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

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 12/14/2019 Michael M. Phillips, Victor J. Blue for The Wall Street Journal
a man wearing a hat © Provided by The Wall Street Journal.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

“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.”

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.”

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.

Write to Michael M. Phillips at michael.phillips@wsj.com

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