'There was really nothing to win': Angry, sad suburban veterans reflect on Afghanistan reality

  • Brothers Andrew Tangen, left, a Navy lieutenant at the time, and Army Maj. Stephen Tangen, then a first lieutenant, in Afghanistan. The pair grew up in Naperville.

    Brothers Andrew Tangen, left, a Navy lieutenant at the time, and Army Maj. Stephen Tangen, then a first lieutenant, in Afghanistan. The pair grew up in Naperville. Courtesy of Andrew Tangen

  • Andrew Tangen is the superintendent of the Veterans Assistance Commission of Lake County in Gurnee.

    Andrew Tangen is the superintendent of the Veterans Assistance Commission of Lake County in Gurnee. Daily Herald file photo

  • Staff Sgt. Adam Kovac, standing, far right, and the Company B, 1st Batallion, 178th Infantry Regiment, 60 mm mortar section, on Forward Operating Base Gardez, not long after the unit arrived in Afghanistan in fall 2008. Kovac now lives in Wheaton.

    Staff Sgt. Adam Kovac, standing, far right, and the Company B, 1st Batallion, 178th Infantry Regiment, 60 mm mortar section, on Forward Operating Base Gardez, not long after the unit arrived in Afghanistan in fall 2008. Kovac now lives in Wheaton. Courtesy of Adam Kovac

  • Adam Kovac of Wheaton served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009.

    Adam Kovac of Wheaton served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009. Courtesy of Adam Kovac

 
 
Updated 8/16/2021 6:30 PM

You can sense the anger and sadness from those who served in Afghanistan about what is happening there now and the fate of those left behind.

Images of desperate civilians running alongside a C-17 transport plane Monday begging escape from an uncertain future are echoing throughout the U.S.

 

"What was the point of the trillions of dollars we spent, the friends we lost, the blood we shed?" asked Andrew Tangen, superintendent of the Veterans Assistance Commission of Lake County.

Tangen was on active duty from 2006 to 2013, retiring as a lieutenant commander with the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command. For substantial parts of three years, he traveled throughout Afghanistan living among its people.

He said he doesn't often post on Facebook, but the airfield video of anguished Afghan civilians compelled him.

"The friends, brothers and sisters in arms I served with, those who gave their last full measure or were wounded in this, American's longest war, and the people of Afghanistan have been betrayed," he wrote.

His said his heart was breaking and he won't forget the "culture, companionship and help" of the Afghan people.

"This is now a full blown humanitarian crisis and the world will witness the brutality so many of us witnessed during our time in Afghanistan on full display," he concluded.

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Tangen said Monday he is surprised the Afghan army was defeated so quickly and the country fell as fast as it did. Women and children will suffer the most, he predicted.

"What we are about to witness is complete evil on display," he said.

Wheaton resident Adam Kovac, a staff sergeant with the Illinois Army National Guard, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009. A former Daily Herald reporter, Kovac served in a platoon that provided security for a provincial reconstruction team.

While he feels good about concrete accomplishments -- facilitating the building of schools and wells, and small but meaningful things like delivering a soccer ball to kids in a village -- the overall effort demonstrated the hubris of the U.S. government's foreign policy, he said.

The issues on the ground were too complex and nuanced to be solved by pouring money into them, but the soldiers who brought this up were treated like "dumb grunts," Kovac said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"What we did was introduce greed into a society that never had experienced an influx of wealth to the level before," Kovac said. "They went from having nothing to having millions at their disposal with no accountability."

Kovac left Afghanistan after being injured when his convoy was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. He still has shrapnel in his legs, walks with a cane and takes a lot of ibuprofen.

"There's so-called experts that never spent a day in uniform saying that we lost," Kovac said. "But as a soldier, I have to look back and think to myself and say, 'There was really nothing to win.'"

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Don Elliott, who grew up in Elmhurst, served in Kabul in 2010 and 2011. He didn't oppose the American withdrawal, but he said the transition should have been better planned.

Because the cultures are so different, he doesn't think the U.S. will ever be successful creating a democracy as we know it in Afghanistan or Iraq, he said.

"I wonder what the people who lost limbs or loves one are feeling right now," he said.

Tangen said the recent events can lead to stress and anxiety for those who served. Trained responders are available 24/7 at the National Veterans Crisis Line, (800) 273-8255. The Veterans Assistance Commission of Lake County is also available at (847) 377-3344.

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