PARKVILLE, Mo. — A 20-year war is now over.
"This war... has changed us all," retired Lt. Col. Gary Kerr said.
As senior director of Military and Veteran Affairs at Park University, Kerr oversees Park Global Warrior Center, where he works with thousands of service members transitioning in and out of the military.
Kerr himself also deployed overseas several times, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. His last tour in Afghanistan was in 2013.
"I was an executive officer, about 2,500 soldiers in Parwān Province," Kerr said. "My main mission for the majority of that was to transition Parwān Province back to the Afghans, which we did very quickly, close our all U.S. military installations that were outside Bagram. And then I was helping the Koreans, the New Zealanders, the Malaysians and the French close out their bases so they could depart."
Now, as the Taliban regain control in Kabul, it's something Kerr has seen before.
"We watched it in Iraq," Kerr said. "To see ISIS taking over towns we fought to control was hard. What will end in Afghanistan is not what's in Iraq now. It may seem like it was all for nothing. It may seem like that."
Afghans were shown trying to flee the country, worried about Taliban retaliation and many, especially women, fearing certain Islamic laws would be reapplied from when the Taliban ran the country before the war.
But Kerr is hopeful.
"This transition out of Afghanistan has been a long one," he said. "A slow one, but it’s been a global one where our global partners have really made a difference. I think the generational impacts in the Afghan people and the Taliban people that are there, it’ll make a difference. It won’t be as bad this time around."
Data from the 'Costs of War Project', by Linda Bilmes of Harvard University's Kennedy School and Brown University, show that since the start of the war, through April:
- 2,461 American service members have been killed in Afghanistan;
- 66,000 Afghan national military and police have been killed;
- 47,245 Afghan civilians have been killed.
Kerr said veterans who did tours there should not feel defeated.
"We’ve been able to keep the wolves at bay for 20 years by being there," he said. "It’s all about the lens and how you look at it. It’s all hugely disappointing this is happening. It’s heartbreaking to see people we worked with on a daily basis, and to know that they’re going to live under something less than great – horrific in some cases. It’s hard to watch that. But as long as we know in our heart we did what we could to the best in our ability, then every veteran should have great pride in what they’ve done."
Kerr said oftentimes veterans are seen as heroes or extremely broken, facing a multitude of mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress.
While that might be true for some veterans, he said it's not everyone's story, and he hopes people will see veterans for who they are and not put a heavy burden on them. But rather, appreciate the work they did overseas and value the skillsets veterans can bring to the table in corporate America.