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Afghan War Vet On What It Means To Serve

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For the U.S. military, the legacy of Afghanistan is a complicated one. Over some two decades of fighting America's longest war seemed at times far removed from the day that started it all, the attacks on September 11, 2001. But for one veteran, it was always about one thing - service. Our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here to begin our story. Tom, 10 years ago, you met Navy Corpsman Darryl St. George. Tell us about your meeting.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Rachel, I met him in Afghanistan's Helmand province with a Marine platoon. He was 29, from Long Island, and he used to teach high school history. And he became a corpsman caring for wounded Marines. And on 9/11, he was actually in New York City in college. And that horrific attack kind of spurred him to enlist a few years later. And he told me on that day in 2011 that he thought people were forgetting about Afghanistan. They were not aware of the war. And here's what he told me then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DARRYL ST GEORGE: Everything that's going on within our country, I think we've kind of forgotten about what's going on here. That didn't sit very well with me. And I had known a number of people who had served and some students as well - one student who was a Marine and died in Iraq. All of those things kind of rolling around in my head, I wanted to directly contribute in some way.

BOWMAN: And I remember, Rachel, when I reported this 10 years ago, St. George said he wanted to go back to his old school and talk to students because, again, people had forgotten about Afghanistan.

MARTIN: Darryl St. George is actually on the line with us now. Darryl, thanks for being here.

ST GEORGE: Thank you for having me, Rachel. And it's crazy to hear that recording, which I think was - we were in Afghanistan when that recording was done, right, Tom?

BOWMAN: That's right.

MARTIN: Right, in Helmand Province, yeah, that younger voice of yours talking about how you wanted to contribute. And you did then, and you are now. I understand you are back teaching at your old high school and talking to your students about 9/11 and the war. Is that right?

ST GEORGE: I am. And I actually have the privilege of teaching a course on 9/11. And a colleague and I run a club here at the high school called Project VETS, which stands for veterans enlisting teachers and students. And so a lot of the work that I do in this school is about remembering 9/11 and the military and those who serve.

MARTIN: And where's your school?

ST GEORGE: Northport High School on Long Island in Suffolk County.

MARTIN: And what are those interactions like? I mean, what do your students make of the lessons that you're imparting to them?

ST GEORGE: Well, for me, it's incredibly inspiring because it's an elective course. And every year, we have full capacity. And we're working now with students who weren't even born on 9/11. And so the challenge is to try to reconnect it and make it as real as possible for them because, especially with what we're seeing happening in the world right now, I especially feel the pressure to make sure that the students remember and that that comes through in our actions and in the way we interact with each other.

BOWMAN: You know, Darryl, when we talked a decade ago, we focused on the idea of service. And one thing I know that's getting raised a lot right now by veterans is, was it worth it? And I'm just wondering, what are your own thoughts?

ST GEORGE: I always kind of ask myself, you know, was Afghanistan better during that 20-year period of time after 9/11, or was it worse than what it was under the Taliban? I just think that from some of the rhetoric I hear, people - I don't even think they see a connection between Afghanistan and 9/11 any longer. And that really breaks my heart.

MARTIN: Does that mean for you, Darryl, when you think about your own time there, that you do believe it was worth it?

ST GEORGE: I do. I really, really do. But now that we've left, I don't know anymore because - what happens now? You know, just this morning when I was getting ready for school and getting dressed, on the local news, they're showing footage of the Taliban whipping women protesters. When I think about it personally, we were going into Afghanistan to make America safe and to bring a better life to the people of Afghanistan. And I don't know. If Afghanistan becomes a haven now with ISIS and Taliban and al-Qaida, will we be safe? And looking at that footage this morning of those women protesters, I don't know. It's very hard (crying) for me to answer that question in a way that I thought I could once answer it proudly. I don't know if - I don't know what it was all for.

MARTIN: We are approaching, you know, the 20th anniversary of September 11. I wonder, where are your reflections right now when you think about that day and what happened?

ST GEORGE: For me, it's important to acknowledge the evil that happened. But at the end, what I try to stay with are the 343 firemen that ran into the buildings to give their lives to try to save as many people as possible. And I remember, like, being on the subway, and I remember how kind people were to each other. To me, now more than ever, we have to go back to that lesson. We have to go back to - and I know it sounds cliche and trite, you know, but the bumper stickers after 9/11, united we stand - because I just - I don't know how much longer we can go on like this.

And I just feel like when I think about what happened on January 6 - on January 6, I said to myself, why does this feel familiar? And then I realized - I said to myself, this is how I felt on 9/11. So I just - I - if we have any hope as a country, I pray that we can get back to at least that part of 9/11 and think about those firemen and countless other stories, the passengers on United 93 and the stories of people who just did incredible things. So at the end, I try to stay with that, and I try to share that with my students.

MARTIN: Former Navy Corpsman Darryl St. George. He served in Afghanistan, which is where he met NPR's Tom Bowman. St. George now teaches high school in New York. Darryl, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing your reflections.

ST GEORGE: Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: Take good care.

ST GEORGE: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.