Was it worth it?

Sarosh Sher, a former Air Force sniper who served in Iraq, says that’s a question he asks himself often. Were the United States’ long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan worth the cost, in lives lost and broken?

Sher, who lives in the central Maine town of Chelsea, has found no easy answers. He believes in helping people who are hurting, and he saw soldiers risking their lives to do that in Iraq. He saw women and children living in fear who needed help. He saw minority populations targeted and repressed and he felt it was right to try to protect them. But he’s also not sure the U.S., or anybody, can impose its version of democracy on a country like Afghanistan, which seems to Sher to have such strong forces opposed to the idea.

The easier question to answer for Sher, 38, a native of Pakistan, is about what his involvement meant to him. It allowed him to serve his adopted country and attempt to repay it for the opportunities he’s been given, opportunities he says he’d never have in Pakistan. His time in the service and overseas also helped spark his desire to help people – he works now as a mental health first-aid trainer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness/Maine. He feels the best way for the U.S. to affect change around the world is to lead by example, and he wants to be part of that.

“We need to take care of our problems, whether its gun crime or poverty, and help people. If we can make those kinds of changes in our country I think it will trickle down to other countries,” Sher said. “We need to set the example for other countries.”

Sher spent the first 10 years of his life in Pakistan. His father died when was very young and he was being raised by a single mother. He said he was sexually abused by a family member and had fallen in with a rough crowd roaming the streets of Lahore. He had a lot of anger issues.

An uncle and aunt living in the United States asked to adopt him, hoping to give him a better life. His uncle worked as a pharmacist in veterans’ hospitals around the country, including at the Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta. Sher quickly became enamored with the vets he met. He was enthralled by their stories of sacrifice and love for country, a country that was presenting him with opportunities he never dreamed he’d have.

Sarosh Sher of Chelsea joined the Air Force after high school and served in Iraq as a sniper. Photo courtesy of Sarosh Sher

He decided as a teen that he wanted to join the military to serve his new country. Soon after he graduated Cony High School in Augusta in 2001, he joined the Air Force on a delayed enlistment and would attend basic training in May of 2002. He was in New York City visiting family on Sept. 11, 2001, when he heard radio reports of  terrorists crashing into the World Trade Center, an act that led to this country’s two decades-long military campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sher remembers seeing people’s faces as they fled Manhattan that day and the relief he felt when he saw two Air Force F-16s flying overhead. While he had already enlisted, the episode reinforced his desire to serve.

“I have been more appreciative than most for the opportunities that I have been given by our great nation and can never repay it enough for what it has given me,” he said.

Sher scored so highly on marksman tests – even though he had never fired a gun before in his life – that he was sent to sniper school by the Air Force. He calls himself “non-practicing,” but learned Islam as a youth, including its tenets of peace and charity.

“You have to ask yourself if you are capable or willing to take someone’s life. I looked at it as I may have to do a necessary evil to protect a lot of people,” he said.

He was deployed to Iraq for seven months in 2005 and 2006, where his duties included scouting missions into enemy territory, usually with a sniper partner. He also provided security for troops being transported and for government officials and went on missions to recover goods stolen from the U.S. military. He endured rocket attacks at his base but was only in a direct firefight once, he said.

Sher saw the bravery of his fellow soldiers and was awed by it. He also saw the suffering of ordinary Iraqi people, including women and children. One of the things he saw that haunted him was a young girl – part of a crowd of people standing along a roadside hoping for food to be thrown from military vehicles – struck and killed by a U.S. truck.

He served four years of active duty in the Air Force and four years of inactive reserve. After leaving the Air Force and coming back to Maine, he worked as a corrections officer in Somerset and Kennebec counties. He later worked as a deputy in the Kennebec County Sheriff’s office and as an investigator in the the Kennebec County district attorney’s office, where he handled domestic violence cases. He lives in Chelsea with his wife and three children.

Sher began working with NAMI a few years ago teaching mental health first aid to veterans, but now teaches it to a variety of professionals, including law enforcement officers. He tries to help people identify the symptoms of mental health emergencies in others, and in the process hopes to reduce its stigma. He says his service in the military – and his belief that how the United States treats its own people can serve as an example for the world – led him to his current job.

Sher thinks often of the “brothers and sisters” he served with in Iraq and how proud he is of their conduct. Watching the recent U.S. withdrawal from  Afghanistan – including television images of overcrowded helicopters struggling to take off – seemed to him like “ripping off a band aid” after 20 years of bleeding.

“I feel for all the Gold Star families, because they more than anyone are pondering the question was it worth it,” Sher said. “Is anything really worth losing their loved ones?”


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