In April, President Joe Biden ordered the withdrawal of the U.S. military from Afghanistan. By the end of August, approximately 3,000 troops will have been withdrawn, officially bringing an end to a war that began nearly 20 years ago.

The war in Afghanistan has spanned four presidencies and 2.8 million service members have been deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq since 2001. The success or failure of the “War on Terror” will be debated for generations but the stories and struggles of those who served may be lost in that debate. 

Last week at Podcast Movement, by happenstance, I met Aaron Perkins, an Army veteran who grew up in Ohio, served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He now lives in Anniston, Alabama. He hosts a podcast called “We Served…Now What?” dedicated to tackling the biggest questions facing veterans as they transition to post-military life. He also wrote a resource book for veterans called “Resolve.”

Over the course of two hours, we discussed his time overseas and the adjustments he’s had to make while returning home (plus podcasting, media and a variety of other things). I followed up with Aaron this week to see if he’d be willing to share some of that conversation here.

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The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Reckon: To start, why don’t you tell us about your time serving. When did you serve? Where all did you serve? And what motivated you to serve?

Aaron Perkins: I was a Music Education major in college, and I fully intended to teach music for the rest of my life. I even had a job lined up when I graduated. But then I looked at my student loans and my projected income as a teacher, and I realized it would probably take me 20 years or more to pay off those loans. My then-fiancee, now wife, and I both wanted to start our lives together with as little debt as possible, so I decided to go and talk to a U.S. Army recruiter about my options. Turns out, the military would pay off 100% of my student loans in just three years, and I basically said, “Okay, where do I sign?”

So my reason for joining the military was, at the time, simply a practical one, and that decision to join the Army set my life on a completely different path from what I had originally envisioned.

Our first duty station was at a small Army post in southeastern Germany. The town was called Baumholder, and while my family and I were incredibly excited about living in Germany for awhile, we also knew that, in all likelihood, I would be headed to Iraq or Afghanistan, so the experience of living in a foreign country was memorable but overshadowed by the looming knowledge that our country was heavily involved in two wars.

That first year in Germany was spent learning the military environment and training to deploy to Iraq. Keep in mind, this was 2007-2008 timeframe, so we were right in the height of the surge, with hundreds of thousands of troops being sent to Iraq, so my family and I realized that my deployment to combat was inevitable.

My unit deployed for what was expected to be a 15-month deployment, but midway through it, I received a message from my wife that our yet-to-be-born son had significant complications with his kidneys, so my wife and 15-month old daughter had to pack up as much as they could in suitcases and move back to the states where my wife and son could get better medical care. At the same time, I requested a ‘compassionate reassignment’ to my chain of command so I could be with my family, and thankfully, that reassignment was approved.

So, 10 months into that first deployment, I left Iraq, stopped by Germany to get all of our belongings packed up, and then moved to our new duty station at Fort Knox, Kentucky, which was the closest Army installation to where my son was getting his medical care. It was still nearly a 4-hour drive one way to the Children’s Hospital all the way up in Ohio. Frankly, just retelling some of that experience could take up the remainder of this interview. But the short version is that my newborn son, who had his first kidney surgery at 3 months old, went through a harrowing time of 11 more surgeries, plus additional other procedures to correct his kidney function.

Aaron Perkins is a U.S. Army veteran.

Thankfully, the surgeries worked, and while my son was not quite 100% and he still needed regular checkups to ensure his kidneys had not gotten worse, I received a notification that we were being reassigned to Fort Hood, Texas to a unit that was already planning to go to Iraq.

So, the movers packed up our stuff—again—and we headed across the country to Fort Hood, Texas. We had barely started unpacking boxes when I left for my second deployment to Iraq.

This second deployment was far different than the first. We were in a location of the country where – well, I’ll just say that the local enemy forces did not really like us being there and they let us know it by regularly engaging our unit with both direct and indirect fire, improvised explosive devices, and other attacks.

After seven months, my unit redeployed to Fort Hood, where I spent the next couple of years preparing for yet another deployment, this time to Afghanistan, which was to be my last deployment.

By this time, I was simply burned out. I needed a break from the constant train-deploy-train-deploy cycle the entire Army was experiencing at the time, so toward the end of 2014, I hung up my uniform for the final time and stepped into the scariest environment ever – post-military life.

Reckon: I can’t imagine. It’s interesting to hear you frame post-military life that way. What was your life like the day you left the military?

Perkins: I left the military on Thanksgiving Day 2014, and it was terrifying. I had a wife, two children, and no way to bring in money so I could take care of my family. I was excited to be doing something else with my life, but at that time, I still had no sense of where I was supposed to live, or what industry I wanted to work in, or really anything about living a normal American life.

Honestly, it was culture shock. The military experience is so incredibly different from civilian life that I had no idea what to expect.

Reckon: How were you able to readjust?

Perkins: I think that the way this question is worded makes it sound like I’ve already readjusted, but the truth is, the readjustment back into the civilian world is a constant effort. For me, it was a lot guessing. Trying something, seeing if that sparked a flame within me, and if it didn’t, try something else. I was constantly seeking out this sense of purpose and meaning after I left the military.

Reckon: How did your life change in that first week, or the first month?

Perkins: I don’t think a lot changed in the first few weeks after getting out, other than the fact that I was able to secure a job, which I subsequently lost, partially as a result of my struggles with PTSD, anxiety, and depression, but that is a whole ‘nother story in and of itself.

