By John A. Nagl

The past decade of war has been revolutionary for the United States military. It has adapted to a very old kind of warfare for which it was unprepared, developed new tools to defeat terrorists, and—most of all—seen extraordinary determination and courage from a new generation of great Americans who are part of an all-volunteer force.

As the wars begin to wind down and the country struggles to pay the bills it has accumulated, we must ensure those who have borne the burden of these wars are not forgotten. We must ensure the nation remembers and cares for our veterans and their families as they have earned, and as they deserve.

In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the victory over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, the American military focused on improving its capability to fight a conventional war against conventional enemies—although there were few to be found. When the attacks of September 11 struck three of the intended targets, America rapidly attacked an Afghan government that shielded al Qaeda, toppling the Taliban in an innovative campaign that relied upon Special Forces soldiers, some riding horseback, calling in the support of the world’s most powerful Air Force.

The innovative campaign failed to capture Osama bin Laden, leader of al Qaeda, who escaped into Pakistan. It also failed to provide stability to a shattered country that was reeling after a generation of war. The Taliban regained strength across the border in Pakistan and soon began returning to Afghanistan as guerillas, but America was focused elsewhere.

Within hours of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, senior members of the Bush administration were already planning an attack on Iraq. The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was a replay of the Afghan campaign on a much larger scale. Again, a tremendously successful initial invasion was not enough to build a better peace in the aftermath of war.

In Iraq, U.S. decisions to disband the Iraqi Army, prevent members of the Ba’ath party from serving in government, and postpone local rule added fuel to a nascent insurgency that burst into flame during the hot summer of 2003. My Army tank unit was preparing for conventional combat against another armored force when we suddenly received orders to deploy to Iraq.

We soon arrived in a town named Khalidiyah in Iraq’s Wild West, in Al Anbar province, that was populated almost exclusively by Sunnis who hated the Shia-dominated government that had assumed power in the wake of Saddam’s departure. The town’s police chief was assassinated the day we arrived, the second to fall in the six months since the invasion. We struggled to build a police force that would protect the people and develop local government that would translate their needs into words we could understand and programs we could fund, and we fought hard against enemies we could rarely see.

Our town was situated between the provincial capital and insurgent hotbed of Ramadi and the city of Fallujah, where four private security contractors took a wrong turn to their deaths in the spring of 2004. The American reaction to the killings was swift, powerful, and poorly informed, spurring a national uprising that unified the Sunnis and Shia against us. Bridges were blown, supply convoys ambushed, and we went on short rations as all that we had worked to build went up in flames.

My unit’s experience was a suitable metaphor for the next two years of the war in Iraq. The destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in February 2006 was the final straw as the insurgency metastasized into a full-scale civil war. America no longer believed we were fighting a few “dead-enders.” As 2006 drew to a close, President Bush named a new Secretary of Defense and commander in Iraq.

The new commander, Army General David Petraeus, had been preparing for this day. He implemented counterinsurgency doctrine that focused on understanding and protecting the population, taking advantage of an American Army and Marine Corps that had learned painful lessons about what worked and what didn’t during previous tours in Iraq. The results were dramatic. Violence dropped rapidly, with progress accelerated by the decision of Sunnis to join with American forces in what became known as the “Sawa,” or “Awakening.” By the summer of 2008 it was clear to those on the ground that something fundamental had changed.

The timing was fortuitous, as the situation in America’s other war was moving rapidly in the wrong direction. President Barack Obama, surprised by how dire the situation was in what America then thought of as “the good war” when he took office, tripled U.S. forces committed to Afghanistan during his first year in office. Intense fighting swiftly resulted as soldiers and Marines struggled to implement the clear, hold, and build counterinsurgency doctrine that had been battle tested in Iraq. America poured resources into building and training the Afghan army and police force, an effort hampered more by the recruits’ inability to read than by their willingness to fight. American troops, already serving as aid workers and local political advisors, found themselves teachers in a campaign against Afghan illiteracy as well as fighters against an elusive Taliban army.

They were helped by an improved intelligence system that had evolved from one designed to understand enemy tank armies to one that worked hard to understand local power structures and political relationships, and by a new weapon of war that put Taliban leaders at constant risk—armed drones.

These unmanned aircraft provided phenomenal loiter times, real-time intelligence on enemy operations, and precise firepower that did grave damage to Taliban chains of command. Drones were part of the intelligence apparatus that located Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in the spring of 2011. It was, however, Special Forces operators who used the intelligence they and other sources provided to kill him, marking a critical date in the by then decade-long war against al Qaeda.

Impressive as these accomplishments are—a learning Army and Marine Corps, an Air Force that increasingly relies upon unmanned aircraft to rule the skies, and Navy SEALs and other Special Operations Forces who conduct literally dozens of kill/capture operations nightly—the most remarkable fact of the past decade of war is that every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine who has served has been a volunteer.

When America created the All-Volunteer Force at the end of Vietnam, it could not have imagined that within a generation, volunteers would fight for 10 years in two protracted irregular wars—and with no signs of flagging. Recruiting and retention remain strong, with all services regularly meeting their goals for volunteers to fight for their nation in her hour of need.

We have asked a great deal of our volunteer force. Many have served multiple combat tours, putting strain on their families and their own mental well-being. Suicide among military veterans now exceeds the rate among the population as a whole. Our veterans of current wars are also unemployed at rates exceeding that of the general population. We have an obligation to these veterans who have volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way, and to their families, which also carry the scars of a decade of war. While many are stronger for trials they have endured, all have been forever changed—many with visible wounds, more with damage that is invisible to the naked eye but no less traumatic for being unseen.

As we draw down our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan—handing over control to increasingly capable local governments and security forces—and as we continue to pursue a diminished but still dangerous al Qaeda to the ends of the earth, we must hold in our hearts those who have paid a heavy price so that the rest of us can live in freedom. They have borne a heavy burden, and we cannot adequately repay them—but we can, and must, do all in our power to ease their cares after their exceptional service in this time of war.

-John A. Nagl is a former president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Defense Policy Board. A retired Army officer, he served in both Iraq wars.