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Veterans Day sits differently for one Marine following the Afghan withdrawal


Zoe Bedell still remembers visceral details of her time as a Marine lieutenant in Afghanistan's Helmand province.

ZOE BEDELL: Every once in a while, though, you get sort of a smell of earth, and that always kind of reminds me of being back in Helmand. The other thing that reminds me is kind of the smell of diesel fuel because when you walk off the plane when you land, that - you're on a runway. And it's dark. You were disoriented. You were exhausted from a miserable trip. And you just sort of get hit by this smell of kind of stale diesel fuel, is how I would describe it.

MARTIN: Bedell served in the Marine Corps from 2007 to 2011, deploying twice to Afghanistan. She was part of what were called female engagement teams, Marines who went on patrol with the infantry in Afghan villages. Her job as part of these teams was to go door to door and win the trust of Afghan families.

BEDELL: It's just learning about the concerns that people had, which they might be more open to sharing with someone they didn't think was there to kill them.

MARTIN: We called her to talk about the first Veterans Day in 20 years in which the United States is not at war in Afghanistan. I asked her what it's been like to see the U.S. withdraw and the Taliban take over.

BEDELL: We spent a lot of time bolstering the Afghan government, but at someplace as remote as Helmand, it was very clear that the presence was weak at best, that they weren't really able to govern the area. And so, you know, it's not surprising that as soon as the U.S. presence withdrew, that something else came and filled that vacuum.

MARTIN: So we're talking around Veterans Day. And, you know, this is a time when we are supposed to collectively honor the service and sacrifice of people who have served, like yourself. How does this day sit with you? I mean, does the holiday itself satisfy something for you?

BEDELL: You know, I have always found the holiday a little bit odd, same with Memorial Day in many ways, in that people will thank you for your service, which is appreciated but always a little bit awkward. You never know how you're supposed to respond to that. And I have a lot of challenges, but ultimately, my service experience was positive. And I say that even having sued the Department of Defense afterwards.

MARTIN: We should say, you sued over women's role in the military, broadly speaking.

BEDELL: Exactly, exactly. I had a lot of frustration with the sexism that I experienced when I was in the Marine Corps, and even with that, I still overall describe it as a positive experience. And the reality is that's not the case for everyone, and so I almost think of Veterans Day as being more for those people, more for the people who really sacrificed, whose lives were very fundamentally changed, not always for the better, in their service.

MARTIN: We remember back to those early years of the war, not just the early years but how veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq were welcomed into restaurants with standing ovations or on airplanes. Did that ever happen to you?

BEDELL: I served from 2007 to 2011, so I wasn't the first one in, and I wasn't the last one out. I was kind of right there in the middle during the Afghan surge. People were still very supportive of veterans. Maybe some of the novelty had worn off - maybe not a standing ovation but discounts and general appreciation, even in places where the support for the wars was not there. So I think that is probably a hope for - a positive difference between this war and some of maybe our past wars, particularly Vietnam, where the unpopularity of the war really was transferred to the veterans. And I think also, hopefully, we've moved past some of the performative aspects to more meaningful support for veterans, both - you know, I personally benefited from the GI Bill when I went to law school - and more meaningful support for the challenges that people have when they come back.

MARTIN: You mentioned this, the Vietnam War and how the veterans of that war were not welcomed home. I mean, that's an understatement. And the mental anguish of that generation of veterans wasn't really acknowledged. I mean, they called it shell shock then. We do now understand it as post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Can you explain, though, how even that understanding, that label, how that has evolved over the last 20 years?

BEDELL: I think it's probably fairly easy to imagine that if someone hit an improvised explosive device, if they saw their friend die, if they saw someone be shot, if they themselves were shot - it's fairly easy for people to understand that that can cause trauma. But even just sort of repeated deployments to an incredibly stressful place where those things are happening around you can cause that kind of trauma. And then another group that I think people have a broader or a better understanding now is the experience of women. That was something where people didn't necessarily understand that women were in combat and that they would also, therefore, be just as likely or just as prone to suffer the stress of that combat experience. But also, the military sexual trauma that is an unfortunately large and prevalent part of women's service experience. I think it's a broader understanding of what can contribute to PTSD and how that plays out when people return to civilian life.

MARTIN: What do you do on Veterans Day? Or maybe do's not the right word. Where does your mind go? Is there someone you remember?

BEDELL: So I do think back about - on my first deployment, my unit lost a Marine, Sergeant Cesar Ruiz. And he had a wife, and he had left the Marine Corps originally, actually, because he had a small child. And I think about their family. When someone was killed in action, they would do honor flights. And the people on the bases where the coffins would fly out from would line up and send off the Marine or the soldier, as the case may be, and, you know, they would - we would know their name, but we wouldn't know anything else about them. But that moment of being solemn, being present and lending our support, I sort of try to recreate that in my mind, if that makes sense. And it is. It's very abstract. It's very vague. And it never really feels sufficient, to be honest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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