Late last month, Justin Doerfler fell to his knees and prayed, unable to control the tears pouring down his cheeks.
Upon learning of the 13 U.S. service members and dozens of Afghans killed in a suicide bombing Aug. 26 outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, the Brainerd combat veteran said emotion overcame him at the loss.
“But that was the only time,” Doerfler said during an interview on his rural Brainerd deck earlier this month. “Because I ended up hearing an Afghan say, ‘To every American service member out there that was in our country, our people thank you for what you did from the time you were here.’ Hearing him, I started to tear up. Because hearing him say that was lifting a darkness off my shoulders.”
The chaotic exit of American troops and the Taliban’s return to power after 20 years of U.S. occupation closed the book on the war that changed Doerfler’s life forever.
The events did not, however, take away from the pride Doerfler feels about what he and his comrades in the 114th Transportation Company accomplished while in Helmand province. They do not mean Spc. George W. Cauley, a 24-year-old Walker man with whom Doerfler served and whose grave he regularly tends, died in vain when a homemade bomb blew up his vehicle in October 2009. Doerfler said he knows they made a difference in the lives of Afghans by providing security, feeding the hungry and giving water to the thirsty.
“He was with us. He provided security, safety,” Doerfler, 41, said. “People could talk to Americans and not worry about being executed for it. Girls got to go to school. Women got to say hi and talk with us. … Over the last couple decades, they were able to do that. But again, eventually the guest needs to go home.”
Whether the Afghans he relied on while deployed are alive or safe is another question — one to which Doerfler doesn’t know the answer. Yearbook-like messages from some of these friends are among those scrawled across a British flag Doerfler keeps hanging on a wall in his home office. It’s one of many souvenirs Doerfler preserved from his time at Camp Leatherneck, which adjoined with Camp Bastion, the main British base.
“You do the best job. I am proud of you brother,” states one of three messages in three different languages left by a man named Kai, an Afghan translator with whom Doerfler worked closely.
“He’s been on my mind a lot lately,” Doerfler said.
These concerns and the experiences Doerfler carries keep him in rare company in the Brainerd lakes area — not only because a small number of locals served in Afghanistan in general, but also because veterans who’ve directly engaged in combat in the Middle East are among a select few.
He’s spent the last dozen years learning to cope with how that time in his life changed him. He’s watched some of his fellow soldiers no longer able to cope themselves. Three members of his unit have died by suicide since the deployment. Others descended into alcoholism or drug abuse, lost their relationships to divorce or otherwise suffered the mental health impacts of war, he said.
Unable to snap himself out of feeling a constant state of vigilance and numbness, Doerfler stewed in anger over fellow Americans complaining about seemingly minor things while people fought and died on the other side of the planet. He struggled to reconnect with his significant other Elodie, who also struggled herself with how to approach communication with Doerfler.
“That was my first time ever being in a war. So it didn’t come with a rulebook coming home,” he said. “I had a hard time sleeping. I had a hard time literally functioning. … Seeing how good we have it here, and then to see — when I would compare the complaints of some to what I saw mankind was capable of, it caused anger.”
This put him on a dangerous path, he said. Doerfler contemplated suicide himself at one point, ultimately checking himself into a VA hospital in 2013 for a two-month stay for psychological care. Developing a strong faith in God in recent years, caring for others through volunteer work and lending his announcing talents to Brainerd International Raceway and other racing venues helped bring balance back to Doerfler’s life. He and Elodie married in 2019 and share a home with their rescue dog Maggie, a constant companion with full control of the couch in Doerfler’s “man cave” garage.
Yet, memories endure. He’ll never forget the smallest details of his brushes with death. There was the red light of an exit sign illuminating sand granules on the concrete floor of the bunk as he took cover from approaching rocket fire. The sunset he thought would be his last during an intense and lengthy firefight with Taliban insurgents. The jingling of decorative bells fastened to Afghan delivery vehicles, any of which might contain a pressure plate trigger to a hidden bomb no protective vest or helmet would save him from.
“That was my first time ever being in a war. So it didn’t come with a rulebook coming home."
