How Veterans Are Coping With the Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan

veteran sitting on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands

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Key Takeaways

  • On August 15, the Taliban entered Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul and effectively regained control of the country.
  • Veterans who served in Afghanistan are facing new mental health struggles as the events unfold.
  • Coping mechanisms such as therapy and relying on fellow veterans can help with processing the news.

Update: As of January 17, 2023 all US veterans are eligible to receive emergency mental health care at no cost. This applies even if the individual isn’t enrolled in the VA system. The policy also includes the cost of ambulance rides, up to 30 days of inpatient care, and up to 90 days of outpatient care.

On August 15, Taliban fighters entered Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul and took control of the country. In the almost month since, whether supporters of the war or adamantly against, civilians and veterans on the ground and across the world have witnessed the quick return of a pre-2001 status quo and the subsequent erasure of the 20 years of military presence. For veterans especially, it can be incredibly challenging to cope, mentally and emotionally, with this turn of events.

“Combat is one of those experiences that you can’t quite put into words. Even if you explained it perfectly it would still not capture the raw emotion that one feels while deployed, and the feelings that are triggered during news coverage of events such as what is happening in Afghanistan right now,” says Rachel Cavallaro, PsyD, LP, MAC, a licensed psychologist at Thriveworks in Boston and a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan.

“Each veteran may experience these events differently,” adds Cavallaro. “Some may have ongoing depression, anxiety, or PTSD in which you may see an increase in symptoms. Others may not have these conditions and still experience significant emotions that could be anger or sadness or anxiety.”

Addressing Veteran Mental Health

As a whole, veterans experience higher rates of mental health conditions. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, between 11% and 20% of veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars experience post-traumatic stress disorder in a given year.

In the days after the Taliban’s rule restarted, government agencies stepped in to encourage veterans’ mental health care. The U.S. Department of Defense also released a list of mental health services for veterans and their family members to seek out.

In addition to these resources, veterans can reach out to their local Vet Center, says Michael Embrich, a veteran and a member of the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Committee on the Readjustment of Veterans. They are a series of community-based counseling centers positioned to help veterans, active service members, and their families receive social and psychological services. “Vet Center counselors and outreach staff, many of whom are Veterans themselves, are experienced and prepared to discuss the tragedies of war, loss, grief, and transition after trauma,” he says.

Military family members also sacrificed—and may have lost someone in Afghanistan. Similar to those who served, these individuals may also need professional help and loved ones to rely on.

Coping Mechanisms for Veterans

For past and current distress, veterans such as Cavallaro utilize a few techniques to cope with the distress they feel. For starters, she leans heavily on resiliency. “Many veterans may be struggling with lots of negative thoughts like ‘everything I did in Afghanistan was a waste.’  What can be more helpful is the reminders that these efforts did help make an impact on the local population and kept them safe.”

She stresses the importance of focusing on the good things that came out of it, the lifelong friends made, and the people that may have been helped at the moment.

Rachel Cavallaro, PysD, veteran

Combat is one of those experiences that you can’t quite put into words. Even if you explained it perfectly it would still not capture the raw emotion that one feels while deployed, and the feelings that are triggered during news coverage of events such as what is happening in Afghanistan right now.

— Rachel Cavallaro, PysD, veteran

She also focuses on gratitude and spirituality. The former she says has been shown to “reduce depression and aid in post-traumatic growth.”

During the pandemic and now with the recent events in Afghanistan, Cavallaro has also implemented stimulus control by limiting the amount of time she spends absorbing the news. “Seeing the images of the withdrawal from Afghanistan is devastating because of all that was sacrificed over the years and it can feel incredibly disheartening and veterans may contemplate if their sacrifice was worth it or if it was meaningless,” says Cavallaro. This can be especially helpful for people who have friends or former colleagues in the country.

In addition to seeking professional care, Embrich suggests reaching out to fellow veterans to share your feelings with, instead of bottling them up.

Visiting a loved one and talking to them about the situation can make a big difference in a veteran’s mental health, agrees Brian Kinsella, co-founder and CEO of Rappore, and co-founder and chairman of Stop Soldier Suicide.

How To Check In With A Veteran In Your Life

Again, every veteran has varying experiences and emotional responses and thus will react to the news differently. If you are not a veteran, but have one in your life, Cavallaro stresses the importance of initiating the conversation—while also keeping in mind that some people will not want to discuss it.

“When discussing the situation with those impacted, it is helpful to remind the individual that their story is their story,” says Kinsella. “It’s important for them to remember and focus on what their service meant to them.”

Some phrases to keep in mind are permission-based ones such as “Can we talk about it?” and “I can’t image what you’re going through and I’d like to understand so I can support you better.”

What This Means For You

There is no shame or weakness in getting help to deal with mental health issues spurred or made worse by the events in Afghanistan. Speaking to loved ones, using government provided resources, and seeing a mental health professional can make a tremendous difference in your well-being.

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  1. Office of Public and Governmental Affairs. Starting Jan. 17, Veterans in suicidal crisis can go to any VA or non-VA healthcare facility for free emergency healthcare. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. January 13, 2023.