Listen: State Senator and Veteran Tom Brewer On the Afghanistan War and Was it Worth it

Aug. 30, 2021, 3:32 p.m. ·

State Senator Tom Brewer at his office in the Capitol building. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media)

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The U.S. military officially left Afghanistan on Monday. As the last troops, American citizens and refugees flew out of the country, William Padmore of Nebraska Public Media News spoke State Sen. Tom Brewer about the situation. Brewer spent 36 years in the military, including six tours in Afghanistan and was awarded two purple hearts after being injured during service.

William Padmore: So I want to ask you a little bit before we get into Afghanistan itself, I would like to ask you a little bit about your own military service. For those who don't know, could you explain your time spent in Afghanistan?

Sen. Tom Brewer: Yes, I had over 36 years total service, had six tours in Afghanistan and two tours in Kurdistan, just to the north of Afghanistan. It was a combination of building the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police Corps and doing counter narcotics work with the Afghan National Army,

Padmore: Afghanistan, obviously, is a complex and messy issue right now. I would like to know, from your perspective, having actually served there, what do you think of what's going on right now?

Brewer: Well, it's sad, you can't have given, you know, in my case, almost eight years of my life to a country and to see the very elements that you spent years trudging away with the energy, the effort and, you know, I was wounded in 2003, I was shot six times, and then I was blown up in 2012, by a grenade. So, you know, you end up spending a lot of days in the hospital thinking about the work he did. And it's not hard to look back on that (and ask) - if what you did has a positive effect. But with the events of late, you know, you kind of left with an empty feeling that you've given, you know, really the bathtub full measure you can short of your life, and now, you know, how is that going to be looked upon by generations to come? So when this collapsed a few weeks ago, I called up one of the Afghan commanders. I had his cell phone number and -

Padmore: He was still serving over there?

Brewer: He was still over there. As a matter of fact, he was commanding a battalion when they had to leave. And I asked "How? How could this happen? How could we spend all this time energy and effort training you guys and then you guys, you know, essentially abandon your positions? He goes, "Well, please understand that that's not the whole story." He said, "We fought the Taliban but all of our resources came from Bagram, our ammunition, our fuel. And when the Americans left in the night, there was no process for us to get more ammunition or more fuel for our vehicles and there was a point where the Taliban just overwhelmed us." And he said, "we had no leadership," because the Corps commanders were paid by the Taliban, a large sum of money claimed to be around $25,000, to leave under a safe escort. They took them north into Uzbekistan and so he left he lost his military leadership. And it was the same time as President Ghani left and went to Dubai. So there was no government leadership, there was no military leadership.

Padmore: And for those who don't know, you're referring to Bagram Airbase, the military positioning in Afghanistan.

Brewer: Correct. It was our biggest base, by far. It was in a valley that really didn't have anything in any direction. It was it was great place. Because it was very secure. It was hard for them to, you know, attack it because it was just so isolated.

Padmore: Do you think that this was destined to end in pain for the people of Afghanistan? Because when I look through what the options were in my head, it seems to me that it didn't matter where we were going to go with this was going to end in violence in some way and I'm curious, what do you think about that and the evacuation?

Brewer: Well, the evacuation has really been, probably as poorly done as you could have done it in that they should have held on to another airbase, Bagram, would have been ideal, because of the number of runways, the ramp space, the ability to stage flights, and you would had another location for people to go to rather than be channelized into a gate, at Kabul International Airport

Padmore: From a veteran, what was it all for? What did you get those purple hearts for when all was said and done? And then how do you explain that to people who might think about joining the military?

Brewer: I've struggled with this because I've got nephews that are thinking about joining and they talked to me about, you know, whether I thought it was worth it or not. I told him that, you know, in my heart It is because I've seen the direct effect of what I did and how to affect their (Afghan's) ability to live lives over there that they hadn't known in a long time because Afghanistan had been such a broken place since the king had left and then the Soviets came in. So the combination of that and the fact that we were able to keep from having any major terrorist attack during the period that we were there I would hope it would go a long ways. And I said, the other thing is that we've got an entire generation of Afghans that know what freedom is like. So they may very well be the ones that stand up and force the issue in the future to have Afghanistan become their own country. And and they struggle with that because of tribalism. At some point, if they want to be a country, they have to have a system where there's a central government and someone that they will respect and work with, and, they may be a ways from that. They may have to go through some pain before they're really ruling to do that. But I think that generation that grew up while we were there will be the ones that will give Afghanistan a future.

Editor's note: This conversation has been edited for length. For the full conversation, listen to the audio at the top of the page.