Trump Got Written Briefing in February on Possible Russian Bounties, Officials Say

The investigation into Russia’s suspected operation is said to focus in part on the killings of three Marines in a truck bombing last year, officials said.

American officials provided a written briefing in late February to President Trump laying out their conclusion that a Russian military intelligence unit offered and paid bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, two officials familiar with the matter said.

The investigation into the suspected Russian covert operation to incentivize such killings has focused in part on an April 2019 car bombing that killed three Marines as one such potential attack, according to multiple officials familiar with the matter.

The new information emerged as the White House tried on Monday to play down the intelligence assessment that Russia sought to encourage and reward killings — including reiterating a claim that Mr. Trump was never briefed about the matter and portraying the conclusion as disputed and dubious.

But that stance clashed with the disclosure by two officials that the intelligence was included months ago in Mr. Trump’s President’s Daily Brief document — a compilation of the government’s latest secrets and best insights about foreign policy and national security that is prepared for him to read. One of the officials said the item appeared in Mr. Trump’s brief in late February; the other cited Feb. 27, specifically.

Moreover, a description of the intelligence assessment that the Russian unit had carried out the bounties plot was also seen as serious and solid enough to disseminate more broadly across the intelligence community in a May 4 article in the C.I.A.’s World Intelligence Review, a classified compendium commonly referred to as The Wire, two officials said.

A National Security Council spokesman declined to comment on any connection between the Marines’ deaths and the suspected Russian plot. The White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, did not answer when pressed by reporters on Monday whether the intelligence was included in the written President’s Daily Brief, and the National Security Council spokesman pointed to her comments when asked later about the February written briefing.

Late Monday, John Ratcliffe, the recently confirmed director of national intelligence, issued a statement warning that leaks about the matter were a crime.

“We are still investigating the alleged intelligence referenced in recent media reporting, and we will brief the president and congressional leaders at the appropriate time,” he said. “This is the analytic process working the way it should. Unfortunately, unauthorized disclosures now jeopardize our ability to ever find out the full story with respect to these allegations.”

The disclosures came amid a growing furor in Washington over the revelations in recent days that the Trump administration had known for months about the intelligence conclusion but the White House had authorized no response to Russia.

Top Democrats in the House and Senate demanded that all members of Congress be briefed, and the White House summoned a small group of House Republicans friendly to the president to begin explaining its position.

The lawmakers emerged saying that they were told the administration was reviewing reporting about the suspected Russian plot to assess its credibility. They also said the underlying intelligence was conflicting, echoing comments from Ms. McEnany that the information in the assessment had not been “verified” because, she said without detail, there were “dissenting opinions” among analysts or agencies.

“There was not a consensus among the intelligence community,” Ms. McEnany said. “And, in fact, there were dissenting opinions within the intelligence community, and it would not be elevated to the president until it was verified.”

Later Monday, Robert C. O’Brien, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, echoed her insistence that the reports were unsubstantiated.

But in denying that Mr. Trump was briefed, administration officials have been coy about how it is defining that concept and whether it includes both oral briefings and the President’s Daily Brief. “He was not personally briefed on the matter,” Ms. McEnany told reporters when asked specifically about the written briefing. “That is all I can share with you today.”

Mr. Trump is said to often neglect reading that document, preferring instead to receive an oral briefing summarizing highlights every few days. Even in those face-to-face meetings, he is particularly difficult to brief on national security matters. He often relies instead on conservative media and friends for information, current and former intelligence officials have said.

American intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan began raising alarms as early as January, and the National Security Council convened an interagency meeting to discuss the problem and what to do about it in late March, The New York Times has previously reported. But despite being presented with options, including a diplomatic protest and sanctions, the White House authorized no response.

The administration’s explanations on Monday, in public and in private, appeared to be an attempt to placate lawmakers, particularly Mr. Trump’s fellow Republicans, alarmed by news reports in recent days revealing the existence of the intelligence assessment and Mr. Trump’s insistence he had not been warned of the suspected Russian plot.

The assessments pointing to a Russian scheme to offer bounties to Taliban-linked militants and criminals were based on information collected in raids and interrogations on the ground in Afghanistan, where American military commanders came to believe Russia was behind the plot, as well as more sensitive and unspecified intelligence that came in over time, an American official said.

Officials said there was disagreement among intelligence officials about the strength of the evidence about the suspected Russian plot and the evidence linking the attack on the Marines to the suspected Russian plot, but they did not detail those disputes.

Notably, the National Security Agency, which specializes in hacking and electronic surveillance, has been more skeptical about interrogations and other human intelligence, officials said.

Typically, the president is formally briefed when the information has been vetted and seen as sufficiently credible and important by the intelligence professionals. Such information would most likely be included in the President’s Daily Brief.

Former officials said that in previous administrations, accusations of such profound importance — even if the evidence was not fully established — were conveyed to the president. “We had two threshold questions: ‘Does the president need to know this?’ and ‘Why does he need to know it now?’” said Robert Cardillo, a former senior intelligence official who briefed President Barack Obama from 2010 to 2014.

David Priess, a former C.I.A. daily intelligence briefer and the author of “The President’s Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents,” said: “Many intelligence judgments in history have not had the consensus of every analyst who worked on it. That’s the nature of intelligence. It’s inherently dealing with uncertainty.”

Both Mr. Cardillo and Mr. Priess said previous presidents received assessments on issues of potentially vital importance even if they had dissents from some analysts or agencies. The dissents, they said, were highlighted for the president to help them understand uncertainties and the analytic process.

Lawmakers demanded to see the underlying material for themselves.

“This is a time to focus on the two things Congress should be asking and looking at: No. 1, who knew what, when, and did the commander in chief know? And if not, how the hell not?” said Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, each requested that all lawmakers be briefed on the matter and for C.I.A. and other intelligence officials to explain how Mr. Trump was informed of intelligence collected about the plot.

The White House began explaining its position directly to lawmakers in a carefully controlled setting. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff; Mr. Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence; and Mr. O’Brien briefed a handful of invited House Republicans. A group of House Democrats was scheduled to go to the White House on Tuesday morning to receive a similar briefing.

There was no indication after the session with Republicans whether they had been told that the information was included in Mr. Trump’s written briefing four months ago. But afterward, two of the Republicans — Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Mac Thornberry of Texas — said that they “remain concerned about Russian activity in Afghanistan, including reports that they have targeted U.S. forces” and would need additional briefings.

“It has been clear for some time that Russia does not wish us well in Afghanistan,” they said in a joint statement. “We believe it is important to vigorously pursue any information related to Russia or any other country targeting our forces.”

Other Republicans who attended the briefing were more sanguine. In an interview, Representative Chris Stewart of Utah said he saw nothing unusual about the purported decision not to orally inform Mr. Trump, particularly when the situation did not require the president to take immediate action.

It just didn’t reach the level of credibility to bring it to the president’s attention,” he said, adding that military and intelligence agencies should continue to scrutinize Russia’s activities.

The Associated Press first reported that the intelligence community was examining the deaths of the three Marine reservists: Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman, 43, of Newark, Del.; Cpl. Robert A. Hendriks, 25, of Locust Valley, N.Y.; and Sgt. Benjamin S. Hines, 31, of York, Pa.

They were killed near Bagram Air Base when a vehicle laden with explosives hit their truck, wounding an Afghan contractor as well. The huge blast set fire to the truck, engulfing those inside in flames, while their fellow Marines tried to extricate them, a defense official said. A brief firefight ensued.

Gen. Zaman Mamozai, the former police chief of Parwan Province, where Bagram Airfield is, said that the Taliban there hire freelancers from local criminal networks, often blurring the lines of who carried out what attacks. He said the Taliban’s commanders were only based in two districts of the province, Seyagird and Shinwari, and from there they coordinate a more extensive network that largely commissions the services of criminals.

The Taliban have denied involvement. And a spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Dmitry Peskov, told NBC News on Monday that reports of the Russian scheme were incorrect. He said that “none of the American representatives have ever raised this question” with their Russian counterparts through government or diplomatic channels.

The Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, declined to comment on any connection between the Marines’ deaths and the suspected Russian plot. He also declined to say whether or when Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper was briefed on the intelligence assessment and whether the deaths of American troops in Afghanistan resulted from the Russian bounties. But later Monday, Mr. Hoffman issued a statement saying that the Defense Department was monitoring intelligence on the matter and that it “has no corroborating evidence to validate the recent allegations found in open-source reports.”

Col. DeDe Halfhill, a spokeswoman for Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also declined to comment on the same questions.

