General Donald Bolduc on the U.S. War in Afghanistan

Jul 25, 2017

In this inspiring interview, Brig. Gen. Bolduc discusses his time in Afghanistan and his assessment of the situation there as well as in Africa, where he was in charge of countering violent extremism. He also reveals his experiences with PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and multiple other physical injuries, explaining how he finally got help and how he is working hard to help others with the same issues.

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart. I'm sitting down with General Donald Bolduc today at Carnegie Council here in New York City.

General, it's great to have you here at Carnegie Council.

DONALD BOLDUC: Thank you very much for this opportunity. It's great to be here.

DEVIN STEWART: Until very recently, you were commander of Special Operations Command-Africa (SOCAF). Tell our listeners, what does that service entail?

DONALD BOLDUC: Special Operations Command-Africa is a subordinate command of Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in Tampa, Florida, and we work directly for the United States Africa Command (U.S. AFRICOM) out of Stuttgart, Germany. Our job is specifically to support our partners in countering violent extremist organizations, build capability and capacity in them to do so, and enable and support them without removing their will to own the fight, the solution, and the problem. We advise and assist in the planning and execution of their operations. We provide crisis response to high-profile attacks against our partners, against hotels, against U.S. interests, against embassies, or any other type of U.S. property, and in the protection of American citizens.

Ultimately what we're designed to do is to support our partners, work through, with, and by them to provide a security environment that allows others to improve governance, socioeconomic development, and civil administration.

DEVIN STEWART: Your U.S. Army involvement with North Africa, the Middle East, and Africa goes back quite a long way. I understand from your biography that you were one of the first people into Afghanistan right after 9/11 and that you rode with Hamid Karzai across Southern Afghanistan to secure Kandahar. What was that like? Give us the situation.

DONALD BOLDUC: Of course, that was a very interesting experience, to say the least.

First, let me just talk about the fact that those actions were driven by the horrific attacks here in New York City and in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon, and I'd just like to extend to the listeners my sincere condolences for the loss of life that that was incurred, because we still feel that today, even though it happened in 2001. It certainly was the genesis for what we're doing today in many areas of the world. So there is a huge connection not only to what we're doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, but other places in the world, specifically in my case, Africa.

The visual that I have when I think of this is a drawing that came out where you had a fireman holding the American flag. And he was holding the American flag on top of the rubble of the Twin Towers, and he's turning to pass the flag, and the caption above it reads, "It's your turn," and he's handing it to an American soldier.

DEVIN STEWART: So it looks like Iwo Jima?

DONALD BOLDUC: Yes. It's a wonderful drawing that I have at my house. It came out when we deployed to Afghanistan on that first rotation, and it really motivated us because it connected exactly what happened here in the United States to what we were doing there, and that is hugely important.

Remember, in Afghanistan at that time we had less than 300 Americans between the north and the south. We had two campaigns going on simultaneously; one in the north and one in the south. I was specifically oriented on the one in the south. My brother, who is now a retired master sergeant, was up north at the time, and our youngest brother was the aide to the commanding general who was in charge of United States Army Special Forces Command at the time, so very connected, very much. That image reminded me of a painting on the Civil War where Joshua Chamberlain and his two brothers were on the battlefield and it said, "A hard day for Mother."

Connecting all of that, it was a quite interesting time working with Hamid Karzai, gaining his trust, and enabling and supporting him, advising and assisting him, and giving him the support that he needed in order to win the Southern campaign. The crown jewel of that, of course, was Kandahar, which was the religious center of gravity of Afghanistan.

If you look at Afghanistan, the political center of gravity is Kabul, and the guys in the Northern campaign were focused on that. The Southern center of gravity was the religious center of gravity, which was Kandahar. We supported Hamid Karzai in those efforts, working with him and ensuring that he had good communications to talk to the folks setting up the Bonn Conference, which established the overall political structure of Afghanistan, and talking to reporters and keeping the media informed, as well as watching him work very closely, and I would say very competently, with the tribal and village elders, getting them to come on our side. Because we started with nobody—we started with Hamid Karzai—and every place we went our forces grew.

One of the things you had to get used to very quickly was this idea in their culture of changing sides. They would look and evaluate who was the strongest, and they would switch sides. So it was important for us to understand that and maintain in their eyes the stronger of the two opponents, us or the Taliban. That's why our numbers grew the further south we got. We started in Tarinkot, and we worked our way down into Kandahar. That was very significant.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you think we've been doing in Afghanistan since then?

DONALD BOLDUC: I think through the years we have made progress, and we have also experienced setbacks with an enemy or a threat that is extremely flexible, adaptive, one that understands its environment and how to operate in and among the populace, when to mass, when not to mass. So as we have worked to build the security infrastructure for the Afghans, we have gone back and forth in terms of their ability to maintain security.

