Veterans ask if Afghan service was worth it
Jim Lewis had already served two years in the U.S. Army and was in the process of re-enlisting when the first plane hit. It was Sept. 11, 2001, and the initial word at what was then known as Fort Lewis in Washington State was that a small plane, perhaps a crop duster, had struck the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.
By the time the second plane hit, the soldiers knew these were jetliners, not small planes, and that America was under attack.
“That was the joke at the time,” Lewis recalled of his reenlistment day. “Can I change my mind?”
Twenty years later, America’s global war on terror cost $8 trillion by some estimates and left thousands of American troops dead, including more than 2,400 in Afghanistan, where in August the United States’ longest war ended with a chaotic evacuation at Kabul airport.
As Americans commemorate that fateful day 20 years ago, the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has left many war-scarred veterans asking what it all was for as increasing numbers of their ranks suffer from mental health disorders and suicide rates among veterans remain starkly higher than
Lewis became an Army Green Beret whose combat experience included three tours in Iraq and five in Afghanistan. It was there, in Ghazni province in 2012, that his vehicle struck a roadside bomb. The explosion and rollover broke his shoulder and elbow and left him in a medically induced coma for two days.
“At what point do you count your losses?” he said. “No matter how long we stayed, it was going to end the same, eventually. I wouldn’t say it’s bittersweet. I don’t think it was a waste at all. You fight for your brothers to the left and right.”
It is a common refrain among the latest generation of America’s veterans who, knowledgeable of the nation’s previous pullouts from foreign countries, see striking parallels to past triumphs on the battlefield and the lingering tragedies of war.
Dustin Simmons of Piedmont was 23 and working in the family business — a staffing agency — when he enlisted in the Army.
“I’m not going to lie, 9/11 was an emotional event for everybody,” he said. “People talk about wanting to serve their country. I wanted to serve my country in a way that it was more of a selfish act on my part. I knew that it could make or break me in life. I wanted to go through those hardships and grow up again. I want to do something great, something different than what I’m used to. In all honesty, I was bored.”
On his first day of patrol near Baghdad, an IED exploded behind his truck. Simmons also served three tours in Afghanistan, including in the Korengal Valley. Forty-two American troops were killed before the U.S. withdrew from “The Valley of Death.”
“Iraq was mainly IEDs,” Simmons said. “They didn’t like to confront you when it came to firefights. Afghanistan is a whole different battle. People say it’s almost like Vietnam. You don’t know who you’re fighting, who is who. Especially in the mountains. There are a lot of ambushes.”
Simmons served from 2006 to 2016. He lost several friends in the two decades of war. In August, he watched images of America’s harrowing withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“A lot of people are emotional, a lot of people are upset,” he said. “I’m a little upset but I looked to my grandfather in Korea and Vietnam. It’s a taste of that time.”
It is a conversation that American veterans across the country are having.
“The parallel I see is, when we pulled out of Vietnam, that was a catastrophe also,” said Pete Peterson, 83 and the chief services officer for Vietnam Veterans of America’s Oklahoma chapter. “It’s almost as if we don’t learn anything, and that’s the bottom line.”
Jim Bassett, commander of VFW of Oklahoma, said whether it’s the desert or the jungle, combat veterans share the same excitement and fear in battle.
“You go through periods of absolute boredom accompanied by short periods of absolute hell,” he said. “There are more similarities than the differences. What they’ve all experienced is pretty much the same. The end result is there is a combat vet that has to carry with them the memories. Some of them are good, some of them are not.“
Those memories and the war’s winddown have led to increased mental health problems among veterans, according to various surveys.
Seventy-five percent of Afghanistan war veterans have new or increased symptoms of depression, according to
OnlineTherapy.com, which connects therapists to clients.
Responses from 1,250 Afghanistan veterans found that 70% have struggled with their mental health since serving in Afghanistan. Thirty-five percent of men reported new suicidal thoughts, compared to 29% percent of women. Thirtysix percent of veterans, ages 18 to 24, say they are more likely to start counseling after the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“I’ve lost a lot of buddies just because they couldn’t handle the stuff in the military,” Simmons said. “They’ve committed suicide. ... This is almost a nail in the coffin. A lot of the veterans feel like it’s all for nothing.”
Dr. Sarah Newman, chief psychologist at the Oklahoma City VA Health Care System, said veterans dealing with tough times can access numerous resources offered by the VA Medical Center, including a mental health intake clinic started in the past few years.
“The purpose of this clinic is that it gives these veterans an opportunity to just walk in and get set up with treatment right away,” Newman said. “We also have our suicide prevention program at the VA, and veterans can call the suicide prevention crisis line and get connected with someone right away.”
“The other good thing we have is our primary care mental health program, where lots of veterans come through to see doctors,” she said. “And if the veteran talks about any mental health concerns that they have, especially in light of recent events, they can quickly, that day, refer veterans over to our mental health provider in primary care.”
The availability of mental health resources for returning veterans is a key difference between those who came home from Vietnam and those who are returning from Afghanistan. What was once called “shell shock” or “combat fatigue” is now more accurately diagnosed as PTSD, or “post-traumatic stress disorder,” which has helped destigmatize mental illness and allows veterans to seek evidence-based treatment the VA provides.
