Afghanistan veteran: “Devastated, just gutted, absolutely gutted" over those left behind

AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

More veterans are reaching out for crisis line help after the collapse of Afghanistan than before Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from the country. A sharp uptick in calls has been seen since the Taliban took control of Kabul. It’s a sign of the level of stress that veterans are experiencing as a military presence in Afghanistan ends, especially those veterans who served in that country.

The increase is actually being seen as a good sign for the professionals in charge of the helplines. It means former service members are reaching out for help, an encouraging trend that is the result of efforts to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health treatment. Veterans feel safe in asking for help coping with stress.

“Our [Veterans Crisis Line] number is being marketed everywhere right now, which I’m thankful for,” said psychologist and Crisis Line Director Lisa Kearney during a call with reporters Tuesday. “The more we can do to normalize discussions about crisis, about suicide and it’s OK to reach out for help … I’m thankful for it.”

Texts to the hotline jumped 98% between Aug. 14 and Aug. 29, while chat messages and calls rose by 40% and 7% when compared with the same time frame last year, according to the VA.

The Biden administration’s withdrawal from Kabul was chaotic, as we all witnessed from news reports. Veterans, their advocates, and mental health professionals have been concerned for the mental health of veterans who may be reliving grief over fallen troops or questioning the purpose of the war. Generally speaking, August through October is the busiest time for crisis helplines. This year there are other factors besides Afghanistan that are increasing the volume of calls. Matthew Miller, national director of the VA’s Suicide Prevention Program, says that this year is the 20th anniversary of 9/11/01, recent major weather events, and political events have all added to their stress levels. It’s not just recent veterans, it’s a wide range of veterans who are seeking help.

In 2020, the Veterans Crisis Line averaged 1,756 calls per day and had roughly 300 contacts a day through chat and text programs.

Since the Crisis Line protects anonymity, Kearney could not say whether the increase in calls has come primarily from any one group of veterans — Afghanistan vets, post-9/11 or Vietnam veterans, etc. — nor could she give a breakdown on branch of service or ages.

But, she noted, veterans ages 18 to 34 tend to favor the line’s chat and text functions, while those over age 55 prefer to call, indicating that younger vets are reaching out at unprecedented levels.

“Veterans of all ages have been communicating questions and processing thoughts and feelings and concerns with us,” Miller said.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough is being urged by members of the U.S. Senate to develop an outreach program to contact veterans and let them know of the resources available to them, especially the 800,000 Afghanistan veterans. Thirty-three senators signed the letter. Iraq War veteran Sen. Joni Ernst and Sen. Maggie Hassan, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee led the effort.

“These service members deserve and earned the support that they need,” they wrote. “We appreciate the VA’s commitment to providing mental health services to all veterans and ask, in light of the current situation, that the Department accelerate its efforts to provide resources — to veterans of these recent conflicts.”

Rep. Mike Bost of Illinois, the House Veterans Affairs Committee’s highest ranking Republican, led a letter signed by seven other Republicans urging committee chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., to recall members from recess to conduct a hearing on veterans’ mental health.

“We should have no higher priority,” Bost wrote.

That’s all well and good but it takes time for Congress to get moving on anything. Our veterans are suffering right now. Some are even questioning their feelings of patriotism for America and that is heartbreaking. Leaving behind hundreds, likely thousands of Americans and Afghan helpers is taking a toll on veterans. For example, Air Force veteran Christy Barry was in basic training at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She felt compelled to serve in Afghanistan and signed up for a program to learn one of the country’s languages to better assist Afghan forces.

“I’m heartbroken for the Afghans that I couldn’t get out,” said Barry, who deployed to Afghanistan as an Air Force officer and then as a civilian. “Devastated, just gutted, absolutely gutted.”

The next few weeks will be hard for a lot of veterans, Barry said.

She had supported the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan but said the execution was a disaster.

“There’s a part of me that has died,” she said. “A part of me that used to be a patriotic American has died.”

She mentions supporting the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Joe Biden lies now when he says there are people who wanted to remain in Afghanistan forever. A forever war. The majority of Americans wanted to leave. The problem came in Biden’s horribly disastrous withdrawal. Had he been competent in his decision-making process, he would have begun the withdrawal first with civilians, both American and Afghan helpers, then when all those who were to be evacuated were safely out, go ahead and pull out the troops. Instead, we see what he did. He left behind a humanitarian crisis.

Veterans will be dealing with the guilt of those who were left behind.

Chris Jones, a Marine veteran, said the process brought back memories of his time as a machine gunner in Afghanistan and the accompanying feelings of helplessness and regret for not being able to save lives.

“There are thousands of American veterans who are having to tell the guys who kept them alive on their deployment, ‘I don’t know what to do,’” Jones said.

Jones recalled traveling to Arlington National Cemetery last weekend to pay respects to a friend who died during their first deployment to Afghanistan in 2010.

While at the gravesite, Jones received a text message from an Afghan man who wanted help leaving the country.

“It was surreal to tell a grave, ‘Hey, man, I think we lost this war pretty bad,’ and to have the reality of it thrust into my face, via my phone, and to sit there and to say, ‘I can’t help you,’” he said.

We thank our veterans for their service. We hope now they receive the help they need going forward.