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20 years after 9/11, Southwest Portland veteran reflects on Taliban's takeover

Julie Cohn watched in terror as footage of Afghans clinging to the wings of a plane at Kabul's airport played on the screen. Days earlier, news reports from Afghanistan announced the Taliban had seized control of the country's capital, leaving some in a desperate attempt to flee.

Cohn, a psychiatrist, had just returned home from a shift.

The imagery from Afghanistan was especially gripping for the Navy veteran. She spent the bulk of 2013 in Kandahar working at an Army hospital during the U.S. occupation that initially sought to destabilize the Taliban and remove the threat of al-Qaida.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Julie Cohn, a Portland physician, served in the U.S. Navy and did a stint as a medic in Kandahar in 2013. In April, President Joe Biden announced a goal of withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan by September, almost 20 years from when troops entered the region following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

On Aug. 16, the president addressed the nation again, insisting America's mission was never to democratize or stabilize the political structure in Afghanistan.

"Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy," President Biden said. "Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland."

Veterans nationwide have reacted to the Taliban's takeover with mixed emotions. Some worried their efforts in Afghanistan were for naught. Others say it was the right decision to remove U.S. troops from the region and finally end the American occupation of the Middle East.

"I feel disheartened, but also not too surprised," Cohn said. "I just didn't think it would be this fast before the Taliban took over."

The 39-year-old Southwest Portlander said like so many who served, she's grown and evolved over the course of the 20-year conflict that followed 9/11.

Her outlook on global affairs and politics has broadened with age, and her understanding of America's history and legacy has come into sharper focus.

"I signed up for the military in 2004 due to a strong sense of obligation and patriotism—not necessarily because I agreed or disagreed with every piece of U.S. or foreign policy," Cohn said. "I also wanted to support those who were willing to die for this country."

COURTESY PHOTO: JULIE COHN - Julie Cohn in camo fatigues during a deployment with the U.S. Navy. Cohn was in New York City on 9/11 and later enlisted in the U.S. Navy. That sense of patriotism was likely heightened then.

Cohn attended Columbia University in New York City in 2001. She was an Ivy League student already intent on joining the military to help pay for medical school, but the grip of that day turned to years. America was transfixed and transformed.

"I was walking to chemistry class when the first tower was hit," Cohn recalls of 9/11. "You go up on the roofs (of the university) and you could see all the smoke and smell it."

It's a memory she'll probably never shake.

"As a college student in New York City in 2001, I saw the U.S. involvement and the conflict from a very different lens compared to the person I am now, but my thoughts are still just as mixed," Cohn said.

Being stationed in Afghanistan gave her a glimpse at Afghan culture that most Americans struggled to understand.

"It's not all Taliban over there. They're a passive culture," Cohn said. "The people (rushing the airplane) probably would have been in favor of a more democratic leadership. They wanted refuge in the United States."

Cohn is a walking juxtaposition. Equal parts resolute and irreverent. Under her white lab coat is a sequined fanny pack. In the same day, she counsels patients, then clocks out to hurtle herself toward a pack of bodies during football practice. Before the pandemic, she played competitive roller derby.

Her penchant for rushing into danger and embracing extremes doesn't carry over into politics. She's cautious about speculating or proselytizing about the strategic decisions being made in the White House about Afghanistan.

"I do think U.S./NATO troops had good intent with respect to promoting human rights and helping the Afghan people, while trying to prevent a repeat of 9/11," Cohn said. "However, whether we pulled out in one year or in 50 years from now, I question whether or not the outcome would have been any different. The Taliban was likely waiting for this opportunity and I fear there wasn't a right answer."


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