Editor’s Note: The following article contains unfiltered details of the realities of the war in Afghanistan.
“It is stupid easy to kill a person. I’ve killed a significant number of people. I counted 13 with my rifle, and then I stopped counting.”
John Bohlinger was a young Marine, a 20-year-old lance corporal, when he shot and killed his first Taliban during the war in Afghanistan.
“But with my radio, I killed a lot more people, a lot more people.”
John was a radio operator with the Third Squad from the First Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment – known simply as the 1-5. The unit deployed to Sangin, Afghanistan in April 2011. When they returned to Camp Pendleton seven months later, 17 Marines from the 1-5 had been killed in action and nearly 200 more came home wounded.
A 12-part documentary podcast, “Third Squad after Afghanistan,” debuted aboard the USS Midway Museum on Veterans Day 2021. Before a captivated audience on the museum’s hangar deck, John and other Third Squad Marines recounted their harrowing experiences in Afghanistan and how they shaped their lives over the last 10 years.
The podcast, written and produced by award-winning journalist Elliott Woods, chronicles the experiences of a dozen Marines in Third Squad. Elliott was embedded with the 1-5 in summer 2011 while they were waging war with the Taliban in Sangin. For the U.S. Marine Corps, the Battle for Sangin, which lasted nearly two years, is still considered the bloodiest battleground of Afghanistan.
“Being with Third Squad in Sangin was intense,” said Elliott, himself an Army veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2004. “They welcomed me and allowed me into their world without any reservations, but they were scared and strung out.”
“I decided to participate in the podcast because I believe in the story and its intent,” said John, now an apprentice arborist who lives with his wife and two sons in Spearfish, South Dakota. “I believe it’s a story that needs to be told and the various perspectives are important in telling the story.”
For Elliott, he hopes the people who listen to the podcast will hear candid conversations between veterans about the most vexing issues related to the post-9/11 wars – how frontline troops move from the horrors of combat down the rocky road back to civilian life in a country that had already moved on from the battles that raged on the other side of the world.
“I wanted to go back to the story of the Third Squad because I left Sangin in 2011 feeling like there was something profoundly important about what the Marines endured there,” said Elliott, who spent more than a year on the podcast. “I felt like I wasn’t able to get the full story at the time. I also knew that the story of how the war has affected them over the last decade would be powerful and important for Americans to hear.”
Elliott also sees the podcast on the Third Squad as an opportunity for people to learn about the history of the Afghanistan War from the perspective of the ordinary Marine grunt who, like the Army solider, did the majority of the fighting and paid the steepest price. He believes it’s an invitation to reckon with a difficult and contentious question – what can we learn from this tragedy in order to avoid repeating it?
Dr. Greg Daddis, the USS Midway chair of modern U.S. military history at San Diego State University (SDSU), feels it’s critical to investigate the consequences of the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan. The Third Squad podcast was done in collaboration with the Center for War and Society at SDSU of which Greg is the director.
“Looking at Afghanistan, I think many Americans ask why is it that we did not learn certain lessons from the Vietnam War?” said Greg, who also moderated the podcast announcement event on Midway. “Many of us likely have also asked what kind of mistakes did the U.S. civilian and military leaders make in Afghanistan and what the similarities were with Vietnam?”
After a decade of reflection for John, who witnessed several of his close friends and brothers-in-arms perish during the intense fighting in Afghanistan, the answer is clear.
“I hope we never again send Americans into harm’s way without a clear mission and objective,” said the 31-year-old John. “To me the podcast is about Third Squad, but our story repeats in units across Afghanistan over the course of the war. Some people can accept it at face value, but to me it’s a tragedy. No one has a clear answer to why we were there.”
The man John Bohlinger who went to war in Afghanistan, is not the John Bohlinger who came back home. Ten years later, he continues to work through the long-term effects of trauma.
“I spent years learning and teaching how to kill people, and then doing it,” said John in an interview for the podcast. “In the situation, you’re fighting for your life. So I don’t feel bad about it. My personal goal now is to show other veterans they are not alone and it’s ok to be human. I want veterans to understand that by helping themselves they can help their families.”
“By talking to me and opening up about their private pain, their frustrations and uncertainties, the Third Squad Marines did something that I consider exceptionally brave,” said Elliott following months of interviews. “I think they did something harder than running into a gunfight – they told the truth.”
The “Third Squad after Afghanistan” podcast can be found on the iHeart App or wherever podcasts are available.