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President Biden in August announced the end of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan. But for the 800,000 American service members who participated in America's longest war, the devastating psychological and physical effects can last for decades. On this Veterans Day, we're bringing you veterans' stories from a new podcast called Third Squad.

Guests: Elliott Woods, veteran and host of the podcast Third Squad

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Erica Pandey, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird, and Jayk Cherry. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at podcasts@axios.com. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

Go deeper:

Transcript

NIALA: Welcome to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo. It's Thursday, November 11th, Veterans Day. And because of that, we're focusing on One Big Thing: our veterans from the war in Afghanistan. President Biden last August announced the end of America's 20 year war there, but for the 800,000 American service members who participated in America's longest war, the devastating psychological and physical effects can last for decades.

We're doing something a bit different today by bringing you veterans stories from a new podcast called Third Squad.

My name is Jeffrey Lopez, Scott McEtchin, David Richvalsky, David Ortega, Brian Shearer, Michael Minor, Jeric Fry, Taylor Moody, Manuel Mendoza, Matthew Foreit, John Bohlinger, Michael Joseph Dutcher.

NIALA: It's about 12 Marines who fought in one of the deadliest combat zones, Sangin Afghanistan, in 2011. This episode is tough because of the graphic and violent content, which may not be appropriate for everyone. But I also think this is a really important conversation for us to have. That's because for the vast majority of Americans, the impact of this war has been invisible. But for Marines, like many Mendosa of the third squad, his memories of combat are debilitating.

You just feel everything, you relive everything. Feel it all again. The smell, the sounds, the taste and the natural response is to cry. And I do.

NIALA: Elliott Woods is the host of Third Squad and a friend of mine, who's both a journalist and a military vet who’s served in Iraq. A decade after meeting the squad is an embed, he said out on a mission to track these men down back home. Over 12 episodes, Elliott chronicles the reality of surviving the aftermath of war. I spoke with him from his home in Livingston, Montana.

NIALA: Hey Elliott. Thanks for being with us on Axios Today.

ELLIOTT: Hey Niala, thanks so much for having me.

NIALA: So one thing that really stood out to me from Third Squad is the idea that war is not just about dying and the people who die, but it's also about killing. And I think that's a very difficult reality to grapple with. And you spoke with some of these Marines and asked them to reflect on what it means to kill.

Like I've shot prairie dogs, that I've felt worse about shooting.

Each time you do it, your soul is ripped, is divided as if, as if you're, you're taking on a piece of them. That's the problem with killing, is you, you're stuck with that.

NIALA: Why was it so important for you to include this? Because this is, this is tough. I mean, this is the heart of how hard all of this is, I think.

ELLIOTT: Yeah. To me talking about killing, when you're talking about war, is critically important. And I think it's something that is really hard for journalists to talk about with veterans, because it's really the ugliest part of war. And yet there's no war without killing. No matter what you do in the military, whether you're in the infantry and the front lines, carrying a weapon and engaged in direct combat, or whether you're a mail clerk or a helicopter mechanic, you're part of a killing machine. And for the people who are actually tasked with doing the killing on the front line, taking lives of people who they can see right in front of them. That is a profound experience for some of those people that they have a really hard time dealing with when they get home. And some of them don't have a hard time dealing with it. And for me, I think that's a really important thing to understand. That we are training killers and we are sending them to do that on our behalf. So I wanted to talk to people about that. I wanted to talk about the personal cost of that for them.

NIALA: To that point, some of that includes death. Here's some of Manny Mendoza's memories of collecting the body parts of his friend and fellow soldier.

We had trash bags, black trash bags, picking this stuff up, picking him up.

NIALA: One of the themes of what surfaces in this podcast, in Third Squad, is the survivor's guilt of the men who made it home. As a country maybe intellectually, we understand that, but I wonder how you sought to really introduce that reality and that emotion.

ELLIOTT: One of my journalism colleagues gave me a wonderful piece of advice, which is really try to get there and make your first question something like, “Where do you think your story starts.” Rather than coming with a determined set of questions or things that you want to get out of that person, like this extractive thing. Just try to get into it that way, find out what's important to them and then follow their lead. And so that's what I did in every one of these interviews, and sure enough, those conversations very often lead to feelings of guilt and responsibility. Because Survivor's guilt and other forms of guilt are such a central part of what it means to survive war, to experience war, to survive war and to live with all of the doubt and the uncertainty related to that experience for the rest of your life. Manuel Mendoza, he's been eaten alive by his sense of responsibility and guilt and so one night that feeling of responsibility became too much for him to bear and he was pushed to the edge of taking his own life.

I just felt like I gave up. I remember I went outside ‘cause I didn't want to make a mess inside the, uh, inside the apartment. But for some reason I just called Fry.

ELLIOTT: He decided to pick up the phone and call his former squad leader, whose name is Gerrick fry and Gerrick fry was able to talk him down. So it's a really powerful story of of how this guilt can be fatal. Of how military service members who survive this kind of trauma can take the blame upon themselves can take responsibility for events that they had little to no control over in the grand scheme of things. You know, they were the thousandth repercussion of decisions that were made so far away from them and so long ago, and yet they're carrying the responsibility for all of this on their shoulders. And it's crushing. It's just absolutely crushing

NIALA: So now we have the first veteran's day in 20 years where all of the troops are home, but is it over?

