane ride.
It is as if all of America has suddenly remembered that our military has been at war for the past 10 years. Perhaps it will be in vogue again to plaster sport utility vehicles with yellow ribbons, to send a package to a Soldier — and then forget again. Who has time for war? Soldiers are respected but forgotten. Pew conducted a public interest survey over an 18-week period last year and found that fewer than one in 10 said that war was the top news story they were following in any given week. The war has become a local tragedy played out in the living rooms of those who know a Soldier; the rest of the country remains unaffected. I remember Sept. 11; I live it every day.
The young Lieutenant states the facts. She’s simply reminding the average attention span-challenged American that Bin Laden’s death, as welcome as it is, doesn’t mean this war is over. It ain’t by a long shot.