In the past two weeks, we’ve seen reports about the harm America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is bound to bring for women, girls, journalists and allies. But one group that hasn’t received much attention is American veterans whose tours of duty have long since ended. Experts say the news coming out of Afghanistan is likely to reopen emotional wounds for many of them.
Matthew Cassady, a program manager with the Veterans Affairs Chaplain Service, said recent events have brought difficult memories “to the front burner” for many veterans.
“I think we certainly are seeing some things amplify, specifically in the mental health realm,” Cassady said. “The images that we’ve seen on television and different news networks have been absolutely heartbreaking for many of us. We know the people. We know the customs. We know the culture. And we know how difficult this is for them right now just seeing this happen. It hurts.”
Nancy Ramsay is director of the Soul Repair Center, a clinic at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth that offers training for chaplains and religious leaders caring for veterans. The Soul Repair Center is a leading voice highlighting something called moral injury, a “wound of conscience” that results when those in a dire situation like war violate their core moral beliefs. Ramsay said veterans may feel that the withdrawal has violated a moral code.
“What I’m hearing is that there’s great anxiety on the part of vets who know that they were protected by these persons and feel an obligation, understandably, to make sure our commitments to them were fulfilled,” Ramsay said.
She said there’s a link between moral injury and high suicide rates among veterans. “We need to pay attention to the ways in which these events could trigger really painful emotions and memories,” she said.
And Ramsay said this phenomenon will not just be limited to those who served in Afghanistan.
“Everything I can see suggests that there are a number of folks who served in Afghanistan and possibly also Vietnam for whom these days are very challenging,” Ramsay said.
Military leaders are aware of those challenges. Last week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley both spoke out about the emotional dynamics for veterans.
“All of this is very personal for me. This is a war that I fought in and led. I know the country, I know the people, and I know those who fought alongside me,” said Austin, a retired four-star Army general who served as a commander in Afghanistan. “We have a moral obligation to help those who helped us. And I feel the urgency deeply.”
Ramsay and Cassady said it’s important for all Americans to know that veterans may be affected by recent news, even if they didn’t serve in Afghanistan, and that each veteran’s moral wounds will heal differently. For veterans in our neighborhoods, workplaces and social networks, we should take the emotional toll seriously. We shouldn’t make assumptions about how they’re processing the news. We shouldn’t try to elicit political opinions or war stories from them. We should be quick to listen and slow to speak. And, Cassady reminded, it never hurts to thank them for their service.