The Bravest Thing Col. Randy Hoffman Ever Did Was to Stop Fighting

Enmeshed in Afghanistan for much of his adult life, the officer spurred the Marine Corps to confront the traumas of America’s longest war

Marine commando Randy Hoffman’s plane took off from Kabul, climbed over the jagged mountains and turned toward home.

Somewhere down there was his tent, a piece of canvas stretched across a pit he had carved into a high-altitude ridge. Randy had spent most of the previous 2½ years in the mountains along the Pakistan border, turning Afghan villagers into soldiers.

Rugs covered the tent’s dirt floor. He had a wood stove for heat and collected catalogs of farm equipment and RVs to remind him of home in Indiana. A metal thermos stored the goat’s milk and cucumber drink delivered each morning by the mountain men who fought alongside him. He and the Afghans would sit on a dirt bench, talking about poetry, faith and honor, and how to make it through the next day alive.

Randy’s camp watched over the narrow passes and smuggling paths used by al Qaeda and Taliban militants to sneak into Afghanistan from Pakistan. He kept mortars aimed at likely approaches. At times, he was the only American for miles.

On Randy’s last trip down the mountains, a caravan of Afghan fighters in Toyota pickups escorted him on the seven-hour drive to a U.S. base. From there, he caught a helicopter to Kabul and trimmed the beard he had grown so he wouldn’t stand out as a target during gunfights.

It was July 2005. As Randy headed home, he couldn’t escape one thought. U.S. troops had been in Afghanistan three years and nine months—as long as they had fought in World War II. Yet the Afghan war wasn’t close to won.

On the flight home, Randy pictured the many villagers lost in combat, men he had come to admire for their courage and strict sense of right and wrong. He thought about those left legless by militant bombings and now facing a life ahead in mud-brick compounds perched on mountainsides.

He turned away from the others on the plane and cried.

Since the first U.S. troops arrived in 2001, Afghanistan has become a generational war. The youngest recruits stepping off the bus at boot camp today were born after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that ignited the war they may soon fight.

Col. Randy Hoffman served seven combat tours in Afghanistan, six of them highly classified missions, and one stint in Iraq. Afghanistan brought him promotions. It rewarded the rural boy from Danville, Ind., with a bronze star medal for valor. It transformed a middling student into a scholar of history and war.

Afghanistan also nearly cost Randy his sanity. It buried friends. It almost ended his career. It ripped ragged edges around a gentle personality.

It strained his marriage and frightened his children. The family began referring to itself as Hoffmanistan, a dark joke reflecting Afghanistan’s long reach into their daily lives.

Eighteen years after the Sept. 11 hijackings spurred the U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban and its al Qaeda allies, American troops are still fighting and dying in Afghanistan. Negotiations between the U.S. and Taliban have lurched forward and stumbled backward.

Length of U.S. involvement in major conflicts










Korean War


Gulf War



Source: Congressional Research Service

Over the course of the war, 775,000 U.S. troops have fought in Afghanistan; 28,000 of them have served five or more tours. More than 2,300 Americans have died there, and 20,000 have suffered wounds, including amputated limbs and brain injuries.

A much larger number, more than 120,000, returned home with symptoms of post-traumatic stress, the hidden wounds of America’s longest war.

Call of duty

Randy first kissed Dawn on the night before he left for boot camp in 1985.

She was the little sister of his best friend, and he had known her since she was 6 years old. They grew up during an era of skateboards and mullets in Danville, a town of 4,000 in the center of Indiana.

Dawn was an honor student at Danville High School. Randy brought up the rear. He gathered the nerve to ask her out when she was 15, and he was 18.

After Randy left for the Marines, Dawn waited for him. He earned a spot in an elite Force Reconnaissance platoon. She studied nursing.

Dawn and Randy Hoffman at their 1991 wedding in Indianapolis. PHOTO: HOFFMAN FAMILY

They married in 1991, and the couple settled into an upstairs apartment in the house of Randy’s parents. They stocked it with furnishings salvaged from their childhood bedrooms.

Randy attended Indiana University and earned an officer’s commission. Military service was part of his heritage. His father and two uncles were Marines.

He was 2 years old in 1968 when his uncle Terry Hoffman, a helicopter crew chief, was shot down in Vietnam. The aircraft split in half, and Terry’s body was thrown far from the wreckage. He was still listed as missing in action after Saigon’s fall in 1975. Randy saw his grandmother cover her mouth in shock as she watched TV reports of the last Americans boarding helicopters, leaving her son behind.

A Vietnamese farmer found Terry’s remains and kept them. When the farmer died, his family gave a jawbone to authorities, who passed it along to a U.S. casualty-recovery team.

In 1994, Randy’s first duty as a second lieutenant was to escort Uncle Terry’s remains home. He knelt and handed his grandmother the American flag, folded tightly into a triangle, on behalf of “the president of the United States, the United States Marine Corps and a grateful nation.”

The day of the Sept. 11 attacks, Randy was at a Marine Corps school at the base near Quantico, Va. He had been having premonitions—a heads-up from God, he believed—about a terrible event.

Military officers asked students if any spoke Urdu, Arabic, Farsi or Pashto. Randy had studied Arabic in college, but he didn’t feel fluent enough to put up his hand. The military decided any Arabic was good enough.

Officials hustled Randy to a Navy office near the Pentagon and told him he would likely be deployed overseas on a secret special-operations mission. “We suggest you talk to your wife,” an officer told him.

By mid-2002, Randy was attached to Special Operations Command. He joined about 20 commandos assigned to recruit, train and lead Afghan militiamen who would become the core of an Afghan national guard.

The U.S. military was desperate to learn what was going on in Afghanistan, and Randy was ordered to collect intelligence about who was on whose side in the villages along the country’s mountainous border with Pakistan.

The U.S. had overthrown Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in 2001, with a few thousand troops and Central Intelligence Agency operatives, as well as an alliance of Afghan militias. The fighting ebbed within months, and few people in the George W. Bush administration called for more forces after the surviving Taliban and their al Qaeda allies fled to Pakistan.

When Randy showed up in Khost province in January 2003, there were fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The Bush administration was weeks away from launching a full-scale invasion of Iraq. Afghanistan, if not forgotten, was largely considered won.

Randy about to head out on a two-week patrol in Afghanistan’s Spīn Ghar mountains in 2004. PHOTO: HOFFMAN FAMILY
Allies abroad

Eastern Afghanistan hosted an eclectic mix of allied troops: Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, reconnaissance Marines, regular infantry Marines, 101st Airborne paratroopers, CIA agents, Italian commandos, warlords, militiamen, tribal fighters and Afghan border police.

Randy lived and fought alongside another American for months without asking which secret outfit the man worked for.

While America’s attention was on Iraq, fanatical fighters, including Arabs, Chechens and other foreigners, probed Afghanistan’s defenses, trying to undo the 2001 defeat of Taliban rule.

Ethnic Pashtuns of eastern and southern Afghanistan made up the Taliban’s power base. Randy’s job was to persuade the tribesmen to ally with the U.S., and train them to defend the border against al Qaeda and Taliban militants.

He decided against living at a fortified military base and commuting to local villages. The risk of getting blown up on the road was too high. Instead, Randy set up five tented command posts along 60 miles of border, hiking from one to the other.

To woo the Pashtuns, Randy lived as they did. He let his hair and beard grow. He wore a loose Afghan tunic and trousers for meetings with elders. He slept on a mat on the floor of his tent or in the bed of his Toyota pickup. He ate apples and grapes, and broke four teeth on pebbles accidentally baked into local bread.

Randy visited villages to pick up word of roaming Arab fighters. He and other commandos set up impromptu clinics to distribute vaccines, malaria pills and Tylenol.

In villages hostile to the U.S., he handed out crayons and a coloring book he drew. The illustrations and Quranic verses explained why Americans had come to Afghanistan. “In the year 2001 on the 11 of September, evil and bad people named al Qaeda attacked America,” read the caption for a sketch of the Twin Towers in flames.

Randy explained to village leaders that al Qaeda had killed 3,000 from his clan. “I’m here to extract payment for this blood feud,” he said.

The Pashtuns understood. You’ve got a blood feud? We get it.

Randy came to rely on the son of a village elder to interpret. When the man was a teenager, his father had sent him to work with a U.K. charity that cleared munitions left by the Soviets when they fled Afghanistan in 1989. The village elder saw an opportunity for the boy to improve his language skills.

The son was 23 when Randy met him, and he spoke British-accented English that was unusually good for someone educated in rural Afghanistan.

He soon became Randy’s right hand. He translated when Randy gathered Pashtun warriors on a ridge and drew on a white board to illustrate how to take advantage of the terrain during firefights and how to conduct an ambush.