That comes with challenges, and of course, that is long-term; building a government, building non-security and security ministries. You're trying to empower the populace, the tribal elders, to be able to stand up for themselves, connect that into the district, provincial, and national levels, and all that takes time. We want to let them do it, and that comes with setbacks, and those setbacks, you just have to regroup and continue to move forward.

It's been a sliding scale, and that's what I see. I have not been back in Afghanistan since 2013, but I do keep up with current events, and that's kind of how I see it.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you describe U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Africa in general?

DONALD BOLDUC: The strategy in Afghanistan is one that is designed to empower the government and empower the security forces. I think to that extent, things are going as well as can be expected given the capabilities and capacities of the Afghans.

DEVIN STEWART: So, it's to maintain security.


The dilemma and the difference between Afghanistan and Africa is this: Historically Afghanistan has a central government that controls nothing except for religion, politics, and the commerce between the urban areas. It does not control the rural areas, it never has and cannot. It's too vast, and that's just not how they see themselves.

The rural areas, all they ask for is to be left alone by a central government, to be able to farm, take care of their families, and bring their produce and their livestock to the urban area in order to take it to market. When that gets interrupted, then they have problems. So a centralized government that doesn't control the local area.

In Africa it's the exact opposite. You have a strong central government that controls everything. The problem that we find in security in Africa is there are no local mechanisms to support the populace where the enemy operates. So in addition to building a capability and capacity in our African partners to be able to deal with the threat, there is this parallel piece that has to be built from national to local, and local to national, in order to be able to provide competent civil administration at all levels, to be able to practice good governance, deliver socioeconomic development to the populace. And then the third thing is a competent civil administration that the people can go to to get grievances resolved. There is law enforcement, there is order, there is discipline, there are things in that that people look at at any local level.

Building that simultaneously in Africa is also a long-term proposition. It is going to require a lot of time and a lot of effort, and it's going to have to be done simultaneously with dealing with the threat that's on the continent that has been growing over the last five years.

DEVIN STEWART: Are you optimistic about those two regions, the Middle East and Africa?

DONALD BOLDUC: I am a very optimistic person. I'm not a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty kind of guy; I'm just glad to have a glass. And as long as we have something to work with, I think we'll be good. As long as we involve the international community and our other coalition partners, I think we'll do just fine.

DEVIN STEWART: Do we have what we need? Do we have that glass?

DONALD BOLDUC: I think we have the glass.

DEVIN STEWART: What does it look like?

DONALD BOLDUC: It's a small glass, and it needs to be built.

DEVIN STEWART: It's a tumbler.

DONALD BOLDUC: It's a shot glass. We need to develop bottom-up infrastructure at the same time that we develop top-down, and we need to make sure that we do it in a way that doesn't outpace our partners' capability to absorb the things that we give them. That is very important as well. That is why it's a game of inches in the near to midterm.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounds brutal. That's tough.

DONALD BOLDUC: It's going to be long term. It's going to be tough.

DEVIN STEWART: That's tough.

DONALD BOLDUC: There is no shortcut.

DEVIN STEWART: What's the key to fighting terrorism, do you think? One of your areas of expertise.

DONALD BOLDUC: Here's the key, if I can just orient it to Africa: When we looked at Africa about 26 months ago, we saw that we were approaching the problem one country at a time, and we realized that we probably needed to change that, but we needed to leverage our partners in order to be able to understand how we would do that.

What the AFRICOM commander directed was, "Hey, we need to regionalize this." So we looked at it from our position and determined that regionalizing the effort—so East Africa, Lake Chad Basin, the Sahel, West Africa, North Africa—it's all connected by the threat and by our partners. We have the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/Syria (ISIL/ISIS) in the north, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the north, and their various affiliates and associates. We have them down in the west. We have the ISIS in the west; we have AQIM in the west. Across the Sahel, same issues. Into Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin we have Boko Haram and ISIS West Africa. In Central Africa now, you saw in the news the Ugandans just arrested some ISIS folks inside their country. And then in East Africa, Somalia and the surrounding countries there, they have Al-Shabaab and then a very nascent form of ISIS in Somalia.

Outside of that you have Yemen, and that's problematic because it's just a short boat ride across, and they're working together there; you have the Mediterranean and Europe; you have the Middle East and the Levant; you have South America, which a lot of people don't think about, but there is a huge illicit trafficking, criminal, and terrorist network that goes back and forth there.

So Africa affects every region in the world, and an unstable Africa is not in anyone's interest. That's what the threat is trying to do: maintain the instability by conducting operations against the security forces and the governance there.

What we need to do is our small part through a comprehensive approach, and that small part is work with our partners to give them the capability to counter the violent extremists, who, depending on what opportunity they have, either mass and conduct attacks like you would see in a normal conventional way, or they disperse and do asymmetric.

