‘Was it all worth it?’

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Afghanistan War veterans react with anger, despair amid disaster

Patrick Griffith deployed with the U.S. Army to Afghanistan in 2012, risking his life hunting roadside bombs and weapons caches. The Kennesaw resident developed post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences.

About a year after he returned home, Griffith’s brother-in-law lost both of his legs and four fellow soldiers during a raid in southern Afghanistan. Four years later, a close friend in Griffith’s Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit killed himself following a second harrowing deployment to that war-torn nation.

So when Griffith learned about America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s rapid takeover this month, it was all too much for him. One evening while on a work assignment in Alaska, he dropped to his knees and cried alone in his hotel room.

“I was extremely sad, very hurt and disappointed,” said Griffith, a program director for Mission Roll Call, a veteran support organization. “What started to hit me was an overwhelming feeling of: Was it all worth it?”

Many veterans are reacting to the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan with a similar mixture of anger and despair. Some are grappling with survivor’s guilt at the end of America’s longest war, a 20-year-slog that claimed the lives of 241,000 people, including more than 2,400 U.S. servicemembers, and cost more than $2 trillion.

Psychologists who treat veterans are urging them to talk about their feelings and seek professional help if they need it.

“The most important thing right now for all of us who are not veterans is to be ready to listen and to not assume we know what they are feeling or how they are feeling about things,” said Sheila Rauch, director of mental health research and program evaluation for the Atlanta VA Health Care System and the deputy director of the Emory Healthcare Veterans Program.

Burke Garrett, a retired Army lieutenant general who led a brigade of U.S. troops in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2004, wants veterans to remember “Americans are very proud of you and all who have sacrificed.”

“You served honorably and courageously to bring peace to the people of Afghanistan,” said Garrett, executive advisor to the Emory Healthcare Veterans Program. “Take pride in your service knowing that you kept our nation safe and made a positive impact, even with what is happening now.”

Seeing it coming

Matthew McBride wasn’t surprised by the Afghan military’s quick collapse. The Georgia National Guardsman saw it in action while he was deployed to Afghanistan with his fraternal twin in 2019. Some of the Afghan soldiers, he said, had no will to fight. He perceived a mixture of incompetence, cowardice and Afghan government corruption.

“We could hear them on the radio just getting crushed. Maybe a platoon of 20 would be fighting and they would come back to the camp and maybe only three of them would be alive,” said the Bulloch County sheriff’s deputy. “Half the time the Afghan soldiers would eat our food because they just wouldn’t have anything to eat. We would give them MREs and water.”

McBride remembers his artillery unit fired its guns nearly every day of his seven-month deployment, even while under attack from enemy mortars.

“The whole time we are on the gun, we are just thinking: ‘They are going to walk these mortars in at some point and hit us,’” he said. “But they never did, thank God. That was in the back of my head the whole time.”

McBride agrees it was time to pull American troops out of Afghanistan, though he wishes it could have been done differently to help safely evacuate Afghan allies. When he watches the grim news coming out of Afghanistan, McBride thinks to himself: “Dadgummit, why were we even over there? I just kind of feel like all that we did was kind of for nothing.”

At the same time, McBride underscores the American military’s successes during the war, including the killing of high-ranking Taliban leaders and Osama bin laden.

The war changed McBride. He has trouble sleeping now, doesn’t like loud noises and avoids large crowds. Counseling has helped. He is scheduled this month for an appointment to determine if he has post-traumatic stress disorder.

McBride’s world changed in other ways after he returned home. He got married and now he and his wife, Taylor, have a 1-year-old daughter, Della. Another daughter is on the way. He signed a six-year contract extension with the Guard while he was overseas and now wonders about the possibility he will have to deploy again to Afghanistan.

“I feel like we are going to have to go back to Afghanistan at some point,” he said. “And now that I have kids, I know it is going to be a lot different. I am definitely a lot more anxious about going over there.”

Surrounded by reminders

Garrett Cathcart has surrounded himself with mementos from his yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. On a wall in his loft apartment in Little Five Points the Army Reserve major displays the weathered American flag that flew over the post where he led a company of U.S. soldiers.

Afghan rugs adorn his floor. Each has a story. One was a gift from a mujahedeen warlord who fought alongside him against the Taliban. Another one came from an Afghan police chief he befriended. Afghan villagers gave him a third rug for helping liberate their community from the Taliban. He remembers standing atop a roof, sipping coffee and coordinating airstrikes during that battle, briefly thinking that was the biggest impact he would ever make, the most important he would ever be.

“It is probably a Taliban village now. So, what was it all for?” said Cathcart, a West Point graduate, three-time Bronze Star recipient and longtime advocate for veterans. “What do we do with that? Twenty years, $2 trillion, nearly 2,500 American lives and how many who were wounded in action?”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Cathcart has experienced a range of emotions watching the crisis in Afghanistan.

“Anger, rage, hurt, pain. It’s devastating. It’s heartbreaking,” he said.

Cathcart has joined an ad hoc group of people trying to evacuate Afghans who aided the U.S military, including an engineer who built his combat outpost and a school for girls.

“You loved those people who live there because you worked alongside them. In my case, we lived in their villages with them,” he said. “We ate their food. I convinced villagers to grow saffron instead of poppies. It was a great moment for me and a great moment for the unit and USAID, but you have this feeling: Did any of it matter?”

Cathcart also worries about the message America has sent to its allies and enemies with its messy exit from Afghanistan.

