The world watched as the Taliban seized back control of Afghanistan’s capital, and many people are experiencing a whirlwind of emotions, ranging from anger to disappointment, in response to Thursday’s attack at the Kabul airport from terrorist organization ISIS-K, which killed 12 U.S. service members.
But the news is even more disheartening for veterans.
Cristian Garcerant served in Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014 to “help civilians in a rough situation.” As the rest of us saw images and videos on the news, Garcerant was reminded of real and all-too-familiar places now overrun by the Taliban.
“To see all your hard work destroyed in front of you is sad. It’s frustrating. It’s a sense of dejection, and you just don’t know what to do,” Garcerant says. “It makes me feel like my work was all for nothing.”
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‘Were all of our sacrifices wasted?’:War veterans react to stunning Afghanistan collapse
Ron Acierno, a professor and vice chair of Veterans Affairs in psychiatry at UTHealth Houston, says that sentiment is shared by many veterans who have been reminded this week of their own sacrifices abroad.
“They’re going to have to question, ‘Why were we there risking our lives, getting injured and losing brothers in arms if we’re just going to walk away and let the exact people we fought take over, unopposed?'” he says. “All the accomplishments that were made because of their efforts, including women’s rights and construction of infrastructure, now may be lost or handed to the enemy. So it’s understandable one would be frustrated.”
Our instinct may be to check in with the veterans in our lives in an effort to talk to them about how they are feeling , but doing so can be triggering, and experts say it’s important to be mindful of how you approach a topic that may be a source of trauma, anxiety or PTSD.
Is it appropriate to ask veterans to talk about the fall of Afghanistan?
Experts say reaching out and giving veterans an opportunity to talk about their feelings right now “can make all the difference in the world.” Acierno suggests broaching the subject with a general question to see how your loved one is doing.
“It can be simple. ‘Hey, how are you doing with everything going on?’ is a good opening,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be specific (about Afghanistan). People will know what you’re talking about.”
Michael David Rudd, a psychologist and veteran of the Gulf War, encourages people to emphasize that they’re here to support veterans and are available to talk about whatever they’d like to share.
“Let veterans know that you care for them and remind them that the commitments they honored and the sacrifices they made are meaningful, despite what’s going on in Afghanistan,” he says.
But checking in doesn’t always warrant a response. Though Garcerant said he appreciated when his friends reached out, he didn’t always feel like he wanted to engage.
“Everyone should reach out, but don’t be surprised if (veterans) don’t want to talk about it,” he says. “When you bring up any sort of traumatic experience, many will either talk all about it or shut it out completely. So just respect that boundary, and respectfully ask them what they feel about the situation.”
Rudd says processing the news is more difficult for those who served in Afghanistan.
“One of the things that is really important is to be able to talk through it and make sense of it, and that takes time. That doesn’t happen quickly,” Rudd says. “So it’s reassuring to hear from those who love them that they are here to support them through this.”
What topics to avoid
There’s a stark difference between being considerate and being intrusive. Be careful in your approach and avoid these pitfalls:
Don’t get political. Every veteran is different, but Garcerant says he prefers to leave political opinions out of the conversation and avoid blaming political parties or figures. “For a lot of us, it’s a real sensitive subject. A lot of us have lost our friends over there. To sit there and make it a political game is insulting.”
Don’t assume you know what they’re going through. Acierno says it’s important to avoid acting as if you know how a veteran is feeling, because “if you haven’t been there, it’s going to be difficult to know what they’re going through.” Garcerant adds the best thing to do is just listen, because “a lot of us are heavily and mentally invested in what’s going on in Afghanistan.”
Avoid asking specific questions about their experience. It’s important to avoid triggering any trauma, and that includes questions about veterans’ experiences in Afghanistan. Garcerant advises, “Don’t ask, ‘What did you do over there?’ That’s when people will often shut themselves down.”
Where veterans can get help
According to a Brown University study published this summer, Afghanistan war veterans and those who served after 9/11 have a greater risk of suicide than veterans from decades before. The overall suicide rate for veterans is 1.5 times the rate for civilians, and it’s even higher for those who served after 9/11 (2.5 times that of all civilians).
Service members and veterans who are in crisis or are having thoughts of suicide and those who know a service member or veteran in crisis can call the Military Crisis Line/ Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, text 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
“Our vet centers stand ready to assist our veterans, especially our post-9/11 and Afghanistan war veterans, during this time seek the counseling services or resources they may require,” VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said Monday.
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Contributing: Donovan Slack