In a California city that is house to Afghanistan veterans, grief and remorse over the Taliban takeover

2021-08-21 16:30:47

For 61 years, Johnny Gomez has sat U.S. Marines in his tan, leather-based swivel chair on the Esquire Barber Store for the “excessive and tight”: light on the again and sides, quick on the highest and completed off with a straight razor. Little has modified however the worth — nonetheless a discount at $10.

Often, clients shuffle out and in quietly, checking an errand off the to-do listing on this seaside city subsequent to Camp Pendleton, a spot the place the navy is a lifestyle, replete with uniform restore and resale shops, taking pictures ranges and outlets providing customized identify tape, geared towards these in energetic service and veterans who’ve stayed on.

They’ve come to Esquire after the Korean Battle — effectively earlier than Gomez buzzed his first head — the place the U.S. misplaced greater than 35,000 troopers. It was the identical after Vietnam, when the U.S. retreated after 58,000 American deaths; Gomez was drafted throughout that point however spent three years within the Military with out deployment.

 Johnny Gomez shares a photo of himself taken back when he started cutting hair.

Johnny Gomez shares a photograph of himself taken when he began slicing hair.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

It’s a sample that continued with Iraq, as 1000’s of Individuals died, and ISIS briefly took over northern areas when U.S. troops left.

And now, with the Taliban’s return takeover of Afghanistan.

“They’re annoyed. They’re indignant. They usually’re speaking,” stated Gomez, 84, who has seen younger Marines off to their first deployments in practically each trendy battle and welcomed them again with the “We help our troops” lettering stenciled on his barbershop’s window. “They surprise what their service was for and what’s going to occur to the Afghan folks left behind.”

Of the 800,000 Individuals who’ve served in Afghanistan, some 115,000 have been Marines — third in quantity after the Military and Air Pressure — and most have been primarily based at Camp Pendleton or Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C. A couple of fifth of the 5,200 U.S. armed service members presently in Kabul are Camp Pendleton-based Marines, tasked with finishing up President Biden’s promise this week that “any American who desires to return house, we’ll get you house.” This on the finish of a warfare that has value some $2 trillion and greater than 2,400 navy lives.

Few locations within the U.S. know the triumphs and failures of warfare like Oceanside, a metropolis of 175,000 that’s 40 miles north of San Diego and borders Pendleton. The 200-square-mile U.S. Marine Corps base has been a mainstay of coaching for these despatched to Afghanistan during the last 20 years. Many return to this city and smaller ones close to it for jobs on base and civilian life exterior of it, the place the navy commissary, medical doctors and social golf equipment are simply minutes away past the Pendleton gates.

The son of a bracero — a Mexican who was supplied entry to the U.S. for agricultural work — Gomez bought his first job repairing and shining Marines’ sneakers subsequent door to the place his store is right now. He was 5 when the bottom was constructed throughout World Battle II. Through the years, the once-tiny hamlet of Oceanside blossomed right into a one-trade city, with shuttles frequently dropping off and choosing up Marines. They bought beers alongside Mission Avenue, haircuts at Esquire on Pier View Manner and lap dances on the strip golf equipment — the final one remaining, on North Coast Freeway, closed its doorways final yr.

 Johnny Gomez sits in one of the barber chairs.

Gomez sits at Esquire Barber Store.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“Folks come right here to get away from navy life for a second, but additionally they’re reminded of it all over the place you go, since you additionally wish to be round folks such as you,” stated Gomez, who expenses an additional $5 to civilians.

It’s a spot, he stated, that’s used to hazard and dying. A memorial wall at Camp Pendleton shows the names of Marines killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001. Some died nearer to house throughout coaching, in helicopter crashes or drownings throughout sea assault workouts. Every summer time, Pier View Manner is taken over for Operation Appreciation, a good for veterans and navy households at which the fallen are honored.

It’s additionally a spot that’s used to each successes and failures. For a lot of who look with delight on the pizza-shop mural of U.S. troopers elevating the crimson, white and blue over Iwo Jima, the photographs from Kabul, against this, convey private ache: the American flag lowered final week from the U.S. embassy; determined Afghans clinging to a departing Air Pressure jet, one as younger as 17 falling to dying from the sky; bloodied our bodies on the streets after anti-Taliban protests.

The present state of affairs has made for comparisons to 1975 in Saigon — now Ho Chi Minh Metropolis — when helicopters evacuated Individuals from the U.S. Embassy as the town fell to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. It’s an emblem that also resonates for some residents of Oceanside, the place a retailer off South Coast Freeway has at occasions posted an indication that claims “Not Fonda Jane,” a reference to Jane Fonda’s outspoken opposition to the Vietnam Battle.

“It’s all the identical as each time earlier than,” stated Peyton Cooper, 57, a daily at Esquire who got here in final week for a lower. Cooper, who lives within the close by metropolis of Vista, served as a paratrooper within the Military primarily based in Fort Bragg, N.C., throughout the extra profitable U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983, although he was by no means despatched overseas. “I don’t suppose Afghanistan will ever change. It’s like, Individuals hold getting in considering they will repair locations however don’t.”

Retired Workers Sgt. Bret Olson, an Oceanside resident and former Marine who did a number of excursions in Iraq and labored in helicopter restore and upkeep for 20 years earlier than retiring from the corps in 2005, had a special take.

