News & Politics

'This Is Devastating to So Many': VA Sounds Alarm About Mental Health Crisis For Afghanistan Vets

AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

On August 15, the capital city of Afghanistan, Kabul, fell to the Taliban after 20 years of war.

During those 20 years, approximately 700,000 American veterans served in Afghanistan, defending the people and trying to build a nation where none had ever existed.

It’s not their fault that they mostly failed. They gave their all. But watching the Taliban stream into Kabul proved to be too much for some veterans.

According to a story in Politico, Veterans Administration mental health hotlines lit up with thousands of veterans who were emotionally affected by Joe Biden’s disaster.

Veterans Affairs chief of staff Tanya Bradsher sent out an email that day to her senior staff. “My veteran network is reeling and I am sure yours are as well,” Bradsher wrote. “Can we highlight in our comms channels that VA has resources available? I am thinking of the vet centers in particular but open to all resources. This is devastating to so many.”

Similar reports were pouring in from veterans centers and groups across the country. Perhaps it was the way that it ended that affected so many so deeply.

Veterans and active military service members were taken aback not only by the speed with which the Taliban swept through the nation but by what that meant for the scores of allies, including interpreters, still in the country and now at risk of getting left behind. The emotional toll, particularly for the more than 700,000 veterans who served in Afghanistan at some point during the 20-year war, was readily apparent — even before 13 service members were killed in a terrorist attack outside the Kabul airport on Aug. 26. And some in the Biden administration were sounding the

“We should monitor suicides and see if we see an uptick,” Bradsher wrote on Aug. 15. “The news is triggering.”

Biden was already in trouble with some veterans groups. The botched withdrawal from Afghanistan didn’t help any.

The pain, sadness, anger and frustration service members past and present are feeling in the wake of the United States’ chaotic departure from Afghanistan has upended the Biden White House’s relations with veterans groups, many of which are now publicly blaming the president for mismanaging the drawdown. That has sent the administration, which has brushed off criticism from Republicans and some Democrats about the way the war ended, into damage control mode. Officials from the president on down are now scrambling to tamp down a brewing backlash within a military community that was, in some corners, initially drawn to President Joe Biden’s experience as a military father who has himself endured a history of family tragedies. The effort is a sign of how important that relationship is to the White House and to Biden, personally.

Biden, who initially backed the war in Afghanistan, was forced to retract and apologize for his support when he decided to run for president in 2008. No Democrat would get very far in 2008 unless they were totally anti-war. And while Biden came up short in the primaries, his previous support for the war gave Obama some political cover from those who claimed he was anti-military.

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Biden tried to smooth things over with a trip to Walter Reed hospital to visit some wounded soldiers. His wife Jill visited a Marine Corps base in North Carolina. But it did little to ease the anger of veterans who feel betrayed by the president.

“I haven’t talked to anybody who isn’t angry or disappointed in how this was carried out,” Tom Porter, executive vice president of government affairs with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), said of the administration’s handling of the troop drawdown in Afghanistan. IAVA is the largest veterans group representing the post-9/11 generation, with more than 425,000 members who served in the wars in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. “Nobody thinks there was a plan.”

We know now that there wasn’t. We also know that the Biden administration criminally underestimated the Taliban and their ability to sweep across the country. It also overestimated the ability of the Afghan government to resist.

The veterans who fought in Afghanistan deserved a better outcome.