I’m sitting at my desk the day before Thanksgiving with a mix of gratitude and frustration.
I am incredibly grateful to the members of the veteran community that keep showing me where the American Moral Compass really points. Since August of last year, these men and women have worked tirelessly to help Afghans flee the Taliban in Afghanistan and find their way to safety. The mission has only become harder, as the government continues to limit opportunities for our allies to find their way to the U.S., and funds continue to dry up as Americans find themselves exhausted with both the topic and the challenge to their wallets during this tenuous economy. And this is where my frustration is born. It’s been over a year since our withdrawal from Afghanistan and our nation has yet to step up. Why is our veteran community, with our bare budgets and our raw nerves, carrying the weight of the greatest nation on Earth?
A couple of weeks ago, those of us that are still fighting that fight found ourselves around a table at Rooftop Leadership in Orlando, the company owned by Scott Mann, the original orchestrator of the Pineapple Express, to try to map a course forward. I was representing Save Our Allies. To my right was Travis Peterson, the Moral Compass Federation President. To my left was Ben Owen, the CEO of Flanders Fields. Scott sat across from me. Sarah Adams, a former CIA targeter sat at the other end. The rest of the table and those joining us digitally is a who’s who of heroism, commitment, and a lifetime of service to the nation.
Though I spent two days with these people, I mostly listened. They’ve all paid huge prices for our nation - far more than I have paid - and I simply wanted to hear them. Of course, the war stories came out. I heard about the bullet wounds, the broken backs, the traumatic brain injuries, the surgeries. I heard about the funny stuff - always my favorite moments when I get together with veterans - stories of Ranger School, Jungle School, pranks, bad bosses, and great bosses. But over and over again, what all of these people kept coming back to is that their country had let them down.
These veterans gave years of their lives to the cause - a belief, espoused over and over again by our military leadership and politicians - that the Afghanistan mission mattered. They believed they were keeping the U.S. safe from terrorism. They believed we intended to see the fight to its rightful conclusion. They believed that their pain, that the loss of their countrymen, that the battle scars they bore, were going to be repaid with a free Afghanistan. Failing that, they at least expected that those who fought alongside our nation would be given their due, as promised so many times over the past 20 years.
What I witnessed was not men and women who couldn’t handle the losses they had weathered, be it in body or spirit or in the very real loss of friends, but in the meaninglessness of it all as a result of our government’s decision to abandon Afghans. They could deal with the physical injuries they had sustained. They could deal with their own sacrifices. But they are reeling from the moral injury our nation has once again administered to our nation’s veterans.
While the words are nicer than they were during Vietnam, cloaked in “Thank you for your service” and other throwaway phrases, the results are the same. Politicians sent kids to fight and die and when the public wasn’t into it anymore, they just called it a day without regard for how it would affect veterans, Afghanistan, or the world.
No matter who you are and no matter why you joined, we all enter basic training and are united under the mantle of protecting the nation and protecting the weak. We are sold a bill of goods that the United States military “does the right thing”. But when push came to shove, the government threw up its hands and said, “we tried” and a generation of men and women were left holding the bag.
And that bag comes with a heavy burden. Suicide is up significantly since the abandonment of Afghanistan among with the veteran population and the active duty military population. There’s evidence that “the warrior class” or the group of people who have family histories of service, are dissuading their children from following in their footsteps.
Not only that, but respect for the military and veterans are down since the abandonment of Afghanistan. The military, not long ago THE most trusted government institution in the United States, has dwindled from its average of 70% trusted over the past two decades, to 56% with signs of further decline.
Recruiting is down, with the Army missing its target by 25 percent. Why would a person want to volunteer to defend a nation that doesn’t see its wars to their rightful conclusion, doesn’t properly care for those who fought it, and doesn’t live up to its promises to those who fought alongside it?
Furthermore, there is some small evidence that these hardened Afghan Commandos, who fought alongside us for years, are being recruited by the Russians to help in the Ukraine war. While very few have said yes, there is reason to believe that the longer our abandonment goes, the more our old allies will resent us. We may very well be creating the next generation of people who despise us and what we stand for? And can you blame them? They risked everything and we…walked away. We changed the channel. We left them high and dry.
All of these thoughts swirled around our two day meeting. Many very tough men and women shed tears. Many questioned who they were. What they did. Whether it was all a lie.
It weighed on me.
I flew from that meeting to Austin, for the release of Ben Kesling’s new book, Bravo Company, which followed the service of members of an infantry company in the 82nd Airborne. Members of Bravo Company were there in abundance. Unlike the men and women I had just left in Orlando, they weren’t an active part of the Afghan Allies fight, but the stain of that war sat with them. It marred every conversation. It came up at every gathering. It was an ever-present wound.
By happenstance, I met with a member of Air Force Special Operations that had been a huge part of the success of Task Force 6:8, the group I played a small role in last August during the HKIA evacuation. Over a glass of whiskey, he let me know in no uncertain terms that the nightmares from that trip haunt him still. The only place he can find peace is in the woods, hunting. So he tries to do that as much as possible.
The refrain from everyone - from my Air Force friend, to Bravo Company, to the Moral Compass Federation in Orlando - is simple: It just isn’t right.
Folks, it just isn’t right.