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Local Veterans Grapple With US’s Longest War and Chaotic Ending




GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Over the course of two decades, as the U.S. was embroiled in its longest war, West Michigan soldiers were sent to Afghanistan.

Now, many of those who served are struggling with how the conflict ended: a chaotic withdrawal as Afghanistan fell to Taliban control once again with little resistance from Western-back Afghan forces.

RYAN VELTKAMP: 2000-2008

Ryan Veltkamp of Hudsonville was among the first servicemembers from West Michigan to fight in the war.

A photo of Ryan Veltkamp featured in the newspaper.

Veltkamp served in the U.S. Navy from 2000 to 2008. He had just graduated from boot camp when the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks forever changed the nation.

“At that point, you know there’s something coming, (that) there’s going to be a war or something coming after that,” Veltkamp said.

He spent the next several years aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, the first aircraft carrier deployed to the Persian Gulf. He and his brother were electronics technicians who worked in the ship’s reactor department.

“We started bombing Afghanistan at that time,” he said. “It seemed like a constant run of planes coming on and off the carrier.”

In those early years, he said, the mission was clear. A March 2003 headline in the Grand Rapids Press echoed widespread sentiment toward the war as the nation continued to reel from the tragedy of the terror attacks: “Bush: Our duty is to strike first.”

“I remember when (President) George Bush landed on our carrier,” Veltkamp said. “It was the whole ‘mission accomplished’ back in the day.”

But the mission was far from over. More than 15 years would pass before the U.S. withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in August 2021. The world watched the chaos as the U.S. scrambled to evacuate American citizens and Afghan allies. Even now, the federal government is still trying to get some Americans out.

“I knew the decision to withdraw was coming and I thought that was good, we don’t need to be there anymore,” Veltkamp said. “(But) as quickly as they withdrew, they had to of known that would’ve caused more backlash and more trouble.”

A father of two, Veltkamp can’t help but think about how the families of fallen soldiers must have felt watching the Taliban overtake Afghanistan in short order while the Western-backed government and security forces crumbled.

“My heart goes out to them because they’ve got to think, ‘What did we do all this for?'” Veltkamp said.  

It’s a question he asks himself.

“It’s one of those things I think about,” he said. “We did this for 20 years. Are the Afghan people any better off there? It’s hard to say if that’s the case or not because we just left them there, (but) I know we did our best to help them.”

Raw emotion as Grand Haven veteran reunites with Afghan interpreter


After enlisting in the Michigan National Guard in 2011, Brooke Walters was in basic training when she found out her unit would be deploying to Afghanistan. Walters, of Ada, served as a medic with the military police unit.

When she arrived in Afghanistan in January 2013, she said she and her fellow soldiers thought the war was almost over.  

“We were under the impression that we were pulling out of Afghanistan shortly after we (left) in 2012. A lot of us thought of ourselves as the ‘clean-up crew’,” she said.

Brooke Walters assists in training of Afghan police. (Courtesy)

When she returned home to West Michigan, she slowly realized that wasn’t the case.

“When I got back, I took a job in a call center, and it just really surprised me that … these soldiers were calling to cancel their cable because they were being deployed to Afghanistan,” Walters said.

She grew frustrated watching more and more people get deployed to Afghanistan.

“It didn’t seem like we were making progress and then all of the sudden it’s 10 years later and we’re still there,” she said.

When the U.S. finally announced its plans to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2021, Walters said it was about time. But she said how it was carried out was hard to watch.

“I’ve kind of just tuned it out ever since I heard what was going on at the (Kabul) airport,” she said.

While trying to focus on all the good her unit accomplished on the ground, she can’t help but think of the Afghan people and allies left behind.

“On an individual level, I feel that we definitely changed lives,” Walters said. “I’m so grateful to see the interpreters I worked with are back in the states.

“But, she continued, “in the long-term picture, I don’t think we left (Afghanistan) better than we found it.”

Housing the most pressing need as Afghan refugees arrive in W MI


After graduating from Rockford High School in 2013, Mathias Mapes-Pearson enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was first deployed to regions within Europe and Africa to reinforce and protect American embassies. Around 2017, he was sent to Afghanistan.

“My main mission was to protect those marines that were advising the Afghan army units,” he said.

A courtesy of Mathias Mapes-Pearson in Afghanistan.

Even then, he said, it was hard to see a winning way out. Nonetheless, he continued to serve his country, fighting in a war that had been going on since he was 7 years old.

“We defeat the Taliban and they went away for a little bit and then they resurge and it’s just this constant cycle where you’re not necessarily getting anywhere,” Mapes-Pearson recalled.

While the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan seemed inevitable, he said its execution was horrifying.

“You have people literally bum-rushing a gate (at the airport), you don’t know who’s who,” he said. “It was chaotic and unfortunately it led to what happened.”

While the weight of the withdrawal weighs heavy on all three veterans’ hearts, they remain proud of their service.

“At the time when we were in control of Kabul, girls were going to school and women were allowed to walk around and express themselves freely,” Mapes-Pearson said. “They got a taste of what that’s like and whether or not they’re able to do anything with that, that’s what the future will be, but I think in that sense it was worth it.”

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Health News

New GR Pharmacy to Serve Spanish-speaking Patients




GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — By the end of the year, Grand Rapids’ Roosevelt Park neighborhood will have a new pharmacy.

Trinity Health Clinica Santa Maria began construction Monday morning on the $1.5 million project. The new pharmacy will include both walk-up and drive-thru services.

