At the young age of 17, Eric Peterson of Manteno made the life-changing decision to enlist in the military. The year was 2005, just four years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America. While Peterson was a kid at the time of the attack, he remembers it like it was yesterday.
“I remember what happened the next day, which was, for the first time in my life, I saw a country coming together, looking out for one another, helping each other out, dusting each other off and letting [each other] know they were going to be OK,” he recalled.
With his uncle being a Vietnam veteran and his grandfather a veteran of World War II, Peterson said that there was a “military association” with his family but that he was never pushed in that direction. That association coupled with the events of 9/11, though, gave him a sense of patriotism and the realization that he’d one day like to serve his country.
Peterson said a recruiter’s presentation at his high school proved to be the catalyst for his enlistment. That was when the 17-year-old finally found where he fit in. He joined the Illinois Army National Guard as a Private E1. By the time his service in Afghanistan came around, he was a team leader ranked as an E4 (specialist) — which was the rank he held when leaving the service.
He served in Mehtar Lam, Afghanistan, from 2008 to 2009 for a total of nine months. Then he was in Kabul and Gardez, Afghanistan, intermittently from 2014 to 2015.
Now, the war is over. It ended 20 years after it began, ending up back to Square One and leaving Peterson in a “precarious position.”
“On one hand, I’m incredibly proud of my service,” he said. “I do believe that I did my job and the men and women that I served with can attest to that. On the other hand, I am very angry and frustrated to a degree that I have never been before.”
Like the rest of America, Peterson watched from afar as Taliban forces reclaimed the area American soldiers occupied for two decades.
“What was so disheartening and gut-wrenching of it all,” he said, “is that these were people that we worked very closely with over there that I would call my brothers and sisters, like anybody that put on the uniform. Now to see these pictures of planes getting out of the country with the locals hanging off the sides and falling off to their death to try to escape what could potentially happen when dealing with the Taliban — that kills me.”
Peterson explained that he, and many others he served with, became close with the Afghan locals, making what’s happening now even harder to witness.
“We enjoyed working with the local communities and playing games and teaching things to the kids,” he recalled. “We promised those kids that we’d help keep them safe and now it feels like a promise that was broken outside of our control.”
That broken promise will “leave a lot of anger and frustration in a lot of veterans’ minds,” he said.
Believing that America “pulled the rug out” from under the Afghan people is causing internal struggles for veterans who served there, he said.
“I have a nonprofit organization, Project Headspace and Timing, and I started due to the pain and suffering endured by my brothers and sisters, many of which — including myself — cut their teeth in that war. All to find out, essentially, that war never mattered,” he said.
When discussing the war’s outcome, Peterson believes it is not about politics or who is in charge. It’s about an overall mission, he said.
“Our belief was we went over there to improve the infrastructure for the Afghan people so that they could have a better life — so that their children and their children’s children could have a better life,” he said. “And after 20 years of blood, sweat and tears, of issues that will permeate through generations to come that were involved with that war, everything has just kind of gone back to where it was — as it would seem.”