Like 800,000 other service members who served in Afghanistan, the conflict in that nation is personal to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Both men served in Afghanistan and both spoke of their feelings during a Pentagon news conference focused on the non-combatant evacuation operation underway in Taliban-controlled Kabul.
"All of this is very personal for me," Austin said. "This is a war that I fought in, and led. I know the country, I know the people and I know those who fought alongside me."
Austin served in Afghanistan as the commander of Combined Joint Task Force 180 based around the 10th Mountain Division. He also served as the commander of the U.S. Central Command.
"We have a moral obligation to help those who helped us," he said. "I feel the urgency, deeply."
Austin spoke directly to the force during his press conference. "I know that these are difficult days for those who lost loved ones in Afghanistan and for those who carry the wounds of war," he said. "Especially now, we mourn those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. Let me say to their families and loved ones, our hearts are with you. And the U.S. military stands as one to honor those we've lost.
"Afghan war veterans aren't some monolith," he continued. "I'm hearing strong views from all sides on this issue. And that's probably the way that it should be. What's important is that each of us will work our way through this in our own way. We need to respect that and we need to give one another the time and space to help do it. Our greatest asset as a nation is the extraordinary men and women who volunteer to keep us all safe and their families. We honor your service. We understand your sacrifice and we will never forget."
Milley, too, addressed Afghan war veterans, saying that even in these difficult and challenging times "every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, Coast Guardsman who fought or conducted operations in Afghanistan — almost 800,000 — (can) hold their heads high. For more than 20 years. We have prevented an attack on the U.S. homeland."
In the 20 years of conflict, 2,448 Americans lost their lives in Afghanistan. Some 20,722 were wounded in action, and many others suffered the unseen wounds of war, Milley said. "To each of you, I want you to know personally, that your service mattered," he said. "As the secretary said, for both he and I, this is personal. And I know it's personal for each and every one of you."