Pablo Montoya, like many Latinos, migrated from his country, Colombia, to the United States in search of better life opportunities and fleeing the violence in Medellin in the late 1990s.
After relocating to the United States and finishing his studies, he decided to join the Marine Corps, where he would serve his new country in Iraq and Afghanistan and have the opportunity to see the conflict firsthand and serve alongside hundreds of Afghans.
Pablo remembers Afghanistan as a mountainous country full of “desolate villages” and cities “the color of the desert.” His mission focused on supporting Afghanistan’s security and working hand in hand with the Security Forces. “I spent a whole year doing missions with the Afghan soldiers, training them, helping them reinforce checkpoints and transporting personnel,” he says.
Although he served a full year in Afghanistan, he recalls that because it was a war zone he did not have many opportunities to socialize with civilians, however, the contacts he did have were “positive,” as he describes them: “Normally the contact we had was with the Afghan armed forces, the exposure we had to the public was a little bit limited. The few times we were able to talk to children, to people in tents, to people on the bases, or when they came up to talk to you, they were generally positive experiences.”
Regarding his Afghan colleagues, Pablo describes their training as “very basic.” Unlike the American military, the Afghan Army lacked discipline. “Stand up, do this, salute your commanders, comb your hair, clean your boots…you had to get to teach those kinds of things,” the sergeant comments.
Like thousands of American soldiers, Pablo had to live with the secrecy of the armed forces and be part of that regime of silence to preserve the reputation of the Afghan Army. “When they were going to punish someone, they would tell us they were in charge, and you’d leave.” That’s how his service went, where despite training a force with “very basic” training, it was the Afghans themselves who were in charge of discipline.
Even after stepping on a mine while driving a Humvee in the middle of a patrol — which caused him to suffer a skull contusion — Pablo did not give up his task of supporting the Afghan armed forces in Kandahar, Helmad and Kabul itself.
During his service in Afghanistan, the Taliban presence was much more limited. “When I was there the coalition forces had more control of the main areas of Afghanistan, obviously the mountain areas were more complicated, but actually in the main cities and places there was more control by the Afghan Police, the Afghan Army and the coalition troops,” says Paul.
Serving so long with the Afghans, he had the opportunity to befriend the translators who enabled communication between American troops and their Afghan counterparts. “When we were over there the interpreters would go from unit to unit. Then they spent so much time on the bases that you end up becoming friends with them.”
Some time after serving in Afghanistan, by coincidence of fate he was able to meet three of his former Afghan colleagues in Virginia. “I asked them about the others and they replied that they were all in the United States. Interpreters, when they finish a process serving the government, are brought back to the United States.
The interpreters, when they finish a process serving the government, are brought to the United States, because they are in more danger than anyone else in Afghanistan.
Like many soldiers, Pablo is frustrated by the way the situation is developing. “All the time we were over there, all the lives that were lost, all the individual sacrifices, one wonders what happened to get to that point?”
“What was the reason for being there, striving and at risk?” asks Pablo. “It’s a lot of feelings coming together,” he explains. “Is this going to happen again? How many more people are going to have to die again? There are a lot of things going through your head, since you are not serving,” Pablo reflects on the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
20 years of war did not serve to pacify the country, however, it continued to claim the lives of several generations of Americans, “I imagine that many of those who died would have been 20 or 21 years old, many of these kids when this war began had not been born or were babies.”
Although Paul says it is still hasty to point the finger and prefers to wait for an investigation on what happened at the Kabul airport, he does not stop wondering what happened in order for the Taliban to take American troops by surprise. “Someone must have failed,” he concludes.
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