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The goal of the River to River series "Leaving Afghanistan" is to understand a dimension of the war's impact by focusing on the individual experiences of Iowans who have done all types of work in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.

Afghanistan 'Was, Without A Doubt, The Best And Worst Year Of My Life' Says Major Erik Eldridge

Courtesy of Erik Eldridge
Marine Corps Officer Erik Eldridge is a native of Keystone and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. From 2010-2011, Major Eldridge served in Afghanistan on a two-star Marine command as a planner and worked with NATO allies in the southwest region of Afghanistan, which encompassed the Helmand and Nimroz provinces. In this photo, Major Eldridge is posing with his dog Jag, who was an IED detector dog.

Marine Corps Officer Erik Eldridge calls his time in Afghanistan “without a doubt, the best and worst year” of his life.

As part of River to River's Leaving Afghanistan series, Ben Kieffer sat down with Major Eldridge to talk about his deployment and reflect on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Eldridge is a native of Keystone, located in Benton county. His interest in the Marine Corps began with his father bringing home a recruiting brochure, inspiring him to apply for admission to all of the military academies. Eldridge was accepted to his top choice, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, graduating in 1993. A small portion of every graduating class from the Naval Academy elects to become officers in the Marines Corps.

Before his service in Afghanistan, Eldridge served on two other combat deployments, including Joint Endeavor in the Balkans from 1995-1996 and operation Iraqi Freedom from 2005-2006. Eldridge retired from the Marine Corps in May 2013 after serving 20 years as an Artillery Officer. He served in a variety of leadership, command and staff positions, including Operating Force billets within artillery, infantry and support organizations. He also served in Supporting Establishment billets at Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron-1 in Yuma, Arizona, Deputy Commandant for Combat Development & Integration and Marine Corps Combat Development Command at Quantico, Virginia, and Deputy Commandant for Plans, Policies, and Operations at Headquarters Marine Corps.

In September 2019, Eldridge joined Collins Aerospace where he serves as the Project Owner and Engineer of Avoidance Re-Router in Product Line Flight Management Systems. He currently is a Senior Systems Engineer on the Mounted Assured PNT program.

Courtesy of Erik Eldridge
Marine Corps Officer Erik Eldridge served in Afghanistan from 2010-2011. Major Eldridge's service came at the tail end of Operation Moshtarak, which were major combat operations in Marjah in an effort to increase the U.S. footprint in the Helmand province.

On First Impressions Of Afghanistan

"I remember flying into the country the first time and the mountains were unbelievable... they would dwarf Colorado. So a lot of the mountains, especially the area we flew into up north. It's not uncommon to have peaks above 20,000 feet. So substantial, substantial terrain. Of course, when we got where we were at down in Southwest, a lot of sand and talcum powder-type sand, it was the most unbelievable thing you'd ever seen. You'd step in it and it was like — we'd call it moon dust because you'd step in like six inches of it was talcum powder consistency.

"(Wind) creates these huge dust storms. And it almost looks like — if anybody saw "The Mummy," with Brendan Fraser, where the face comes out — we had a few of those types of dust storms."

On His Mission In Afghanistan

"A lot of what we were doing was taking a look at what types of capabilities we had to be able to utilize in a given operation. And sometimes that was your traditional force-on-force, clearing an area of Taliban, and clearing it of improvised explosive devices, which were very prevalent in Afghanistan. I think Afghanistan was the most heavily mined country in the world, previous to us going there. And of course, they were very adept at using homemade explosives as well.

"So a lot of that, but, also, trying to establish what we would reflect as local governance ... it will provide goods and services and a lot of things that we would take for granted, maybe (we don't) necessarily like, you know, our normal taxes that occur that pay for roads and goods and services. A lot of that doesn't happen there. There's not a centralized government like we would see here, the federal government going on, all the way down to the local level. It's a very much tribal society."

On Working With NATO Allies

"A huge amount of coalition forces. Our regional command, actually, ended up being composite. So when we got there as Marines, we knew we were going to stand up a new NATO command — Regional Command Southwest. And we were quickly augmented by various UK officers and forces. And it was, it was probably one of the most professionally rewarding opportunities I ever had — not only being a Marine, which we're kind of used to dealing with other services being the smallest with the least, that do the most with it — but being dropped in, working with Australians, working with Canadians, working with the UK, did a lot of work with French and other NATO allies as far as coordinating stuff. And so it was really almost like being on Mars at some point in time. But it was truly a really rewarding, rewarding experience."

On The Most Difficult Parts Of Service

"One of my collateral duties was part of what was called an incident response team. And, at the time, the Taliban was very adept at propaganda, a lot of times taking something that was somewhat factual and spinning it in such a way that it was 100 percent false. So one of the challenges we had as U.S. was (figuring out) 'hey, what are the facts?' Not, necessarily ... We're not doing an investigation, if you will, but just trying to understand what were the actual facts on the ground, and correlate those, and capture those, and be able to pass those up quickly.

