FORT CAMPBELL, Kentucky (WKRN) – A former 101st Airborne commander is reflecting on service, sacrifice, and the mission in Afghanistan.
Retired Major General Jeffrey Schloesser has a 34-year military career that includes commanding the 101st Airborne Division, which is based at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.
“I had about 30,000 soldiers basically located throughout an area the size of Pennsylvania,” General Schloesser recalled. “My area was really at the moment, at the time, the most violent area. It was up against the frontier of Pakistan. And that’s where mainly most of the Taliban and Al Qaeda went after 9/11.”
His service is part of his family’s legacy.
“My dad was in the army of occupation in Germany and in the early 50s. He served in Korea and three tours in Vietnam. During my service, my son joined the Army and served in Iraq, but then he served in Afghanistan and multiple places elsewhere. When my dad retired, he became a contractor and went to the Ministry of Defense in Afghanistan,” Schloesser explained, adding that’s one of the reasons seeing everything unfold in Afghanistan this year has been heartbreaking. “Anything that I see in Afghanistan, that looks like what I’m seeing now causes great heartbreak.”
General Schloesser said under his command he had 180 soldiers and marines, sailors and airmen lost their lives, and thousands were tragically wounded.
“I go to bed at night thinking about that. I wake up in the morning thinking about that. You know, Nickelle, I take personal responsibility for those deaths,” Schloesser said. “And to see this happening, I have the families of my fallen, you know, ask me, ‘was it worthless? Did my son or daughter die for no reason?'”
General Schloesser said he tells fellow veterans of that war they need to remember accomplishing two things: protecting Americans from being attacked again on American soil by Al Qaeda for the last two decades and for giving hope to an entire generation of Afghans.
“Most people don’t know that three out of four Afghans right now that are alive are under 25,” He said. “That means they don’t have any memory of the Taliban beforehand. What they remember is that if I’m a little girl, I can go to school; if I’m a little girl, I can be a politician; I can be their president; I can be a businesswoman.”
He said he really did not communicate with the Taliban during his time in Afghanistan but remembers an experience with a man who’s now one of three deputies within the organization.
“At the time, one of the deputies that right now of the Taliban, his name is Siraj Haqqani, one of the leaders of the Haqqani group who were a brutal, brutal organization, a sub-organization within the Taliban,” Schloesser recalled. “We didn’t talk to them much at all. I mean, we did not in fact, we did not talk. We talked to our media representatives, basically. And it was mainly threatening. I remember one day that I upped the price on Suraj to capture or kill him to $5 million. And we did that publicly. The next day, publicly, his organization up the price on my head, as well.”
Schloesser feels one of the mistakes during the effort to get Americans out of Afghanistan has been the communication with the Taliban.
“I think we chose to do a total withdrawal and to trust the Taliban as a negotiating party. And I don’t believe you can trust a group of people that have proven to be liars in the past,” said Schloesser. “So, we decided to do that not during this administration but during the previous administration. And of course, this administration chose to honor it in a sense accelerate it without any milestones or any requirements that the Taliban actually do the things that they said.”
He wrote a book about his leadership in Afghanistan called Marathon War based on journals he kept at night.
“I wanted Americans to be aware of what their fellow citizens had done,” he said, adding that he encourages Americans to take the time to thank veterans for their service in Afghanistan and elsewhere.