A 20-year-long campaign to transform Afghanistan ended Sunday when the Taliban entered the country’s capital, causing then-President Ashraf Ghani to flee. The actions left many Americans with questions and concerns over what happened, and what will happen in the coming days. For Tampa Bay veterans and their loved ones, emotions are mixed — informed by years of different duties in and out of Afghanistan.
Retired U.S. Army Col. DJ Reyes, 64, served in the Army for 34 years. His last tour in Afghanistan was from 2011 to 2012, where he worked in military intelligence and special operations.
Reyes said he has supported the pullout of U.S. troops since the initial announcement.
There comes a time in any war when national leadership announces the U.S. has accomplished what it set out to do, and then it’s time to withdraw, Reyes said.
He spent much of his time in Afghanistan as an intelligence campaign planner. Reyes said he spent time on committees and councils responsible for planning for various contingencies and scenarios the U.S. would face while in Afghanistan, including the withdrawal.
He feels that many agreed with pulling out of Afghanistan. Where he finds people are struggling is in the manner that it’s being executed, he said.
“It doesn’t look like a well-thought-out plan, it just doesn’t,” Reyes said.
Tracy Smith, 54, a retired Criminal Investigation Command special agent/chief warrant officer who now lives in Lithia, said he spent weeks at a time going from Washington, D.C., to Afghanistan on missions. To Smith, there would never be an easy exit strategy for U.S. troops.
“I feel like there was not a good plan that was going to allow us to get out of there in a reasonable amount of time, if we weren’t permitted to stay for the long term,” Smith said.
He said that leaving was always going to create a space that the Taliban would fill.
Another Tampa Army veteran, Matthew Nauss, 38, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2006 to 2007. Nauss, now CEO of Dolomites Consulting, says that in discussions with veterans with whom he was deployed, there’s a consensus that how the U.S. pulled out was “senseless.”
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“We feel that, you know, that it was all for nothing,” Nauss said.
Nauss worries for civilians and Afghan citizens still over there, especially the women.
“Women’s rights are going to be completely stripped away,” Nauss said. “And that is probably the most heartbreaking thing to me.”
However, Reyes said he wants active-duty military servicemembers, veterans and especially Gold Star families (those who have lost loved ones over in Afghanistan) to know that “our losses were not in vain.”
“We were given the mission, we did what we were told to do, and we did it well,” Reyes said.
A Gold Star father, Craig Gross, 66, from Oldsmar, echoes that message. Gross’ son, Cpl. Frank Gross, 25, died in Afghanistan in July 2011. When the city of Kandahar fell, the same city where his son was killed, he called it a sobering moment.
“When all the cities started to fall to the Taliban, like flies, it was heart-wrenching,” Gross said.
He calls the situation a “global disaster.”
However, he said the message he knows to be true is that nobody can minimize the sacrifice that his son, and so many others, made.
“Nobody can take away from our soldiers what they did and what was done,” Gross said. “Was it in vain? It can’t be in vain, because while they were there, they made people’s lives more livable.”
Dr. Anthony Hassan, the CEO of Cohen Veterans Network and a veteran himself, says that what veterans and family members are feeling right now is just a mixed bag of emotions — the experiences people have had in the past 20 years has informed how they’re feeling today.
He says that in the past few days, his clinicians have spent entire sessions talking through recent events with veterans. Hassan says that beyond the anger, frustration and sadness he’s heard people express, there’s also a sense of remorse.
“I think there’s a moral injury there that never gets talked about, ‘could they have done more,’ ‘should they have done more,’” Hassan said. “That’s the trouble, that’s the other side of this, I think.”
Hassan encourages veterans who are struggling to reach out to friends and family, or to seek out help from mental health experts to talk through the myriad emotions they might feel right now. He says a silver lining of these events is that it shines a spotlight on the mental health of veterans. Often, Hassan said, a triggering event will reveal a person’s underlying emotions and that could push some to seek help.
“The story becomes old for some, but for many it lingers on and on and on,” Hassan said. “And it festers.”