Randy taught map-reading, using an Afghanistan-shaped piece of peel from a grapefruit to show how a flat map represented part of a round planet.

The American started with a force of 250 village men. By the time he finished his sixth tour in 2005, Randy had trained 3,000. The U.S. paid inexperienced recruits $100 a month, and as much as $250 to a man trained by Soviets in the 1980s to handle explosives.

Enemy fighters wanted to move men and arms through the mountain passes in Afghanistan. The Marine and his Afghans were in the way. Randy’s camps were attacked several times a month. Sometimes it was a single shot or a rocket volley. Other times, dozens of al Qaeda fighters tried to overrun his positions.

U.S. attack helicopters could reach Randy and his men in minutes. During the most violent months, he called for help every other day to defend against attackers.

At first, the militants whom Randy and his men killed were Syrian, Yemeni, Sudanese and Chechen. As time went on, al Qaeda militants tried to stay out of danger by sending boys from Pakistani religious schools to set up ambushes and plant booby-traps in dry riverbeds used as roads. The boys hid nearby and triggered the explosives with garage-door openers.

Randy’s truck was in the lead on a patrol in 2003 when he stopped to check his radio. His Afghan comrades drove past him and over one of the hidden bombs. Eight men were blown to pieces.

A euphoria filled Randy, a feeling of being more alive than he had ever felt. Then a wave of grief washed away his near-death relief. He couldn’t stop thinking about one of the dead, a timid farmer who had volunteered to be a militia commander. Randy had been tough on him, and he wished he had just once told the man he was doing a good job.

In late 2004, Randy and a few trucks carrying his fighters drove down to a base in Jalalabad for fresh food and a break from the fighting. In a valley below, he spotted a convoy of Marine Corps Humvees.

Randy on patrol near Tora Bora on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 2004. PHOTO: HOFFMAN FAMILY

Randy was excited to see some comrades. He found the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Norm Cooling, who eyed the Marine in long hair and beard.

I know that guy from somewhere, the colonel thought. Then it dawned on him. A decade earlier, when he was a company commander, Randy had been one of his most promising young lieutenants.

“Gee, Randy,” the colonel joked. “I didn’t know you had gotten out of the Marine Corps.”

Lt. Col. Cooling was eager for intelligence. With Iraq drawing the bulk of U.S. combat troops, his 1,000-man battalion had to defend six Afghan provinces encompassing 12,000 square miles. He would hopscotch across eastern Afghanistan and spend a few days with each infantry platoon. It was a hard winter, and he sometimes patrolled the highlands in snowshoes.

Randy’s mission was so classified he couldn’t even share details with a superior officer. Yet he gave Lt. Col. Cooling a who’s-who of local Pashtun tribes.

Manning the radio in the Marine convoy was a 21-year-old corporal named Eric Lueken, from Dubois, Ind. A year earlier, Eric, dissatisfied with working the night shift at a water-treatment plant, had walked into the recruiters office in Evansville, Ind., across from the Goodwill donation center and down the street from a strip club, Regina’s House of Dolls.

Eric returned home that night and told his surprised parents he had enlisted. “I’m leaving in three weeks,” he said.

Before shipping out to Afghanistan, Eric stopped by the lakeside house of Ken Bohnert, a family friend. They drank beers on the dock, and Ken gave Eric the combat knife from his own years in the Marines. “You take this with you,” said Ken, who had joined in 1958. “You bring it back to me.”

Randy had greeted Eric the day he spotted the Marine convoy, asking the radio operator where to find the commander.

It was a passing moment that gave no hint of the fates at play, that Cpl. Lueken would form a link in a chain of events that changed Randy’s life.

Home front

In 2004, Dawn was home in Fredericksburg, Va., with the children, Shawn and Caroline, when she saw Marines in a government van drive by the house. The van made a U-turn and passed again.

Dawn saw it coming—a knock on the door, and uniformed men delivering a regret-to-inform-you. She and Randy had talked about the possibility. She hid behind the curtains and steeled herself for the children’s sake.

“Your reaction will be their reaction,” she told herself.

It turned out the Marines in the van were looking for a lost dog.

Randy’s absence and the constant threat of widowhood forced Dawn to become more independent. She managed the couple’s rental properties in Quantico and Indiana. Dawn sought friends from church. She imagined moving the family back to Indiana if Randy were killed.

U.S. fatalities in the Afghanistan War


























Source: iCasualties

Between combat tours, Randy briefed officials at the Pentagon and then returned home for a few awkward weeks with Dawn. She saw disturbing changes in her husband’s personality. He had never been a yeller. Now he was agitated from war and couldn’t keep a lid on his volatile moods.

Eager to resume his paternal role, Randy disrupted daily routines that Dawn had worked hard to construct. He blew up with his wife over small things, such as taking his daughter’s side in an argument over gym class.

During one visit home, Dawn told him: “Could you lighten up a little? My friends think you’re weird.”

Randy shrugged off Dawn’s concerns. He didn’t believe in post-traumatic stress disorder. Anyone who complained of it was weak, and Marine officers weren’t supposed to show weakness.

After a few trips home, Randy secretly wished he could skip the strained reunions and wrenching farewells and stay in Afghanistan for the duration. Life was simpler at war.

The messenger

Randy felt he had won over the Pashtuns on his stretch of the border and turned them into a weapon to defend Afghanistan and, in turn, America.

Leaving the mountains for the last time in 2005, he worried that the U.S. was failing to secure its early inroads with the Pashtuns. Every villager alienated by a careless raid or an insult was a potential Taliban recruit.

Randy earned the bronze star for his service in Afghanistan. He found it almost embarrassing. The Pashtuns had taken far greater risks on his orders. For many fighters it was a last act that drew no medals. He lost 80 to 100 men over 2½ years, one of them decapitated by a helicopter blade.

Aboard the military transport plane heading home, Randy mourned. “I loved living with those guys,” he said.

The Marine Corps returned Randy to Indiana to help train a company of reservists. He and Dawn figured he would retire there after this one last posting. They bought a farmhouse in Ladoga, Ind., population 1,100.

Randy started a small Christmas tree farm. Dawn wanted chickens and a garden. She imagined herself an old lady in braids selling tomatoes from a stand at the end of their driveway.

At the time, the U.S. was consumed by the insurgencies in Iraq unleashed by Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. By the end of 2006, U.S. fatalities in Iraq surpassed the number of deaths from Sept. 11.

The U.S. military, short-handed and fighting two wars, sent Reserve and National Guard troops into battle. Randy’s job was preparing these part-time warriors—electricians, teachers, cops, prison guards—to fight in Iraq. His men were headed for Fallujah, the site of some of the most vicious urban combat since the Vietnam War.

Iraqi militants, who rarely won face-to-face firefights with American troops, had learned to improvise land mines, burying them along roads or concealing them in buildings.

Advances in booby-trap technology ricocheted from Afghanistan to Iraq and back again. Insurgents fashioned triggers from garage-door openers, cellphones and transmitters for radio-controlled toys. They calibrated pressure-sensitive detonators to explode under the step of a soldier or the wheels of an armored vehicle.

Cost of the Afghanistan War




























Note: Fiscal years end Sept. 30.

Source: Neta C. Crawford, Costs of War, Watson Institute, Brown University

In 2006, Brig. Gen. Bob Neller, deputy commander for operations of Marine forces in Iraq, was struggling to stem the mounting toll of Marines killed or injured by roadside bombs. Each week, he held a meeting to bat around ideas.

Electronic jammers could defeat bombs detonated by radio or phone signals. But there wasn’t a reliable way to deal with pressure-sensitive triggers.

Gen. Neller suggested mounting wheeled rollers on the front of Humvees to set off a buried bomb before the vehicle drove over it. Explosives specialists argued against the idea: A bomb set off by a mine roller would spray shrapnel toward the turret gunner, who often rode with head and shoulders exposed.

For a couple of weeks, the general hesitated over a decision. Then he lost another Marine. It was Cpl. Eric Lueken, the radio operator Randy Hoffman had met in Afghanistan two years earlier.

Cpl. Lueken and three other Marines had driven over a bomb hidden on a road running along the Euphrates River. The explosion tore Eric apart; the other Marines survived. When the report of Eric’s death landed on Gen. Neller’s desk, the general was jolted out of indecision.

At the next meeting on roadside bombs, Gen. Neller ordered engineers to start building mine rollers. “You’ve got one week to come up with a prototype,” he said. Eric Lueken’s battalion was the first to test the devices in the field.

