It’s normal to question the meaning of service, experts say. A guide to local, state and national resources.
Many veterans are having a hard time processing America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Jared Spude is no exception. The 2008 Southern Door graduate spent a year with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division in the Nangarhar Province bordering Pakistan.
“I struggle kind of grasping everything,” he said. “I’m a realist. I’m pretty pragmatic. I understand it’s not something we could have sustained forever at the tempo we were, but just the way we pulled out, it really felt like we abandoned a lot of people and allowed so much change so quickly. It’s just gut wrenching.”
Spude was a straight-A student and 12-varsity-letter athlete who immediately joined the U.S. Army upon graduation. He told his family that serving his country was the best way he could think of to help people. A couple years later, he was deployed to Afghanistan, largely in the country’s rural mountain villages.
“They were more civil there, but I can tell you the nightmares I still have, the most haunting things in my life, revolve around the treatment of little girls and women,” he said.
Spude was a joint forward observer who coordinated air strikes from the ground, but they carried out missions as demanded by the remote geography and tribal culture. Sometimes, that meant mediating a clash between warring village leaders. Other times, they were protecting women and keeping the schools open for the girls who could finally attend once the U.S. had unseated the Taliban and hunted down the Al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on America.
“I felt fulfilled when I came home from Afghanistan,” he said. “I know we helped a lot of the people in the rural villages. I think in my heart we made a difference, but what’s happening today is hard to grasp because a lot of that will be wiped out.”
As a father of a young daughter, he fears for the fate of women who are once again under Taliban rule.
“I feel for all the dads over there who have young daughters,” he said. “For 20 years, women have been going to school, or they’re a doctor or teacher, and living modern lives and wearing modern clothes without a burqa, and to have that rug pulled out from under you, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. I can’t imagine the sadness for those people.”
A Chaotic Departure
The U.S. completed its departure from Afghanistan on Monday. How the withdrawal took place has been compared to the chaotic evacuation of Saigon following the Vietnam War, when President Richard Nixon unilaterally pulled troops out of Vietnam in 1973: the rapid collapse of regimes, panicked refugees leaving the capital, an evacuation allowed by the opposition and a staging in a third country as a transit point for refugees before arriving at final destinations.
The haunting images of refugees fleeing in rickety boats after the fall of Saigon have remained with Joe Knaapen, a Brussels resident and Vietnam War veteran who served with the 369th Signal Battalion for 22 months in Vietnam.
“The thing that hurt so much was the investment of the people who believed in us, and then we couldn’t get them on a plane to get them out of there,” Knaapen said. “We left them behind. Some got out; most got ‘reeducated.’”
Spude described the failure to evacuate all those who were employed by America as “unacceptable and heartbreaking.” The situation has its parallels also in the Iraq War, said Jeremy, a veteran of that war who lives in Southern Door and asked that all his identifying details be withheld. As difficult as it was for the men to consider what would happen to those who were left behind, both Spude and Jeremy said they understood the need to thoroughly vet refugees because insider attacks were not unheard of, and allies could be acting as operatives of Al-Qaida or ISIS.
What Went Wrong
As part of the Doha Agreement the Trump administration made with the Taliban in February 2020, Americans were to reduce troops in Afghanistan starting in July 2020, followed by a complete withdrawal by May 1, 2021. The Biden administration changed the withdrawal to Sept. 11, and finally to Aug. 31.
Troops carrying out operations aren’t always privy to the big-picture decisions made at the highest levels of command, and they tend to be more engaged with the human cost of America’s strategic decisions. Yet the withdrawal has been a “tragic comedy of errors” at all three levels of modern military theory – strategic, operational and tactical – said retired Lt. Col. Craig Harvey, who spent 24 years with the U.S. Marines and has lived in Egg Harbor since his retirement in 2017.
