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Meet Four of Boston College’s Afghanistan Veterans

On Nov. 11 of each year, the nation celebrates its veterans who have served in the United States military. Veterans Day, commemorated this past Thursday, corresponds with the anniversary of the end of World War I, when the armistice between Germany and the U.S. went into effect on Nov. 11, 1918—the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month of the war. 

Thousands of Boston College alumni, students, faculty, and staff have served in the U.S. military. In light of the end of the Afghanistan War, The Heights highlights some of their stories. 

Veterans and service members in crisis can speak with a Department of Veterans Affairs responder at 1-800-273-8255, as well as connect with care through the Massachusetts HomeBASE program at 617-724-5202.   

Mike Lorenz, U.S. Air National Guard

Stacks of BC veterans stickers are neatly arranged on the corner of Mike Lorenz’s desk in Maloney Hall. At the center of the desk sits a gray book: a compilation of his grandfather’s letters from World War II, his father’s memoirs from Vietnam, and a journal Lorenz kept while serving in the Air National Guard in the Middle East.

As BC’s first assistant director for veterans programs and services, Lorenz helps to coordinate veterans groups and events at BC. For Lorenz, veterans—whether they be alumni, students, faculty, or staff—are all bonded together by common experiences. 

“We all signed up for a future that we didn’t know about,” Lorenz said. “And that was completely out of our control, and I don’t think everyone can say they’ve done that in the same way.”

In August of this year, the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan after nearly two decades of conflict. Nearly three months later, Lorenz noted the significance of this Veterans Day after the end of a war that claimed the lives of thousands of U.S. service members. 

“It’s the first Veterans Day where we haven’t been actively engaged in a war, at least not on paper,” Lorenz, BC ’21, said. “That’s 20 years of 20 Veterans Days where that war particularly was going on.”

From November 2007 to February 2008, Lorenz was a weapons loader for the Air National Guard at Bagram Air Base, about 40 miles outside of Kabul—Afghanistan’s capital city. He also served in Kuwait and Iraq during his 10 years in the Air Force Reserves.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan in August garnered criticism from the American public and international community. The withdrawal should have been planned ahead of time, according to Lorenz. 

“I think it was time for us to leave or to hand the reins over or something like that, so I was okay with the war ending and us sort of leaving it up to fate,” Lorenz said. “I was and still am a little disappointed that the U.S. didn’t plan to get the interpreters and our Afghan allies out.”

Lorenz kept a close eye on the scenes from Kabul in the days following the war’s end.

“I just watched and it was a weird little reliving of things,” he said. “I didn’t work closely with the interpreters or anything like that, but I felt for them and the people, because people just needed help.”

When the U.S. first declared war on Afghanistan back in 2001, Lorenz said he was proud to be going to war. Over time, however, the war hit a stalemate, Lorenz said, and the U.S. stopped gaining any ground. As Kabul fell, questions began to emerge about the legacy of U.S. presence in the country.

“At the time, … I was excited to be going,” he said. “I felt like there was a purpose. And then when the Iraq War kind of fizzled, and we found out like, ‘Oh, there really weren’t weapons of mass destruction,’ and all this stuff, Afghanistan was still the noble fight, if you will.”

Most students at BC do not remember the attacks on Sept. 11, if they were even alive when they occurred. Regardless, the event has widely impacted the world we live in today, Lorenz said, ranging from heightened airport security to almost constant warfare for the past two decades. 

To bridge this gap in understanding, Lorenz encouraged the younger generation of Americans to not be afraid to approach veterans they see in public and ask them about their time in the military.  

“Just acknowledge the fact that they were in the military and you might be surprised that someone may open up,” Lorenz said. “I can’t tell you how many birthdays, anniversaries, holidays [I missed] because of all that stuff. … And to have that acknowledged by somebody who has no connection to it is a very meaningful thing.”

Daniel Arkins, U.S. Army

Just two years after he graduated from BC, Daniel Arkins enlisted in the U.S. Army to qualify for a student loan repayment program. Though he originally intended to stay in the Army for only six years, Arkins instead served for the next 33. 

Arkins, now a retired U.S. Army Colonel, serves as the director of development at the HomeBASE program at Massachusetts General Hospital. HomeBASE provides clinical care and support for veterans and their families to heal the “invisible” wounds of war, including post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and depression, among others. 

Though HomeBASE offers its veterans services year round, on Nov. 11 of every year, “it’s all hands on deck,” according to Arkins.