In Indiana, Randy’s phone rang. As the senior active-duty Marine officer in the area, it fell to him to inform families in parts of Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky that their loved ones had died in combat. The Marine calling from the casualty section told him to deliver the bad news to Eric’s parents.

Randy and 1st Sgt. Troy Euclide drove two hours to Dubois, Ind. When they got close to the Luekens’ home, they stopped at a bathroom at a Subway restaurant to change into their crisply pressed green uniforms.

Melinda and Jake Lueken lived in an A-frame house surrounded by bean fields and turkey farms. Randy and Troy made a reconnaissance pass of the house and saw an American flag and yellow ribbon outside.

After driving by, they stopped on a side road and prayed. “God, help us give this terrible news to the family,” Randy said.

It was a Saturday afternoon. Jake and Melinda were about to go to Mass. Melinda knew what was coming when she saw Randy and Troy at the front door.

Randy’s words spilled out: “I’m sorry to tell you Eric was killed yesterday in Iraq.”

“Oh, my God, no,” Melinda said. She took Eric’s boot-camp portrait down from the wall and slumped onto the sofa, hugging the frame to her chest as she rocked back and forth.

The bomb had done such damage to Eric’s body that military morticians in Dover, Del., took weeks to prepare it. When Eric’s remains finally arrived at the airport in Louisville, Ky., mourners lined the roads to Dubois. High school bands played the Marines’ Hymn in towns along the route.

Randy warned the Luekens against holding an open-casket wake or even looking inside. Jake’s hand shook as he approached the casket and slipped in some family photos.

The funeral was at St. Raphael Church in Dubois. Marines in dress blue uniforms carried the casket next door to the cemetery.

Melinda and Jake Lueken watch Randy arrange the flag on their son Eric’s casket in May 2006. PHOTO: DAVID PIERINI/THE HERALD

Over three years of duty in Indiana, Randy buried nine Marines and paid dozens of visits to grieving families. He set up a special ringtone to signal phone calls from the casualty section. He and Dawn jumped whenever it sounded. She hated that ring.

Once alerted, Randy had 24 hours to find next of kin and deliver the news.

There was the widow of Lance Cpl. Josh Hines, a young Marine who had once stood wet-eyed at Randy’s desk and asked permission to see his newborn son before leaving for Iraq. Randy let him fly home. Josh was killed by a hidden bomb weeks after arriving in the combat zone.

Randy sat with Josh’s widow, Caryn Gilbert, and her baby after visitation at the Methodist church in Casey, Ill. When everyone else had gone, Randy walked her to the coffin so she could hold her husband’s hand one final time.

One Marine’s father was imprisoned, and a judge gave him special permission to attend the funeral. The man stood at the open casket in an orange jumpsuit.

While Randy was reeling from the barrage of death calls, Dawn and Shawn narrowly avoided catastrophe. In September 2006, they stopped for gas and Dawn told Shawn to wait in the car. Instead, the boy, then 8 years old, followed his mother into the station to look at a car magazine.

Moments later, a drunken driver traveling at close to 100 miles an hour plowed into the gas pumps and ignited a giant fireball.

Dawn and Shawn were inside the minimart while their SUV burned.

Randy was at home pushing Caroline on a swing when he saw the mushroom cloud. His thoughts went first to the booby-trap bombs of Afghanistan.

He hustled Caroline and 2-year-old Emma, their youngest, into the car and sped toward the gas station. Randy desperately searched for Dawn and Shawn, who had escaped through a back door.

For the next two days, Randy felt almost like he was back in combat. His pulse raced and his hands shook. He was constantly alert to threats in the one place he had thought safe.

Randy began drinking, two or three glasses of wine a day, a lot for him. While driving, he sometimes got heart palpitations and tunnel vision.

“It was death notification after death notification,” Dawn said. “He couldn’t get his head above water.”

Randy’s awards include bronze stars for his service in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Under pressure

One winter day, Shawn and Caroline, bundled in snowsuits, were sliding down the front hill on plaster saucers when some neighborhood boys came by with their own sleds.

Randy heard the older kids swearing. Watching through the window, Dawn saw Randy storm outside, grab one of the boys and scream at him. He lined them up and took their pictures, the same way he photographed captured insurgents in Afghanistan.

“Why?” Dawn demanded, taking his phone and deleting the photos.

Randy apologized to the boys. When they nervously asked permission to sled in the yard a couple of weeks later, he invited them in for hot chocolate.

At a crowded gas station, Randy was overwhelmed by the smell of diesel, a scent heavy with memories of Afghanistan. He got into a spat with an older woman. “Get back in your car,” he yelled.

When he tried to apologize, the woman rebuffed him: “You’re a rude man.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not usually that way.”

Randy with his children Caroline and Shawn in the summer of 2001. PHOTO: HOFFMAN FAMILY

The older children saw that the slightest irritation could set him off. They learned to stifle their sneezes in the car and to wake him gently.

Caroline once wrote “Dad is scary” on a piece of paper and hid it in a pink lockbox, where she kept her treasures. Shawn ran off with the note and showed it to their dad.

Randy was horrified. “You have no reason to be scared of me,” he told Caroline.

Dawn wondered what had happened to the man she married.

By the end of Randy’s three-year posting, Indiana didn’t feel like home to him anymore, and he wanted out. Every road brought to mind a mother weeping at a screen door or a shovelful of dirt thumping onto a casket lid.

Dawn wanted to stay close to her family.

The Marine Corps ended the debate in 2008 and ordered Randy back to the Quantico base in Virginia.

Deep in thought

The Bush administration was coming to an end. The Taliban and other insurgent groups were staging the comeback Randy and others had feared. Building and training Afghan security forces progressed slowly.

Mr. Bush believed his troop surge had turned the tide in Iraq, and he tried the same approach in Afghanistan. The 27,000 U.S. troops in the country at the beginning of 2008 had grown to 35,000 when President Obama took office in 2009.

U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan


























Sources: Brookings Institution; U.S. military

Mr. Obama campaigned on his opposition to the war in Iraq while pointing to Afghanistan as a conflict the U.S. was obliged to fight.

“Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backward,” Mr. Obama said at a West Point speech in his first year as commander in chief. “I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops.”

The Marines sent Randy to Command and Staff College, a graduate program at Quantico for promising majors. Immersed in his classes, he reflected on the war, and one moment kept coming to mind.

In 2003, he and a patrol of Green Berets came across the ruins of a training camp in Khost province, where Osama bin Laden had given interviews weeks before al Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. An Army intelligence officer told Randy that he believed bin Laden had begun planning the Sept. 11 attacks there.

The camp was a pile of rubble, destroyed in 1998 by a volley of U.S. cruise missiles in retaliation for the embassy bombings. Investigators believe the airstrike missed bin Laden by a few hours. Randy stuffed three bricks from the ruins into his backpack.

A brick Randy collected from the rubble of Osama bin Laden’s former Afghan training camp.

Randy imagined al Qaeda planners working out details to coordinate four suicide hijackings half a world away, a devastating attack on the world’s greatest military power by 19 men armed with box cutters.

He pictured bin Laden, who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, trying to predict the U.S. response to the attack. Would the U.S. invade Afghanistan? If so, would the Americans fight with the same clumsy brutality that marked the failed 10-year Soviet war? Would the Pashtun rise up against the Americans?

Randy began to think the Afghanistan war was an al Qaeda trap. The jihadist group, he wrote in a research paper, “understood that by killing thousands of Americans, they would ignite a fierce response that would certainly involve American military forces being deployed to Afghanistan.”

He suspected al Qaeda had lured the U.S. to Afghanistan, hoping the Americans would end up, like the Soviets, humiliated by Pashtun resistance. Some in Washington held a similar belief.

Hard choice

At the end of the school year in 2009, Randy and his class heard a presentation on post-traumatic stress disorder. As a speaker listed the symptoms, Randy fought the urge to race out of the auditorium. During a break, he fled to the men’s room and dry-heaved.

Afterward, he found his faculty adviser. “I have to share something,” he said. Randy sat at a table with classmates and, for 90 minutes, unloaded stories of trauma that he couldn’t contain any longer. “Something is going to happen to me,” he said.

A nurse, Kim Bradley, listened at the table. She assisted troops suffering from PTSD for a military charity. Randy, she thought, was a textbook case. She handed him her business card. “Call me if you need anything,” she said.

Randy moved on to the School of Advanced Warfighting, a selective program that takes officers to visit the world’s battlefields. He traveled to Salerno, Italy, to study the World War II amphibious landings. He walked around Wake Island and Peleliu in the Pacific, and Huê City and Khe Sanh, in Vietnam.