ELLIOTT: No, no, it's not. It's not over for, for a lot of reasons. Number one, we still have troops deployed in combat or combat support operations all over the world, including places where what used to be called the war on terror is still going. For another reason, the internal war, the rehashing of memories, the effort to make sense of it all in some cases, living with lifelong disabilities, whether they're psychological or physical. These are things that lasts with veterans forever.

NIALA: What do you hope Third Squad as a podcast does for people? Like, what do you hope that people take away from it?

ELLIOTT: I think my biggest goal with Third Squad is I want people to sit in the room and listen to conversations between veterans about the experience of the post 9/11 wars that they've probably never had the opportunity to listen to in their lives. So few people have an intimate connection to these wars. So few people know someone who's really served or really experienced them in a, in the most direct way. And even when people know someone like that, these conversations are really hard to have. They're really painful. They're really uncomfortable. So whether we will actually reckon with these wars with this generation of war remains to be determined, but our podcast is an effort to, to try to reckon with it. That's the best that I can do. Try to reckon with it and hope that others will do the same.

NIALA: There are five episodes of Third Squad that are out now telling these stories. You can find them wherever you get podcasts. Elliott Woods is a veteran and host of Third Squad. Elliott, thank you for taking the time to talk with me and for sharing all of this. I appreciate it.

ELLIOTT: Thanks for having me. Niala thanks for everything you do. It's been a real pleasure.

NIALA: If you were someone you know, is considering suicide, you can contact the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1 (800) 273-82 55.

Axios Today is brought to you by Axios and Pushkin Industries. We’re produced by Alexandra Nuria Marqyez-Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird and David Toledo. Our sound engineer is Alex Sugiura. Julia Redpath is our Executive Producer. Sarah Kehaulani Goo is our Editor-in-Chief and special thanks to Axios Co-founder Mike Allen. Our staff is off for the holiday, so we'll see back here on NIALA: Welcome to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo. It's Thursday, November 11th, Veterans Day. And because of that, we're focusing on One Big Thing: our veterans from the war in Afghanistan. President Biden last August announced the end of America's 20 year war there, but for the 800,000 American service members who participated in America's longest war, the devastating psychological and physical effects can last for decades.

We're doing something a bit different today by bringing you veterans stories from a new podcast called Third Squad.

THIRD SQUAD 1

My name is Jeffrey Lopez, Scott McCutchen, David Polsky, David Ortega, Brian Scheer, Michael Miner, Derek Frye, Taylor Moody, Emmanuel Mendoza, Matthew Foret, John Bollinger, Michael Joseph Dutcher.

NIALA: It's about 12 Marines who fought in one of the deadliest combat zones, Sangin Afghanistan, in 2011. This episode is tough because of the graphic and violent content, which may not be appropriate for everyone. But I also think this is a really important conversation for us to have. That's because for the vast majority of Americans, the impact of this war has been invisible. But for Marines, like many Mendosa of the third squad, his memories of combat are debilitating.

MENDOZA 1

You just feel everything, you relive everything. Feel it all again. The smell, the sounds, the taste and the natural response is to cry. And I do.

NIALA: Elliott Woods is the host of Third Squad and a friend of mine, who's both a journalist and a military vet who’s served in Iraq. A decade after meeting the squad is an embed, he said out on a mission to track these men down back home. Over 12 episodes, Elliott chronicles the reality of surviving the aftermath of war. I spoke with him from his home in Livingston, Montana.

NIALA: Hey Elliott. Thanks for being with us on Axios Today.

ELLIOTT: Hey Niala, thanks so much for having me.

NIALA: So one thing that really stood out to me from Third Squad is the idea that war is not just about dying and the people who die, but it's also about killing. And I think that's a very difficult reality to grapple with. And you spoke with some of these Marines and asked them to reflect on what it means to kill.

KILLING 1

Like I've shot Prairie dogs, that I've felt worse about shooting

KILLING 2

Each time you do it, your soul is ripped, is divided as if, as if you're, you're taking on a piece of them. That's the problem with killing, is you, you're stuck with that.

NIALA: Why was it so important for you to include this? Because this is, this is tough. I mean, this is the heart of how hard all of this is, I think.

ELLIOTT: Yeah. To me talking about killing, when you're talking about war, is critically important. And I think it's something that is really hard for journalists to talk about with veterans, because it's really the ugliest part of war. And yet there's no war without killing. No matter what you do in the military, whether you're in the infantry and the front lines, carrying a weapon and engaged in direct combat, or whether you're a mail clerk or a helicopter mechanic, you're part of a killing machine. And for the people who are actually tasked with doing the killing on the front line, taking lives of people who they can see right in front of them. That is a profound experience for some of those people that they have a really hard time dealing with when they get home. And some of them don't have a hard time dealing with it. And for me, I think that's a really important thing to understand. That we are training killers and we are sending them to do that on our behalf. So I wanted to talk to people about that. I wanted to talk about the personal cost of that for them.

