I served in Afghanistan from 2002-2003. Over the last two weeks, I’ve watched in horror as Kabul fell and our military’s 20-year involvement in the country came to an abrupt and disastrous end. Glued to the news, I was surprised by the intensity of my emotions as I reflected on the six months I gave to that mission – and the thousands of service members and civilians who gave far more. Anger. Sadness. Anxiety. Helplessness.
I was equally surprised by how resistant I initially was to share these feelings with others, though I’ve since opened up to my wife and a few close friends. At times, I’ve wondered if my reactions were even valid. After all, I had come and gone from Afghanistan nearly two decades ago. I served in relative safety at the heavily-fortified Bagram Air Base, occasionally venturing to the surrounding villages or down to Kabul – nothing compared to the danger our troops faced in forward operating bases scattered throughout the rugged Afghan countryside. Furthermore, while always a proud veteran, my military service ended long before I met and married my wife. Why burden her or anyone else with something so far in the past?
Anyone who served in Afghanistan and got to know the Afghan people left a piece of their heart there. By the time I deployed in 2002, Afghans had been at war with outsiders or one another for more than 20 years. Nearly every city, town and village had been devastated by war. As one person told me on my first trip to Kabul, “All that can be accomplished with a gun has been in Afghanistan”.
The country itself held the distinction of being one of the most heavily land-mined countries in the world – the injury and scars of which were everywhere and affected just about every family. Yet through all of this, the Afghans were hopeful for the future, grateful for our presence, and determined to chart a different course.
Tragically, that did not happen. In the coming days and weeks, we will see in graphic detail the human cost of this failure and hear stories that will be absolutely soul-crushing.
Ultimately, I did decide to share how I was feeling. Because I was angry. I was sad. I was anxious about what was and was not happening. And I’m glad I did, because I am thankful for the support I received in return.
When it comes to “help,” military members and veterans are often quick to offer it but slow to ask for it. So, to my fellow vets: time to do a buddy check. Reach out and stay connected with one another. If you’re an Afghan vet, let your friends or loved ones know how you are doing and what you are feeling. If you don’t think you have anyone to talk to or you think that people won’t understand, there are resources available to you.
Over the last several years, the Arizona Coalition for Military Families has led the effort to create a resource network to support military members, veterans and their families throughout Arizona. You can call 1-866-4AZ-VETS or visit www.beconnectedaz.org to get connected to someone who does understand and can help. And if you’re in crisis and struggling with depression, PTSD or other mental health, you can call the VA Crisis helpline at 1-800-273-8255.
Bottom line: you are not alone. Your support network is much closer and larger than you think. Reach out.
Ted Vogt is a former Air Force Intelligence Officer who deployed to Afghanistan in 2002-2003 in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.