By then, Randy’s friends knew he was struggling with anxiety and depression. The Marine Corps still saw him as an officer with an extraordinary record of combat and academic achievement.

In July 2009, the Marines announced Randy would be promoted to lieutenant colonel and given command of 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, known since Vietnam as the Magnificent Bastards.

In Afghanistan, Mr. Obama’s troop escalation was gaining steam. By the war’s peak in 2010 and 2011, more than 100,000 U.S. troops would be deployed there. The 1,000-man battalion offered to Randy was headed for Musa Qala, a district of fertile river flats and bone-dry desert in Helmand province, the world’s largest source of opium poppies.

The prospect of leading men into battle sent Randy into a panic. He stayed in bed for three days. He woke up every four hours, as he had in Afghanistan, alert to any attack. He lost his appetite and was short of breath.

Randy stopped showing up at school. He felt like he was unraveling in front of everyone at a time when admitting to post-traumatic stress would almost certainly end a Marine Corps career.

Dawn was too worried about Randy’s collapse to fret about his job. Screw the Marine Corps, she thought. I don’t care who knows. I want this fixed.

Dawn had long worried about Randy.

She called the school’s director, Col. Tracy King. He had noticed Randy’s sullen attitude and the dark bags under his eyes that made it look like he had lost a bar fight. Col. King and his wife began visiting the Hoffman house to check on Randy.

Dawn rifled through Randy’s wallet for the business card of Kim Bradley, the nurse. She called, desperate for help.

Kim set up appointments for Randy with a therapist at Fort Belvoir, Va. A medical team there diagnosed him with acute post-traumatic stress disorder, and doctors prescribed drugs for anxiety and depression.

Randy came clean with one of his oldest Marine Corps friends, Kirk Mullins. Randy and Kirk had been enlisted men who made the jump to officers together.

“Dude, I’m not doing well,” Randy said. He looked haggard and distraught, and he couldn’t explain what was happening.

If this can occur to Randy, there’s not a single one of us who isn’t susceptible, thought Kirk.

He worried that Randy was too agitated to drive. Randy didn’t trust himself behind the wheel, either. For the rest of the summer, Kirk drove his friend to Fort Belvoir and sat in the waiting room during therapy sessions.

On their way home one day, Randy confessed: “I’m in no condition to lead Marines, and I don’t know when I’m going to be in that position, if ever.”

Kirk knew that refusing command would likely end Randy’s career. He urged his friend not to rush into a decision.

Randy also told Col. King his doubts about commanding troops in Afghanistan. The colonel escorted Randy to talk to Gen. Neller, who had been promoted to major general and named head of Marine Corps schools at Quantico.

“Sir, I’m considering declining command,” Randy said. “I’m concerned that I will let my Marines down.”

Gen. Neller, who had lost 314 troops in Iraq from 2006 through 2007, including Cpl. Lueken, was sympathetic.

“All of us came back from Iraq and Afghanistan different than when we left,” the general said. He urged Randy to take a few months to decide and to give him an answer after Christmas.

Over the holidays, Randy convinced himself he could do it all: Keep a lid on his post-traumatic stress and lead Marines in combat. The couple returned to Quantico to tell Col. King that Randy was ready to lead the Magnificent Bastards.

Seeing Dawn during their meeting, Col. King recalled his own wife’s dismay years earlier, when she had found herself saddled with the duties of the commander’s spouse. He warned Dawn that her husband’s assignment would be a two-person job: While Randy was in Afghanistan, she would be expected to comfort lonely wives, help troubled children and console grieving families. At the same time, Dawn’s own mother was dying of cancer.

Randy read resignation on Dawn’s face.

That afternoon, he returned alone to Col. King’s office and turned down the job. “I want the Marines to have a battalion commander who’s in the game,” Randy said.

Dawn was fixing dinner when Randy came home and told her.

“What are they going to do with us now?” she asked.

The return

To Randy’s surprise, Gen. Neller worked to keep him in the Marine Corps. The general arranged for him to serve two years as deputy director of the School of Advanced Warfighting.

As soon as Randy felt stable, Gen. Neller told him, he could apply again for command. “In my opinion, you did everything we ask our Marine officers to do,” the general said. “I’m not going to punish that.”


What was your bravest act? Join the discussion below.

As word spread, Randy’s decision stunned Marines. It was the first time they had seen an officer decline battalion command because of post-traumatic stress, and, even more surprising to them, continue to advance.

It was a turning point for Randy—and for the Marine Corps. About 15% of those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq returned home with post-traumatic stress symptoms, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Col. King, now a major general, said Randy’s honesty led the Marines to become more accepting of the emotional damage that war inflicts on those who fight. He has told Randy’s story to hundreds of young officers.

Having disclosed his own secret, Randy preached mental health to other Marines. After one presentation at a veterans retreat in the Pennsylvania woods, two vets told Randy they had planned to kill themselves. His talk, they said, changed their minds.

A Vietnam vet grabbed his arm and said he wished someone had delivered Randy’s talk to him in 1969.

“How are you doing now?” Randy asked.

The man reached into his pocket and pulled out pink antianxiety pills. Randy showed him two pink pills of his own.

As part of his teaching duties, Randy escorted a group of officers on a tour to Huê, Vietnam, where he came across a celebration of war veterans. Children sang to the elderly North Vietnamese soldiers in their old uniforms.

Randy posed for a photo with two veterans who had fought against U.S. Marines in 1968. One had lost a leg; the other had been badly burned.

Randy’s pedicab driver, a former South Vietnamese marine, waited in the parking lot, left out of the festivities for having fought on the losing side. He had survived a re-education camp and now could find only menial work. Randy worried about his Pashtun fighters should the U.S. pull out of Afghanistan.

By 2012, Randy felt stable, and he again put his name in for battalion command. Such assignments are determined by a panel of 21 generals and colonels in secret deliberations.

When Randy’s name came up, the debate was heated. “There were some officers in the room who couldn’t get past the stigma that he had declined his first selection for command,” said Lt. Col. C.J. Williams, Randy’s former commander in Indiana, now a full colonel.

Randy’s supporters prevailed, and the Corps gave him command of 750 Marines who taught leadership to new lieutenants at a school in Quantico. He created and led a course on combat stress and filled in the curriculum with details of his own struggle.

Randy addresses Marines new to his command at Parris Island, S.C.

Some of his students had already served in Afghanistan or Iraq as enlisted Marines before becoming officers, and the relatively slow pace at Quantico gave their troubles a chance to blister to the surface.

Alarmed wives began calling Dawn about their husbands. Randy made sure they contacted Kim Bradley, the nurse, for help.

In 2012, Gen. Joe Dunford, then-assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, visited Quantico for Mess Night, a traditional dinner where Marines donned evening dress uniforms and ate prime rib roast and Yorkshire pudding. Ending the meal, the Marine Corps Drill and Ceremonies Manual dictates “a savory, rather than a sweet dessert is served, as the latter spoils the taste of the port.”

Randy sat next to Gen. Dunford at the head table. They had served together aboard the USS Whidbey Island in the Mediterranean in 1987. Randy was a young corporal on a reconnaissance team. Then-Capt. Dunford was a company commander who noticed Randy’s expertise with weapons.

Now, as assistant commandant, Gen. Dunford focused on how the Corps cared for its wounded, including those with brain injuries and post-traumatic stress. When they dined at Mess Night, he already knew Randy’s story.

“It’s officers like Randy who have encouraged others to come forward, get treatment and have confidence when they did get treatment that their professional careers wouldn’t suffer as a result,” Gen. Dunford said.

At dinner, their talk was all about Afghanistan. Gen. Dunford didn’t let on that within a few days Mr. Obama would name him commander of U.S. and allied forces there.

When the nomination became public, Randy sent the general an email: “I’d like to go.” He sought to ease any concerns about his post-trauma stress, referring instead to his “post-traumatic growth.” In part, though, Randy wanted to return to Afghanistan to see if he had fully put his trauma behind him.

Gen. Dunford had extensive combat experience in Iraq but had never served in Afghanistan. Before shipping out in early 2013, the general had lunch with Randy and took notes, peppering him with questions about Pashtuns on the Pakistan border.

Months later, Gen. Dunford invited Randy to join his planning staff in Kabul.

The city in 2013 didn’t resemble the Afghanistan of a decade earlier. The nimble commando campaign that followed the Sept. 11 attacks had stalled behind concrete blast walls and checkpoints. Randy visited Jalalabad, where the outpost had grown into a sprawling U.S. base with a coffee shop and souvenir stands.