— Justin Doerfler
“Every single day was uncertain. … I had actually made goodbye videos,” Doerfler said. “I actually sat down in a folding chair and I propped my camera up on a bumper and I actually had to do a couple different takes. … When you start to see what mankind is truly capable of, and you realize the horrors, evils, terrors that can be on this planet — knowing that at any given moment you’re here and then you’re not — getting ready for that, that was unique.”
Doerfler joined the Army National Guard as a junior in Lake Region Christian School in 1997, becoming part of the 1st Combined Arms Battalion. When 9/11 happened four years later, Doerfler said he expected to and was ready to go to war — but that moment didn’t come, at least not in the immediate aftermath.
In 2005 with his eight-year obligation fulfilled, Doerfler was participating in his final drill at Camp Ripley doing range control when he received a call asking if he wanted to deploy to Iraq. With just three days’ notice until departure leaving him feeling unprepared, Doerfler turned down the request.
He left the Guard and soon moved to Miami, Florida, where he lived for a couple of years before returning to Brainerd. Being home again brought feelings of longing to be back in the military, so Doerfler reenlisted in 2008. Just two months into this second stint, Doerfler took a phone call in a car lot where he was in the midst of negotiating a deal. The call informed him he would be transferred to a newly formed unit and would deploy to Afghanistan. Needless to say, Doerfler no longer needed a new vehicle.
He soon found himself training among a group of soldiers thrust together from across the state — 187 people from 112 different Minnesota cities, Doerfler said.
“Literally, almost nobody knew each other and just got shoved into one unit. And basically they said, ‘Figure it out guys, this is going to be your job,’” he said.
That job was to operate a transportation unit tasked with running logistical convoys, ensuring infantry, medics and others had the supplies they needed. As these convoys traveled through Afghanistan, they needed a security force to help ensure their safety. This included Doerfler, who — along with the other volunteers — was separated from the group to train specifically for how to engage in firefights, should the convoy be attacked.
“Our platoon sergeant says, ‘Who’s single or who doesn’t have kids? Who doesn’t have a spouse? Those are the people we should really have as gunners,’” Doerfler explained. “Reluctantly, there was some of us who started to raise our hands.”
Doerfler’s time in Afghanistan nearly ended before it really began when, during his first mission, a convoy to the area of operation, he lost consciousness amid extreme conditions with the heat index reaching 136 degrees. He and five others in the convoy required medical evacuations, and Doerfler was transported to a Canadian base to be treated.
"All I could think about is, I just survived today. How in the hell am I going to die tonight? I didn't get a chance to call home, say I love you."
— Justin Doerfler
Disoriented when he awoke, Doerfler first thought he was home in his bed in Brainerd before he realized he couldn’t understand the language being spoken. He remembered he was in Afghanistan. His thoughts turned to the idea he’d been captured as a prisoner of war before he wondered if his truck was hit by a roadside bomb. He frantically inspected his limbs — they were all accounted for. Doerfler soon learned he suffered from water intoxication and heat stroke. He’d drunk so much water in the heat, there was little sodium left in his body to regulate the balance of fluids and he nearly drowned from the inside.
Later that same night, asleep in a bunk, the camp came under a rocket attack by Taliban fighters.
“Not only does it wake you out of a dead sleep, but the concussion, you feel that pressure because it almost sucks the air out of your lungs,” Doerfler said, adding in the rush to get to the floor from his bunk, his foot became lodged by a bar on his cot and it twisted his ankle.
A second strike sounded closer and a third even closer, with rocks hitting the roof overhead indicating the proximity.
“All I could think about is, I just survived today. How in the hell am I going to die tonight? I didn't get a chance to call home, say I love you,” Doerfler said.
The next explosion was different, however — it was the Canadians firing back.
“I started just chain-smoking, because of the adrenaline. You just transitioned from, I knew I was dead, to right now, the Canadians are putting foot to ass however they can,” he said.
After that harrowing introductory experience, Doerfler spent the first couple of months on tower duty at Camp Leatherneck, observing the perimeter of the base and acting as the first and last line of defense against any enemies looking to encroach.
During one of these stints, Doerfler and a Marine watched a group of Afghans approaching the wire. The group ignored a number of warnings issued as part of the escalation of force protocol, including pyroflares, before beginning to cut through the wire.
