The Fall of Afghanistan Feels Personal
By Tom McMurtry, DAIS, Police Officer (Ret), CPT, US Army, Special Forces (Ret)
*This is an article from the Fall 2021 issue of Combat Stress
It felt like a friend died
I knew that we as a nation couldn’t stay and support the Army and government of Afghanistan forever. In fact, I thought we would draw down and go home ten years ago after Osama bin Laden had been found. I also knew that the American backed government would have to work out some sort of an arrangement with the Taliban. I naively thought that balance could be found between the two opposing groups of approximately equal strength. I was wrong. I watched with the rest of the world as the Army and government that we had worked so hard and so long to build and support tried to stand up on their own only to collapse in ten days. I was heartbroken. It felt like an Army buddy died.
Stages of Grief
Much has been written concerning the grief that naturally follows the death of someone close to us. There are various models that suggest a sequence of stages that attempt to describe the process of grieving. Some people have found this structure useful, others not. There are as many ways to grieve as there are people who are hurting. In an attempt to be helpful, I will describe some of my own feelings and some emotions I have heard from other Veterans. I will use the Kübler-Ross seven stages of grief model. The first four stages are:
- Shock and Denial – I felt numb as I watched the Afghan government fold under pressure. I didn’t disbelieve it. I was watching it on the news almost in real time. But I was truly in shock that it all happened so fast.
- Pain and Guilt – In my case these are companion feelings. I said in the opening paragraph that I felt like a buddy died. Actually, it was worse than that, it felt like we had left a buddy behind who then died.
- Anger and Bargaining – “What happened? You collapsed in ten days. Wasn’t twenty years long enough time? Should we have stayed forever? Wasn’t a trillion dollars enough money? What more did you need? Don’t you care enough about your own people to defend them?”
- Depression – “Well, as bad as things are in Afghanistan right now it will probably get worse, much worse.”
My experience was that the emotions described in the first four stages piled one on top of the other. Sometimes they seemed to come all at once. I would walk away and get on with life. Only to later watch the news and have the same emotions recur in waves. I don’t have much to say about the last three stages of this model. Which are:
- The upward turn.
- Reconstruction and working through.
- Acceptance and hope.
It is too soon for me to even think about these. They are aspirational and I’m sure each is possible over time. Right now, I and perhaps other Veterans find themselves stuck somewhere between pain and acceptance, between anger and hope.
Same damage, different pain
Years ago, I attended an evening of live amateur boxing. The last bout was between heavyweights. These men were well trained, evenly matched, and well-motivated. For three three-minute rounds they went at each other. Each pugilist giving and receiving hard bows to the head and body. The match ended in a split decision, but one won and the other lost. The fighters hugged and returned to their corners. There was no hurry to get out of the ring as it had been the last fight. I was also in no hurry to leave and watched as the trainers cared for their fighters. It appeared that each had sustained about the same amount of physical damage, but the loser seemed to be in a lot of pain as he was being consoled in his loss. The winner appeared to feel no pain as he was congratulated in his victory.
My grandfather and all his brothers served in the Second World War. They didn’t talk about it much but from time to time would sit together at family reunions and tell stories. As a young boy I loved to listen. They were real war heroes as well as being my heroes. I joined the Army in March of 1975. Saigon fell in April. I watched as the people the Americans had worked with and made promises to tried to escape an uncertain future. The scene I remember most has empty helicopters being pushed off aircraft carriers into the sea to make room for more trying to land. I was a brand-new soldier and every drill sergeant, every military instructor, every unit leader I had was a Vietnam War Veteran. They seemed to have a war story to emphasize every point they tried to make to us new guys. Sometimes at the end of a day’s training, in the field or in a bar, they would talk about Vietnam. It seemed different from the way WWII Vets talked about their war. There were the universal experiences of being away from home, facing an enemy, losing people, and being different once you got home. But the Veterans who had lost a war had a subtle melancholy, an unstated sadness, a bitter taste left in their months that no amount of beer could wash way.
Let’s do it right this time
The Vietnam War was widely unpopular among the American people and this was often projected onto those who served during that period. So many Veterans had issues reintegrating into civilian life that the stereotype of a tormented homeless Vietnam Vet became a media trope. Sylvester Stallone portraying John Rambo in First Blood is a classic example. Now America has just come in second place in another war. We as a nation need to do better for our Afghan friends. We as current and former Service Members need to do better for our “battle buddies.” We, all of us, need to reach out to those who may be hurting. Tell them it’s a buddy check. See how they are feeling. Don’t take ‘fine’ for an answer. Then do it again a month from now, two months from now. If you receive such a call share your feelings. This may require us to stretch and be vulnerable, but that’s okay we’re more than strong enough. We are all in this together. Let’s do it right this time.