But the important thing is to disrupt them, to degrade them wherever they're operating, to contain them. To me, in Africa, win equals neutralize, render them ineffective. I do not think that we will ever—we haven't done it in thousands of years—defeat that ideology. But what we can do is create strong governments, good socioeconomic conditions, and good civil administration with military and police forces that are able to maintain the neutralization of these groups. And if we can render them ineffective, I think we can call that a win based off of how they operate.

DEVIN STEWART: And when you say "that ideology," which one do you mean specifically?

DONALD BOLDUC: I call it an extremist Islamic ideology that is a perversion of the Muslim religion.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk about another challenge for the American military, which is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There was an inspiring article in The New York Times: "A General's New Mission: Leading a Charge Against PTSD," and it features you as a main character, General. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience with posttraumatic stress? Do you feel comfortable?

DONALD BOLDUC: I would like to, sure, if you don't mind. I don't want to make this about me, but I think it is relevant to the entire story.

I have been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress. I've been medically diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI), and I have pain management issues that have everything to do with compressed discs in my neck, to having both of my hips replaced, to having stress-induced ulcers from my esophagus down through my bowels, which I'm being treated for, to rotator cuff injuries. These have to do with blast injury and helicopter crash and all the other things that I've done in my military career. So it's a compilation.

Suffice it to say, when you're in pain and you're not getting treated for it, when you have psychological stress that you're not being treated for, and when you have traumatic brain injury and part of your brain is affecting your ability to remember, your balance, your ability to remember words, articulate thoughts, it becomes very frustrating for you. That altogether adds a tremendous amount of stress, which you end up demonstrating in a negative way in both your personal and professional lives. For many years I was doing that.

The only way I would address that is I would volunteer to deploy again and again and again, because in a deployment area I was very normal. Those things—hypervigilance, irritability—didn't stand out there, but it was when I came home that it stood out.

DEVIN STEWART: Is that a common response to posttraumatic stress, to want to go back into the battlefield?

DONALD BOLDUC: I think it is among special operation forces. I can talk about them because that's where I've just spent a majority of my career. They are not looking for a way to get out; they're looking for a way to be better. Certainly if being deployed makes them feel better—they feel normal in a combat environment as opposed to feeling normal back home because they're putting their family through the wringer; they're putting their friends, colleagues, and coworkers through the wringer; and people are looking at you, and you look pretty normal, but you don't act very normal, and they just put you in "the-guy's-a-jerk" category. I've got another word I call myself during that time frame. It does affect everything that you do, where you go, how you socialize, and it has a tremendous effect.

My wife is a nurse, and she has spent a lot of time studying this stuff, and she has noticed it in me. Every time I came back I was a little bit different. She's a great wife, and she pointed that out to me. But it wasn't until 2013 that it all came to a head, not only in my house, but also, I think, evaluating my career. I was like, "Hey, I've got to make some changes."

She said, "Yeah, we can't take it anymore. I can't take it, the kids can't take it, the dog and the cat. You need to get some help."

So I did. I went to the medical professionals up at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, and they have a program to evaluate all this. I got evaluated. I knew where my deficiencies were. I started getting treatment. After two years of the treatment, I needed a little bit more help, so I'm on medication for my PTSD, and it has changed my life.

I thought at that time—it was about the time that I was taking command of SOC-Africa—Now I'm going to be a commander. I'm going to be a commanding general.

DEVIN STEWART: Which year was this?

DONALD BOLDUC: April 24, 2015, to be exact. I said, "You know what? I'm going to make a difference here with the people in this unit and the families in this unit." So the same type of program that I put myself through, I got with my senior enlisted advisor, command master chief, Navy SEAL Rich Puglisi, who was diagnosed with the same things, going through the same problems at home, and our command message was, "We need to set up a system where we can get you help." And we did just that.

In short order, working through our docs, working through Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Sarah McNary, the nurse-provider up there—a great nurse who saved a tremendous number of lives and marriages and families, as far as I'm concerned—did the whole diagnostic and got everything written down for our guys. At the end of the day, after two years, 52 people were diagnosed with PTSD, 471 with traumatic brain injury, and hundreds of others with pain issues. And some of them have all three like me—PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and pain issues.

Once you address all those in a health triad—body, mind, and spirit—to address your readiness issues, and you understand and destigmatize PTSD—because our SOC guys, they want to get help so that they can do their job better. They don't want to get help so they can get out and get on some kind of pension, they want to do better. The promise we made to them was: "You'll stay in your job. We're not going to pull you off your team, we promise you, unless there is a significant medical issue." And we got all kinds of people signed up and ready to go.

