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  • Cole Lyle

Veterans battle ‘moral injury’ a year after US troops left Afghanistan

This article originally appeared on The Hill.

Scott Mann, a retired Green Beret, followed a strict code during his three combat tours in Afghanistan.

“We were taught in special operations, for example, that everything we do is by, with and through the indigenous populations of the places we work,” Mann told The Hill. “You do not abandon them, you do not leave them."

A year ago today, President Biden pulled the final United States soldiers out of Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war. Tens of thousands U.S. allies — Afghans who fought alongside or supported American troops or civilian programs — were left behind.

Mann said he feels a “moral injury” caused by “a violation of your own moral code by those in charge.” And he is among many veterans of the Afghan war who has made it his mission to continue helping Afghans who risked their lives for America’s war.

He wrote a book out Tuesday about his experience organizing an escape route to help Nezam, an Afghan soldier he mentored, flee the country.

“There’s nothing that we wouldn’t have done for him, and when we realized that nobody else was coming. We just put our little team together,” Mann said. “We didn’t go over there. We just used our relationships and Signal chat rooms and became his eyes and his ears.”

Veterans of the 20-year war are still grappling with mixed emotions of the chaotic evacuation. Regardless of whether they wanted the war to end, many agree it was traumatic watching two decades of effort fall within a matter of days, as the Taliban rapidly seized control of Kabul.

And a lack of accountability still has some infuriated.

“To add moral insult to moral injury, we abandoned tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of our allies who assisted us over the course of 20 years,” said Cole Lyle, who joined the Marine Corps in 2008 and deployed to the country in 2011.

“And we lost 13 service members in the chaotic evacuation largely as a result of the conditions on the ground that existed because it was such a chaotic withdrawal, and the Taliban was able to advance to the country as quickly as they did, and it created a very untenable, chaotic situation,” he added.

Biden on Friday marked the anniversary of the “heinous” terrorist attack amid the U.S. withdrawal that killed 13 American service members and dozens of Afghan civilians.

Advocates estimate there are well over 100,000 Afghans deemed to be vulnerable due to their ties to the U.S or its democracy efforts, a figure that is far higher when adding former Afghan military members.

Despite the chaotic withdrawal and those left behind, veterans who spoke with The Hill say they’re proud of their contributions to the war.

“I’m very proud of it. And I’m very proud of what my brothers and sisters did over there. I’m very proud of what our families, our Gold Star family, sacrificed,” said Mann.

There are two types of people that return to the U.S. after leaving Afghanistan, according to Matt Zeller, an Army veteran who served on an embedded combat advisory team while deployed to Afghanistan in 2008.

The first type is those who come back thinking the experience was interesting and move on with their lives. The second is those who return feeling like they “left a part of their soul” in the country.

Zeller is the latter, telling The Hill that despite being at war, he returned home “profoundly, deeply touched by my time there.”

“I wish to God I could go back there as a tourist and as a visitor. You know, that was the thing that my Afghan colleagues and I would always talk about was this mythic future where I would one day come back as a guest and not as a soldier.” – Matt Zeller, an Army veteran

Robert Couture, an Army veteran who served two different tours in Afghanistan doing public affairs work, felt similarly moved.

“It felt really good to see that in this part of the world where so many people were oppressed, that we can be able to liberate them and give them a sense of a future and some hope,” Couture said. “And that was, for me, just it just made my service all that much worthwhile. To know that we’re making that difference.”

Then President Trump set the U.S. withdrawal in motion, when his administration struck the ‘Doha agreement’ with the Taliban, which set the date for the U.S.’s withdrawal as May 1, 2021.

A little more than a year later, in April 2021, President Biden announced that all troops would be withdrawn by Sept. 11, 2021 — marking the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack that led to the war. Three months later, Biden moved that timeline up to Aug. 31.

The Afghan government collapsed on Aug. 15, and the last U.S. military forces were withdrawn on Aug. 30. The next day, in remarks from the State Dining Room, President Biden said he “refused to open another decade of war” after the cost of the prior twenty years.

“We’ve been a nation too long at war. If you’re 20 years old today, you have never known an America at peace,” Biden said at the time.

“So, when I hear that we could’ve, should’ve continued the so-called low-grade effort in Afghanistan, at low risk to our service members, at low cost, I don’t think enough people understand how much we have asked of the 1 percent of this country who put that uniform on, who are willing to put their lives on the line in defense of our nation,” he continued.

Couture, who now serves as the national director of communications and public affairs for Veterans of Foreign Wars, described the watching withdrawal as an “awful pit in the stomach that seemed to get worse.”

“A year later, I’ve seen some commemorations on TV, but it’s — I don’t know. It still gives you an awful feeling when you look back at some of those photos and video,” he said.

Treating the “moral injury” has been a struggle for those who left part of themselves in Afghanistan.

“That injury is the most insidious of all injuries because it’s the injury of the soul. It’s not something that you can treat with drugs or group therapy or individual therapy. It’s not even something that VA [the Department of Veterans Affairs] can address,” Zeller said.

“The most effective way I know, to heal from the moral injury that we’re all reeling from right now. From the abandonment of our Afghan allies, is to help get them to safety,” he added.

Still, Zeller said he’s proud of his service. “And I’m proud of everyone who served alongside me and all the things that we accomplished,” he added. “I don’t think any of it was squandered.”

As of Aug. 22, the Department of Defense has recorded 2,461 total American casualties over the 20-year war. Another 69,000 Afghan national military and police were killed in the war, and more than 52,893 opposition forces were believed to have been killed, according to the Cost of War Project at Brown University. 

Multiple veterans advocacy groups are now advocating for passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act, bipartisan legislation that would streamline the immigration process for Afghan nationals who supported the U.S. mission.

“We really could not have done our job in Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria or anywhere without the local nationals,” said Christopher Purdy, director of Veterans for American Ideals.

“And this support came in the role of interpreter, but it also came in the role of cooks and cleaners and, you know, engineers, you know, people throughout the entire ecosystem of the occupation.”

Lyle added that for veterans feeling their service in Afghanistan was meaningless, “it’s not for nothing.”

“At the very least,” he said, “the experiences that you had, and the relationships that you build and maintain, the sacrifices you made, helped build who you are today and molded the character and the person you are today — which is someone that has the capacity to continue serving.”

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