PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Some of Oregon’s most honored Afghanistan war veterans are reeling from the Taliban takeover.
“It felt like a gut punch. We went over there and did what we did, and then they gave it all back,” said retired Command Sgt. Mike Campbell.
Campbell is one of 17 members of the Oregon National Guard who volunteered in 2008 to train Afghan fighters and to disrupt the Taliban’s drug trade. They were deployed to the Helmand Province and their mission was captured in the 2011 documentary film “Shepherds of Helmand.” Pieced together from cell phone videos and interviews conducted after they returned home, it shows the embedded training team’s own pre-deployment training, hands-on work with young local recruits, counter-narcotics patrols and frequent firefights with the elusive enemy.
“We all sacrificed. My whole life has changed,” said Campbell, who suffered a traumatic brain injury and other wounds in an explosion that also killed his interpreter and a British soldier. He has hosted a veterans group in his Klamath Falls home for the past 10 years and said they are all in “disbelief” over recent events in Afghanistan.
“To be honest, I quit watching the coverage after a little while. I’m hearing a lot of anger and frustration from other veterans,” said another member of the unit, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jerry Glesmann. He said he doesn’t understand the rush to pull out now. As Glesmann sees it, the Taliban had been fought to a standstill with no American military casualties in 18 months.
“People are saying 20 years was a long time to be in Afghanistan. But after WWII, we were in Germany, Italy and Japan for 75 years. I don’t understand why we had to pull out now without a specific plan,” said Glesmann, who was born and raised in Silverton and still lives in Oregon.
Perhaps the hardest scene in the documentary to watch is the death of Capt. Bruno de Solenni, whose armored vehicle was destroyed when it hit an improvised explosive device. Glesmann is shown saving the life of another soldier in the vehicle who was badly wounded. The unit became one of the most decorated in National Guard history and members were honored Veterans Day marches and other patriotic events. But several of them admit they have struggled to return to civilian life.
The film, directed by Stoller Wine Group president Gary Mortensen, has been shown around the world. It was the winner of the Best Documentary at the Queen’s World Film Festival, winner of the Golden Ace Award at the Las Vegas Film Festival, and the winner of the Military Channel Award at the 2011 GI Film Festival. KPTV showed it on Veterans Day in 2019.
“It is heartbreaking that Afghanistan fell just before the 20th anniversary of 9/11,” said Mortensen, who has kept in touch with many members of the unit. He went on to form Veterans Legacies, a nonprofit organization documenting the life stories of Oregon war vets, with another member of the unit, former Master Sgt. Mark Browning.
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Browning said he and other Afghan vets he knows are frustrated by how quickly the country fell and how many allies and supporters are stranded there. But he is trying to remember the positive things they accomplished during their deployments.
“We educated an entire generation, and hopefully all that cannot be taken away from them. And there was not another large terrorist attack on America since 9/11. It might be subjective, but I believe that our being there had something to do with that,” said Browning, who attended Aloha High School and taught in the Beaverton School District before moving to Phoenix, where he teaches U.S. government and history classes to high school students.