“Who is going to trust us after how we left?” he said. “It has emboldened our adversaries to just ‘Wait them out.’ The Taliban just waited and now they own the country again.”

He turned back to the mementos in his Atlanta apartment, saying they are meant to serve as “an homage to that year of my life.”

“And now,” he said, “they are reminders of things that went terribly wrong.”

The women and girls of Afghanistan

Sidney Covington particularly worries about the fate of Afghan women and girls amid the Taliban takeover. She gained some perspective when she deployed there as an Army medic in 2012 and 2013 and witnessed the oppression they faced.

“There are simple things you take for granted. I couldn’t imagine knowing that I could risk my life going to class. I didn’t have to do that. I was forced to go to school,” said Covington, a Chicago resident who graduated with a social work degree from Georgia State University. “Everyone should have access to education and not have to fear for their lives.

“One of the things that is most disheartening,” she added, “is knowing there is going to be a potential new generation of women who will not have that same access and who will be disenfranchised and not have the mobility to be able to be independent outside of having a spouse. It is 2021 going on 2022 soon and that shouldn’t be a thing anymore.”

Covington has limited how much news about trauma she is reading, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic. But one recent news video stuck with her. It showed four women in black abayas peacefully demonstrating this month in Kabul for their rights and against the Taliban.

“It brought chills to my body because they were literally standing there and saying, ‘You are not going to erase us. We exist and we are here,’” said Covington, a veterans engagement associate for a financial services firm. “That gives me hope. It lets you know people are going to continue to fight, regardless of what that looks like.”

‘Like water you push away with a broom’

Dan Berschinski was a senior at McIntosh High School in Peachtree City when the terrorists struck on Sept. 11. He went on to graduate from West Point in 2007 and deployed to Afghanistan two years later as an Army infantry officer.

His men were shot at. Their vehicles were hit with bombs. They would clear the enemy out of an area, but if they did not stay there, the Taliban would return “like water you push away with a broom. It just slides back toward you.”

The Afghan soldiers who were supposed to patrol alongside Berschinski’s troops at polling sites during the national election that year vanished. He discovered Afghans did not like their own government.

“Although we were only 30 miles away from downtown Kandahar, we might as well have been on the moon. There was no infrastructure. There were no services,” he said. “When I said, ‘Don’t you want to go vote in your national election?’ The response I would get from Afghan citizens would be, ‘I don’t care who is in charge. They are all corrupt. None of them care about us. At least the Taliban actually live in my village. And if I had an issue, I could go talk to them and they could adjudicate it, even though I don’t necessarily believe in all their views.’”

While leading a patrol one day, Berschinski stepped on an improvised explosive device. It severed both of his legs above the knees, broke his jaw, blew out his eardrum and shattered his left hand. The war was over for the young first lieutenant. He endured four months of surgeries and hospitalization and then spent three years in physical therapy and training with prosthetic limbs.

Berschinski, who is proud of the work U.S. soldiers did in Afghanistan, agrees with President Biden’s decision to pull them out.

“I don’t think that war is worth another single American life or even another American leg,” said Berschinski, an entrepreneur who has served as an advocate for wounded veterans and their families. “People are caught up in how messy it seems. The message I am trying to get across is it has been messy for 20 years.”

“And by definition, when you clean up a mess, you get some mess on your hands. But then you are done.”

‘That hurt me to the bone’

Patrick Griffith, the former Explosive Ordnance Disposal sergeant, spent six months in a restive part of southeastern Afghanistan, serving alongside troops from the 82nd Airborne Division. Much of Griffith’s identity is tied to that deployment, his five years in the Army and his status as a veteran. And that is a big part of why he become so emotional this month.

“I had an overwhelming existential thought of ‘Am I nothing because everything means nothing now?’” he said. “That hurt, man. That hurt me to the bone.”

Like other veterans, Griffith worries about the Afghans who aided the U.S. military during the war and who were left behind.

“We looked these people in the eyes and we said, ‘You are an asset to the United States and we are going to bring peace to your country and we are going to help you in every way possible,’” he said. “We made all of these promises and then we turn around and we just left. We just left people to frankly be slaughtered.”

Griffith recently reached out to a former Afghan interpreter with whom he worked. The man, who goes by the nickname “Wali,” lives in Canada. He told Griffith his 40-year-old cousin was killed by the Taliban this month. Wali added he was scrambling to arrange for his daughter and her four young children to get out of Afghanistan. They have gone into hiding because her late father-in-law was a high-ranking police official in Afghanistan.

“I just said, ‘Wali, I am so sorry for what is going on. I am sad and I am hurt. Please let me know if there is anything I could do,’” Griffith said. “He messaged me back and said, ‘Patrick, my dear, I have been shedding tears of blood. And I don’t know how I feel.’”

In some ways, Griffith identifies with Vietnam War veterans who were mistreated when they returned home and who felt forgotten.

“It’s devastating to look at the mistakes that we made in Vietnam. We just replicated (them) again in Afghanistan,” he said.

At the same time, Griffith is struck by some of the images coming out of Kabul, particularly those of Afghan parents handing their sick children over to American troops for care. To him, that shows U.S. troops have spread goodwill and gained trust. He wants fellow veterans to not forget the positive things they have done in Afghanistan. He pointed to their work destroying the enemy’s roadside bombs, building public infrastructure and making it safe for kids to return to school.

“I really want them to know,” Griffith said of fellow veterans, “it wasn’t for naught.”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer