Originally published in The Hill on August 21, 2021.
Having served in Vietnam in 1968-1969 and had my heart broken by the precipitous fall of the South Vietnamese government in 1975, I have a sense of how our veterans who served in Afghanistan must be feeling now. How could a good and generous country like America leave so many good people, thousands of whom helped and protected our troops, to such a horrendous fate? Was all the American blood and treasure worth it? Answers to these questions are elusive but let me share what I know.
When I left Vietnam in August 1969, I was proud of what I’d done and optimistic that the South Vietnamese (ARVNs) would eventually prevail. The fact that they were able to stop the powerful North Vietnamese Easter Offensive in 1972 was a hopeful sign. When the country fell to the Communists in April 1975, it struck me, and many other Vietnam vets, like a knife to the heart. There has been a long-lasting mixture of deep-seated anger, profound grief and some guilt for abandoning our friends and allies. The fall of Afghanistan has likely had the same effect on the veterans of that war. It certainly has rekindled those feelings in Vietnam vets.
It is not particularly rational for a soldier to feel guilty for the actions of his or her government, but it happens. Living and fighting alongside local nationals can build up a strong bond of mutual trust. I trusted my life to my South Vietnamese friends and they believed the U.S. would have their backs, come what may. A number of Afghanistan veterans, and their Afghan counterparts, have acknowledged that same bond in recent press interviews.
Veterans have absolutely no reason to feel guilt for boneheaded decisions made by their government. You are not responsible for what you cannot control. Those military folk higher in the ranks, who blew smoke up the, um, nostrils of those running these wars, painting a rosy picture of how well the wars were going, may have grounds for guilt. But not those who risked their lives every day for doing whatever their country asked and doing it well.
It is more difficult to deal with the anger and grief. One thing that can help is for veterans to engage with government leaders, particularly Members of Congress, to press for greater efforts to evacuate Afghans who are in danger for helping our troops or for supporting human rights in their country. Veterans can also help in settling them in a new home in America. Advocating for and helping refugees has been a good tonic for me.
There will be troubled days ahead for many veterans of the Afghan conflict, exacerbated by its calamitous ending. Veterans groups, the Department of Veterans Affairs, fellow vets and ordinary citizens must provide all the support humanly possible for vets suffering from the emotional and mental toll of the war. It is not a sign of weakness to reach out for help to deal with PTSD, depression, substance abuse and suicidal ideation. Rather, it is an indicator of a realistic attitude and inner strength. Maintaining contact with other veterans, even from other eras, is important.
A particular concern is veteran suicides. A Brown University study estimates that 30,177 personnel who served in Afghanistan and Iraq have died by suicide, greatly exceeding the 7,057 who died in military operations. The VA reports that in each year from 2013 through 2018, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times that for non-veterans. People close to veterans need to keep attuned to signs of suicidal tendencies.
Writing about one’s service can be helpful. I don’t tend to speak about my service with non-veterans, but have written a book about it. The book was named, Vietnam…Can’t get you out of my mind, because the war experience stays with you the rest of your days. It is something to be dealt with as you move forward with your life.
I went back to Vietnam 50 years later in 2018 and it was a big help in coming to terms with my grief for having abandoned the South Vietnamese to their fate. I am sure that most of my ARVN friends were killed when the Communists took over. They were marked for death for battling the Communists for over two decades. That still causes great pain, but I was heartened by what I found in present-day Vietnam. After many dreadful years, the country was full of optimistic young people, striving for a better life.
What I had heard about people in the South having more prosperity and economic opportunity than those in the North proved to be true. I think it was a pragmatic decision by the Communist leadership that they had to give the people in the South economic freedom somewhat comparable to that which they’d had under the regimes that had been propped up by the U.S.
I would not be surprised to see the same thing eventually happen in the larger cities in Afghanistan, after the dust has settled there. The Taliban may actually face reality and decide they can’t take the country, especially the cities, back to the Stone Age. Perhaps some residual good will result from our having been there.
Presuming to speak on behalf of Vietnam veterans who share your pain, the message to veterans of the Afghanistan War is profound thanks for your service to country. Regardless of the fact that things turned so ugly in Afghanistan, please know that your country appreciates the unflinching service you provided in an effort to protect the American people and to make a better life possible for the Afghan people. Your primary mission was to keep the U.S. safe and that was done well. Unfortunately, Afghan corruption and misdirection in our upper ranks made it impossible to help the Afghan people, but that was beyond your control.