Commentary – The Nation’s Longest War
By COL (Ret) DJ Reyes, US Army
*This is an article from the Fall 2021 issue of Combat Stress
The Nation’s longest War comes to an end and what unfolded before the world has been, at times, confusing, bewildering, and saddening. Through it all we lost 13 of our own – 11 Marines, 1 Navy Corpsman, and 1 Army soldier. These souls will never have the opportunity to grow old with their families and loved ones. We mourn their losses, as we continue to grapple with American citizens and Afghan SIV holders remaining in a country whose security environment continues to be de-stabilized due to the local and regional factions (Taliban and ISIS-K), as well as other malign nation state influences (China and Russia).
As the former Director, ISAF CJ2 Intelligence Campaign Plans (2011-2012), I helped inform our military decisionmakers on the security environment and the complex variables in this restive part of the World. Armed with the data and constantly evolving analysis, military planners then developed the multiple contingency plans for US / Coalition forces, which included ‘boots on the ground’ options aligned with phased withdrawals. So, like others, I didn’t question the decision to eventually withdraw, but rather the manner in which we executed the operation. For the uninformed, the ongoing operations portrayed “bad optics” in the media.
At the ground level and in my operating space, we have fellow OEF (Afghanistan), OIF (Iraq) and even Vietnam War Veterans who I have been speaking with and who have expressed concerns over our national situation. More somberly, I have been contacted by Gold Star moms and dads who are greatly disturbed over what has transpired. Like a recurring movie that ends badly, many of our citizens are subjected to reliving traumatic experiences due to the endless media and news coverage. The common themes / questions I have received are: a) Why is this happening the way that it is? b) Did my husband / wife / son / daughter / brother / sister die in vain? c) Why are we not living up to our military ethos of “leave no Servicemember behind” when it comes to remaining American Citizens and those Afghans who assisted our military forces and risked their lives and that of their families for the last 2 decades?”
More importantly, I sense a level of tremendous psychological distress upon everyone with whom I have had these painful conversations. This is like an emotional pressure cooker. Hordes of us who have worn the uniform and are “in the know” about the truths unfolding before us are looking for the escape hatch to release these terrible burdens.
It is my personal opinion that politics are indeed a messy business, especially in areas of conflict which require the deployment of our Nation’s most treasured resource – our men and women – and where we almost inevitably experience the tragic loss of lives. I also believe that, as citizens, it is our responsibility to ensure that we exercise our right to vote for those who can best develop and implement our national policies. At the very least, voting places the responsibility squarely where it belongs – upon our elected officials.
This leads me to my final points. Over the years, but especially during the most recent times, I have shared these personal thoughts with many.
- Irrespective of the “politics” or even what our own political leanings are, as a military, we must understand our role. Bottom line – we accomplished our mission. We did our share of the tasks at hand and we did it well. We did it with honor, with integrity, and with fidelity. Never forget that.
- Our community must balance the ‘right’ to exercise its judgmental opinions against the harmful effects upon those Veterans and their families who have borne the brunt and who continue to deal with tragedy. One example: as the Senior Mentor Program Coordinator for Tampa, Florida’s Veterans Treatment Court (VTC), I note that our primary mission is to help the Veteran defendants (many of whom are combat Veterans) to successfully complete the court-mandated requirements for treatment and rehabilitation. A critical mentor task is to just listen and to “be there for the Veteran,” as he or she deals with the daily struggles associated with conditions such as PTSD, TBI, MST, and/or alcohol/substance abuse.
- If interested in learning more about your local military / Veterans, get involved where they are engaged. Local military units have Public Affairs Officers (PAO) where you can learn more about any public activities or events. Local Chambers of Commerce have a Military Affairs Committee (MAC) comprised of business representatives who interface with the local military units. Most local universities and colleges have a Student Veteran Association (SVA) Chapter, many of whom are utilizing their Post 9-11 GI Bill educational benefits and who are still serving in the National Guard or the Reserves. The bottom line is this: do more than just saying “Thank you for your service” next time you see a Veteran or his / her family.
- Finally, for those Veterans that you know who are continuing to struggle, please tell them to reach out for help. In Tampa, we have a strategic partnership with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and the Veteran operator run “211” Center. Nationally, the Veterans Crisis Line (800-273-8255) is another quick resource for those in need. As a military culture, we are trained to “suck it up,” “make it happen,” and “mission first.” I believe we have to recalibrate our thinking when it comes to diagnosed psychological disorders or disabilities and inform those of the available treatments available to promote wellness, rehabilitation, and overall resiliency. We owe at least this much to our military, our Veterans and their families.