 Bret Olson, a retired Marine now serves as the commander for American Legion 365.

Bret Olson, a retired Marine, serves because the commander for American Legion 365.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“When there’s a catastrophe like in Afghanistan, it simply actually hits everybody,” stated Olson, 62, who was not deployed there however knew many who have been and is now a civilian helicopter mechanic on base and an area American Legion commander. “It’s somber and unhappy. A few of us simply attempt to not discuss it,” Olson stated.

Nonetheless, he believed it wasn’t his position to position blame. “Our jobs are to obey orders, to do what the president and our leaders need, and take care of the repercussions.”

Individuals invaded Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, assaults on the U.S. by the phobia group Al Qaeda. The objective of dismantling Al Qaeda and the Islamist extremist Taliban authorities for having given the group cowl morphed right into a democracy-building mission. Navy SEALs killed the Al Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden, a decade later in Pakistan. The Taliban, which international leaders had scorned for depriving girls’s rights, fled to the hinterlands and waged brutal assaults in opposition to Afghan forces, native officers and the U.S. troops that bolstered the brand new Afghan authorities.

Final yr, former President Trump ordered American negotiators to sit down down with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, to hammer out an settlement for the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan in Might 2021 and for the Taliban to vow to by no means harbor terrorists.

When President Biden took workplace, he delayed the total withdrawal till September. As the ultimate 2,500 troops have been departing this month, the Taliban shortly retook management as Afghanistan’s president fled and its U.S.-trained Military collapsed. Amid the chaos, foreigners, Afghan troops and translators who assisted the U.S. are scrambling to flee. Biden has dispatched 1000’s of troops, together with some from Pendleton, again to the nation to protect the airport amid evacuations, drawing comparisons to Vietnam.

The youthful Afghanistan warfare veterans who enlisted out of highschool, now of their late 30s, weren’t alive for the period of Vietnam Battle protests and soul-searching over the that means of navy enlistment. However many interviewed stated they, too, had questions concerning the worth of their service in defending Afghans and in combating for America’s said mission overseas.

 Jason Ross spoke candidly about his distrust for the Taliban who have recently taken control of Afghanistan.

Jason Ross was deployed to Afghanistan for the U.S. Marines and tasked with disabling improvised explosive units. In March 2011, he stepped on a stress plate that detonated an IED.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“I do know a number of good those who bought killed over there. They did their jobs. I did my job. However the politicians simply screw it up,” stated retired Workers Sgt. Jason Ross, 37, who joined the Marines after the Sept. 11 assaults and was tasked with disabling improvised explosive units. His legs blown off in 2011 in Nahri Saraj, Afghanistan, he strikes round in an automatic wheelchair.

“I’m modified perpetually. What was all of it for?” requested Ross, who lives in Fallbrook, a metropolis on the northeast aspect of Camp Pendleton. “I really feel like the blokes on the bottom did all they might. However the management of this nation didn’t.”

Neither did the Afghan forces, he stated, which the U.S. authorities wrongly said may stand up to the Taliban.

Ross avoids watching the information nowadays, saying he’s afraid his thoughts “will return right into a darkish place.” As an alternative, he sends Fb memes on the warfare to fellow veterans as a option to cope by humor. A Marines flag flies subsequent to the American flag on a pole exterior his house, seen from the navy helicopters that frequently pace overhead.

“I’m pleased with what I did,” Ross stated. “However I don’t understand how proud I’m of my nation as an entire.”

A buddy who lives down the road, retired Gunnery Sgt. Ernesto Aquino, has had comparable ideas, as sleep turns into harder with every harrowing TV picture from Kabul.

 Ernesto Aquino at his wood shop in the garage of his home in Fallbrook.

Ernesto Aquino on the wooden store within the storage of his house in Fallbrook.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Aquino, 44, did three excursions in Iraq and two in Afghanistan over 20 years within the Marines. His final task was at Camp Leatherneck, the previous American base in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, the place he shipped U.S. navy property in another country. In 2012, he tumbled in a rolling armored truck throughout a coaching train. After briefly needing a wheelchair, he now lives with a traumatic mind harm and post-traumatic stress dysfunction.

After departing Afghanistan, he moved to Oceanside and took woodturning lessons as a method of remedy, becoming a member of wounded veterans on the bottom to carve pens and salad bowls from cherry. Often, it took him a number of days for each bit. After retiring in 2015, he enrolled in cybersecurity lessons at Cal State San Marcos, with plans to graduate subsequent yr, and thought he was shifting on from the times of warfare.

However Aquino, who 5 years in the past purchased a house in Fallbrook to be in a quieter space with extra land, stated his nervousness has returned.

When he noticed photographs of Taliban fighters in Kabul — their white flags with black swords, Kalashnikov AK-47s and photograph ops within the presidential palace — he logged off from social media, turned off the information and retreated to his storage to show wooden. Closing himself off from what was taking place throughout the globe, he created 4 bowls in a matter of hours.

It was a small method of discovering peace amid the frustration and worry.

“I care. I attempt to watch and sustain with what’s taking place. However I get aggravated,” Aquino stated. “Typically I want I may return in, however I’m disabled. I can do little from right here. What, actually, can any of us do?”

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