War-weary and disenchanted, elite German special forces soldier, Markus Kreutzer, is bitter about the lack of support for troops coming home from their mission in Afghanistan.
The days were dark and there was "no point left to my life," recalls Markus Kreutzer, about returning home from Afghanistan.
He was sent to Afghanistan five times with Germany's elite force, 'Kommando Spezialkräfte', or KSK. It had always seemed to work out, even in some testing situations: parachuting behind enemy lines, firefights with Taliban insurgents that lasted for days, or personally amputating the leg of a comrade.
Then, he was supposed to return to Germany and train young soldiers for their missions. But, finally, at one point he couldn't do it anymore: "I just couldn't look into the faces of these guys, these young paratroopers," says Kreutzer, "because I knew that in the worst case they'd be coming home in a body bag."
Kreutzer, who used to be gregarious and positive, became aggressive. The ambitious athlete drank alcohol every day and withdrew into himself more and more.
A superior noticed the change and recommended that he leave the special forces. That was a few years ago. After that, Kreutzer fell deeper and deeper into a hole. He couldn't sleep and would go out running at 5 a.m. He didn't want to see anybody and contemplated suicide. He had nightmares, and even today, he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night bathed in sweat.
'The corpses are always with you'
The sight of seven Afghan children with arms and legs torn off after a suicide bomb attack is just one of the images still haunting Markus Kreutzer. The memories and the acrid smell of burnt flesh are unbearable. "The corpses are always with you; they come and go, but they will probably never leave for good," he says.
One of his worst experiences, Kreutzer says, was when he "entered towns where we were fighting the Taliban, and women and children were tied to the windows." The insurgents knew how the German would respond; "that we would rather retreat and die ourselves before shooting women and children. I really learned what barbarity was," he says.
'Our sacrifice is not recognized'
Now in his mid-40s, Kreutzer has many unanswered questions, after beginning with so much idealism. He comes from a military family and wanted to protect his fellow Germans around the world. Today, he is critical of the general public. "We, as soldiers, are way off on the sidelines of society. We get no recognition," he notes. The KSK get called up when tourists have been kidnapped on adventurous holidays in areas the government has warned not to visit. But other than that, no one is really aware of what we do, he says.
Kreutzer was one of the first KSK commandos sent to Afghanistan by the German parliament after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Back then, the mission was top secret; a "mistake in a democracy," says Kreutzer. Details of a mission do not need to be made known, but soldiers need the support of the public, he emphasizes.
He was also disappointed by the military leadership. He says he was really angry about how naïve many commanders were in Afghanistan. "They didn't understand that we were actually at war," he says, "and the politicians listen to these people."
High stakes, little success
Kreutzer is bitter about the Afghan mission: "We are leaving in 2014 and in 2015 the country will be back in the hands of the Taliban." The high stakes and effort of his comrades have changed nothing, he argues. "Peoples' lives were ruined for no reason at all. The successes, which my chancellor tries to tell us we've had - I just don't see them."
The former KSK man explains that he and his comrades had tried to recommend what should be done after they saw the situation in Afghanistan, but no one listened. "No regular troops on the ground, just satellite surveillance, drones and special forces - go in, destroy, get out. That would have cost fewer lives and saved billions of euros. But it was a political issue."
'We are also Germany'
Markus Kreutzer would like to see Germany's leaders do more for the troops sent off on missions. "We are also Germany. We are the people," he says. But Germans are fearful: "We still have this World War Two trauma. Being a soldier means being something evil, and it's just not like that."
Today, this career soldier is a civil servant with a desk job for life. But many other soldiers on limited tours of duty are no longer in the armed forces and have little financial or emotional support. Many were wounded and traumatized – and are now struggling to make ends meet.
Author: Andrea Grunau /gb
Editor: Richard Connor