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As chaos erupted in Kabul, the Afghan president fled the country and the Taliban seized power, Dan Caldwell said he had an inkling of what veterans who served there might be feeling.
Caldwell, a Marine veteran, watched with mixed emotions in 2014 as the Islamic State group took control of Hit, the town where he had been stationed in Iraq.
“Just about every place that I served was overtaken by ISIS,” he said. “I went through a range of emotions when that happened: I was angry, somewhat depressed. I felt empty. And I think that a lot of Afghanistan veterans are struggling with that, and they’re struggling with it in their own unique way.”
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Even before Kabul fell, Dr. Sonya Norman, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD consultation program, said the way the conflict ends matters. “People are looking for meaning,” she said in a blog post on the VA’s website. “What did it mean that I went there, what did it mean that I risked my life, what does it mean that I saw other people lose their life?”
The absence of a clear-cut victory can make answering those questions difficult, she said.
“With this more ambiguous conflict where we had some successes, we’re leaving with things still uncertain, there’s a lot more room for people to have interpretations that can have very big impacts and long-term consequences for their mental health,” she said.
Polls showed most veterans wanted out of Afghanistan
Caldwell said he wants to be careful not to speak for Afghanistan veterans because he didn’t serve there, but he said there is one thing he is sure of: A majority of veterans, including those who served in Afghanistan, wanted the United States to get out.
“That has been consistent since 2019,” said Caldwell, senior adviser at Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group that conducted surveys and launched a multimillion-dollar campaign backing withdrawal. “We believe that ultimately, President Biden made the right decision.”
But the execution of the withdrawal triggered a spectrum of responses from veterans and advocates.
“This withdrawal needed to happen,” said Brittany Ramos DeBarros, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 and is now organizing director for About Face: Veterans Against The War. “But the way that it’s been orchestrated is disappointing to say the least.
“Going forward, we can’t just abandon the Afghan people. We need to really center Afghan voices and their humanitarian needs, which includes accepting as many Afghan refugees as possible, as fast as possible,” said DeBarros, who is running for Congress from New York.
Veterans for Peace, an antiwar group, decried the “pandering and posturing” of politicians and said “both parties are to blame for this mess and a militaristic culture that places profit above all else.” The group promoted a community Zoom call Monday for veterans who are having difficulty processing what’s happening.
Fall of Afghanistan spurs reflection about veterans’ sacrifices
Art delaCruz, a former aviator who flew missions over Afghanistan before leaving the Navy in 2013, told USA TODAY on Monday that his first reaction was “amazement,” quickly followed by the feeling that this is “an incredible catalyst for reflection.”
“Having been there a bunch of times, it just leads you down all these different paths of thinking about people in particular – other men and women who’ve served and what they went through,” said delaCruz, who is CEO of Team Rubicon, a veterans organization dedicated to volunteer work.
“It makes you think of families that have made enormous sacrifices, some living with the effects of an ultimate sacrifice, some people living with the scars of war that they bring back. All of those continue on.”
He was aboard the USS Enterprise when hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, so to him, the fall of Afghanistan was “a conclusion to something I was actually present for the start of.”
He said looking at the “time and treasure that has potentially been lost makes you begin to reflect on – like I think everyone does – was it worth it?”
VA saw increase in requests for help in recent months
Such questions would have been asked anyway. But the sudden, chaotic fall of the country has left veterans with a more complicated ending than some anticipated – and possibly more serious long-term mental health consequences.
Before the Taliban takeover, the VA reported that it had started to see an increase in veterans seeking help as news of the imminent withdrawal made headlines.
As part of a series of articles in recent weeks explaining what resources are available, Air Force veteran Scott Watson told VA officials he felt a “mix of disappointment and relief.” Watson, who worked with the Afghan National Army from 2009 to 2010 when he was stationed there, said in a VA blog post last week that he was disappointed because he didn’t believe Afghan security forces had been adequately trained.
“At the same time,” he said, “I’m relieved that I don’t ever have to go see names of people that I know redeploying to this place where it’s just Groundhog Day every day.”
Ramón “CZ” Colón-López, who is now senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recounted his difficulties battling PTSD in another VA article. He said it was difficult to deal with the deaths of fellow service members and to get to a place where he was proud of his service.
Colón-López deployed to Afghanistan shortly after 9/11 and worked in special operations, including combat missions to capture or kill “high value” targets.
He said it’s important not to lose sight of everything that was accomplished during two decades of war, including undercutting al-Qaida and killing Osama bin Laden.
“For our veterans, be proud of what you did, because you have kept the country safe over the last 20 years,” he said.
Where veterans can get help
VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said Monday that the agency had not seen an increase in veterans seeking help in the past 24 hours, “but of course that could change.”
“We continue to inform veterans of the number of resources we have available for those who may be having trouble dealing with this weekend’s events,” he said.
Veterans who need help can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1. They can reach someone by text at 838255 or chat at www.veteranscrisisline.net. The department also operates community-based counseling centers across the country where veterans can go for help.
“Our vet centers stand ready to assist our veterans, especially our post-9/11 and Afghanistan war veterans, during this time seek the counseling services or resources they may require,” Hayes said.