Family members were telling me and my command master chief, Rich Puglisi, how great this was and how it saved their marriage and so on, and I say, "Hey, you saved your marriage. You two got together and you figured this out. You saved your marriage. We had nothing to do with it."

So the leadership, the programs, the support to destigmatize was huge. The command master sergeant, who had 48 guys in his charge, took them all over to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center at the end of their deployment, got them all screened, and what did we find in him? We found a tumor on his brain. We sent him to Walter Reed, and he got it operated on. At the same time he was being evaluated, they recognized that his hip needed to be replaced, so he got the tumor removed and his hip replaced. He's back on his team now. Right now he's in the schoolhouse, he transferred to the schoolhouse, and he is training folks. That kind of buy-in, that kind of participation, who knows when he would have gone in to get that tumor looked at? It may have been when it was life-threatening.

So you destigmatize that, you address the root causes of pain management, spiritual health, stress management, and then you get growth and you build resiliency in your organization, and that's what we've seen. Understanding it better myself has led me to help others, and that's the name of the game. That's what commanders and leadership are supposed to do, create conditions so that people can do their mission better, take care of the people who are doing that mission, and then take care of their families.

DEVIN STEWART: And things are getting better with the treatment of PTSD?

DONALD BOLDUC: I think they are. I think the services in connection with many civilian non-profits and other agencies and the medical community all have a very good understanding of this and the treatments that we need.

We just need, I think, to do a better job of screening our guys while they're on active duty, getting them help while they're on active duty, following this all the way through into retirement so that we have fewer problems in our veterans or fewer problems in those who decide to sign up for a short period of time and then get out, which is fine. They serve their country, and that's great—but we owe them, too. I think that will have a significant impact on some of the high statistics that we see with suicide and homeless rates and drug and alcohol addiction among our veterans.

DEVIN STEWART: Changing the topic a little bit, there's a brand new movie that was premiered at Sundance. It's called Legion of Brothers. It features you, General, playing yourself, am I correct?


DEVIN STEWART: It also features many of the other people who responded to 9/11 in our U.S. military.

Tell us about this movie. What's the story?

DONALD BOLDUC: The story centers around the tragic incident with a 2,000-pound bomb exploding on top of the team that I was with, the 26 Americans who were on the ground with our 200-plus Afghan partners, to include Hamid Karzai—and he was not hurt. It centers around that incident, and then the lives of the individuals through that, and then an analysis of how it happened, why it happened, are there any regrets.

Of course I'd give anything today to roll back the calendar, never have a 9/11. I would give the awards back. I would give the promotions back, give everything back not to have this ever to occur.

What it does is it just follows the lives and gets commentary from those who are still around, and follows that story and how they've been affected by that particular incident.

I have not seen it yet, so holistically I don't know. I know what my role was in it—I know what I did—but I don't know what others said and what others did inside the Legion of Brothers documentary. I did account for my actions.

Although on that day I wouldn't change anything that we did, I certainly significantly regret the loss of life that occurred and that the incident occurred at all. I pray for all those guys. Every single day they're in my prayers.

I think, though, at the end of the day that what we did by bringing Hamid Karzai down to Kandahar, by securing Kandahar in that first rotation, and giving Southern Afghanistan back to the Afghans and not the Taliban, honored the sacrifices of the men on that day, and that's something that we have to remember.

I have 81 dog tags in a wooden-and-glass case that sits in my office, and those are the 81 people that I was responsible for in some fashion while we were deployed that made the ultimate sacrifice. I keep that in my office as a constant reminder of what is important, and it's that sacrifice that they made and that their families made. I try to acquit myself with honor every day and do the best that I possibly can in honor of them.

DEVIN STEWART: We thank you, and we will definitely see Legion of Brothers, that's for sure.

As we wrap up, General, what's next for you? What's your next chapter?

DONALD BOLDUC: My next chapter is I'll be going to—as we joked earlier—to "Fort Living Room" so I'll be retiring—

DEVIN STEWART: Sounds picturesque.

DONALD BOLDUC: —in the great state of New Hampshire, where my wife and I intend to integrate into a community and become productive members of that community and serve in a different way. I am hoping to get involved in supporting veterans who are transitioning, those who are suffering with PTSD, TBI, and pain management, and work with folks who have dedicated themselves to supporting our veterans. That's what I'd like to do, that's what my wife would like to do.

Then, of course, we have two grandchildren and another one on the way up in that neck of the woods, so spending time with family that I haven't been able to do over the last 32 years and getting back to my home state, I think we'll be enjoying that as well.

DEVIN STEWART: Congratulations, General Bolduc.


DEVIN STEWART: Thanks for coming by today, and we really appreciate it.

DONALD BOLDUC: My pleasure, sir. Thank you, and I appreciate what your organization does. God bless you.

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