Adjusting to civilian life can be a daunting challenge for many veterans.
Nick Armendariz knows about it firsthand.
“You just hung up a major part of your life and I think without a solid purpose and direction, it can really weigh heavy on you,” said Armendariz.
Armendariz is an Army veteran and served three combat tours in Afghanistan.
He now lives in Charlotte and works for the nonprofit group, The Independence Fund, which works to empower vets coping with wounds from war.
Armendariz has testified on Capitol Hill about the mental health struggles after coming home.
“I know of countless suicide attempts and four men with whom I served were lost to suicide,” said Armendariz in a Congressional hearing in September.
Veterans groups said the pandemic has only made things even harder for vets and in recent months there has been a whole new obstacle: the chaotic fallout of the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The world watched as the Afghan government quickly collapsed and the Taliban took control.
Thirteen U.S. service members and dozens of Afghans were killed in a suicide bombing and there were Afghan allies who had helped the U.S. military who were left behind.
“It was just surreal,” said Armendariz. “I was mad. I was angry. I was upset that it had to end this way.”
That despair is widely felt within the veteran community, according to the nonprofit group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
“I think it’s one of these rare times where there’s a pretty strong general consensus across the veteran community which is a lot of anger, frustration, sadness, confusion all around the withdrawal,” said Jeremy Butler, Chief Executive Officer of IAVA.
IAVA said it saw a 75% increase in calls to their crisis hotline in late August directly connected to the troop withdrawal.
The number of crisis calls has since returned to the usual intake in recent months.
“We’ve got a program called our Quick Reaction Force which is a 24/7 hotline available for any veterans and family members of military veterans to reach out for counseling, direct peer to peer counseling with another veteran,” said Butler. “We have seen a spike, a four-fold spike over last year in general during the pandemic, but a further spike beyond that since the withdrawal started… We’ve certainly heard more and more really questioning whether their service was worth it.”
Butler is pushing for an independent non-political organization to investigate the war in Afghanistan over the last two decades.
It’s something he believes will help veterans better understand the value of their sacrifice.
“What you’ve seen from both sides of the aisle is a lot of finger-pointing, trying to lay blame on one administration or another when the reality is we’ve been making mistakes in Afghanistan since the first days we got there,” said Butler.
President Biden has firmly stood by the decision to end America’s longest war and his administration blamed the Afghan government for not being able to defend itself.
Armendariz and Butler had this message for fellow vets who may still be struggling to cope with the aftermath.
“We walked among giants while we were there and in that presence, we did great things,” said Armendariz. “I can sit and stew in it or I can be a part of something bigger and take action and I know we’ve been working and there’s other organizations out there bringing some of these Afghan families back to the United States.”
“Your service was honorable,” said Butler. “Your service was just. You did what your country asked us, asked you to do.”
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