'We've Abandoned the People Who Helped Us': Vets Grapple with Emotions over the Fall of Afghanistan

U.S. Marines and an interpreter speak with local Afghan nationals
U.S. Marines and an interpreter speak with local Afghan nationals in Reg-e Khan Neshin, Helmand province, Afghanistan on June 6, 2012. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Marcus Kuiper)

Betrayal, frustration, anger, grief, numbness and concern for those left behind -- these are some of the emotions former service members say they are feeling as they watch images of their former enemies celebrating in Kabul and get desperate text messages from those left behind in Afghanistan.

"It's a disgrace that the U.S. has forsaken these bonds and abandoned our allies," said Peter Kiernan, a former Special Operations Command Marine who deployed to Herat in 2012. "We were trying to liberate these people and give them a better life. And that's the part that's so hard to grapple with here. We fought for this. And the Afghan soldiers that we served with were optimistic about the future of their country."

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

The Afghans he met were committed to a better quality of life -- soldiers who were "super ideologically committed," civilians who were educating women, improving health care and cultivating community programs and services with support from micro-grant programs.

He remains especially concerned about an interpreter he's been trying to get out of the country for the past six years. The frustration over the bureaucratic delay of the Afghan's visa and desperate text message exchanges with his friends as the Taliban advanced in the past week have taken their toll.

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For many veterans who lost comrades or were wounded with brain injuries, amputations or post-traumatic stress in Afghanistan, the Taliban's triumphant advance across the country has triggered emotions buried for years or still very raw.

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Mental health experts describe the fall of Afghanistan as a "triggering event," a reminder of the past that sparks memories and emotions and may cause an increase of symptoms for those with trauma-related mental health conditions.

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

"I'm very concerned," said Dr. David Cifu, an associate dean at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. "COVID ... is just knocking people for a loop, and if you are already spinning around, all it takes is for someone to blow on you and you can fall over."

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

"Folks who struggle with PTSD tend to want to avoid thinking about the trauma, talking about the trauma, being reminded of the trauma," said Maria Steenkamp, a professor at NYU Langone Health's psychiatry department. "If you're going about your day-to-day, you're not really thinking about Afghanistan. ... It's going to be very hard to put that out of mind right now."

Retired Marine Col. Gerry Berry understands the turmoil his fellow veterans are experiencing, having lived it as he extracted 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 during a previous deployment to the country 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 this looks like an intelligence failure, a diplomatic failure, and certainly a military failure," Berry said. "I am very sad for all who served and feel horrible for the Gold Star families, now that it really appears it was all for naught."

But, he added, as someone who shares the common experiences of combat, loss and pain, the frustration and sadness dull with time.

"You never stop thinking about it, especially your lost comrades, but time does make it better. It's hard right now, but just hang in there," Berry said.

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

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

These principles include adhering to a healthy diet; exercising; maintaining good sleep habits; creating a sense of purpose in daily life; focusing on family; socializing with friends; engaging in spirituality -- either organized religion or on an individual basis; meditation or other form of stress relief; and managing one's health.

According to Steenkamp, veterans experiencing stress or mixed emotions should "take it easy for the next few days" to process their events or their feelings and seek support if they need it, while "giving themselves permission to take good care of themselves right now."

The Department of Veterans Affairs issued a list Monday of places that provide support for veterans, acknowledging that vets may feel "moral distress about experiences they had during their service."

"It's normal to feel this way," a VA message to veterans read. "At this moment, it may seem like all is lost, like your service or your sacrifices were for nothing. Consider the ways that your service made a difference, the impact it had on others' lives or on your own life. Remember that now is just one moment in time and that things will continue to change."

Since the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, targeting al-Qaida -- the terrorist organization responsible for killing more than 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001 -- and toppling the Taliban government, 2,448 U.S. troops died and nearly 21,000 service members were wounded.

During the same period, an estimated 30,177 active-duty personnel or veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken their own lives, according to a June report from the Cost of War Project.

The triggering events of the last several days will lead to increased thoughts of suicide among veterans, Cifu said, adding that those in crisis should seek help immediately, either from a professional or by reaching out to battle buddies, family or friends, or a veterans network.

"I hope we don't see an increase in suicides," Cifu said. "But there may be more suicidal ideation because it's frustrating. We need to be on alert -- the military health system, the VA system and the private sector. We are available; we are aware. If you are feeling despondent, seek help."

For family members seeing their veterans in distress, Steenkamp recommends that they ask their former service member if they want to speak about it and then "respect those wishes."

"I think in all the conversations about this, staying respectful of the sacrifices the veteran went through while being there ... and just being patient, supportive and checking in with the veteran of what he or she might need [are important]," she said.

Steenkamp, who counsels family members in addition to veterans through the nonprofit Cohen Veterans Center, added that vets may benefit from doing something to honor the memory of a fallen friend -- making a donation in their name, lighting a candle in church or reaching out to the Gold Star family.

"What's happening in Afghanistan right now will also be very emotional for the families of those who lost someone," she said.

Kiernan said he has reached out to buddies to discuss their despair about the interpreters left behind and talk about the friends they lost in Afghanistan.

"It's definitely jarring to see what's happening, ironically, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 -- that Afghanistan is back in the hands of the Taliban and it will be as if nothing had happened," he said. "We try to give each other encouragement and say, for the last 20 years, women have been able to get educated. ... There are silver linings ... but [it's] very tough for us to see any sort of lasting impact."

Other veterans were supportive of the idea of a withdrawal, given the decades of war, but the unfolding chaos in Kabul has been difficult.

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

What he has seen shows "pretty stunning" incompetence, in his assessment.

"We entered Afghanistan without an end state," Elias said. "And the part that really hurts is we've abandoned the people who helped us."

If you are a veteran seeking assistance with mental health issues, the Veterans Crisis Line is available at 800-273-8255, press 1, or by text at 838255. Help also is available through Vet Centers or the VA's website at www.MentalHealth.va.gov.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

Related: Amid Complicated Emotions over Afghanistan, Veterans Should Remember the Impact of Their Service

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