Travis Mills speaks at a a HospitalityMaine event in Bangor in 2018. Mills, who lost parts of all four of his limbs while serving oversees, called what happened in Afghanistan "awful" but not unexpected. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

A day after the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan’s capital, Maine veterans who served in the country during the U.S.’s 20-year military involvement there said they were disappointed but not surprised by the latest developments in a region to which many Americans had largely stopped paying attention.

About 20 Mainers died fighting in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2015, according to a list maintained by The Summit Project. The Taliban’s takeover doesn’t negate their service, said Travis Mills, a Maine Army veteran who lost portions of both his arms and legs from an IED explosion in Afghanistan in 2012.

“They did good in the world,” said Mills, 34, of Augusta. “Just because this is the outcome doesn’t mean that their service meant nothing.”

Mills is one of only five quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to survive their injuries. His foundation, the Travis Mills Foundation, assists veterans who have been injured in post-9/11 conflicts.

Several months ago, Mills went public with his support for plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. On Monday, he called the Taliban’s takeover “awful,” but not unexpected.

U.S. troops couldn’t stay in the country forever, he said. And the Taliban, who remained a strong force in the country and rebuilt throughout the U.S. occupation, had long waited to strike at the divided and feeble Afghan military, he said.

“There was no way to win the war in Afghanistan,” Mills said. “There was never going to be a clear victory.”

The surprise at the Taliban takeover reminded Craig Grossi, 38, who served in Afghanistan with the Marines from 2010 to 2011, of a joke he had heard from other service members while serving in the country: “America’s military is at war. But America’s at the mall.”

“This isn’t a failure of Democrats or Republicans, or of one administration or the next,” Grossi said. “This is a collective failure of us in our attention spans.”

Grossi is an author who wrote a book about his dog, Fred, that he met on a patrol in a remote part of Afghanistan and was able to bring back to the U.S. While he lives in the Augusta area, his work and efforts to help other animals in Afghanistan have received national coverage.

The U.S. likely won’t be viewed as a victor in the conflict he fought in, he said, but he was proud of what he was able to accomplish.

“Anything that is done with your heart never fades,” said Grossi, who also noted that he saw tremendous courage and humanity on the part of the Afghan people while he was stationed there.

He is holding out hope that American efforts to bring democratic governance to Afghanistan could allow the population to hold the Taliban accountable.

“The Taliban need the people of Afghanistan,” Grossi said. “It’s my hope that, even under Taliban occupation, that the people of Afghanistan are able to communicate what they want of their leaders.”

Afghan native Assadullah, 29, attended Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro as an exchange student from 2008 to 2009. But he spent his early years in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. He chose not to use his last name due to fear of retribution by the group against family members who still live in the country.  

He said he had been “internally crying” at the news of the Taliban’s takeover since he heard about it.

“Twenty years of building and rebuilding and people going to schools and colleges,” said Assadullah, who was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2017 and now lives in Vermont. “Now, it’s all going back to zero.”

He saw several family members killed by the Taliban, including his father. They are of the ethnic Hazara minority that is fiercely persecuted by the Taliban, primarily because they follow the Shia sect of Islam that the Taliban viewed as heretical.

San Pao, 40, of Gorham, who served with the Army National Guard in Afghanistan in 2010, said seeing the Taliban take back the country had brought him anger and discontent.

However, he has found some peace wrestling with what had happened. He would never regret his service, he said.  

“I have to be OK with the fact that I gave everything that I could at the time,” Pao said.