Mr. Obama was looking for an exit and had scaled U.S. forces back to 68,000 troops by the end of the 2012 warm-weather fighting season. Under the president’s plan, the U.S. presence would drop to 10,000 troops by the end of 2014, leaving the U.S.-trained Afghan military to battle the Taliban. U.S. special operators and American air power would hunt al Qaeda and other terror groups.

Hundreds of U.S. bases and outposts were bulldozed, closed or turned over to the Afghans. Among his jobs, Randy had to figure out how to move out a decade’s worth of war materiel.

Insurgents were spreading havoc with high-profile bombings and attacks. In 2014, they sneaked weapons into the Serena Hotel in Kabul, a popular spot for expatriates, and killed nine people.

Civilian casualties

























Note: 2019 data through Sept. 30

Source: United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan

From his perch near Gen. Dunford, Randy better appreciated the war’s complexity. What seemed like a simple path to victory—fight hard, show respect and win Pashtun allies—wasn’t so easy to achieve amid the ethnic hodgepodge of Afghanistan. Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Nuristanis, Hazaras and others had competing agendas. The violent rivalry between India and Pakistan played out on Afghan soil.

Randy wondered if he had been too harsh in his impatience with the U.S. approach.

During a foray out of Kabul, an obliging helicopter pilot flew Randy over the ridges and valleys where he had lost many friends. The contours of the Spīn Ghar range were still carved deep into his memory.

At the time, a charity was bringing veterans of the Afghan war back to visit places where they had fought. The men had been carried off the battlefield on stretchers; now they returned with prosthetic limbs and disfiguring burns, seeking emotional healing to match their physical recovery.

Staff at Gen. Dunford’s headquarters turned out to applaud the arriving vets, and the general spoke with each of them. Randy wrote briefing cards for the general that detailed each man’s injuries and progress toward recovery. He arranged the group’s travel to villages, mountainsides and farm fields.

“I knew how they felt coming back,” Randy said. “It was almost like medicine to me.”

When Randy packed for home in 2014, Gen. Dunford, who recently retired after serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a short speech.

Randy’s return to Afghanistan, the general said, “was good for him, a little closure.”

Back stateside

For years, Gen. Neller dwelled on Cpl. Lueken’s death and his own initial reluctance to order mine rollers to protect his men. In 2014, he had Eric’s name and the date of his death engraved on a black metal bracelet. The following year, Gen. Neller rose to commandant, the top officer in the Marine Corps,

Jake Lueken, Eric’s father, heard about the bracelet and sent word that he wanted to talk. Gen. Neller took a week or so to get up the nerve to call. When he did, he told Jake about his hesitation to order mine rollers until Eric’s death spurred him to action.

In 2016, a decade after Eric died, Gen. Neller traveled to Indiana to meet Jake and Melinda, as well as the family of another fallen Marine. The general wanted to comfort the Luekens, but he didn’t know what to say. Their hourslong drive together from the airport to Dubois was filled with uneasy silences.

During their visit to St. Raphael cemetery, Gen. Neller knelt in the grass, balled his fist and hit Eric’s polished black-granite marker. “Sorry, Eric, it took me so long to get here,” he said.

Time revealed a series of connections among Randy, Gen. Neller, Lt. Col. Cooling and the Luekens. Gen. Neller realized that Randy’s breakdown had been sparked, in part, by the visit to tell the Luekens that Eric had been killed. Randy learned that Gen. Neller, the man who had saved his career and perhaps his sanity, was himself haunted by Eric’s death.

Randy stayed at the Luekens’ house during a later visit by Gen. Neller to Indiana in 2017. Looking at family photos with Melinda, Randy realized for the first time that Eric was the same radio man he had met on the road to Jalalabad early in the war.

The next day, Lt. Col. Cooling—Eric’s commander in Afghanistan and Iraq—visited the St. Raphael cemetery with Randy and the Luekens. Over dinner, Lt. Col. Cooling, by then a brigadier general, told Jake and Melinda that mine rollers had saved many lives since Eric’s death.

In 2017, Randy was promoted to full colonel. He moved his family to the Marine Corps boot camp set among the swamps and palmetto trees on Parris Island, S.C.

From there, Randy would drive to see his therapist in Savannah, Ga.

On Good Friday this spring, his need to talk turned urgent. His longtime friend, Lt. Col. Brett Hart, had arrived early at his Arizona office that day and posted a sign on the door warning people to stay out. Then he killed himself.

Dawn had gone to high school with Brett’s wife, Molly Hart, and had set up the couple on their first date.

Brett, a helicopter pilot, was days from retirement when he died. Randy and Kirk Mullins had planned to attend the ceremony. Instead, they traveled to his funeral.

They hadn’t told Brett they were coming to celebrate his retirement. It was to be a surprise. “I shouldn’t have dodged his calls,” Randy later told his therapist. He sat on the couch, head in hands.

Randy went back on antianxiety medication. He admitted to his therapist that he had thought about how he might kill himself.

The Marines under Randy’s command taught combat skills to new recruits, who were often straight out of high school.

The young men and women arrived by bus after dark and lined up on yellow footprints painted on the pavement. The men’s heads were shaved, and everyone’s possessions were locked up. Their individuality was stripped away by drill instructors charged with recasting them into disciplined Marines. They quickly learned to refer to themselves in the third person.

A New Generation Prepares for War

The Marine Corps boot camp set among the swamps and palmetto trees on Parris Island, S.C., prepares recruits, some of whom were born after Sept. 11, 2001.

Recruits at the rifle range..

Recruits navigate a ropes course.

Sgt. Jennifer Arnett yells at recruits as they arrive this summer for boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island, S.C.

Recruits respond to a drill instructor as they begin boot camp.

Sgt. Jennifer Arnett closes the metal doors behind recruits.<br>

A Marine measures recruits for their uniforms.

The recruits get their uniforms.

Recruits call home.

Barbers shave recruits.

Recruits in training

Marine recruits in line for the swim test.

A recruit drops into the deep end of the pool.

One recruit climbs out of the pool during the swim test.

A recruit loses his grip.
Recruits navigate a ropes course.
1 of 14

Near the rifle range, Randy gathered 160 male recruits one day this summer and asked what they remembered of Sept. 11, 2001.

“This recruit was in fourth grade, he believes, when it happened,” one said. “This recruit’s teacher stepped out of class and came back teary-eyed.”

One recruit was born on Jan. 14, 2002. At boot camp, new Marines are so young that history instructors teach them about the Sept. 11 attacks that started the Afghanistan war.

The young men sat rapt, eating their box lunches, as Randy described what it was like to kill. “Your heart rate is uncontrollable,” he said. “Your pulse goes up so much that your ears kind of stop up. Everything goes kind of in slow motion. Your brain focuses on minute details to help you get through engaging the enemy before he can kill you.”

He passed around what appeared to be a heavy pen and told its story.

He and his Afghan fighters were driving into a market near Jalalabad in 2004, an area thick with al Qaeda and Taliban. A teenager on a moped slowly passed Randy’s pickup truck, smiling as he went by. One of Randy’s militiamen leapt out of the truck and tackled the boy. Two Afghan policemen joined the melee and pummeled the teen with their rifles.

As Randy tried to separate them, the Afghans ripped open the boy’s shirt, revealing a hand grenade. The boy also had the pen, which turned out to be a disguised single-shot, .22-caliber pistol.

Randy keeps a .22-caliber pistol disguised as a pen, which he seized from an Afghan attacker in 2004.

“We are training you with a deadly skill so you can come home alive and you can bring those other Marines with you,” Randy told the recruits. “Do you understand me?”

“YESSIR,” they responded in unison.

Then Randy revealed that he had been in and out of therapy for more than a decade. “I’m not embarrassed to tell you,” he said. Combat, he added, “takes a mental and emotional toll on any human being.”

Small victories

Weeks later, Randy began what will likely be his last tour in the Marines, running the regional Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps out of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Fla.

He has decorated his office with memories: the bricks from bin Laden’s camp in Khost; photos of his father, his Uncle Gary and his late Uncle Terry, all in Marine uniforms; a set of bottles containing soil and stones from Chancellorsville, Iwo Jima, Troy, Verdun, Weiyuan Fort and other long-ago battlefields.

The Hoffmans’ youngest, 15-year-old Emma, jokes that if she inherits her dad’s dirt collection, she will bury it with him.

Hoffmanistan is quieter, if not fully at peace.

Randy, 53, sinks into anxiety some days but not many. He has had two shoulder operations and fought off a bout of skin cancer that he blames on years of sun in the Afghan mountains. He has an eye injury from a scuba training accident. He wears hearing aids to compensate for damage from an ammunition-dump explosion.

