October, 2012. Chak Valley, Afghanistan. Matthew Matlock humped his way through deep brush and vegetation, his body weighed down by equipment, sweat and fatigue. Five others had already made it down the trail into a small, open area when Matlock first heard the tin-like snap of gunfire — similar to a loud wood-fire crackle, he said, except louder and more frequent.
Matlock jumped into a nearby ditch and lay prone, with his head as low as his helmet would allow and his cheek flat against the dirt. This, he realized, was an ambush. Bullets whizzed above in gnat-like ubiquity. The air grew thick with gunpowder. Someone yelled for a medic.
Out of his peripheral vision, he saw his friend Joe, another U.S. soldier, kneeling on a small terrace. The man asked something. Matlock responded then looked away. When he looked up again, Joe was dead.
“It’s like trying to explain a color that you’ve never seen before. Trying to tell somebody what it’s like being in Afghanistan. … It’s not tangible,” Matlock said. “You can’t do it.”
Looking up at the miles and miles of arid land then looking down at a friend who’s dead on the dirt and thinking, “What’s the point?” — that’s one reality of war, he says. This is a question he might ask himself every day for years after the war and maybe even for the rest of his life. But the real scare comes when that question lacks an answer.
Matlock transferred to UC Berkeley this year and now studies business administration. He is one of about 250 student-veterans on campus — a number that is expected to double over the next five years due to soldiers returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Oct. 27, the last of the remaining U.S. and British forces vacated their stations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Their withdrawal truncates 13 years of U.S. involvement, which began in response to the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.
U.S. war initiatives have primarily meditated on dismantling Al Qaeda and its allies and establishing a more representative government system in Afghanistan. Yet, Matlock, in accord with other veterans, says the culture of the country isn’t conducive to government intervention. You can’t change what can’t be changed, he says.
“I started questioning our objectives of going out and talking to people who didn’t want to be talked to. And then you see a couple of dudes perish, and it’s like — for what?” Matlock said. “Why am I even here in this valley? Why am I here in this valley?”
Linda Saunders, an environmental science major who served in the Marine Corps, was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. She was part of one the last battalions to be stationed at Camp Bastion northwest of the city of Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan. Working as a landing support specialist, she never ventured outside the wire. But she spoke with many of the infantry who funneled through her camp.
“They would tell me that it’s useless,” Saunders said. “That Afghans … They didn’t really want to learn. And, of course, I’m using a blanket expression — there are exceptions. But it just seemed hopeless to leave them.”
After his deployment, Matlock said he went through 12 weeks of cognitive therapy to get “rid of all that stuff” he saw on the field. He says that during those three months, he repeatedly recounted the ambush scene with a therapist until he was desensitized to the trauma.
“It does affect you, seeing a dead body for the first time,” Matlock said. “Like, that grey look — it does affect you.”
At UC Berkeley, he’s found the same camaraderie that kept him moving during his deployment. Through Cal Veterans, a student organization that aims to coalesce military veterans on campus and provide mentorship, he and others settle into the comfort of their shared experiences.
Nick Orlando, a political science major, and Brian Vargas, a social welfare major, both are part of Cal Vets and served as Marines in Iraq. Although neither served in Afghanistan, each empathizes with reintegration into civilian life.
“I’ve been asked quite a few times that stupid question: Have you ever killed anybody?” Orlando said. “You want to tell them what you’ve done, but I feel like sometimes, you also need to educate people. Sometimes, I feel like telling people my story. Sometimes, I hold back.”
In 2012, support for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan hovered at 30 percent. One year later, that dropped to 20 percent, simultaneously making the war one of the United States’ most lengthy and least popular.
Those on the homefront may have withdrawn interest in the war, and the U.S. government continues to extricate itself from the conflict. But such clear-cut disengagement is not possible for the service members who carry, beyond U.S. withdrawal, the consequences of a series of detached political decisions.
The actions, sounds and images of war are the grist of what kept Vargas clenching his jaw at night with such force that his teeth would crack and what kept Matt mentally overseas for months after his formal deployment ended.
“It’s like Dante’s Inferno. … I don’t know, you get lost after a while. You’re just a little, tiny ant in a big war, and you really don’t have a say,” Orlando said. “But you come back, meet some people, get educated.”
A paradox of war is that the truth is often unbelievable — the specifics abstract. There was a purpose at some point in time, Matlock said, but there also wasn’t a purpose at some point in time. The soldiers were both a cohort invested in democratic values and individuals embroiled in savagery.
“(War is) pure — it’s organic, it’s natural,” Vargas said. “(But) mentally, you’re not the same. Physically, you’re not the same. You come back with a whole new body. … You’re a whole new person when you come back.”
A previous version of this article stated that Linda Saunders deployed twice to Afghanistan at Camp Bastion in Lashkar Gah. In fact, she deployed once to Afghanistan at Camp Bastion northwest of Lashkar Gah.