“Veterans Day is always a busy time for veterans advocacy programs, especially in the mental health arena,” Arkins, BC ’81, said. “So you know, we were always expecting an uptick. Afghanistan just drove it a lot sooner this year, and I would say just, you know, opened up a lot of really raw emotions for a lot of veterans.”

The end of the war was an emotional event for veterans, Arkins said, himself included. 

“I think we probably knew it was inevitable, but how quickly it happened really ripped up a Band-Aid off a lot of scar tissue for service members, and not just Afghan veterans,” he said. “We serve a lot of Vietnam-era veterans who saw a very similar conclusion to the Vietnam War, and so on. It’s been emotional. It’s been taxing on our resources.”  

Arkins spent nine months in Kabul during his deployment. The withdrawal in August meant a constant deluge of images of places where he had served.

“And a lot of people did put their lives at risk, you know, went all-in supporting this hope for a better Afghanistan, and I think a lot of Afghan veterans felt let down by that,” he said. “I think that there’s a sense of disappointment. There’s a sense of loss. There’s a sense of, you know, could we have done more for particularly those people we left behind?”

Arkins has been a member of the BC Veterans Alumni Network (BCVAN) for the past 12 years, eight of which he served as co-chair. He returns to campus every year for BC’s Veterans Day Remembrance ceremony, which is sponsored by BCVAN.

He hopes the younger generation of Americans recognize that veterans and their families will be grappling with both the mental and physical effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for years to come. Arkins is grateful for the recent uptick in donations to HomeBASE.

“I hate to put it in these terms, but the Afghanistan withdrawal kind of reopened the window into veterans issues,” Arkins said. “This is a long-term commitment we owe to our service members.” 

Arkins joined HomeBASE in September 2019, where he said he savors the opportunity to help his fellow veterans and their families every day.

“I feel like I landed my dream job pretty late in my career,” he said. 

Arkins said that he hopes Veterans Day can be an opportunity for others to reconsider veterans’ issues that may otherwise fade into the background.

“I’m surrounded by these issues every day, you know, so it’s front of mind for me every time I come to work,” he said. “I just hope every Veterans Day people can dust these things off and make sure that it’s not just a parade, it’s not just a speech. That, you know, there is some concrete action people take to honor and commit to the service and sacrifice these people have made.”

William Kelly, U.S. Marine Corps

Brockton, Mass., native William Kelly enlisted in the U.S. Military in 2005. Inspired by both of his grandparents’ involvement in the army—one during World War II and the other in Europe during the Korean War—Kelly signed up for the U.S. Marine Corps as a junior in high school.

He also knew he wanted to eventually join the fire department, where veterans receive hiring preference. The outdoorsy teenager left for boot camp a week after his high school graduation. 

“I joined the Marines specifically because, you know, they were like the ‘toughest,’” Kelly said. “They honestly seem to have the most pride in their branch. It also helped that a good friend of mine from high school was joining as well, so him and I could go to boot camp together.”

After an initial deployment to Iraq in 2006, Kelly was deployed in Jalalabad, Afghanistan in 2011, when he was about 24 years old. His company fell under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—a military alliance that includes Canada, the United Kingdom, the U.S., France, and various other European countries. Kelly and his fellow marines were in Afghanistan on a training mission, he said, where they trained various Afghan troops, police, and border police. 

Kelly, GCSOM ’18, now serves as co-chair of the Boston College Veterans Alumni Network. He has been involved with the network since he became a BC student in 2015 as part of the Student Veterans Association, a group within BCVAN.  

Though he also attends BC’s Annual Veterans Mass and Remembrance Ceremony, Kelly typically celebrates Veterans Day a day early on Nov. 10, the birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps.

“We have a big party in the Seaport,” he said. “I never really did much before I got involved with BCVAN. I do get a lot of phone calls and text messages from family and friends, which I enjoy and I appreciate.”

Kelly said that, in light of the end of the Afghanistan War, it is quite sad to think of the 13 service members who were killed in action in the days leading up to the withdrawal. 

“Just looking at how young they were, you know,” Kelly said. “I think there was only one of the 13 that was in their 30s and pretty much everybody else was a lot of 20-year-olds, 22, and I think one or two of them were 25. So it’s sad to think about that.”

The first few weeks after the withdrawal from Kabul, Kelly said he wanted to hear somebody admit it was a failure.

“It was a very difficult mission in a very difficult landscape,” he said. “Socially, geographically, politically, in every scenario, it’s a difficult task to deal with. And I don’t think it’s reasonable to be a Monday morning quarterback with how difficult it all was, and I don’t think it’s right to point fingers and blame, but I do know that integrity and accountability is a big thing at every level of the military. That seemed to be missing.”

