‘We abandoned the people who helped us’: ex-combatants grapple with emotions of fall of Afghanistan

Betrayal, frustration, anger, grief, numbness and worry for those who remain – these are some of the emotions ex-servicemen say they feel when they watch images of their former enemies celebrating in Kabul and receive desperate text messages from those remaining. in Afghanistan.

“It is a shame that the United States has abandoned these ties and abandoned our allies,” said Peter Kiernan, a former Marine in Special Operations Command who deployed to Herat in 2012. “We were trying to release these people and give them a better life. And that is the part that is so hard to fight here. We fought for that. And the Afghan soldiers we served with were optimistic about their future. country. “

In Afghanistan, Kiernan led a team of interpreters and trained Afghan forces, working with them to clear areas of Taliban presence or capture Taliban leaders.

The Afghans he met were committed to a better quality of life – ‘super ideologically engaged’ soldiers, civilians who educated women, improved health care, and cultivated community programs and services with the support of community programs. micro-grants.

He remains particularly concerned about an interpreter he has been trying to get out of the country for six years. Frustration over the bureaucratic delay of the Afghan visa and the desperate exchanges of text messages with his friends as the Taliban advanced last week have taken their toll.

Read more : “How many more American lives?” Biden sticks to Afghan withdrawal amid Kabul turmoil

For many veterans who have lost comrades or suffered head injuries, amputations or post-traumatic stress disorder in Afghanistan, the triumphal advance of the Taliban across the country has triggered emotions buried for years or even very lively.

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Mental health experts describe the fall of Afghanistan as a ‘trigger event’, a reminder of the past that evokes memories and emotions and can cause increased symptoms in people with trauma-related mental health issues .

And coming during a pandemic, when many still face uncertainty and disease, the astonishing and swift end of a 20-year war represents a time of great vulnerability in which veterans should practice self-care. say the doctors and psychologists who treat veteran patients.

“I am very concerned,” said Dr. David Cifu, associate dean at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. “COVID… just kicks people for a loop, and if you’re already going around in circles, someone just needs to blow on you and you can fall.”

The sudden influx of news about Afghanistan can be especially difficult for those who may have spent years trying to escape memories of the conflict.

“People who struggle with PTSD tend to want to avoid thinking about the trauma, talking about the trauma, remembering the trauma,” said Maria Steenkamp, ​​professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. “If you go about your day-to-day life, you don’t really think about Afghanistan.… It’s going to be very hard not to think about that now.”

Retired Sailor Col. Gerry Berry understands the turmoil his fellow veterans are going through, having experienced it as he extricated hundreds of evacuees desperately trying to leave Saigon in April 1975.

Berry, who airlifted U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin from the Embassy on April 30, 1975, and lost friends in a previous deployment back home in 1969, expressed frustration that the end in Afghanistan was not better planned or executed.

“I’m not the smartest guy on the planet, but it sounds like an intelligence failure, a diplomatic failure, and certainly a military failure,” Berry said. “I am very sad for all who have served and I feel horrible for the Gold Star families now that it really seems like it was all for naught.”

But, he added, as someone who shares common experiences of struggle, loss and pain, the frustration and sadness fades over time.

“You never stop thinking about it, especially your lost comrades, but time makes it better. It’s tough right now, but hang in there,” Berry said.

During this tumultuous time, veterans may experience feelings of pain, frustration, sadness or abandonment, said Cifu and Steenkamp, ​​and those suffering from PTSD may see an increase in symptoms such as l insomnia, headache, dizziness, nightmares, fear or anxiety.

To combat any resurgence of symptoms, experts highlight the “building blocks of care,” nine principles that people can focus on to strengthen their “core of mental health,” Cifu said.

These principles include adherence to a healthy diet; to exercise; maintain good sleep habits; create purpose in daily life; focus on the family; socialize with friends; engage in spirituality – either in organized religion or on an individual basis; meditation or other form of stress relief; and manage their health.

According to Steenkamp, ​​veterans under stress or mixed emotions should “relax for the next few days” to deal with their events or feelings and seek support if they need it, while “giving themselves permission. to take good care of them now. “

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday released a list of places offering veterans support, acknowledging that veterans may feel “moral distress about the experiences they have had while in service.”

“It’s okay to feel like this,” one reads a message from VA to veterans. “Right now it may seem like all is lost, as if your service or sacrifices have gone for nothing. Think about how your service has made a difference, the impact it has had on society. other people’s lives or your own life. Remember that now is just a moment in time and things will keep changing. “

Since the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, targeting al-Qaida – the terrorist organization responsible for the murder of more than 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001 – and the overthrow of the Taliban government, 2,448 American soldiers have died and nearly 21,000 soldiers were injured. .

During the same period, approximately 30,177 active duty personnel or veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq committed suicide, according to a June report from the Cost of War project.

The triggering events of the past few days will lead to an increase in suicidal thoughts among veterans, Cifu said, adding that people in crisis should seek help immediately, either from a professional or by seeking help. combat friends, family or friends, or a veteran. network.

“I hope we don’t see an increase in suicides,” Cifu said. “But there can be more suicidal thoughts because it’s frustrating. We have to be on alert – the military health care system, the VA system and the private sector. We are available; we are aware. depressed, ask for help. “

For family members seeing their veterans in distress, Steenkamp recommends that they ask their ex-serviceman if they want to talk about it, and then “respect those wishes.”

“I think in all the conversations about this, to be respectful of the sacrifices the veteran went through while he was there… and just be patient, support and check with the veteran what he might need. [are important],” she said.

Steenkamp, ​​who advises family members in addition to veterans through the nonprofit Cohen Veterans Center, added that vets could benefit from doing something to honor the memory of a deceased friend – do donate on their behalf, light a candle at church or reach out to the Gold Star family.

“What is happening in Afghanistan right now will also be very moving for the families of those who have lost someone,” she said.

Kiernan said he reached out to friends to discuss their desperation over the interpreters left behind and friends they lost in Afghanistan.

“It’s really shocking to see what happens, ironically, on the 20th anniversary of September 11 – that Afghanistan is back in Taliban hands and it will be like nothing has happened,” he said. he declared. “We try to encourage each other and say that for 20 years women have been able to learn. … There are positive sides … but [it’s] very difficult for us to see any kind of lasting impact. “

Other ex-combatants favored the idea of ​​a withdrawal, given decades of war, but the chaos in Kabul has been difficult.

“I agree with the concept that there had to be an end somewhere,” said Army Captain Dustin Elias, who served at Ghazni in 2012. “There are mixed emotions. It’s not fun to watch.”

What he saw shows “quite astonishing” incompetence in his assessment.

“We entered Afghanistan without an end state,” Elias said. “And what really hurts is that we have abandoned the people who helped us.”

If you are a veteran seeking help with mental health issues, the Veterans Crisis Line is available at 800-273-8255, press 1 or by texting 838255. Help is also available. via veterinary centers or the VA website at www.MentalHealth.va.gov.

– Patricia Kime can be contacted at [email protected]r.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

Related: Amid complicated emotions over Afghanistan, veterans should remember the impact of their service

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