Holland: With Afghanistan withdraw, we must turn attention to veteran mental health

Anthony Holland, Op-ed Contributor

Approximately 70,000 Afghans who have worked with the United States are at risk of being killed as the Taliban pushes for final control of Afghanistan amid a U.S. withdrawal. As Afghanistan crumbles, it raises a question: does America’s moral obligations and promises to these people who have worked side-by-side with our troops, especially the translators, still hold true? 

“People like me looked these people in the eye and made them a promise,” Matt Zeller, an Afghanistan War veteran and co-founder of No One Left Behind, said. “We promised that in their time of need, that we would take care of them.”

Many war veterans echoed this sentiment following an inconsequential speech from U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday discussing the rapid steps being taken in Afghanistan and the escalation of the Taliban takeover.. In agreement with Biden, numerous veterans for years have also felt the U.S. should begin its extraction from Afghanistan; however, the poorly conducted execution and seemingly reckless collapse of Afghanistan to the Taliban has introduced a new feeling to our service members: languishment.

For the average American, it was ostensibly easy to agree with Biden’s sentiments of “nation-building” and the capitalistic statements — ones that arguably placed a dollar sign on the lives of Afghanistan citizens with whom many U.S. service members have stood alongside for the last 20 years in firefights against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban stood watch shifts that extended past 24 hours and conducted patrols through mountainous terrain on hot days with over 100 pounds of gear. Missing birthdays and holidays, watching their marriages and interpersonal relationships fall apart. Post-traumatic stress disorder, suicides and seeing friends killed in action or never return home. And for what?

As outlined by The New York Times, “More than with other wars in the nation’s history, Americans have been mostly insulated from the fighting in Afghanistan. There was no draft or mass mobilization. Less than 1 percent of the nation served and a disproportionate number of troops came from rural counties in the South and West, far from the seats of power.”

This adage, one remnant to the draft days of Vietnam, emphasizes the proverbial truth that those often in the ranks of our military are on the frontlines of our conflicts, but far from the rooms where the decisions impacting their lives and contributions are being made, no matter their political party. 

As a war that has occupied much of the Millennial and Generation Z cohorts’ lifespan, it is also incredibly important for those who did not serve in our armed forces, nor understand the sacrifices that accompany this undertaking, to note the sense of mourning that this generation of voluntary service members are facing, as many felt called to service following the unpardonable acts of Sept. 11, 2001. In accordance with what President Biden stated, though the original objectives were to bring Osama Bin Laden to justice, our missions of foreign diplomacy, training and combat did not end there for this generation of service members.

As many relive their sacrifices, experiences of their service and even saying goodbye to their loved ones, it cannot go unsaid that it is extremely common for military veterans to experience grief — yet this is consistently unrecognized. It is with grief and dismay that many veterans are watching Afghanistan fall. It is paramount we direct attention and resources to the mental well-being of those who served.

As many veterans ask themselves, “Why?” Think of the fate of the Afghani women or Afghani nationals who cooperated with the U.S. Forces; think of the brothers and sisters they lost in combat for whom there may be an apparent and befitting sense of mourning. To those veterans who served during these wars- — less than one percent of the American population —  you matter; your service matters.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741, or the Wounded Warrior Project at 888-997-2586

Anthony Holland is a graduate student at Northwestern. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.