David Mills was not yet a teenager when he learned of the events of September 11, in real time, from his home in Ipswich – England, and not in the town of the same name in Massachusetts. Mills, now a working American citizen and entrepreneur who often works at Here House in Aspen, said it was a defining moment for what would become the rest of his life.
“I was 12 or 13 years old; I think I was 12 years old. I got home from school – because I was obviously in England, so it was around 3:30 pm, so it was about an hour after the first plane landed, ”Mills recalled in an interview on Friday. “I turned on the TV to watch cartoons most likely or whatever I intended to watch. I was home alone, I turned it on, and it was there. It was on my screen: it was this terrible, terrible event that was happening. I absorbed everything. It certainly forced me – it was on my mind.
As a preteen in England, Mills was not actively thinking at the time, “I’m going to join the British Army,” he admitted. But that moment never left him. And then came the London 7/7 attacks in 2005 – a series of coordinated suicide bombings that targeted three tube stations and another bus during rush hour for public transport that killed 56 people. , injured more than 700 others and were allegedly the work of al-Qaida.
By this time, Mills, then 15, had already spent two weeks on a briefing tour with the British Army.
“When I was 15, I had a two-week experience with the army. They took us out doing some outdoor adventure stuff, ”he said. “We were climbing mountains and they told us all about the army. Then there were the 7/7 attacks in London, which certainly reinforced my desire to serve.
Mills knew from the start that he wanted to serve in Afghanistan. At 33 now, most of his closest friends have had experiences similar to his: serving in the British Army in Helmand province, where the British headquarters, Camp Bastion, existed until 2014, when combat troops withdrew from the area, concentrating their efforts. in Kabul.
“All of my best friends have all served in the military. One of them did three tours in Afghanistan, one of them served another in Iraq, ”said Mills. “When I joined, I just wanted to go to Afghanistan. I went to college first, then I went to the UK version of West Point. You have to do this for a year, and then you become a platoon commander. I specifically joined a unit that I knew would be heading to Afghanistan next year.
But as Mills prepared to deploy in 2013, the world was much different from what it was in 2001. Osama bin Laden, founder of al-Qaida, had been killed by US forces two years earlier, in 2011.
“Much of the leadership of Al Qaeda had been forced to settle in Pakistan. My men would ask me and I would ask: what are we doing? Why are we deploying there? A huge piece of the puzzle was to fend off that threat and make sure that this wasn’t a place that would be a safe haven for these terrorists to come and do what they did before, to have this base.
“The other part was the humanitarian element – giving the Afghan people the opportunity to prosper and experience a different way of life from the very extreme Taliban regime that had existed,” Mills continued, referring to the years going from about 1998 to October. 2001, when the Taliban controlled much of the country.
Here, history matters. In 1999, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1267, “creating the so-called Al-Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Committee, which binds the two groups together as terrorist entities and imposes sanctions on them. financing, their movements and their arms deliveries, ”according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
In early August, it was evident from international reports that Lashkar Garh, the capital of Helmand province, where Mills and his British Army units had worked so hard to protect themselves, was going to be the first of many. to fall again under the domination of the Taliban. in 2021. A few weeks later, the Taliban had succeeded in seizing Afghanistan.
A brave new world
This takeover, as is now known, apparently happened immediately after the withdrawal of US troops from the country – an event that officially lasted from February 29, 2020 to August 30. For many like Mills who served in Afghanistan to protect himself from that same result, it was a devastating blow. For others, it was the right choice. Much like American civilians, according to a Pew Research poll conducted between August 23 and 29 (before all Americans left Afghanistan), “52% of veterans said that the United States’ decision to withdraw their the country’s troops was correct, while 47% said it was wrong. The balance of opinion was roughly similar among adults who did not serve in the military, with 54% saying it was the right decision and 42% saying it was the wrong one. “
Today, Mills is still plagued with questions.
“Personally, I feel disappointed with the way things went, the way the withdrawal went and should we have withdrawn,” he said. “You start to say, I lost friends in Afghanistan, my unit lost people in Afghanistan. And you ask, what were those lives worth? At least for a while you can never say it wasn’t worth it because we were able to make a difference in people’s lives.
