As America experiences a brutal ending to our longest war, I am reminded of my time in Afghanistan where I, along with fellow soldiers, bled for an objective our commanders told us was worthy. The battlefield half a world away made seemingly more sense for us warriors than the world we are trying to understand today. I am concerned that my fellow veterans are awash in a sea of pain brought on by the traumatic news unfolding in a region we can’t forget — no matter how hard we try.
Following 9/11, service and sacrifice were the tenets of my life. After one particular combat mission in Afghanistan, I wondered if life was even worth living. During my service, I was hospitalized with an ankle injury and had multiple mild traumatic brain injuries from the wear and tear of combat. Thankful to have survived when some comrades did not, I was suffering from survivor’s guilt and the trifecta of nausea, dizziness and light sensitivity that often accompanies concussions. Back then, I felt confused all the time and never knew what was happening.
Sadly, I feel a fresh wave of confusion today, one that I have no doubt is shared by others who fought in the war.
I served 20 years in the military, mostly in special operations, and retired the summer of 2020 due to my physical and mental health, as well as for my family. The transition has not been easy. And on Sunday, each breaking news update about the latest on the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan brought another searing flashback of my time in-country. Like many Americans, I sat motionless and helplessly watched the Afghan government collapse.
In the military, my purpose was clear: Serve our country. Now, I struggle to find a new sense of purpose as the news from Afghanistan prompts me to wonder if we’ve actually lost our country’s national identity. I know that I’m not alone in this — many of my fellow veterans feel it, too.
My nonprofit focuses on equipping veterans for the challenges of everyday life.PHOTOS
Taliban forces take control of Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul
Taliban forces have taken control of Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021, following the collapse of the western-backed Afghan government. Afghanistan’s president fled after Taliban fighters entered Kabul over the weekend and the U.S. military has been racing to evacuate diplomats and U.S. citizens. Since the transfer of power, civilians have been trying to flee the country, causing chaotic scenes at Kabul’s international airport.(Wali Sabawoon/AP)
Recently, after sharing about my beliefs and our work at a speaking engagement, a former intelligence agent shook my hand and offered me a singular bullet. With tears in his eyes, he embraced me with a hug and whispered, “I have been carrying this around for quite a while. Every night, I put this bullet in my rifle with the intent of pulling the trigger to kill myself. I knew it was a matter of time, I just didn’t know when. But today, you have given me a reason to live — you saved my life.” And he walked away.
I have carried the bullet around with me since then as a stark reminder of why I keep going.
I understand the demons. I understand the turmoil. I understand the darkness.
For any veterans or current service members, if you’re out there and you need help, you’re not alone. And if the breaking news out of Afghanistan has triggered tough memories you want to forget, you are not alone. There is help. Know that the light shines in the darkness. Together, we can make it through.
As we gather to remember the fallen, let’s make a pledge to unite as a nation and take care of our service members. I can think of no better tribute to our fallen heroes.
Friedman, Lt. Col. (ret.), is a former Air Force Special Tactics Officer and special operations leader. Friedman leads SOF Missions, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting veteran suicide.