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

local children Alingar District, Laghman province, Afghanistan
A civil affairs specialist attached to Laghman Provincial Reconstruction Team speaks to local children about school and their families during a multi-day operation Aug. 21, 2011 in Alingar District, Laghman province. (Ryan Crane/U.S. Army)

Mike Erwin is the founder and director of the veteran-serving nonprofit Team Red, White & Blue.

The tragic events unfolding in Afghanistan cut especially deep as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and remember how long we've been invested in that country. The campaign consumed the professional lives of many veterans, including me. Between June 2006 and August 2009, I deployed to southern Afghanistan twice for a combined 16 months.

All of us who served in Afghanistan made a difference. And not for one minute will I allow others to forget that. While it might feel like "20 years for nothing" right now, that is not how this story will end.

As we contemplate the price paid -- the blood spilled and those lost -- we feel anger and sadness. We can question whether our service had meaning and whether our brothers' and sisters' sacrifices were given for a worthy cause.

The Taliban's surge back to power adds another chapter to Afghanistan's complex history and is an indisputable black eye for America.

The images of Chinook helicopters evacuating the U.S. Embassy are difficult to watch and eerily similar to the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam conflict. This striking parallel adds a layer of harsh reality for many of the Vietnam generation.

My deployments make this issue a personal one. I'm faced with a wave of emotions, but my thoughts are focused on those who sacrificed far more during their service in Afghanistan -- my friends who were wounded and especially our Gold Star families, whose loved ones gave "the last full measure."

I believe there's something else triggering our emotional response. Life boils down to the people. Afghanistan is a rural place and, as such, many members of the military spent time in the countryside. We had the opportunity to interact with and build relationships with locals (especially kids) in ways that didn't happen in other conflicts.

Many Afghans want a better future for their country and risked their lives to help make it happen, especially interpreters who were embedded in our units and the armada of bongo truck drivers on improvised explosive device-laden mountain roads. We couldn't do our mission -- to help build a more free and prosperous Afghanistan -- without them. And now, we can't help but wonder what is going to happen to them.

In short, it's complicated. And emotions are running high. For our fellow veterans, especially from Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, I'd like to share a few quick thoughts that I hope are useful.

Team Red, White & Blue and many other veteran nonprofits exist to support you, even more so in times like these. Don't hesitate to reach out and talk to someone.

One of the keys to resilience is controlling what you can control. The reality is that the situation in Afghanistan is likely to get worse before it gets better, and we need to be prepared to deal with all the volatility between now and Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Do your best to stay away from negativity and anger-inducing coverage. Intentionally replace that with things such as vigorous exercise, spending time with friends, and serving others. All three are proven to make you feel better, and are within your control.

Even if you have heard the starfish story already, I think it's especially relevant to share right now. It's not Pollyannaish to affirm that we made a difference for those to our left and right, and for so many Afghan people. I can think of no better way to close, than with this parable.

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.

Approaching the boy, he asked, "What are you doing?"

The youth replied, "Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The tide is going out. If I don't throw them back, they'll die."

"Son," the man said, "don't you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can't make a difference!"

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf.

Then, smiling at the man, he said, "I made a difference for that one."

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to for consideration.

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