“I used to do compensation and pension exams for the VA, and I can’t tell you how many veterans I talked to that got back from Vietnam and they worked 20, 30 years, and then they retired, and then all of a sudden their PTSD symptoms showed up,” Newman said. “We didn’t even know what PTSD was. We didn’t know what to call it. We didn’t have treatment for it. You were just thrown back into life.”
That life was difficult for many Vietnam veterans, Peterson said, because at the time, their fellow Americans were not as receptive of military members returning home as they are now. Anti-war sentiment and disillusionment with American foreign policy spilled over into how some in the general population treated soldiers coming back, and veterans were broadly characterized as “baby killers and rapists,” according to Peterson.
“The most important thing when veterans return home is to welcome them,” he said. “And they learned from Vietnam. America will never ever do what they did to Vietnam veterans again. They are being welcomed. There are programs. The VA has programs. The cities have programs. So they’re on top of it, and they don’t want to see anything happen to them like what happened to the Vietnam veterans, and that’s great.”
But veterans are also returning to a homeland ravaged by a pandemic.
“Adjustment is going to be difficult because of what’s going on right now,” Peterson said. “You can’t get together, because COVID is stopping people from being able to gather.”
Newman acknowledged the effects of COVID-19 have posed challenges at the VA, as some veterans have stopped coming in for treatment.
“(There) are veterans who, because of the pandemic, it’s been difficult to get a hold of them or they haven’t been able to come in,” she said. “And so we’ve been reaching out those veterans as well to get them linked back up into the VA.”
Meanwhile, for veterans like Simmons, the question remains — why?
Even among veterans, standard answers about fighting for freedom sometimes ring hollow, but Simmons said American troops wanted justice for Sept. 11, and always thought about their friends and family back home.
‘ There’s no silver lining’
Veterans with tours of Afghanistan under their belt say the evolution of the war was apparent upon their returns to a land known as “the graveyard of empires.”
Shad Satterthwaite, director for Executive Business Programs in Aerospace and Defense at the University of Oklahoma, who served two tours as an Army reservist, said he was in Afghanistan leading up to elections there in 2004.
“I think as far as anybody that was deployed to go over there, there was a lot of anticipation,” he said. “People were excited. I never encountered questioning of the mission. We were not blind to the fact that it’s a hard country to govern. The Soviets pulled out. The British pulled out. So we were definitely aware of Afghanistan’s history, but there was a focus on terrorism and doing what we could to stabilize the government.”
Satterthwaite, 55 and retired from the Army Reserves, conducted training and intelligence meetings. His last tour finished in 2012.
“The first time, we’d be driving around in civilian vehicles,” he said. “The last time we were in a secure outpost and the only way around was by helicopter. The first time, we did feel it was a worthwhile mission,” he said. “The second time was becoming challenging.”
In August, he watched in disbelief as the Taliban retook Afghanistan.
“We put a lot of resources in training the army,” Satterthwaite said. “We could see the inevitable, but it was just so quick. It was unexpected. We heard about the Taliban making advances in certain provinces and it was a sinking feeling. There were a few days I couldn’t watch the news.”
Norman Councilman Kelly Lynn, a Poteau native, joined the Army National Guard in 2007. In 2017, Lynn was deployed to Afghanistan where his base support group oversaw billions of dollars in contracts for electricity, water, security and food.
He also served in what he joked was “the armed Uber of Afghanistan,” transporting personnel and working with trainers.
The roles brought him close to Afghan civilians.
“It’s totally different when you’ve been there and interacted with these people,” Lynn said. “While we have our differences, they want a good life for their family and want to live like everyone else. They’re not going to have that anymore.”
His voice breaking, Lynn talked about social media messages he’s received from Afghans he knows are living in fear.
The phone calls are worse.
“It’s been super difficult,” he said. “My phone blows up all day every day with these people begging for their lives. I’ve got to hear the desperation in their voice. They’re just desperate and they’re people that worked for us. We’ve just left them flat on their face and they’re gonna die. It’s heartbreaking stuff. ... I know what their fate is if they come in contact with the wrong people. There’s no silver lining on this I can find, and I’m usually good at that.”
Meaning for a veteran’s service ‘is 100% up to them’
Newman, the psychiatrist whose husband is also a veteran who served in Afghanistan, said emotions of anger and doubt are “completely normal” for veterans to be experiencing.
“It’s a grief, and I would encourage all veterans to fully experience those emotions and talk about them with other veterans,” Newman said. “The best thing you can do is talk to a fellow veteran. Peer support is phenomenal in allowing yourself to feel those emotions. The only way out is through, and you have to experience the emotions and not keep them in.”
Every single veteran has played a part in maintaining the freedom of the United States, Newman said, but closure and meaning ultimately can only be found within the individual.
“The meaning that a veteran makes for their service is 100% up to them,” she said. “We don’t make that meaning for them. We see them as heroes. We see them as people who have helped our country, but the meaning for their service is something they have to come to on their own.”
Lewis, the Green Beret, recalled fighting into the Gor Tepa region of northern Afghanistan, an area where the Soviets stalled.
“We got 10 feet further than the Russians,” he said. “Small victories.”
Lewis retired Aug. 17. Days later, his son went to basic training in the U.S. Navy.
“We high-fived out the door, like ‘tag, you’re it,’” he said.