Our Sacrifices Were Meaningful, But We Need Help: The Afghan Withdrawal and Veterans' Mental Health

Paratroopers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, and others, prepare to board a C-17 cargo plane at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Paratroopers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, and others, prepare to board a C-17 cargo plane at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (Master Sgt. Alexander Burnett/U.S. Army via AP)

Patrick Griffith currently serves as the program director of Mission Roll Call and is a veteran of the U.S. Army, where he served as a noncommissioned officer in the 38th Ordnance Company Explosive Ordnance Disposal supporting deployments to Africa, South America and Afghanistan.

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

The day after Kabul fell to the Taliban in August during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Department of Veterans Affairs sent around an email sharing a suicide hotline with veterans. As the email said, the VA was worried that veterans might "question the meaning of their service" in light of the events taking place in Afghanistan.

The VA wasn't wrong to be concerned. Veterans disproportionately deal with mental health issues and are almost twice as likely to be the victims of suicide than the American public. With how quickly the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated after 20 years of service and sacrifice, the veteran community is understandably prone to spikes in mental health issues such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and more.

I should know. I've lived it. Many of my friends gave their lives for a safer Afghanistan, and my brother-in-law gave both of his legs. Yet, within weeks, everything we had established or helped put in place was completely overrun. It felt like boxing 10 rounds and then getting knocked out. We had spent 20 years and more than $2 trillion on a war that saw 2,400 U.S. service members die. I started to wonder what it was all for.

But over time, as I reflected on my time in Afghanistan, I started to remember the smaller details, the stories, the shared experiences. I realized that the actions we took did matter -- and they mattered on a human level.

The United States was not in Afghanistan to win permanent control over the Afghan people; we were there to help the people control their own destiny, which is exactly what we did for two decades. When my team left for missions in Afghanistan, we would be swarmed by Afghan children who were fascinated by our patrols. We started giving them candy, food and other basic goods to demonstrate our desire to be a constructive force. I still remember the excitement on their faces as they ran away to tell their friends about the generous American troops.  

Ultimately, the crowd grew with each mission until we just didn't have enough supplies to go around. That didn't discourage them. They started asking us for pencils and pens to use at school. Whenever we came around bringing school supplies, they would run to come and greet us, see us, interact with us. Each time, it was the highlight of our day.

Moreover, we bonded with the local police. I got invited to eat dinner with the chief of the Afghan national police and his colleagues one day. I didn't speak their language, and they didn't speak mine, but that didn't stop us from having a great time. As part of the meal, they brought me a salad with a scaldingly hot pepper. I can handle hot peppers, but this was another level. When I bit in, they all started laughing. They couldn't believe that I had tried it (and I could definitely see why).

While I may never see these people again, I know that the bonds we formed with Afghan civilians are permanent and will forever change the way they view Americans.

As veterans, we should never forget that changing mindsets is a part of our work. I know that our time spent in Afghanistan was not in vain, because I know that the people we met and worked with haven't forgotten us -- and won't, just like I have not forgotten them.

As we look to the holidays and close out another difficult year, I would like to encourage my fellow veterans to look toward the future, and not dwell on what could have been or despair over the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal. Of course, those struggling with mental health issues should get plugged into the resources they need to cope. Looking to the future does not mean the struggle with mental illness will just go away.

That is why we need institutions like the VA to do more than just recognize the struggles of veterans and send out the occasional reminder to seek the care they need. VA suicide prevention coordinators, medical centers, outpatient clinics and vet centers need to step up and proactively seek veterans in their communities to properly serve the men and women who served our nation honorably.

The VA was created to help veterans with physical and mental health challenges born from their service, but in recent years it has been inconsistent and sometimes downright counterproductive. I am constantly hearing from veterans who had to wait three months or more for counseling, even after having complete breakdowns. I have heard stories about veterans committing suicide after having their mental health appointments repeatedly canceled by the VA. They didn't get the help they needed -- the help they were promised.

Amazingly, the VA's budget has more than quadrupled since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. But somehow, that hasn't helped much. Veterans' health needs are still not being prioritized, which was evident earlier this year when President Joe Biden tasked VA Secretary Denis McDonough "to eliminate Veteran homelessness and prevent suicide" -- prioritizing it fourth out of five crucial mandates. That it fails to rise to the top of the list is egregiously tone-deaf.

Veterans gave their lives to protect Americans and change the world for the better. In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, they're facing real struggles, and our inefficient VA isn't doing enough to help.

If we support veterans and make our collective voice heard at the VA and in Congress, we can live up to our promises as a nation, and help veterans understand the meaning of their service. In turn, we can help veterans build new, happier lives of service here at home.

If you are a service member or veteran who needs help, it is available 24/7 at the Veterans and Military Crisis Line, 800-273-8255 (press 1), by texting 838255, or through the online chat function at www.veteranscrisisline.net.

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