Luis Gaitan didn’t have to watch something blow up in his face. He wasn’t injured in Afghanistan, and he didn’t return to the states with a particularly gut-wrenching story.
Instead, he — like so many other often unheralded soldiers — was standing in the background, quietly, efficiently helping those in the Middle East better protect their own.
“It definitely goes unspoken,” said Gaitan, a 26-year-old living in Chinatown. “But it was happening all across the board, because you have to set up a whole base for the people actually doing the intense part of the war.”
Gaitan, a Camden native, was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan in March 2013 to serve as a civil engineer with the Navy, but contracting and working with the Army. While there, he managed projects related to infrastructure of both the surrounding areas, and of bases where American soldiers were based.
But maybe more memorably, he spent much of his time mentoring Afghans about how they could uphold their own infrastructure after the United States — one day — leaves. Gaitan returned from Afghanistan about a year ago, and is now working at a private engineering firm.
He’s one of more than two million veterans nationwide and about 70,000 in Pennsylvania who are under 34 and fit into that millennial age range. They’re returning from combat zones and, say some, have only fought half the battle as the nation still struggles to adequately employ veterans and disagreements rage on over educating the youngest vets.
Some of those ex-combatants don’t get as much widespread attention on days like Veterans Day, when the nationwide emphasis is often on older conflicts like World War II and Vietnam. And while many Americans focus on the stories of bygone days, it’s also easy to become fixated on the gruesome. Sometimes stories like Gaitan’s can remain in the background.
But he’s OK with that. He said his generation tends to be a bit quieter about their war involvement than those part of the older vision of a veteran that’s perpetuated through media. Maybe it’s because people can’t begin to understand what it’s like there.
“TV doesn’t really give you a good idea of what’s going on,” he said. “All they really show is attacks or roadside bombs and you get there and realize that’s not all it is. It isn’t just combat. There’s a lot of other pieces to the war mission.”
One of those major pieces was people like Gaitan and his colleagues who met with Afghan combatants on a biweekly basis. Through a translator, their team would work with the locals and teach them how to install and maintain roads, bridges and other construction projects.
Last year, a group of Afghan reconstruction engineers helped to combat a large flood in the southern region of the country. They saved a small town with just a little help and education from U.S. troops — and the Afghanis were proud of that.
But it wasn’t all rosy relations. While Gaitan said he didn’t witness anything violent while he specifically met with Afghan combatants, he was on high alert at all times and under all circumstances. He’d heard stories of Afghan attacks on NATO troops.
And that high alert was one of the things that made it most difficult to return.
Veterans Affairs estimates that between 11 and 20 out of every 100 soldiers who return from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan each year deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the crippling mental health disorder that’s in many ways opened the eyes of America to suicide among veterans. According to the VA, the disorder often manifests in the months after returning home to the states from a combat zone.
While Gaitan said his experiences with what was largely a humanitarian effort allowed an easier transition back to the states, there was still some getting used to.
“It was an interesting transition,” he said. “I was so used to having everything regimented, hearing an alarm and being on alert. It was one of the weirdest feelings. I was so used to carrying a weapon everywhere.”
He found support through mentors who were along with him, and said he’s been shocked at the number of veterans of both Iraq and Afghanistan that he’s met since returning. And he offered a possible explanation for why America is so fixated on those older veterans on days like today.
“You’re bound to hit a veteran somewhere,” he said. “The general consensus we’re getting is people in Iraq and Afghanistan like to say they aren’t the heroes, that it was the people before them. I’m sure for the next one, they will say people in the Middle East were the ones that were the heroes.
“But hopefully there isn’t a next one.”