Though conversations surrounding veterans issues often re-enter the spotlight around Veterans Day, Kelly emphasized the wealth of resources currently available to veterans. It is important to increase the visibility of these resources for veterans to actually use them, he said.  

He referenced an instance where in a speech in San Francisco, General Jim Mattis, who commanded forces in the Afghanistan, Iraq, and Persian Gulf wars, told the public that veterans are not “damaged goods.”

“It’s not Vietnam,” Kelly said. “When we came back and when we served, there was a lot of appreciation. I’m a big proponent of post-traumatic growth, which is like, obviously, you’ve done this, you’ve made the sacrifices, you’ve dealt with these situations, and [you’re] growing from that.”

Tyler Pase, U.S. Army

Tyler Pase, a former ranger in the U.S. Army, always knew he wanted to serve in special operations. Following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Pase had felt that it was his civic duty to serve his country. 

Initially, his father refused to sign the 17-year-old’s army paperwork, Pase, CSOM ’25, said. 

“[My father] refused to sign the paperwork because I was 17 at the time, and he was like, ‘No, you’re not going, what are you saying?’” Pase said. “I was like, ‘No, this is what I need to do.’”

At 17 years old, Pase left Long Island, N.Y.and joined the army with a basic infantry contract. 

“You know, I wanted to be at the tip of the spear,” Pase said. “I wanted to be at the forefront of the war. I didn’t want to serve in a conventional aspect and essentially be underutilized.”

Following decent aptitude and physical fitness scores, Pase was screened and recruited to attend selection for the 75th Ranger Regiment, a special operations direct action raid force. Following the completion of Airborne School and Ranger Assessment Selection, Pase was assigned to the third Ranger Battalion of the 75th regiment.

In 2012, 18-year-old Pase was deployed on a training mission to Kabul. He also spent time in Mazar-i-Sharif, the fourth-largest city in the country, and the Helmand Province in the south. 

“You’re very young and you’re, you know, you’re taking it all in, you’re learning,” Pase said. “You have these leaders beside you [who] are … 22 years old, 23 years old, and they’ve been there for several years before it so that’s essentially your mentor.”

Following two deployments in Afghanistan, Pase went to Ranger School at 21 years old, after which he set off on his third deployment, which he completed in 2016. He then returned to academia, first attending community college and then Hofstra University in New York. 

“Then that’s where I became kind of disenfranchised with academia as a whole and very kind of disgruntled with the entire academic system that was laid out before me as a 23-year-old,” Pase said. “And I wasn’t satisfied with my academic experience, so I went back to work. I supported intelligence gathering operations in the Middle East, specifically I was in Kandahar and then I was in Iraq as well.”

Pase was able to complete his degree online at Plymouth State University while in the Middle East. The intelligence gathering allowed Pase to become more embedded with the local populace of Afghanistan, a country which had been engaged in almost perpetual war since 1978.

“To them, death is just a way of life,” Pase said. “It’s unfathomable what the Afghan people go through … We simply cannot comprehend the life that they face, even spending four to six months there out of the year. And it really was an incredible experience being alongside them and just really getting to know them and understanding who they were as a people.​​”

The withdrawal from Kabul in August profoundly affected Pase, he said.

“I felt more or less like the Vietnam veterans who came back and watched Saigon fall,” Pase said. “It made me relate to them. It was just absolutely horrific … I couldn’t comprehend what occurred because in my mind, I was like, ‘We’ll be in Afghanistan for the next 10 to 20 years.’ I couldn’t really see Afghanistan without a U.S. presence in it.”

Even with the end of the Afghanistan War, Veterans Day is not a huge occasion for Pase. 

“I get people who go ahead and appreciate my service, but then again, it was a choice that I made, and it’s not something I ever really asked of anybody,” he said. “Being of service to the nation is not something that I did with an expected return of respect.”

Pase hopes that people finally understand that, at the end of the day, there is little that the U.S. can change about the reality of life in Afghanistan

“We spent 20 years trying to push our Western ideologies onto a group of people that, quite frankly, did not want it, and this is the end result,” Pase said. “Trillions of dollars spent. Countless lives lost. And now, we have essentially a complete wash, because we didn’t maintain a presence there.”

Images Courtesy of Mike Lorenz, Daniel Arkins, William Kelly, and Tyler Pase

Featured Image by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor

November 14, 2021