With the latest news of Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, many may wonder what US military families have to say. Will we have an opinion about watching history repeat itself? What about the ignored warnings? Will the loss of life seem all the more painful now? Was this the right call?
As the world watches, military families like mine have been thrown into a new reality. Some are preparing to send their loved ones back into harm’s way. Others are afraid to share their thoughts for fear that their experience will be manipulated by partisan pundits.
Some are panicked, desperately seeking a pathway to get the Afghan men and women who served alongside their service members out of Afghanistan. Some are veterans who also know that rushing through the visa application process is not as simple as cutting through red tape and must be done in a measured way to protect American lives.
As the daughter of a 9/11 survivor, the spouse of a US Naval officer, the sister-in-law of a soldier who watched friends die in Afghanistan, and a military family reporter, I should have a lot of coherent and directed thoughts about what is happening today. Instead, devastatingly, I don’t. I keep thinking, “I haven’t earned the right,” despite my proximity to the situation. Others have earned it in lost lives and limbs and time away from family.
I look to them to take the lead on this heartbreaking conversation. And I’ve been the honored recipient of their stories, stories that are as diverse as we are. I’ve spent the past few days in conversation with military spouses and veterans from across the political spectrum and service branches, all of whom have direct experience with Afghanistan.
“I’m sad almost beyond words,” one Army spouse told me, who wished to remain anonymous. “I’m scared to death for the women and girls in Afghanistan. For the Afghan people who fought alongside our people. I’m worried for our service members, especially those who may already be on the brink of a meltdown or worse. Will this push them over the edge?”
“I do not think all was lost in vain, but I do think we are all replaying the deployments, the casualties, and the wounded,” said Amy, an Air Force spouse. “I keep having images in my head of the wounded flying in on C-17s when at Andrews [Air Force Base], the ones waiting in the pharmacy that were barely of age to serve but already wounded… It’s all too much.”
“There has been an increase in calls this week from veterans in very bad shape due to this news,” an Air Force Veteran and Spouse and Department of Veteran Affairs dispatcher told me. “It’s heartbreaking. The stories we hear always leave us drained, but it’s so much worse with this news.”
Some of those I interviewed felt the war in Afghanistan had always been unwinnable. “It was always going to end like this in my mind. Maybe not the drastic overthrow and airport scene, but I imagined an overthrow,” said Rebecca, an Air Force veteran and current Army spouse. She added that she “witnessed firsthand the monetary waste,” including unneeded additional infrastructure and failed projects for women. “I recognize and respect the dream to make Afghanistan free but also need to check myself on what free means in a different culture,” she added.
Melissa, an Air Force (Ret.) spouse, concurred: “I think it would’ve been a failed plan even if it was a slower, gradual [return] of power. So many people on both sides of this war have lost their lives. Would the loss of lives end even if we stayed? I’m sad either way and I hope that our government will speed up the humanitarian immigration process for those national citizens who helped us along the way.”
Lori, an Air Force spouse, felt that the way in which the pull-out was handled was disappointing: “I agree that we needed to leave Afghanistan. But how you do it matters. We spent 20 years and trillions of dollars over there, and for what?… I wish they could have left in a more strategic way that empowered the Afghan army to fight back… The US made them addicted to our resources and courage and then just left.” Lori added that the disturbing footage being seen in the media and online, including “people falling from a US Air Force plane,” will further anger Afghans who feel betrayed and that she fears they will want to “seek revenge”. “Many men and women who served really believed in their missions to empower the Afghans to run their own government,” she added, “…this has to be devastating to them.”
For many, the people they know inside Afghanistan are on their minds today. “I know a translator there with four kids who hasn’t been able to secure a visa and is getting death threats,” said Kayla, a Coast Guard spouse. “His sister, who is here [in the US] on an asylum visa herself, is traumatized.”
“I had some spouses reach out to me because they know my husband works for the State Department,” Stephanie, an Army spouse who has been overwhelmed with enquiries from others about people inside Afghanistan, said. “Yes, he’s there, but you’re not the only person reaching out, everybody’s reaching out and he doesn’t have that kind of pull… There are all these people, all these individual stories of people who need help, and we need more hands giving out help than we have available.”
Some have simply switched off after viewing too much traumatizing footage of the situation on the ground. “I can’t handle it, so I’m not watching it,” said Katy, a Marine Corps spouse. “I feel so hopeless and I cannot do a single thing to help. My husband did two tours there. My daughter almost died at seven weeks old when he was deployed. I didn’t ask for him to come home because I believed what he was doing was for the greater good. I think if I was carrying around a box full of ashes instead of just a box full of trauma, I would be ready for a psych hold.”
Katy is not alone in feeling a deep grief. “Our house is very sad,” said Mary, an Army spouse. “Everyone, child and adults, has cried. It’s a weird place of having a lot to say but not having the words.”
For others, their reaction is fear. “My husband is currently deployed in the Middle East — I won’t disclose where — and is actively flying over the area,” said Sheri, an Air Force spouse. “I always worry when he flies, but I’d be lying if I said I’m not a little more on edge in light of recent events.”
“I’m scared my husband will have to go back there and also for what he is reliving now,” said Rebecca.
For others, anger is the only possible reaction. “Watching the news stories on the Fall of Kabul hurts my heart and infuriates me,” said Callie, a Navy spouse. “This is our generation’s Saigon and I am afraid for the mental health of this generation’s military. My husband did two tours to Afghanistan and all the good that they did has been for nothing.”
There is a sense among many that positive things can be done in the future, even if the scenes today are disturbing and disappointing. “I am focusing on what we can do,” said Elizabeth, whose spouse formerly served in the Army and now serves in the Navy. “There will be a surge of Afghan people who helped us now arriving in the US. I hope to partner with an organization or two that help them settle here! I can’t fix the last 20 years. I can’t fix a botched withdrawal. But I can make sure the good people who are moving here with nothing [are able to] start a new life.”
Stephanie is determined to move ahead with a singular focus and not to get distracted by politics: “I am not going to talk about foreign policy or counterterrorism today. I am damn sure not going to point fingers or place blame or be an armchair quarterback. What I am going to do is tell you how much I believe in [my service member spouse] and what he stands for.”
“Nine deployments,” she added. “So many friends lost along the way. And none of it was in vain. You hear me? None. Of. It. We willingly let him go over and over and over, knowing he’d miss births and birthdays and recitals and graduations and milestones and firsts and lasts and that the years would be full of memories not involving daddy. And we did that because we believe in him and what he does. We believe it’s for the greater good and that he’s changing the world. What he does matters.”
Clearly, there is no one answer to how military families are feeling about what is going on in Afghanistan. However, there is one unifying message: Care for your community however you can; ask for help when needed; and when presented with a differing opinion, listen.
Jennifer Barnhill is a freelance writer with a focus on military family advocacy, Navy spouse of 15 years and mother of three. She is the Chief Operating Officer for Partners in PROMISE, Secure Families Initiative volunteer and serves on the National Military Spouse Network Day of Advocacy Steering Committee. Jennifer is the military spouse liaison on The League of Wives Memorial Project and host of the podcast Disruptive Storytelling with Military Changemakers.
Are you affected by the issues in this story? The White Oak Collaborative is a non-partisan group of organizations dedicated to serving military veterans and families.