"Two incidents that really, like you said, stick with me. One was in July, the other one was in November. The first one in July was in the first Royal Gurkha Regiment. So that's a UK formation they had. What we would hear back here as a green-on-blue, where a partnered Afghan individual or unit would take NATO or U.S. forces under fire. In this case, one Afghan soldier decided he'd had enough, and he basically killed the commanding officer, the executive officer and one of the senior NCOs of the Royal Gurkhas out of this patrol base before vacating. Something very similar in November, also occurred in a Marine unit, where a Marine out in a shared position, security position, was shot and killed by his Afghan partner, who then slipped through the wire and out to the woods they went. So actually seeing where this happened, talking with folks who were there or firsthand removed, kind of sticks with you.

"It was, for me, trying to reflect back on it and kind of go into, you know, the worst. It really exposed the worst biases and bases of humanity, you know, seeing humanity at its worst, up close and personal or a little snippet of it where it doesn't get much worse than that. When you're supposedly partnered with another unit and having something like that occur is such a violation of trust and — basically, it's murder."

On Fighting Disinformation While Deployed

"This one actually occurred up in the vicinity of Sangin. Sangin is in northern Helmand Province. It's in the Green Zone, right off of the Helmand River, definitely a Taliban stronghold. Even when we were there, you could look out in the city and see white flags flying, which indicated you were a supporter of the Taliban.

"In this case, there was supposedly a number of individuals who were killed in combat operations. You know, usually what we come up is, say, women and children. And they would — these elders would come and basically seek retribution of some sort, or compensation. And in this particular case, the Marines were taking fire, they could see incoming rounds. They had it documented on SR (supersonic reconnaissance), so drone-type stuff. So when it was destroyed, they knew it was, no kidding, an enemy position. But these elders came down and were saying, 'No, there were women and children that were killed.' And I was with the senior representative of this incident response team because we were getting rumblings. So we went up there and I told him, I said, 'You know this is not true, right?' And he goes, 'Well, Eric, how do you know that?' And I said, 'Well if you notice, you've got all these greybeards.' — so in Afghanistan, grey beards, especially any that were dyed with red henna, it was a, 'hey, this is this is somebody who's important.' But behind them had a 20-something-year-old individual that seemed to be their handler ... I was like, 'Well, number one, he's too young to be, you know, leading this. That guy's Taliban.'

"And sure enough, they didn't really, they weren't really getting what they wanted. And I watched this guy pull out a cell phone and the interpreter said 'He's calling Karzai,' — and Karzai at the time was the president of Afghanistan — 'to tell him about this atrocity that had happened in Sangin.' And sure enough, 10 minutes later, you've got President Karzai going out to the international media talking about these atrocities that the Americans had perpetrated up in Sangin. So you want to talk about a quick turnaround. You know, so a lot of those individuals, once again, very tribally based. It's not necessarily where you are in a pecking zone. It's the who you know. So that was pretty interesting, seeing how fast information could travel."

On How Afghanistan Changed Him

"So I would say just some of the, you know, internal dialogue that sometimes goes on in my particular head.

"I would say that one of the things that's a topic is veterans' suicides. Twenty to 22 veterans or service members are killing themselves every day. I would be remiss if I didn't say that I could have been one of those individuals because of the challenges of coming back out of uniform, and in what we call normal everyday civilian life. A lot of the things that I experience, I think in uniform, and especially, particularly in Afghanistan, are pretty vile, and almost inconceivable in our first world view. And you carry those with you as kind of almost a litmus test that you, a lens that you filter through sometimes is a challenge. But thanks to my wife, she’s really helped me, because she’s a yoga instructor, and doing a lot of meditation and being able to be mindful has really helped me. And also seeking counseling and just talking through with other individuals who’ve either been there and done that or at least relate to that, has been very beneficial.

"I’m very fortunate. I have a wife, kids, where we’re living — it’s an attitude of gratitude … It’s really easy to be cynical and get sucked down into that negativity, but I’d say it’s definitely a choice to see the glass as half full."

Eldridge is a supporter of the Sugar Bear Foundation, named after Lieutenant Colonel Mario “Sugar Bear” Carazo, who was killed during his service in Afghanistan. Eldridge says the foundation supports surviving spouses and children of deceased U.S. military personnel: "The folks who really deserve the thanks are our spouses and kids. They didn't put their hand up in the air and swear an oath. They either married into it or were born into it. And so a foundation such as this, that provides those spouses left behind and kids that were left behind advanced opportunities, I think, is a tremendous organization."

If you served in Afghanistan and would like to share your story on IPR, please email: rivertoriver@iowapublicradio.org by Sept. 3. You can find more information about the Leaving Afghanistan series here.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Rick Brewer was a producer for IPR's Talk of Iowa and River to River