Mental Health: Open Letter to Afghanistan Veterans 2

(Niceville, Florida; August 21, 2021) – It’s been five days now since we watched the horrific farce play out in Afghanistan.

I can’t even look at any of my ‘Navy Pride’ stuff.  T-shirts, ball caps, anything.  Looking at it fills me with such rage, such betrayal, such a singular sense of senseless futility that I want to rip it all apart and burn it.  I’m not going to do that, however.  Burning it all might provide a momentary feeling of retribution, but, for me anyway, such an action would only result in a deeper injury to myself.  Instead, I kind of just mashed it all up and stuffed in the bottom of one of my bags.

An old shipmate of mine from my days in VF-213 reached out to me Wednesday night.  Tony was a Lieutenant, junior grade, when I met him.  He was an F-14 aircrewman and I was a 2nd class petty officer working as a maintainer.  Tony was one of a handful of our wardroom that I really liked and respected.  To put it simply, Tony always approached us enlisted maintainers as colleagues and not merely ‘the help.’

Tony was adamant in his initial communication to me that he doesn’t believe we wasted anything, that what we all did was worth it.  Honestly, reading his letter churned up another surge of anger and hatred in me.  Not at him, but at the whole mess, and yet, he did what I needed someone to do: provide a gateway for me to begin talking while also finally convincing me to start openly adding the label of ‘Afghanistan and Iraq veteran’ to my professional and personal history.

I always resisted saying I was an ‘Afghanistan and Iraq veteran’ because I was never on the ground.  All my sea deployments were focused on those nations, and I did suffer some serious shit (including one of the three work-place assaults I suffered in my career, one bat-shit crazy captain who pulled a sidearm on her own sailors during a hilariously mishandled security drill, and moments where we truly thought we had missiles inbound to the carrier).  Tony did me a favor because, by engaging me, he got me talking about things I haven’t been able to even think about for five days, and that’s probably the best first step I could have taken.

I did suffer some serious, life-long injuries, mental and physical, because WE THE PEOPLE said it was all necessary.  I can’t go hang out while the gang sets off fireworks on Independence Day anymore.  I can’t go sit in a movie theatre anymore unless it’s a movie I really want to see because I can’t stand having loud noises and possibly triggering imagery shoved in my face.  I can’t sit with my back to a door anymore without an extreme sense of discomfort.  I don’t trust anyone who has any authority over me because so many of my authority figures actively assaulted me.  These things have required me to change my life in order to keep living without becoming imprisoned in my own home.

It’s funny, but, except as fodder for character development in a novel, or a means to build a bridge with those who also might be suffering mental health issues, I always downplayed the price I paid.  Part of that was to avoid disrespecting my brothers and sisters who were on the ground, but, let’s be honest; part of that was also to avoid it all a bit.

Quite accidentally, Tony got me to look inward and see myself in a more honest context.  When I do, what I see now is a brick wall that has slammed down inside my mind and heart, severing a large part of me from the rest of me.  It’s hard to talk about partly because the mental imagery and experience are so damned subjective but I…I just’ can’t.

I maintained and configured the F-14’s recon cameras and the laser targeting system that put the bombs on target.  The ordies hung the bombs.  The only people who came closer to the war were our aircrew like Tony who went feet dry to deliver the ordnance.  So, no, I never pulled a trigger, but when the first VF-213 jets left the Carl Vinson’s flight deck leading the first manned Navy strikes back on Oct. 7, 2001, I became a killer just as surely as the soldier who pulled a trigger on the ground.  Those targets wouldn’t have been found without the cameras I help configure and program, and those bombs wouldn’t kill those targets without the laser targeting system I helped configure and program.

It took me years to really reconcile having ‘blood’ on my hands.  I mean, enemy or not, these were human beings like me with families I was helping kill.  I never doubted the necessity of the war after 9/11, nor that the war was the right thing to do.  But I have helped kill thousands of people.  And now it turns out I took human blood onto my hands for nothing.  We didn’t give the Afghans a chance because we pulled the rug out from under them.  I became a killer for…nothing.

That’s how I feel about all this.  I just can’t.

That brick wall is holding back such rage, such resentment, such hatred for the fact that I took all those goddamned blows and injuries because WE THE PEOPLE said it was necessary…and then WE THE PEOPLE shit on it all by continuing to hire leaders who are out for themselves. 

I’ve lost faith in our people.  I feel like the nation treated all of us like a disposable plastic cup tossed unthinkingly out the window of a moving car; military litter on the interstate.  I don’t know if I’ll ever heal enough to restore my faith and get past the “I just can’t” statement to the other side of that wall, but, thanks to Tony, I can at least see the wall.

Even if you ‘just can’t,’please don’t just shut down.  Talk to whomever you can about whatever you can, no matter how small the conversation might be.  Sometimes we can only deal with things in small pieces.  Also, remember that an inability to talk to your family or your usual circle of friends is not an indictment of those relationships.  Give yourself permission to talk to whomever you feel comfortable with.  You still love your loved ones; they just might not be the right people for this.

Don’t be offended if you and a fellow veteran experience different emotions or hold different beliefs.  Accept that their feelings are as real as yours, and their path to healing is likely different from yours.  That’s not an insult against you or them; that’s just life.  By simply engaging them, you might just pull a Tony and accidentally help them take at that first step forward while you yourself take a step forward.

We’re military veterans.  We survived some serious shit in our lives by hanging together with those we could trust.  We can survive this by hanging together, even if it’s a bit more logistically tricky since we’re spread apart now.  We can do this, though it takes 100 years, we can do this.

If you need help finding mental health assistance, I’ve included several links below.  This is not about finding meaning for this train wreck; it’s about how we veterans hang together to heal ourselves.  I’m not a counselor, but you can reach me through the comments section below, or through the comments on my YouTube channel where I’ve posted a video version of this column.

We can get through this together.

– The Real Warriors Campaign: The campaign links service members, veterans and their families with care and provides free, confidential resources including online articles, print materials, videos and podcasts. If you or someone you know is coping with any concerns, know that reaching out is a sign of strength.  Find them at: https://www.health.mil/Military-Health-Topics/Centers-of-Excellence/Psychological-Health-Center-of-Excellence/Real-Warriors-Campaign

– The Psychological Health Resource Center: A trusted source of psychological health information and resources related to combat stress, depression, reintegration, how to get into treatment, types of treatment for mental health conditions, and many other topics for active duty and veterans.  Reach them by phone at: 866-966-1020; email at: resources@phcoe.org, or on the web at: https://health.mil/Military-Health-Topics/Centers-of-Excellence/Psychological-Health-Center-of-Excellence/Psychological-Health-Resource-Center

– Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, and press 1; or, go to: https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help/hotline

– Military OneSource: 1-800-342-9647

– I filmed a brief video about this topic at: https://youtu.be/MQqDOqEiVxI

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