During my military service, I was referred to by my last name — “Eastman.” Of course, we had rank, respect, and nicknames, so I also went by the “Commander,” “Ma’am,” or “the Mustang” (a nod to the fact I was an officer who was prior enlisted). 

Last August, when we all watched in horror as Afghanistan began to fall, several of the soldiers I served with began to reach out, and many of us still go by those names. 

One text punched me in the heart, “Ma’am, did we lose Coffland for nothing?” 

Chris Coffland served in my unit and was killed by an IED in Tangi Valley in 2009.

The first time I read the 13 names of our fallen from last August to when I recited them in my opening remarks last spring at a public debate in North Carolina for the U.S. Senate race, it was personal. 

Espinoza. Gee. Hoover. Knauss. Lopez. McCollum. Merola. Nikoui. Page. Rosario. Sanchez. Schmitz. Soviak.

It still is. Those names represent heroes – like Coffland. The 13 are men and women killed in action a year ago on August 26 because of President Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. An epic failure that no one has been held accountable for – especially the career politicians responsible for this egregious disaster across multiple administrations. 

For someone like myself, who led troops on the ground in Afghanistan during the rough surge years, an event like the bombing at Kabul Airport’s Abbey Gate where these 13 heroes died makes one instantly feel like it could have been my soldiers – Groff, Zimbi, Bennett, Vasquez, Mac or Lundy.

It could have been my family members – such as my husband, whose call sign while flying well over a thousand hours in combat was “Longknife.”

It hits too close to home. 

And North Carolina is the home for generations of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. With our nation’s fourth largest military footprint, including flagship bases like Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg, it was inevitable that some of the 13 fallen from the Abbey Gate bombing were stationed in North Carolina.

On August 26, and every day since, it felt like all 13 were from my hometown. It will always be personal when you are part of or passionately support the military family. 

It is also essential to reflect on this tragic anniversary as it helps us grasp the consequences of war. What happened in Kabul that day has reverberated back to the U.S., impacting small towns in my state and yours, especially since the fall of Afghanistan was a dreadful tipping point for the world that put American hegemony in question. Now we’ve witnessed an aggressive Russia brutally launching a war against the innocent people of Ukraine, to a heightened risk of conflict in the Pacific with China on the rise.

The tenuous state of our national security and footing in the world is sadly matched by how unsafe we are here at home. This past year has broken devastating records, from the spike in crime to a 40-year inflation-high, all weakening America from within.

Nearly every veteran uniquely understands the cost of freedom and the price of defending our nation. We love America so profoundly that we would have given our lives for it. And, regardless of the outcome of any battle or war, selfless service is always honorable and worth everything. 

What Coffland did mattered for our nation and Afghanistan. What his fellow 13 heroes did at Abbey Gate – mattered. 

I told my soldiers last August, and it rings true today, service always makes a difference for good. 

As we learned in the military, leaders who do not sacrifice are not leaders at all – those people are instead called self-serving opportunists. And opportunists get people killed. 

A true reckoning for this tragedy could be a return to public servants who want to report for a tour of duty. We must get rid of career politicians – they are not leaders, and they are not serving us. Their names mean nothing to me other than being affiliated with the rot in our democracy.

May Coffland and the 13 Heroes from August 26 be names that are seared on your heart, like they are mine. 

Marjorie K. Eastman is a former U.S. Senate Candidate for North Carolina, U.S. Army veteran, and award-winning author of “The Frontline Generation.”