Don’t blame veterans for Afghanistan withdrawal, and don’t forget about them

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As many Americans watch in dismay as the Taliban takes over Afghanistan, the nation where we just spent 20 years fight a war, there is plenty of blame being cast around. 

President Biden and former President Trump pointed fingers at each other, with Biden reminding Americans that the U.S. pullout was originally negotiated by Trump; and Trump firing back that Biden should resign based on his poor handling of the withdrawal. 

Others looked further into history, blaming former President Bush for ensnaring the U.S. in the conflict in the first place, former President Obama for not getting us out sooner, and the military-industrial complex for pushing false narratives and prioritizing profits over sound policy.

Still, others looked past the politicians and blamed the media, which has been accused of having a pro-war bias, and even ourselves, for supporting the war so fervently in its early years, then losing interest for many more, before demanding our withdrawal more recently.

The only silver lining, amongst all the finger-pointing, is that no one is blaming the troops. 

As many pundits compare the withdrawal from Afghanistan to the fall of Saigon in 1975, this is an important difference. When the Vietnam War became unpopular, the American people failed to separate those who fought the war from those who had funded it. 

On Veterans Day 2011, author Karl Marlantes recalled what it was like returning home from 13 months of service in Vietnam: 

“[Vietnam] held no hurt or humiliation like what happened as we drove through a crowd of protesters shouting obscenities at us, flipping us the bird, and pounding on my brother’s 1960 Valiant with their fists and protest signs. I can still see the hate-filled face of a protester snarling at me through the passenger-side window. I can still feel my utter bewilderment and pain.”

Although American society has progressed from blaming our service members and veterans for politicians’ decisions to enter or remain entangled in unpopular wars, conversations around veterans’ health and wellbeing have nonetheless fallen largely out of public discourse.

Despite receiving a hero’s welcome when they returned home from Afghanistan, many veterans of the conflict are, understandably, struggling with how the story of our involvement there ends. 

As Marlantes articulated a decade ago, things like yellow ribbons, handshakes and being told “thank you for your service” fall far short of what returning veterans actually need. 

Indeed, months, and even years after returning home, veterans often need support services such as housing, health care, counseling, education and employment services. These needs, particularly those related to mental health, are presently being magnified by the swift fall of the nation they spent 20 years trying to build up. 

Organizations that serve veterans have reported fielding an increase in calls from veterans, as well as their family members, that they are feeling defeated, isolated and angry as they attempt to make sense of their service in light of how things ended.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) even put out a statement noting that recent events have caused veterans from all eras to question their service and whether it was worth the sacrifices they made. It also encouraged veterans to reach out to one another for support. A separate blog post by VA encouraged Afghanistan veterans to learn from their fellow Vietnam veterans, noting that the unceremonious end to the lengthy conflict and lack of closure can have long-term consequences on mental health.

Thus, as the nation now moves to forget its decades-long involvement in a conflict with an embarrassing ending, it remains important not to forget about those who sacrificed so much for it. The closure may not seem like much to those who did not serve or have close ties to anyone who did, but it carries significant meaning for our national conscience. 

As we learned in the aftermath of Vietnam, if we as a nation don’t focus on coming to terms with the fact that we lost the war, we will further complicate an already difficult legacy of what it means to have served in one.

In pioneering research on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its impact on Vietnam veterans shortly after the war ended, Dr. Jeffrey Jay, the former director of the Center for Post-Traumatic Stress observed:

“The veteran’s conflicts are not his alone but are bound to the trauma and guilt of the nation. And our failure to deal with our guilt renders the veteran the symptom-carrier for society and increases his moral and emotional burden. This burden isolates the veteran and will freeze him in an attitude of perpetual combat until the issues of the war are confronted in the national conscience.”

Just as we have learned from the past in how we treat those who have served in unpopular wars, we must now continue to learn from the past in how to help service members and veterans now that the conflict has ended.

Rory E. Riley-Topping is the founder of Riley-Topping Consulting, where she continues to work with various veterans organizations. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.

Tags Afghanistan War Barack Obama Donald Trump Iraq War Jeff Miller Joe Biden PTSD US troops VA Veterans Veterans Administration Veterans health

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