Trinity Health Clinica Santa Maria practice leader Kameron Selleck it will offer convenience in a neighborhood that doesn’t have a pharmacy close in proximity, making it challenging for patients to get their prescriptions in a timely manner.

“A lot of our patients do encounter a lot of social barriers in their lives,” Selleck said.

He added that a language barrier can make it difficult patients to get their prescriptions. He said nearly every employee at Clinica Santa Maria is bilingual in Spanish and the plan is for that trend to carry over to new pharmacy and pharmacy tech hires.

“I think this project was announced almost five years ago, so it’s here,” Selleck said. “I just really encourage the community to be as excited as we are.

The pharmacy is at 730 Cesar E. Chavez Ave. SW (formerly Grandville Avenue) at Martin Luther King Jr. Street (formerly Franklin Street) in Grand Rapids. It will be the seventh Trinity Health pharmacy in the Grand Rapids area, with the other locations being Cathedral Square, the Wege Building at Trinity Heath Saint Mary’s, Hudsonville, Rockford, Byron Center and Southeast Grand Rapids.

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Tulip Time Crowds Encouraging for Returning Festivals




HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — Tulip Time saw big crowds this year as it returned to a more regular schedule.

The event was cancelled in 2020 and scaled back last year because of the pandemic.

Hot temperatures caused damage to some of Holland’s tulips, Tulip Time organizers say.

The heat caused challenges for the 2022 festival. The Tulip Immersion Garden, a new attraction, had to close early because the hot temperatures caused too much damage to the flowers, Tulip Time Executive Director Gwen Auwerda said.

“They don’t like 80 degree, 90 degree weather. Tulips prefer it to be about 40 at night, 60 to 70, maybe 80 during the day,” Auwerda said.

Heat closes down Tulip Time Immersion Garden early

The organization is working on final numbers but saw attendance return to pre-pandemic levels.

“I do know that the carnival exceeded 2019 by 25 to 30%, so that was fabulous for them and it was packed everywhere in town,” Auwerda said.

Kevin Knight, the owner of Market Zero, said the festival definitely provided a boost as they worked to keep up with demand. 

“It’s a huge kick off to your summer season,” Knight said. “Our fridges were completely full and got completely empty and completely full and completely empty, so it was about everything we could handle.”

Market Zero in downtown Holland on May 16, 2022. Inside Market Zero in downtown Holland on May 16, 2022.

The return of crowds could be good sign for other events coming back this summer, like the Festival of the Arts in Grand Rapids. Mark Azkoul, an organizer for the event that began in 1970, sees the success of Tulip Time as encouraging.

Tulip Time has record-breaking opening weekend

“We’ve been out for two years so this is a big thing for us and for the city to get Festival back up and going,” Azkoul said.

Organizers created the Plein Air event for 2021, which combined outdoor art and music.

The 2022 event runs June 3 through June 5. After taking a break because of the pandemic the festival needs extra help.    

“A lot of people still don’t know yet festival is coming back, so we really want to get the word out. We need more volunteers,” Azkoul said.

People interested in volunteering can sign up on the Festival of the Arts website.


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Health News

Mom Does ‘small Part’ to Help Parents Who Need Formula




HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — Though there appears to an end of the baby formula shortage in sight, it’s still causing problems for parents, so a mother in Holland did what she could to help.

Abbott Nutrition has announced its entered into an agreement with the federal Food and Drug Administration to restart its Sturgis plant within two weeks. The closure of that plant has been a huge contributing factor to the shortage. The company expects its products to ship to stores eight weeks after production resumes.

But for now, many parents can’t find the formula they need. The low supply has some stores limiting the number of formulas customers can purchase, adding that they are in “extraordinary high” demand.

The baby formula shelves at a Meijer in Holland.

So Caitlin Dampier, a mother of two whose youngest is a 3-month-old girl, stepped up to help where she could.

“I really wish I could help out more, but this is just my small part,” Dampier said.

She got a box of Enfamil formulas that she’s not using because she’s breastfeeding.

“When you’re pregnant, you get free samples and so I thought I would just offer mine for free for mothers who need them,” Dampier said. “I kept it around in case I wasn’t able to breastfeed.”

5 things to know if you can’t find baby formula

Dampier made a post on Facebook this week directed at parents who can’t find formula. The box she received included three cans of Enfamil formulas and two ready-made formulas.

Two mothers reached out to her, including Kourtney Hann, another Holland resident. She’s one of thousands of mothers across the country who have had to go to great lengths to find food for their baby.

“I have had to go to stores maybe 45 minutes away just to even try to get formula,” she said. “It’s very hard to find them where I’m at right now. I went to Walmart yesterday and all they had was Similac and my daughter has a really bad reaction to Similac.”

Hann was able to connect with Dampier and picked up a can of Enfamil. Dampier left the box on her front porch with the message, “Please take only the formula you chose and tear out some coupons for yourself. My prayers are with you during this difficult time.”

The box of Enfamil products Caitlin Dampier left at her door for mothers to pick up.

Hann said she was down to her last can of baby formula which lasts her about five days. Now that she has received another can from Dampier, she’ll be able to feed her 9-month-old for the next two weeks.

“Being a mom is hard enough as it is. You have so many other struggles and to be afraid to know if you’re going to be able to feed your baby or not is a struggle,” Dampier said. “You want to do everything for your kids so when you’re not able to it’s hard. It’s just the worst feeling in the world.”


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