“There is an edge to his personality that he didn’t used to have,” said Dawn, 49. “I don’t think that PTSD ever goes away. But there is healing that springs from that.”

“I was not prepared for that emotional toll,” Randy said, looking back on a life at war. “That’s what crushed my soul.”

Yet he feels more contented than he has since before Sept. 11 and rarely needs the pink antianxiety pills.

Randy will probably retire at the end of his tour in Tallahassee, with nearly four decades of service.

He tracks Afghanistan peace negotiations and wonders if the Marines he trains will fight in the same mountains he did. He fears the war will end like Vietnam, with Americans again abandoning those who fought by their side.

He also thinks about the brotherhood he felt with his Afghan fighters; the Pashtun villagers who survived childhood because of medical care from American commandos; the way the Marine Corps stood by him.

“Even if the outcome is not good,” he said, “I still have those small wins, and that’s what I hang onto.”

“I don’t think that PTSD ever goes away,” Dawn said.

Dawn has turned her nurse’s training into a career helping troops come home. She fields calls at all hours from troubled vets and worried spouses. The wife of an Afghanistan vet phoned last year to say her husband had been on a bender for days. Dawn tracked down another veteran who went to the couple’s house, took the vet to an emergency room and then enrolled him in an alcohol-abuse program run by the VA.

She was taught early in life that family problems should be kept hidden. She grew up in a small Indiana town, she said, “where as long as the image of everyone was good, that was kind of OK with everybody.”

Randy’s war made it impossible for her to conceal her family’s troubles. Surviving them has given Dawn a but-for-the-grace-of-God understanding of human foibles and more compassion for others facing their own trials.

“For me, it’s just been a huge shift in perspective in life,” she said.

The Hoffman children weren’t the only kids growing up in their military neighborhoods whose father came home damaged. Shawn, 22, and Caroline, 20, are in college. These days they take their father’s flare-ups less personally.

“He’s fighting this invisible battle all the time,” Caroline said.

Emma, a ninth-grader, missed the worst times. She plans to join the Marines. “I’ve grown up very proud of my dad,” she said. The teen recognizes the risk of post-traumatic stress, but says there is therapy for that.

Randy thinks Emma would make an excellent Marine. Dawn hopes she changes her mind.

A Philosopher of Law on the Dangers of Trump’s Plan to Pardon American War Criminals

On Saturday, the Times reported that President Trump has requested paperwork that would allow him to quickly pardon several Americans who have been accused or convicted of war crimes, and who have become causes célèbres on Fox News. They include a former Green Beret who has been charged with murdering a man in Afghanistan and a Navy seal platoon chief who has been accused of murdering multiple people in Iraq, including a schoolgirl walking along a river, and whose trial is scheduled to begin next week. A third potential exoneree is part of a group of former Blackwater military contractors who were found guilty of murdering fourteen unarmed Iraqis in 2007. The Times reports that Trump is pursuing an expedited pardon process so that he can officially pardon these men over Memorial Day weekend.

To discuss what this decision would mean, and to understand the history of Americans wanting to place their own actions above the laws of war, I spoke by phone with Scott Shapiro, a professor of law and philosophy at Yale. Shapiro is the co-author, with Oona A. Hathaway, of “The Internationalists: How A Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World,” about the attempts after the First World War to institute a legal regime that would prevent a second one. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why the most outwardly patriotic Americans have long been skeptical of military law, the message President Trump is sending the military, and the dangers of placing troops above the law.

When you saw the news that these pardons were a possibility, what was it that went through your mind? Were there historical parallels, or did it seem like we were in another era?

I thought, immediately, Oh, pardon the war criminals to own the libs—that this was an attempt to trigger me and people like me. The reason I say I’m a little bit surprised at myself for having that reaction was that there is a long history, especially among conservative thinkers, of mistrusting the laws of war and thinking that the prosecution and punishing of American service personnel for defending our country, but not being punctilious about the particular rules of engagement, is unjust and unfair. This brought to mind the My Lai massacre—that was as horrific an act as a violation of the laws of war as you get.

And yet William Calley [a lieutenant who led the Charlie Company’s massacre of hundreds of civilians at My Lai] was somewhat of a folk hero in the United States. The heroes of My Lai, who saved many civilians and reported Charlie Company for what they had done, were vilified by many in the political establishment. Nixon was incredibly upset that William Calley was being prosecuted. He only got three and half years [of house arrest, after Nixon had him removed from prison]. It’s not clear to me how different what Trump is doing is from what Nixon did in the nineteen-seventies.

When you say that there is a long history of conservatives being mistrustful of laws of war, do you mean both international ways of regulating what our troops can do in war, like some sort of world court, and also our own laws or the military’s own laws?

Yes. So John Bolton, for example, has waged a war on the International Criminal Court for many years, since the beginning of its existence, and spent an enormous amount of time when he was in the State Department going around the world, trying to get countries to sign what we’ll call the Article 98 agreements, which basically said that these countries would not coöperate with the court in prosecution of American service personnel, and then denied them foreign aid if they didn’t.

But his objection has been very much about the notion that an international tribunal will prosecute American service personnel. Whereas there is another strand that objects even to our own government, our own military, prosecuting our own service personnel, and there are several strains to it, some of them being understandable, some of them being quite reprehensible. When I say understandable, I think that there are arguments. I don’t think they carry the day, but let me just say that there are at least arguments that make sense.

So one of them is war is hell, and shit happens, and it’s very hard to hold soldiers to such high standards. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous expression, that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife,” comes to mind—the idea being that, if you’re in that situation, you can’t be expected to follow all the rules perfectly. There’s also the idea that there are too many rules, and that the rules are too constraining and that we’re tying, as they say, our boys’ hands. And it’s especially problematic in cases where there’s an asymmetry, where the U.S. military is fighting a group that doesn’t follow the rules. So it’s not just that we have a lot of rules, we’re fighting other militaries who are ostensibly bound by those rules, too. But, also, what do we do when they’re not following the rules, they hide among civilians.

Those, I think, are arguments that need to be taken seriously, and people have obviously debated them, and it’s not obvious what the solution should be in particular cases. I went and I watched a lot of the Fox News clips about these cases that it seems like Trump was responding to. And they sometimes use these arguments, but they also use the arguments like, “These are our guys and you need to protect them. They’re risking their lives for us and we have to protect them.” And it’s tribalism. Like, “These are our people and it’s ungrateful to turn on them.”

There’s also a sense, I think, that they’re killing terrorists, so what’s the problem? They’re eliminating evil people. And I think that there’s a particular Trumpian flavor to the assault here, which is that they’re attacking the integrity of the military-justice system much in the same way that Trump does when he attacked Mueller. The idea here being, Look, you can’t trust anyone.


Yeah. It’s particularly interesting to go after the military, which is, of course, the most trusted institution in the United States, about the worst people in the world, that is, the war criminals.

Trump had this aspect of his campaign where he would basically say, “I’m smarter than all the generals.” Do you remember that? Everyone remembers the McCain P.O.W. stuff, but there was this weird, understated, The military is not tough enough or smart enough anymore. It’s just another institution that’s been corroded with establishment figures.

And yet, one of the things that Trump has done is devolved a lot more responsibility down to the military, reversing the Obama scheme whereby military plans had to get extensive vetting by the political branches. So Trump is, on the one hand, saying, “I’m smarter than the military,” and yet, “Don’t bother me with this stuff. You deal with it.

I assume, over time, the military has over all got better about investigating abuses within its ranks. Do you have some sense of even a hundred years ago, the period you wrote about, how much there was a system for investigating the American military for misbehavior?

So I can tell you that my colleague John Fabian Witt has written a lot about this. In “Lincoln’s Code,” he talks about how the system that we have now really evolved from the military commissions set up in the Mexican-American War and then the Civil War, whereby the U.S. military had to figure out what they would do with people who violated the laws of war.

And so, at least from the perspective of the U.S. military, we’ve been working on this for almost two hundred years—and, funnily enough, so much of the laws of war in their modern form was American-driven. It’s a classic example, I think, of Trump trying to undermine institutions that Americans helped create. So it’s this strange feature, but a lot of times there’s a sense that the laws of war are foreign impositions on the American military, interfering with our sovereignty, when in fact they were developed by the U.S. military as a way of enforcing military discipline.

That’s, in some sense, the general point that people misunderstand about the laws of wars: that they really have their origins in military discipline, that militaries around the world recognized the need to have constraints on soldiers for the sake of having a well-run military. And so it’s usually in the military’s interest for service personnel to be constrained in the way that they are. I would imagine that many military commanders are unhappy about this move.

