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'It's Just Not Right': Peoria Veterans React To Afghanistan Chaos, End Of 20-Year-War

Tom Skaggs
Hannah Alani
Peoria native Tom Skaggs served in the United States Marine Corps from 1955-1959.

Amid the Taliban’s recapturing of Kabul, President Joe Biden addressed the nation, doubling down on how his administration ended the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan.

Twitter buzzed. Push notifications lit up phone screens. TV pundits yelled.

Inside the Navy Marine Club in Peoria Heights, however, it was a quiet Monday afternoon.

A television played the Game Show Network’s “Family Feud.” Ed Sheeren’s face flashed on a silent Touch Tunes jukebox. Navy veteran Gene Cox sipped a Coors Light. Former U.S. Marine Tom Skaggs rested his arm on the bar.

For Skaggs, a Peoria native who served during the Cold War in the late 1950s, it didn't matter what Biden had to say. The president "made a mess," Skaggs said, and history was repeating itself.

“I don’t know what the answer is. But I don’t think he went about it the right way," he said. "The ones that helped us over there (were) left to be butchered. … It’s just not right."

A few blocks away in Peoria Heights, a larger crowd of veterans packed the bar at Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 2602. Televisions weren't tuned to news channels there, either. “Too painful,” one veteran said.

Tom Skaggs and Gene Cox
Hannah Alani
Peoria veterans Tom Skaggs (left) and Gene Cox inside the Navy Marine Club in Peoria Heights on Monday, August 16, 2021.

Skaggs said it was difficult to think about the Taliban regaining control in Afghanistan so close to the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The money spent over two decades in Afghanistan, he said, would have been better spent taking care of veterans of previous wars, many of whom are suffering from PTSD and illnesses related to their time in service.

"Twenty years over there in Afghanistan. ... What'd we get? Nothing," he said. "We’re not taking care of our veterans here at home. And we’re spending billions over there. You got all these guys coming home maimed and busted up. They’re not getting the care they should. It’s not right.”

An Iowa native, Cox enlisted in the Navy in 1960. He said he feared the Taliban would retaliate with terror attacks against the U.S. He felt for Afghani women and children.

“I do feel sorry for the people over there,” he said. “I’m sorry we can’t help them. … You have to end it some time, I guess. … I’m just sorry we couldn’t help.”

Gene Cox
Hannah Alani
Gene Cox served in the United States Navy from 1960-1964. He was aboard the USS Iwo Jima as it entered the Panama Canal during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

He and Skaggs agreed there are parallels between the ways in which the U.S. left Vietnam and Afghanistan. Cox’s two younger brothers were drafted to serve in Vietnam and both returned home with Purple Hearts and medals of honor.

The younger of the two brothers, however, died at the age of 74 last year. Cox said he suspected his brother’s death was related to Agent Orange exposure.

Cox and Skaggs said they wished Americans had more respect for those in the armed services — or were at least willing to understand the experience of serving first hand. They said they’d support compulsory military service for young people, like what is done in Israel and South Korea. Then, they said, history might not be as likely to repeat itself.

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