September 7, 2021 - 9:00 pm
As much as they try, soldiers returning home from combat don’t always manage to leave the war behind on the battlefield.
That’s why, as the Taliban militia rolled with surprising ease into Afghanistan’s capital on Aug. 15 and took over the government, a top Veterans Affairs official fired off an email to the department’s senior staff.
“We should monitor suicides and see if we see an uptick,” Veterans Affairs chief of staff Tanya Bradsher said in the email, as reported by Politico. “The news is triggering.”
No joke, as President Joe Biden often says. As Kabul fell, veterans’ mental health crisis hotlines reportedly were lighting up like Christmas trees.
“My veteran network is reeling and I am sure yours are as well,” Bradsher wrote in the Aug. 15 email, which Politico said was obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request. “Can we highlight in our comms (communications) channels that VA has resources available? I am thinking of the vet centers in particular but open to all resources. This is devastating to so many.”
As shocked as I was to hear that after 20 years of fighting the Taliban, America’s longest war had screeched to such an inglorious halt, it was reassuring to hear that the VA in this triggering moment was taking mental health and the prospect of increased suicides seriously.
So was Paul Rieckhoff, who founded the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America after serving as an Army first lieutenant and infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq from 2003 through 2004.
“I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years now,” he told me by phone, “and I’ve never seen the military and veterans community under more stress than they are right now.”
Although the vast majority of service members exposed to combat do not report post-traumatic stress disorder, much less commit suicide, a June report from Brown University startled experts with this statistic: Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks 20 years ago, military suicides have grown four times higher than deaths in war operations.
Chicago native Tom Amenta, who served two tours in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger, understands. Now 40 with a political science degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he felt a lot of bitter memories well up while watching coverage of the chaotic withdrawal.
“I had a really, really rough transition from the military,” he told me. Six weeks after he left the combat zone, he was in a classroom at the University of Illinois. He didn’t do himself any favors, he recalled, with that abrupt transition.
“I very seriously thought about killing myself,” he said. But with the help of some good friends, he began to process his conflicting thoughts and learn to trust people, he said.
“I realized it was less about my war experience than this feeling of isolation and alienation,” he said. “That really started to help.”
Now, along with fellow retired Ranger Dan Blakeley, he has turned his experience into “The Twenty-Year War,” a photo book about 71 veterans of the global war on terror and the challenges of reintegrating into civilian life.
As a drafted, Vietnam-era Army veteran, I asked Amenta how he dealt with the nagging question of whether our sacrifices — and those of others that were much greater — were, in the end, worth it.
His answer stuck with me: “As a very good friend of mine, Claire, said to me, ‘Tom, over the past 20 years, I watched my children grow up,’ she said. ‘My father got to see his grandson grow up. We were safe because of the work and dedication of you and other service members and Americans that fought to keep America that way.’ So I say, yeah, that’s my anchor.”
Excellent. We all need an anchor of some sort when the world around us seems to be flying apart. The war in Afghanistan, like the one in Vietnam, lasted way too long without a clearly shared sense of goals or purpose.
But, as with Vietnam, we must never devalue the service and sacrifices of those who answered the call so the rest of us might sleep better at night.
As corny as it may sound to some, it still means a lot to me when I say to a fellow vet, “Thank you for your service.”
Email Clarence Page at email@example.com.