Was my service worth it?: Veterans deal with fall of Afghanistan

Veterans are grappling with the fallout from the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan that ended the nation’s longest running war but also left the Taliban in control. 

Afghanistan war veterans who spoke to The Hill said they have spent the past few weeks questioning their military service, while some said they have also tried to help get Afghan allies out of the country. Groups that work with veterans say processing the withdrawal has been difficult for many who fought there over the past two decades.

David Maulsby, executive director of PTSD of America Foundation, said his organization has received more calls to its crisis hotline from Afghanistan veterans who are “really, really angry with what they have seen on television the last couple of weeks.”

“What they're angry about is that so many of the men, women, children that they met while they were there, many of them who served them while they were there in Afghanistan, were just left behind and the process of trying to get those SIVs out there was an unmitigated disaster,” Maulsby said, referring to special immigrant visa holders, many of whom worked for the U.S. government at some point during the 20-year war.

“They are absolutely furious, not only with the administration but with the hierarchy, the military. They are just absolutely beside themselves,” he added.

Alex Cornell du Houx, who served in the Marines for seven years and then as an officer for nine years in the Navy, told The Hill about the many “sleepless nights” he’s had recently trying to help Afghan allies trapped in the country.

“I would run with athletes that we were working with in Afghanistan and they would run on our base. Then we found out that the Taliban had visited their house, taken away their sneakers, beat one of them up and graffitied their place. That spurred urgency to get them out of Afghanistan as soon as possible,” said du Houx, who served in Afghanistan as recently as 2019.

“For me, many of the sleepless nights extracting people from Afghanistan were more stressful than being in combat with the Marine Corps,” he added.

Since the fall of Kabul, the Department of Veterans Affairs crisis hotline and other veterans groups said they have seen an increase in activity as former military members question what their service accomplished, with some families wondering if the death of a loved one was for a purpose.

Hugo Lentze, who served in the Army for 30 years as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot and was stationed in Afghanistan, described the recent troop withdrawal as a mental health “hot point."

“It's people asking themselves, was my service worth it? Was it worth it for my loved one to be killed in Afghanistan? Is it worth it? Is my service worth it now, even outside Afghanistan? Those are big questions. I think that would challenge anybody’s mental well-being and health,” said Lentze, who is now chief strategic officer for Travis Manion Foundation, named after a Marine who died in 2007 while serving in Iraq.

More than 775,000 U.S. troops served in Afghanistan. Around 20,000 were wounded and 2,400 were killed.

Nic Heimsoth, an Afghanistan war veteran who served in the Navy, detailed the difficulty in processing the events of the past few weeks and what Afghanistan is like now.

“You work so hard to establish something, and then the thought of the barracks that I slept in and the place that I helped secure being turned over to the people I was fighting? Yeah, it's hard to think about,” Heimsoth said.

Veterans’ groups say their message to former service members is that their efforts in Afghanistan were not in vain.

“I think that one of the things that we always want to make sure that our veterans understand is that their service and their sacrifice is very much appreciated. We honor and respect that and make sure they have every opportunity to reach out for assistance if they need it,” said Ryan Coles, director of the Wounded Warrior Project’s Project Odyssey program.

Matthew Miller, executive director of the Department of Veterans Affairs suicide prevention divison, said it is difficult to generalize veterans’ feelings as there are more than 19 million who have diverse opinions on current events and have had different experiences in the service.

But he noted that the high profile withdrawal in August has not only impacted Afghanistan veterans, but Vietnam veterans as well, with many calling to “talk through some of what they're working through with regard to the situation, and how it brings them back through some aspects that maybe they haven't thought about in a while and are working through now and in new ways.”

President Biden has staunchly defended the withdrawal from Afghanistan amid widespread criticism, saying there was no way for the operation to occur smoothly.

Thomas Porter, executive vice president of government affairs for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the group has been in talks with White House officials and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough to discuss the 13 marines who were killed and the allies who are still in the country.

Although Porter said the group had “one good meeting” with officials, the discussion “counts when we bring all of our American citizens home and, also, really counts when we bring all of our Afghan allies over. We left so many of them behind.”

The mission to get Afghan allies to safety is “hugely important” to the veterans’ community as Afghan allies kept service members safe for 20 years, with some killed in the process, and now have “targets on their backs from the Taliban” because of it, Porter added.