“My gut tells me that there were incomptent decisions that led up to where we are today, and I don’t know why because there’s a huge amount of talent in the Department of Defense and at higher levels,” he said. “To simply turn out the lights and walk away from something as complex as this seems very ignorant. So that’s frustrating.”
Harvey spent 2012 at the Marine Corps base Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, Afghanistan – a major at the time with the Third Marine Aircraft Wing.
The strategic errors began in July when the U.S. shut off the electricity and left Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield in the middle of the night after nearly 20 years without even telling the base’s new Afghan commander.
“And now we’re repeating it: Here’s the deadline. If you’re ready or not, we’re out,” Harvey said.
From a tactical standpoint, the U.S. evacuates people all over the world during humanitarian crises and is skilled at establishing safety zones. In Kabul, “people were stacked like cordwood” up against the perimeter, where American service people were sleeping and conducting business – a perfect target for rocket attacks or suicide bombers.
“It’s not how we typically conduct business,” Harvey said. “We need standoff. We need crowd control. We need those layers of protection.”
Harvey said the biggest failure has been the narrative perpetuated by America’s leaders. As the role of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan shifted from primarily combat operations to increased humanitarian support, the narrative did not change. America continued to be at war in Afghanistan, according to that narrative, and the polls said Americans were tired of that war as they had tired of the Vietnam War, and the politicians followed the polls.
“It’s not just about polling and the perception of the constituents; it’s all about the polling and all about the perception, and as a result, adult decisions aren’t being made,” Harvey said.
Adult decisions would have conveyed how America’s role in Afghanistan had changed over time and the real consequences of pulling out, Harvey said. And leadership would have reminded Americans of the billions the United States spends maintaining its military presence in countries such as Germany and Japan some 75 years after World War II ended, yet not in a place such as Afghanistan: a hotbed for terrorists like Al-Qaida and ISIS.
“The reality was Afghanistan was too immature to just walk away from,” Harvey said. “They didn’t have the air forces and have extremely remote locations. They didn’t have the logistics, and they certainly didn’t have the intelligence they needed. That’s what the U.S. was providing. We had teams that would work with the Afghani army, but it was pretty small in comparison to those we keep in Japan or Germany – name your foreign base.”
The Things They Carry
America concluded the evacuation on Monday, leaving behind material assets that could not be destroyed, a population of people to fend for themselves, a world grown more distrustful of American involvement, and veterans such as Spude who are questioning their service.
Spude, 32, lives in Brussels with his wife and three children. He graduated summa cum laude in 2015 from UW-Green Bay with a bachelor of science degree in political science and public policy. He has a good job. He coaches varsity football. He has moved forward, in other words, unmired in the past. Yet that past remains with him in the injuries linked to his service, in the memories of friends he’s lost to combat and suicide, in the nightmares that continue to haunt him.
“I left [for Afghanistan] a couple weeks after my 21st birthday and came back a totally different person,” he said. “Things I’ll never forget. Things my high school friends would never dream of or never see outside a movie. I feel like I sold a little piece of myself to the devil for the things I did and saw – for what? Overnight, it’s gone. Twenty years of progress are just flipped over on top of its head overnight.”
What to Say, How to Help: Resources, assistance and support for Door County veterans
Veterans from all eras are reacting to America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s takeover of the country, providing an opportunity to highlight the resources and support that are available.
“The situation we’re seeing in the news today, regardless of political persuasion, is really hitting home with a lot of veterans right now,” said Jeremy, a Door County veteran of the Iraq War whose identifying details we agreed to withhold.
“Sadly, I’ve lost more friends to suicide since I came home, and that’s really hard,” said Door County veteran Jared Spude, who spent a year in Afghanistan. “I don’t think what’s going on today will help.”
Spude said the withdrawal has caused him to connect with Vietnam veterans in ways he hadn’t before, but with one big difference: Today, there is support. For those veterans back then, there wasn’t.
