Veteran wants America to awaken to realities of the Afghanistan War

Vet: Afghanistan was abyss of the unknown
Vet: Afghanistan was abyss of the unknown

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Story highlights

  • Veteran Kristen Rouse recalls multiple tours of duty in the longest US war
  • She says Americans need to listen to veterans' experiences in Afghanistan

(CNN)Kristen Rouse recalls sitting on a pile of gravel surrounded by her fellow soldiers at Bagram Airfield, the largest US base in Afghanistan. Smoke filled the air as her colleagues puffed cigars.

Rouse, then a supply sergeant, dragged on a Cuban; a friend had given it to her months earlier. It was the first cigar she'd ever smoked, and she'd been saving it for this day -- the day she would fly out of Afghanistan after spending a year in the country. It was late January 2007. She took stock of the scene, wanting to remember her last moments in the theater of war.
    "That became my tradition -- to smoke a cigar on the day that I flew out," she says a decade later. "And every time I smoked that cigar, I thought it was for the last time."
    Through her next two tours in 2010 and 2012, Rouse saw up close how the US strategy and priorities have evolved in Afghanistan under different administrations. And now, as President Donald Trump pledges to ramp up the American military effort, the strategy has shifted yet again.
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    "I share the American people's frustration," Trump said in a prime-time address Monday night. "I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly lives, trying to rebuild countries in our own image, instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations."
    To understand the true cost of the Afghanistan War, Rouse says Americans need to listen to veterans' experiences on the ground there. Then the public can make an informed decision about whether they want their leaders to continue on this path and once again extend America's longest war.
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    The 16-year campaign in Afghanistan has claimed more than 2,200 American lives, thousands of allied forces, and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and military personnel. The war has also cost American taxpayers in excess of $1 trillion, when factoring in aid for veterans.
    And yet Rouse says most Americans know very little about Afghanistan or its people.
    "Americans still seem to feel so much more connected with 'Game of Thrones,' or whatever the newest TV series is," she says, "instead of this very real world we enter every time we deploy."
    Rouse says she wishes people back home had an opportunity to see the beauty in Afghanistan, the part only a fraction of Americans has gotten a chance to experience: the lush green fields cultivated by industrious farmers, the orchards in bloom in springtime, the snow-peaked mountains that rise in the distance.
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    "People generally are warm and welcoming," she says. "I hope one day people can go and visit and see how beautiful it is and enjoy the culture for what it can be."
    She says that coming home after each tour, she felt like Rip Van Winkle, the title character in the famous Washington Irving short story who returns to his village after a 20-year slumber to find his whole world has changed.
    "People treat me like I've been asleep," she says. "Where it's like, 'What did I miss while I was gone?' But really it's America that's been gone. It's America that's been checked out of this trillion-dollar war."
    To help empower veterans in her area, Rouse founded NYC Veterans Alliance in 2015. Rouse said the advocacy group has more than 200 members, and one of its main goals is to help train veterans and their family members to run for local office.
    Rouse created the group, in part, to give veterans a voice, so they could help guide their communities and the country using the discipline and lessons learned in battle.
    "The Army really became my family," she says. "I wanted to give back to an organization that I've personally gained a lot from."