We all know that when war ends, the journey isn’t over for those who fight it. The Odyssey, written over 2,500 years ago, portrays the numerous hardships veterans have to contend with after leaving the battlefield, and the pitfalls of not taking one’s post-war psychological tasks seriously. When the last suicide attack killed thirteen American servicemembers at the Kabul airport, many veterans awoke to the reality that even though the war is at its end, it will live on in us for many long, painful years to come. Though the bomb’s deafening blast was among the final sounds of the twenty year long “Global War on Terrorism,” the sounds of battle will continue to come back in nightmares and flashbacks. The war may be over for America, but it will live on in the inner lives of many veterans.
Within 24 hours of last week’s attack, I conducted three psychotherapy sessions with fellow combat veterans--all of whom were touched by the events in Afghanistan in unique ways. One was haunted by memories of being among the first on scene after a suicide bomber hit a market in Iraq, killing over 200 people. Another was reminded of the pain of having to leave the combat zone before he felt his mission was done--of not wanting to leave behind his comrades. A third wrestled with an inner conflict, stating, “This makes me want to grab my .308 and go stack bodies… [he paused] but another part of me knows how hard I’ve worked to get back my sense of humanity. And I really don’t know if trying to kill more people is gonna fix this.” That weekend I sat in a group therapy session hosted by The Battle Within with nine Afghanistan veterans. Over and over again, these warriors repeated the words, “I don’t know,” as they attempted to process how they felt and what they were thinking about the horror show unfolding in Afghanistan. Some wept, some vented their frustration, others wrestled with “not knowing” what to think or do. One thing they all agreed on was how frustrating it was to see their fellow Americans bicker and fight about the political and strategic aspects of the withdrawal, considering most seemed not to care much about Afghanistan these past 20 years.
Outside my therapeutic work with my fellow veterans, I’ve witnessed the same sort of hard-to-tolerate behaviors from average citizens. It’s been hard to watch some folks go on with their lives pretending as if nothing is happening, while others “shoulda, woulda, coulda” this thing to death. But, as a psychotherapist, I feel the need to draw awareness to the reality of what I’m seeing, which is a nation immersed in various stages of grief. Those stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Clearly, on the whole, America was in denial about the Taliban’s strength and potential. We didn’t want to believe they could sweep over Afghanistan and take everything that our comrades have fought and died over these past 20 years. And, many Americans are still in denial, going on with life as if nothing is happening.
We have anger in abundance, probably no cohort of Americans more so than veterans. Notorious for being quick to anger, the events in Afghanistan did more than ruffle our feathers. This hit where it hurt, and betrayed our sacred commitment to leave no one behind. Seeing an enemy as ruthless as the Taliban take over something that our troops have sacrificed so much for is enough to make a priest kick out a stained glass window. The endless fighting on social media, news media, and beyond is fueled by this anger--and this anger must be understood as a symptom of the early stages of grief. We must be careful not to stay here, but to be intentional about following through with the grieving process.
Bargaining is when we wrestle with events, wishing and hoping it could be different; wondering if there’s something we could’ve done differently to stop this from happening. Of course, as veterans, it's ingrained in us to review and assess events so that we don’t make the same mistakes twice, and to consider the past before we make decisions in the present. In this case, there were some obvious strategic failures, and a failure of imagination (and/or intelligence) to consider the potentialities of how bad the whole withdrawal could go. Yet, whatever the intent of our wrestling with the reality of what did (and didn’t) happen, it must be recognized for what it is--bargaining. And bargaining, at its root, is a way we try to defend against the emotional pain of something we can’t yet tolerate.
Depression comes next. Some went straight into it, immersed in waves of sadness. Others may be weeks, months, or years from being penetrated from the full weight of grief and loss. Whether you fought in Afghanistan or not, seeing the Taliban unleash hell upon our allies and take the country by storm, is an incredibly painful reality to face--especially when you consider how much was sacrificed--lives of friends and comrades, years away from family and missed milestones of life, and even one’s innocence and a sense of inner peace as it is beset by the pains of war. This loss has gravity, enough to weigh one down with sadness that is not easily accepted. Our psyches are inherently adapted to avoid pain, and this is something none of us really want to feel--and yet we must if we are to go on unencumbered.
Acceptance takes time. If you think you’ve already accepted everything that’s happened, think again. Even the most emotionally and psychologically sophisticated and mature individual needs years to process something like this. It happens in stages, waves. Our psyches need time to adjust to the new reality we find ourselves in, and to contend with the innumerable hardships that come with war and military service. The stages of grief do not unfold in a linear fashion. We bounce back and forth, from one stage to another. Some days we may feel like fighting, and the next we might find ourselves immersed in sadness. Don’t try to rush it, or to expect yourself to be in one place rather than another. It’s most important to just accept where you are, and to treat yourself with kindness and compassion. The adaptations and attitude we developed to win in battle are not the same adaptations and attitudes we need to process grief or to heal the wounds of war.
Though the war is now over, we must accept a new mission--to tend to our inner worlds, and to one another. The tragedies unfolding in Afghanistan have presented us with both hardship and opportunity--what an old professor of mine called an AFOG (Another Fuckin’ Opportunity for Growth). While these painful events are fresh in our hearts and minds, it serves us well to lean into our grief, and to take this task as seriously as we do any other tasks of warriorhood.
Adam Magers is a psychotherapist located in Kansas City, Missouri. He is an Iraq War veteran who received the Army Commendation Medal with Valor for heroism during the Battle of Sadr City. He is also the curriculum architect for The Battle Within’s Revenant Journey program, an intensive therapeutic program for veterans and first responders; and the co-architect and Clinical Manager of The Battle Within’s Frontline Therapy Network, which provides free psychotherapy for veterans, first responders, and healthcare professionals at no-cost. He is also the author of two forthcoming books on healing after war and military service.