“While we struggled with the same battle frustration and anger and sadness and feeling we’ve lost, the difference here, I can tell you, is the number of people who have texted and called and hugged me,” Spude said. “Who have told me they don’t know what I’m feeling, but that I’m supported. That’s the biggest difference: I feel supported by the people.”
The lack of support is an important distinction because it can make all the difference if a veteran can connect with someone. More people would probably lend support if they knew what to say, but being afraid of saying the wrong thing, they say nothing.
Local veterans said this is a valid fear because there are definitely wrong things to say, such as asking specifics about combat situations. But people who are close to veterans should not be afraid to ask questions. If they don’t want to talk, don’t press. A conversation opener for others could be to ask veterans about their training.
“Just the offer to talk and vent is important,” Spude said. “To a veteran, that can be helpful.”
Spude, who lives in Brussels, said he’s blessed with a great family and lots of support and wants to extend that to veterans who may not have the same resources.
“Call me,” he said. “I’ll hand them a beer, and we can chat. There’s a lot of resources out there.”
Jeremy, who is in his 40s, remains in touch with local veterans through area veterans service organizations. He said he finds it helpful to connect with those who understand the core values that guide a service person’s opinions and decisions: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.
“The military community is so small nowadays, it’s not like you can just go to church or the local grocery store and find other veterans who have the same experiences that you do,” Jeremy said. “It’s a perspective that is very unlike what is currently the norm in our society. Those core values that we follow – I don’t know that this is the norm for much of the country anymore, and it seems it’s becoming less and less like this as I get older.”
Beth Wartella, Door County veterans service officer, sent messages and resources for veterans who may be experiencing difficulties processing the events currently taking place in Afghanistan.
The biggest takeaway is that veterans are not alone. It’s normal to question the meaning of their service and whether it was worth the sacrifices, as well as to feel moral distress. Wartella advises veterans to talk with friends and family, reach out to battle buddies, connect with peer-to-peer networks, and/or sign up for mental-health services.
“As always, our office is available to assist any veteran, no matter what era they served, regarding veterans benefits and resources,” Wartella said.
The office is open Monday – Friday, 8 am – 4:30 pm, or call 920.746.2226.
Door County Mental Health Crisis Hotline, available 24/7 • 920.746.2588
Veterans Crisis Line • 800.273.8255
Mental-health care is accessible at the Milo C. Huempfner VA Clinic, 2851 University Ave. in Green Bay • 920.431.2500
Green Bay Vet Center
1600 S. Ashland Ave. in Green Bay • 920.435.5650
Download the VA’s self-help apps at ptsd.va.gov/appvid/mobile. They offer tools to help veterans deal with common reactions such as stress, sadness and anxiety. Veterans can also track their symptoms over time.
Find battle buddies through unit pages at togetherweserved.com/va.
VA Women Veterans Call Center • Call or text 855.829.6636.
VA Caregiver Support Line • Call 855.260.3274.
Operation Allies Refuge
An estimated 200,000 Afghans worked with the U.S. during the past 20 years and do not have an SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) case filed, and an estimated 50,000 SIV cases are pending review.
The U.S. has declined to say how many Afghans have arrived in the United States since the evacuation of Kabul began, or state their immigration status.
The U.S. State Department reported that some 70,000 Afghan special immigrants had become permanent residents in the U.S. since 2008. This number does not include the refugees who began arriving July 30 as part of Operation Allies Refuge.
SIVs are available to certain Afghans who aided U.S. forces as interpreters, translators and in other roles, and who fear reprisals by the Taliban, the Islamist militant group that seized power of Afghanistan in mid-August.
The Department of Defense is temporarily housing vulnerable Afghans at three military installations in the United States: Fort Lee, Virginia; Fort Bliss, Texas; and Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.
Approximately 1,000 service members from multiple units of the U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserve started assembling at Fort McCoy on Aug. 22 to provide support to Operation Allies Refuge, according to a press release posted on Fort McCoy’s Facebook page.