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From the RF Telegraph

Coping with the Collapse of Afghanistan

Coping with the Collapse of Afghanistan

I had the honor of serving in Afghanistan in 2004 with joint special operations and again in 2008-2009 as a combat advisor to the Afghan National Police. Like many veterans who served there, the sudden collapse of Afghanistan brings a mix of emotions including anger, frustration, loss, grief, and futility.
What was originally a punitive expedition against the Taliban and Al-Q’aeda somehow morphed into nation rebuilding. While the former is clearly a military mission, the latter is not and should not be a military mission. Afghanistan has long been a string of poor policy decisions by our elected officials and general officers who fundamentally misunderstood the Afghan people, culture, and history. With the swift collapse of Afghanistan, U.S. politicians point to the Intelligence Community and say it was an “intelligence failure” (a politically expedient excuse as the Intelligence Community cannot defend itself against those same politicians who refuse to declassify the intelligence reports that would exonerate the Intelligence Community). General officers point to policymakers and accuse them of “policy by CONOP (concept of operations),” meaning that politicians never gave the military leaders a clear mission to accomplish or that politicians kept changing the mission. We’re left watching the age-old American political game of deflecting, dodging, and obfuscating until the news cycle moves on to a new topic.
For those of us who served and sacrificed – both physically and emotionally – in Afghanistan, as well as the families of the fallen and wounded, the question remains: was the cost worth it? Not a day goes by in my life where I don’t think back to Afghanistan and wonder how many of the Afghans I knew are now dead or have turned to the Taliban as their only option for survival. How many of the interpreters I worked with were able to gain safe passage to the United States or are now facing retribution from the Taliban? How are the men and women I served with doing now? I live with both the physical and mental side-effects of the wounds I received in Afghanistan, and every day I see (and feel guilt about) the toll it takes on my wife, children, and support network. Life with post-traumatic stress; life with traumatic brain injury; life with lung disease from burn pit exposure; it takes a constant toll and it is exhausting. While I’m proud of my service and grateful that I survived when so many others did not, there are times when I struggle against isolation, avoidance, and – yes – the battle against suicide. Again: was it worth it?
My answer is yes. Not because some politician or general says so or thanks me for my service or sacrifice as a Purple Heart recipient. Honor and character is not something conferred upon us by a medal or a policy maker or a bureacratic process. Nor do I say it was worth it in some self-serving, self-aggrandizing purpose of validation. It was worth it because of the opportunity it provided to help others in ways that I could not have done before I served and was wounded. Because of the wisdom I was blessed with as my body and mind recovered from trauma and adjusted to a new normal. It was worth it because even though my lifespan has become shorter, it’s also become more purposeful.

To my fellow veterans of Afghanistan and the families of the fallen and wounded: as you consider whether the cost was worth it, I humbly recommend you do so with the purpose of reflecting with purpose versus ruminating on the loss. There is major distinction between the two. Reflecting with purpose allows you to derive the wisdom from even the worst of trauma and give you a pathway to hope, healing, and purpose. Ruminating is much like letting your tires spin in snow, leaving you bogged down even further in the same spot and running out of gas. Instead, ask yourself what good came out of the experience or what you’ve been able to do to help others as a result of the experience. If you do that, I think it will make coping with the collapse of Afghanistan, and the price you – we – have paid for it, much easier to bear during this news cycle and the years to come.

Dr. David R. Andrews, Maj (Ret), USAF
President & Alumnus, Remount Foundation
Purple Heart Recipient, Afghanistan, 2009

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