It's Time for Veterans and Military Families to Let Go of Afghanistan -- But Not Forget

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U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III safely transported 823 Afghan citizens
A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III safely transported 823 Afghan citizens from Hamid Karzai International Airport, Aug. 15, 2021. (U.S. Air Force)

Corie Weathers is a licensed professional counselor specializing in military families and first responders.

If I drew out our family story line, 2009 is where our path takes a dramatic turn, with a pinpoint that says "Afghanistan." My husband wasn't injured during his two deployments, but his soul was. Like thousands of other service members, he was exposed to the darkness of a war-torn country.

As a chaplain, he tended to injured, abused or burned children and villagers in the operating room and aid station of his forward operating base. After just five months, he called me as he was preparing to deliver a Red Cross message to one of his troops. I could hear the emptiness in his voice when he confessed that he felt as though he were walking hand-in-hand with death.

How do you welcome home a soul ravaged by loss and hurt? I didn't do a great job. I was exhausted myself from such an arduous deployment.

For the next five years, we followed that new trajectory, doing whatever we could to bring meaning to the innocence that was lost in those rugged mountains of Afghanistan.

At times, it was a slugfest for our mental health and marriage. Matt struggled to sleep at night, and our experiences of the deployment were drastically different from each other. He wanted to live life to the fullest, while I desperately wrestled life into submission with two toddlers. Before Afghanistan, we felt unified; now, we just felt disconnected. Yet the only answer we had was to bring meaning to the experience of Afghanistan in our life.

I spent only one day in Afghanistan. I was there courtesy of the Pentagon to see deployment conditions as a military spouse and somehow convey what I saw to families at home. I had already seen Turkey and Iraq, but Afghanistan made me anxious -- not because I felt unsafe, but because I saw it as a third entity in our marriage. It had invaded our story and hovered in the background of our life like white noise.

When I had the opportunity to see those mountains, smell the air and walk on that dirt, my heart was overwhelmed with what I wanted to say to that country. What I wasn't prepared for was feeling the weight of the burden our military community carried. I already was feeling the guilt of why I was given this experience and not the thousands of other family members who rightfully needed to be there.

All of us had something to say to those mountains. I felt the grieving widow, the mother who lost a child, the spouse whose own trajectory unexpectedly pivoted to "caregiver," and so many more. How was I to fulfill my own mission to Afghanistan to describe a country that had taken so much from so many? Would it even help? I wanted to scream, but instead I barely made it from the C-130 to a small room at Forward Operating Base Fenty before I burst into tears. Civilians around me stared in confusion, and I realized what service members meant when they said they felt "broken." There was no way those strangers could understand, and I was strangely glad they didn't have to.

Later that day, as we flew out of the country, I intentionally chose to leave behind my resentment toward the war and what it introduced there in the mountains of Afghanistan. I left it for my own sake but also for the thousands of souls who also needed to let something go there.

And, yet, here we are, 20 years after the war started, having to re-experience that pain, and let it go all over again.

Perhaps you pushed it down and never processed it. You "drove on," never tending to the wounds. Or maybe, like us, this withdrawal ripped open scar tissue you thought you would not have to revisit. With the intense tempo of new missions, we all occasionally reflected on our own conclusions of why our presence was still needed in Afghanistan. Now, we watch as others debate whether it was even worth it and feel the deep pangs of soul injury all over again, possibly worse.

While I can't speak for everyone, I believe I know the deeper questions you are asking, whether you served in Afghanistan or are a family member whose life was shaped by it.

Was it worth it?

It was not in vain. Your service, your time away from those you love, and the mission you gave your blood, sweat and tears to were worth it. The Air Force released a photo of 640 Afghans crammed into the belly of a C-17.

Their faces reveal the "why" that so many of us struggled to put into words and the stories that it feels were ignored for the last 20 years. A mother holding her son who will have a new future and a new perspective on women like her. The father embracing his daughter, who is not covering her ponytail. The elder who has a lifetime of stories to tell of pain but also rescue. The women who learned to read, write and now will dream of endless possibilities.

It is heart-wrenching to watch news stories of those who are left behind, desperate to escape the country. Yet because of souls like yours, there are Afghan people who know their worth and want more. The crew of Reach 871, who successfully evacuated those 640 people, represent the best of our service members and remind me of those I met in Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan.

You volunteered because you believe in a way of life that is just and good. You consistently go above and beyond for those on your right or left, whether it is a battle buddy, a family member, a child or a civilian who still doesn't understand. You willingly would give your own life to save another. Many of you have tried. And the scars that remind you of the ones you couldn't rescue feel freshly opened now.

It is doubly excruciating because we exist to fight and win our nation's wars. Nothing about this feels like a win. Yet even in the midst of this outcome, we have to choose to believe that this war, your service, held off evil long enough that an entire generation can believe in a different future. This week did not negate your sacrifice. If anything, it reveals how the strength, commitment, talent and unity of our military created stability for a country for 20 years. Many Afghan lives were changed for the better, and this is not the end of their story.

The American and Afghan narrative is far from over, but we are entering into an unfamiliar new phase in our community. Our warfighters and family members, including an entire generation that has never known rest, are experiencing the anxiety, loss and restlessness of slowing down. We have begged for it, for years. But when it suddenly coincides with a swift, systematic sweep of an enemy reclaiming territory we once protected, it is a jagged pill to swallow. It brings all the past pain into the present, shattering us when we've been trying to find a place and space to pause and recuperate.

We must find a way to rest and heal. It is time to let go but not forget. Time to remind your body and soul that you must slow down and not remain occupied with the next mission.

Your experience of Afghanistan is worth it when you bring it meaning. My husband is a more tender father and husband because of his time there, and I believe I am a better wife, mother and clinician. What the last two decades have given us is priceless, even though it cost us greatly. It is up to each of us to decide how it fits into who we have become as individuals and families, but know that you deserve the support of your loved ones and professionals to help you process what a soul was never meant to carry. Come home, weary traveler, and rest.

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ..." -- "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, as etched on the pedestal of Lady Liberty.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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