NIALA: To that point, some of that includes death. Here's some of Manny Mendoza's memories of collecting the body parts of his friend and fellow soldier.

MENDOZA 2

We had trash bags, black trash bags, picking this stuff up, picking him up.

NIALA: One of the themes of what surfaces in this podcast, in Third Squad, is the survivor's guilt of the men who made it home. As a country maybe intellectually, we understand that, but I wonder how you sought to really introduce that reality and that emotion.

ELLIOTT: One of my journalism colleagues gave me a wonderful piece of advice, which is really try to get there and make your first question something like, “Where do you think your story starts.” Rather than coming with a determined set of questions or things that you want to get out of that person, like this extractive thing. Just try to get into it that way, find out what's important to them and then follow their lead. And so that's what I did in every one of these interviews, and sure enough, those conversations very often lead to feelings of guilt and responsibility. Because Survivor's guilt and other forms of guilt are such a central part of what it means to survive war, to experience war, to survive war and to live with all of the doubt and the uncertainty related to that experience for the rest of your life. Manuel Mendoza, he's been eaten alive by his sense of responsibility and guilt and so one night that feeling of responsibility became too much for him to bear and he was pushed to the edge of taking his own life.

MENDOZA 3

I just felt like I gave up. I remember I went outside ‘cause I didn't want to make a mess inside the, uh, inside the apartment. But for some reason I just called Fry

ELLIOTT: He decided to pick up the phone and call his former squad leader, whose name is Gerrick fry and Gerrick fry was able to talk him down. So it's a really powerful story of of how this guilt can be fatal. Of how military service members who survive this kind of trauma can take the blame upon themselves can take responsibility for events that they had little to no control over in the grand scheme of things. You know, they were the thousandth repercussion of decisions that were made so far away from them and so long ago, and yet they're carrying the responsibility for all of this on their shoulders. And it's crushing. It's just absolutely crushing

NIALA: So now we have the first veteran's day in 20 years where all of the troops are home, but is it over?

ELLIOTT: No, no, it's not. It's not over for, for a lot of reasons. Number one, we still have troops deployed in combat or combat support operations all over the world, including places where what used to be called the war on terror is still going. For another reason, the internal war, the rehashing of memories, the effort to make sense of it all in some cases, living with lifelong disabilities, whether they're psychological or physical. These are things that lasts with veterans forever.

NIALA: What do you hope Third Squad as a podcast does for people? Like, what do you hope that people take away from it?

ELLIOTT: I think my biggest goal with Third Squad is I want people to sit in the room and listen to conversations between veterans about the experience of the post 9/11 wars that they've probably never had the opportunity to listen to in their lives. So few people have an intimate connection to these wars. So few people know someone who's really served or really experienced them in a, in the most direct way. And even when people know someone like that, these conversations are really hard to have. They're really painful. They're really uncomfortable. So whether we will actually reckon with these wars with this generation of war remains to be determined, but our podcast is an effort to, to try to reckon with it. That's the best that I can do. Try to reckon with it and hope that others will do the same.

NIALA: There are five episodes of Third Squad that are out now telling these stories. You can find them wherever you get podcasts. Elliott Woods is a veteran and host of Third Squad. Elliott, thank you for taking the time to talk with me and for sharing all of this. I appreciate it.

ELLIOTT: Thanks for having me. Niala thanks for everything you do. It's been a real pleasure.

NIALA: If you were someone you know, is considering suicide, you can contact the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1 (800) 273-82 55.

Axios Today is brought to you by Axios and Pushkin Industries. We’re produced by Alexandra Nuria Marqyez-Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird and David Toledo. Our sound engineer is Alex Sugiura. Julia Redpath is our Executive Producer. Sarah Kehaulani Goo is our Editor-in-Chief and special thanks to Axios Co-founder Mike Allen. Our staff is off for the holiday, so we'll see back here on Monday with the latest news. I'm Niala Boodhoo, thanks for listening and stay safe this weekend.

Go deeper

Nov 25, 2021 - Podcasts

Axios Today gives thanks for this year

On this holiday, we've got One Big Thing: what the Axios Today team is thankful for and why. Spend a few minutes with us for our bonus Thanksgiving episode!

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird, David Toledo and Jayk Cherry. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at podcasts@axios.com. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

Biden administration makes first move on data privacy

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Biden administration is launching its first big effort on privacy policy by looking at how data privacy issues affect civil rights.

Why it matters: An administration perspective on privacy policy could be key in developing a long-awaited national privacy law by putting the White House stamp on how to regulate privacy.

Axios Investigates

Exclusive: Airbnb hosts Xinjiang rentals on land owned by sanctioned group

Data: Axios research, Airbnb, Australia Strategic Policy Institute's International Cyber Policy Centre; Map: Jacque Schrag/Axios

Airbnb has more than a dozen homes available for rent in China's Xinjiang region on land owned by an organization sanctioned by the U.S. government for complicity in genocide and forced labor, an Axios investigation has found.

Why it matters: The listings expose Airbnb to regulatory risk under U.S. law. They also land yet another American tech company in the crossfire between the U.S. and China.