Doerfler readied himself with an automatic weapon, grabbing a scope from his Marine counterpart to attach to the gun. He removed the safety, placed his finger on the trigger and watched through the scope as a boy no older than 10 scurried through the hole in the fence, grabbed a discarded soda can and ran back out before hopping on a moped and leaving.
Getting that close to killing a child left Doerfler rattled, and he described it as one of the longest seconds he’d ever known. It wasn’t unusual for Afghans to collect items like this to be later sold as part of artwork in a village bazaar. Still, there remained the possibility the soda can was destined for something more nefarious, and the situation illustrates the numerous life and death calculations Doerfler was forced to make regularly.
“That pop can can be sold as a beautiful art piece in town, or it can be the pressure plate that ends your life,” he said. “And so that whole night, I just kept picturing that kid’s face in my head. I almost shot a kid with a belt-fed weapon. … You notice how the psychology is. You’re starting to realize the gravity of what human life is and what is it going to be like to take a human life, even if it’s a kid.”
Doerfler went on to serve at the main entry point, assisting in inspecting the individuals and vehicles entering the base with deliveries. This included patting people down for bomb vests and inspecting inside and outside cars and trucks, particularly if British bomb dogs indicated the possible presence of explosives. And there were examples of suicide bombings at base entrances that killed NATO troops while Doerfler was in Afghanistan.
Some of these vehicles were what the soldiers referred to as “jingle trucks,” decked out with stickers, decals, reflectors, brightly colored knick-knacks and bells. They often included pictures clipped from magazines of foreign locations — sometimes, photographs of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, a disconcerting find nearly a decade post-9/11. It seemed the advanced infrastructure was the draw, given they’d also display photos of towers in Dubai or London or China as well. But it presented yet another situation when intentions weren’t clear.
"I could picture my mom in my head, and what was gonna happen when she saw two uniforms walking up the driveway."
— Justin Doerfler
“You didn’t know what to think. Your brain is trying to say, you want to see the innocence of them wanting to see these big structures. Yet at the same time, coming out of here, we don’t have those towers anymore,” Doerfler said. “There’s a fine line. You’re walking a tightrope of trying to find the innocence, as well as, is this person a threat? It’s almost like you have to, on the fly, analyze instantly.”
Doerfler’s final assignment saw him providing convoy security, the job for which he originally received training. It was during one of these missions when he found himself in the middle of the most intense fighting he would see on the deployment.
Shooting from the Taliban persisted through an entire day with the first shots ringing out at 11:30 a.m. As the sun set, the barrage intensified. Doerfler communicated with a soldier in another truck, asking him for a warning if he saw anything approaching from behind the western direction Doerfler faced. The soldier leaned out the truck window and gave Doerfler a thumbs-up, prompting sniper fire. A bullet ricocheted off the truck armor and whizzed past Doerfler’s cheek, gunfire and mortar blasts sounding all around him. A horn blast soon after was the warning he asked for, and then he took fire from multiple directions.
“I could picture my mom in my head, and what was gonna happen when she saw two uniforms walking up the driveway,” he said. “And all I was whispering was, ‘Be strong,’ because I knew at this moment, I’m not going to be surviving this. I will not see the sunset. … The only thing that ran through my head, I hope it doesn’t hurt.”
The convoy received a warning to pull down their weapons and lock down the hatches on their trucks as a B-1 bomber approached but ultimately, bombs weren’t necessary as the threat abated.
The toll of these traumatic circumstances on Doerfler was apparent even before he returned to American soil. Revisiting some of the journal entries he wrote while deployed offered an early look at the struggles that would plague him for years to come.
“I wrote in my journal, ‘I don’t want to die, but maybe just taking a shot will help me feel anything.’ Because I had been so numb, physically and mentally,” he said. “I didn’t know what emotion was anymore. Every day was the same. You don’t even know if you’re gonna live or not.”
Doerfler is grateful he’s no longer shrouded in the darkness from which he once saw no exit, even as recently as three years ago. Spending time exploring himself and his relationship to faith gave him an outlet — and hope.
“That’s only because I’ve literally been strengthening in my faith,” he said. “I heard it said best this past week. During scary times, we can either view it as everything is falling apart or as it’s all coming together. There’s where I tried actually looking at, what is prophecy? Is it just a story? Or was there a science that ancient people had?
“ … Evil exists, and that means the flip side of that coin exists as well.”