But the ethereal nature of that comfort has become a much-needed conversation point for Mills and other veterans who deal with what withdrawal means – as well as their time there, withdrawal or not. It was a topic of conversation at Here House in Aspen on Tuesday, when veterans from the nonprofit Veterans Expeditions were able to join in a safe space, alongside interested civilians, to discuss their thoughts and their collective traumas.
It was a bit of a departure from the backdrop typically chosen by the nonprofit, which is often located in the backcountry.
For the founder of Veterans Expeditions, Nick Watson, this setting has become a factor of life and death. He did not serve in Afghanistan after 9/11, but being able to create a safe space without walls for his fellow conflict veterans after his time has in itself become a life-changing calling. No matter how long the conflict lasts, the experience for most remains the same, that is, the transition from working life to civilian life is, well, difficult. Difficult in a way that those who haven’t experienced it simply cannot comprehend.
“The transition is difficult, no doubt about it for anyone leaving the service. It’s just because, especially if you serve intensely, which a lot of people have had during that time, you kind of give up your civilian life to be in the military.
“Your whole life is in the military. When you go out, it’s like the faucet is off, ”Watson said. “You go from real intensity to normal civilian life, which can be a shocking transition, and then becomes the tremendous pressure of, what are you going to do with your life now that you’ve returned home? “
For Watson, he considers himself almost lucky, as if he owed something to the younger generation of veterans coming out of active service in a post 9/11 world. Even though he himself served in a post-Cold War world as a ranger. Speaking to him, Watson is quick to say that those who served in the aftermath of 9/11 somehow did more for their country – and he expressed his gratitude that when he faced his own return to the civilian life in 1995 of an elite-level unit (he declined to share where he was deployed, only to say that it had happened “on several occasions”), he eventually ended up in Boulder, as a partner in an outdoor guiding business.
“When I came out of active duty, I discovered it wasn’t for the outdoors. … I don’t know if I would have done it. I don’t know if I would have gone through this transition. I think that’s where a lot of people are, ”he said.
Twelve years after his nonprofit Veterans Expeditions journey, he said the magic sauce creates a space for veterans everywhere – across the country – to be able to connect without the judgment of the outside world and truly heal, and often the best way to do this is through conversation with other veterans after mountain biking, ice climbing, mountaineering or ice climbing.
“What we’re doing with Veterans Expeditions is giving people something to look forward to on their schedule. Something where there can be a certain familiarity… to kind of fill that void from active service to civilian life, ”Watson said.
The format allows people across the country, but especially Colorado (the organization’s headquarters is in Salida, although it operates nationwide), to better care for each other is the link in real time created by an outdoor adventure, combined with an opportunity for real conversation and, in Mills’ case, opportunities for friendship and leadership.
It is difficult to return from active service to civilian life – it can be even more isolating to navigate American citizenship without the traditional benefits such as those offered by Veterans Affairs. Although Mills now has his U.S. citizenship and serves on the board of directors of Veterans Expeditions, he was still a member of the British Army when it comes to the United States government when it comes to benefits.
This made his experience with the veterans expeditions all the more important, he said, as it gave him real fellowship and a healing opportunity that would not otherwise be offered by an “alumni experience.” fighters’ unique over coffee or donuts.
As for Watson, he is happy to continue to set aside space for his fellow veterans, as well as – like events like the one at Here House on Tuesday – opportunities to bridge the gap between those who have been in the field and those who have been on the ground. civilians who are also grappling with feelings about world affairs.
“Experience is definitely the easiest way to start – I think people learn a lot from someone else’s situation or someone else’s pain – that human part – it’s important, ”he said. “It’s just very important to understand. I think that’s the thing: if we could just understand a little better and get rid of our judgments and preconceptions, that would help the situation a lot.
As for the immediate future? Watson and Mills both have their eyes set on growing the organization (https://www.vetexpeditions.com) and on pursuing a path to compassion.