Losing that first job after the military was a real kick in the gut, and my family and I struggled with no work, collecting unemployment, driving for Uber, taking side gigs on Craigslist – basically, everything I could to feed my family, so I fully understand the real-world challenges that come with separating from the military.

Losing that job ended up being a blessing in disguise though because God used that time in my life to adjust my priorities and focus me on what truly matters.

Reckon: Now that America is starting to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, how are you feeling?

Perkins: I think it has been a long time coming. With the decision to withdraw all US troops already made, we as a nation now have a new focus and a new responsibility. We must uphold our end of the bargain with our Afghan partners, especially those interpreters who were embedded with US forces over the past 20 years of combat operations. Frankly, we owe those brave men and women more than we can ever repay, but the bare minimum is for us to expedite their rescue from Afghanistan in an effort to protect them and their families from the onslaught of the Taliban.

Reckon: More broadly, I know your podcast reaches a lot of veterans. What’s life like for veterans in the South? Who typically serves from the South?

Perkins: Not originally being from the South, I cannot speak for all veterans who join the military from the South, but I can say that those men and women I served with who were from the South had a deep and unwavering commitment to the Constitution of the United States and the American way of life, and they were incredibly proud to be defending their country while wearing a military uniform.

The big takeaway here is that every veteran’s experience is an individual experience, and I would shy away from saying, “This is what it’s like being a veteran in the South” because my experience is just that – mine.

On an individual level though, you know as well as I do, John, that Southern folks are deeply patriotic, and that patriotism shows through whenever someone learns I served in the military. There is no shortage of ‘thank you’s’ from the people all across the region, and I’m incredibly glad my family and I were able to settle here in Alabama. I can’t think of a better place to call home.

Reckon: I think some civilians may look at some of the preferential job programs, loan programs, college and school opportunities – even something like free or discounted tickets to concerts and parks and things – and think ‘well we already do a lot for veterans.’ Could you give us a sense of why you think that may be off the mark? And why society should be invested in helping veterans better transition to civilian life?

Perkins: Ooooh, this is such a good question! Thank you for asking it!

I think I would say three things to those who are of the belief that it is somehow ‘unfair’ that veterans appear to get preferential treatment in some capacity.

First of all, I would encourage anyone who believes this to shift their thinking toward how they can better leverage their own skills and aptitudes to create opportunities for themselves, as opposed to focusing on perceived preferential treatment in the veteran community.

Secondly, sit down and talk to a veteran. Ask them what it’s like to live life as a veteran of the forgotten wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ask them what it’s like to be surrounded by people who have no idea what military life is like, or the everyday challenges that veterans face. Get involved in a veteran’s life, and I will guarantee that when you go ‘all in’ on developing a strong relationship with a veteran, not only will you have an incredibly loyal friend, you will also have a better understanding of why businesses and nonprofits around the state and around the country do everything they can to help support the veteran community.

Finally, when someone stands up and voluntarily says, “I am willing to dedicate everything I am toward defending the American way of life, and I’m willing to die, if need be, so that millions of people can continue to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. . .” When someone is willing to give their lives for people whom they have never met, I think we as a society owe those people everything we can give them.

Now to the second part of your question – why should society be invested in helping veterans transition to civilian life?

Here’s the short answer – because a successfully transitioned veteran will dramatically improve your local community.

Sound crazy? Well, it’s not nearly as crazy as you might think.

John, did you know that after World War II, nearly 50% of those veterans returning from the war started their own companies? Now, there are a variety of reasons for this that I don’t have time to go into in this interview, but no matter how you look at it, that is a LOT of economic activity!

And of the 2.8 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 97% of whom are still struggling with the transition back to the civilian world, less than 5% go on to create businesses in local communities. Had these Post-9/11 veterans been provided with more opportunities and resources to better integrate into society, there is no doubt in my mind that we would be telling a very different story right now about what it’s like to live life as a veteran.

Reckon: Has the COVID-19 pandemic lead to any hurdles that may have hit veterans especially hard?

Perkins: Well, John, as you know, diagnoses of depression, anxiety and other mental health concerns have increased dramatically since the pandemic began, and veterans were right there among those impacted by COVID-19.

Regardless of what some folks may believe about the veteran job market, securing a well-paying job as a veteran is far harder than it may sound, and the pandemic really just amplified these challenges among the veteran community. For many veterans, we were already struggling with a loss of identity and a loss of friendships we developed in the military, so being unable to regularly interact with our friends and family hit us particularly hard.

Reckon: Are there any other books, movies, podcasts, albums or resources that our audience should seek out to better understand what veterans are experiencing?

Perkins: The absolute best resource to better understand what veterans are experiencing is this — getting to know a veteran in your local community.

After leaving the military, veterans have A LOT of questions, and for the past few years, I’ve hosted a podcast called We Served. . . Now What? where in every episode, I tackle those questions veterans and their family members have so they can turn their post-military life into their best life, but there is still no substitute for getting to know a veteran on a personal level.

I don’t watch a lot of movies, especially those about the forgotten wars, but one movie I highly recommend for anyone wanting to understand better what it’s like to be a veteran is a movie called, Thank You for Your Service.

Additionally, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs actually has a phenomenal podcast as well. The show is called “Borne the Battle” which is full of in-depth interviews with veterans discussing their experiences.