Trump is often compared to authoritarian figures in history. He’s often been compared to Andrew Jackson. But to what degree does Trump remind you of a certain type that you’ve written about, which is someone from a hundred years ago having a certain isolationist streak, but also just a very warlike personality, with extreme jingoism and nationalism, and a contempt for or racism toward other countries and other people. This pardon news being paired with Trump’s apparent uninterest in a war with Iran was interesting.

Well, bellicosity and racism and Eurocentrism contributed enormously to imperialism and colonialism and genocidal wars of the past, for sure. What is interesting is that these attitudes normally led to war rather than what is happening with Trump, which is that it’s being matched with a kind of isolationism. My own view—and I obviously can’t substantiate it—is that the reason Trump is an isolationist is because I don’t think he wants to spend money on brown people. That is, I think he feels, Why are we spending our money and spending lives trying to bring democracy and improve Iraq, or Syria, or spending money on fighting in Iran, where we’re just going to have to pour money into that country? Here, the xenophobia and racism actually contribute to isolationism.

The America Firsters don’t want to get into World War Two in part because they think, Why are we trying to save the Jews? Why are we pouring money to protect these ethnic minorities in Europe when who the hell cares about them? There are definitely strong historical echoes.

I’m not trying to draw a direct parallel, but the America First types who did not want to get America involved in a war in Europe had no problem asserting the Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere and insuring business interests in the United States were taken care of and expanded. And that would be my hunch about the type of war that Trump would be at least open to.

I think that’s right, though it’s hard to imagine what that case would be like. I’ve actually been surprised that Trump hasn’t said, “If Mexico doesn’t pay for the wall, we’ll just go take the money from them somehow.” I’m surprised that he hasn’t threatened some war in order to get the money back for the wall. He has said crazy things—“fire and fury”—about North Korea. Threatening a nuclear war is an outrageous thing to do. Saying, “If Mexico doesn’t pay for the wall, we’ll get it in some way,” doesn’t seem that much crazier. Of course, he seems to have no interest in Venezuela, so it’s hard to see what, exactly, the economic interests would be there. It’s so hard to know, and also tiresome to try to guess, what are you going to do next?

What are your biggest concerns, going forward, about what pardons like these would do?

I’m very worried about it. I think, historically, the origins of these rules emanate from military discipline and the sense that the military has to have control over soldiers and control their behavior and keep them focussed on the military mission at hand. And to follow the rules is extremely important for the success of the mission. The golden rule of counterinsurgency is, you want to make sure that you kill more terrorists than you make.

One of the cases that the New York Times reports about is pardoning this group of marines who urinated on deceased Afghans. Is it really helpful for our counterinsurgency mission for people to know that that’s what U.S. military personnel do, and the President just pardons it because it’s no big deal to pee on a dead Afghan?

There are so many ways that this is both an insult to the military and bad for the military. And the ironies of that are plenty.

Yeah, right. So there’s that. This is also really bad for morale. I’ve taught in R.O.T.C., I’ve taught these young officers in training, and they’re taught that these rules are super serious and that they really go to the essence of what it is to be an honorable officer. And then to have the President of the United States say, “Actually, the rules don’t really matter”—what does it do to their sense of what enterprise they’re participating in, No. 1? No. 2, how do they get their men to follow the rules if the Commander-in-Chief is saying it doesn’t matter? It’s just a recipe for disaster.

There are so many ironies here, but one of the cases that Trump is considering, based on the New York Times reports, is the case of the Blackwater military contractors. The Bush Administration tried so hard to get the Iraqis not to prosecute these people, because, they said, “Don’t worry, trust us. You can trust the American criminal-justice system. We’ll take care of it.” And they really held the Iraqi government at bay at a very difficult time with the idea that, We can take care of it.

Why would countries accept that going forward? They’d say, “Look what you’re doing.” So it’s not only bad from a military-mission perspective, but it’s also bad from the sovereigntist perspective. If what you’re really worried about is other countries exerting control over American service personnel, you’re giving them every reason to do it if you do this.

Or to want to create an international system where these things are taken care of, since America’s not going to take care of it on its own.

Yeah, exactly. It’s just more fuel for the people who say, “America has lost its moral way. We can’t trust them. We really need an international criminal court.”

I should also say that, for all these complex reasons of history and how Americans think of this stuff, at the same time, there’s probably a fairly simple thing going on, which is that, if this was not going on in Muslim countries, this probably would not have become a cause célèbre on Fox and the President might not be doing this.

Yeah. When Charlie Company mowed down men, women, children, old people, on the one hand, they were Vietnamese, and so, “Who cares?” But also, talk about historical parallels, after William Calley was convicted of murder, George Wallace visited him and said, “Look, I don’t see why we should be so upset about a soldier killing more communists.” And so, there is a way in which when you dehumanize and vilify a group, the fact that the military killed some more of them, well, how bad, really, is it?

A Case of Too Many Viennas

THE drone strike that accidentally killed two hostages held by Al Qaeda, one of them American, in Pakistan’s northwest frontier was a rare moment of media attention for a seemingly endless military campaign. It’s six years old if you date it to President Obama’s escalation of drone warfare, 11 if you date it to the first American drone strike inside Pakistan, and 14 if you date it to when United States Special Forces first slipped into Afghanistan after 9/11. By any estimate, our AfPak intervention has lasted longer than most major wars in American history. By the third estimate, it’s lasted longer than several of the biggest ones combined.

There have been periods in this long conflict when the United States was arguably fighting with some hope of final victory. But that possibility went the way of most victories sought by foreigners in Central Asia, and now we’re in a very different mode. Our AfPak war today, with its drones and Special Forces and deliberately light footprint, is open-ended by design, a war of constant attrition that aims just to keep our friends (such as they are) in power and our enemies from gaining ground.

In essence, what we’ve chosen in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan is a kind of “frozen conflict,” in which a war is pursued without any vision of an endgame, and that’s actually the point. “Frozen conflict” is a term you’re more likely to hear applied to the borderlands of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where the Kremlin has encouraged low-grade civil wars (in the Caucasus, in Moldova, now Ukraine) thatare designed to just percolate and fester, keeping Moscow’s former satellites from turning fully to the West.

But while America’s motives are very different, we have this much in common with Putin: We, too, see advantages in managing conflicts, intervening just so far and no further, keeping a hand in (or a drone above) without seeking a final victory or a final peace. That’s true of the AfPak wars; it’s true for now of our interventions against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; it’s true of smaller antiterrorism forays the world over. It’s even true of our quasi-conflict with Putin himself: He wants to divide and destabilize Ukraine without actually conquering it, we want to limit his gains without provoking escalation, and the result is grinding violence without much chance of resolution.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that President Obama’s grand strategy (such as it is) is defined by a desire to lay down some of the burdens of the Pax Americana. I also wrote that it’s nearly impossible for a superpower to simply slip into a supporting role. Combine Obama’s vision with that Atlas-Can’t-Shrug reality, and frozen conflicts are the near-inevitable result: In theater after theater, this administration has us in just far enough to shape events, but without a plan to win it.

Over the next 18 months, you’re going to hear Republican politicians and — barring a Rand Paul upset — the eventual Republican nominee campaigning vigorously against this state of play, and arguing that America should be fighting more to win and less to draw. Napoleon’s maxim, “When you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna,” will be repurposed as a critique of this president and all his many half-fought, un-won wars.

That critique will have some teeth. Even frozen conflicts cost lives and treasure (and invite blowback), the world has grown more dangerous and chaotic across Obama’s second term, and the sense that American policy makers are constantly playing not to lose is plainly informing the calculations made in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing.

The problem is that Republican hawks have too many wars where they seem intent on turning up the heat, too many Viennas that they want to take at once. There is no sign as yet that the president’s would-be successors have clear strategic priorities; instead, the tendency is to treat every conflict that comes into the headlines, whether it involves Libya or Iran, Syria or Ukraine, AfPak or the Islamic State, as a theater where there’s no substitute for American-led victory.

Some of this is just posturing, and if elected no G.O.P. president (well, except maybe Lindsey Graham) would actually escalate militarily on every front at once. But it isn’t exactly clear what they would do, because their critique of Obama scores points without acknowledging the real limits on American power — and the structural, and not just ideological, realities behind the decisions that he’s made.There may be cases where America needs to fight to win, enemies that we need to actually defeat instead of managing. But there are also wars that shouldn’t be joined at all, and situations where a kind of frozen conflict really is the best out of our bad options. So the test facing this president’s would-be successors, the challenge that should be posed to them as candidates, is to tell us which kind of war is which.