Twenty years of war. We were supposed to have learned from Vietnam to not become mired in a conflict without a clear or achievable goal. We were supposed to have learned that you can’t fight a traditional war with an extremely non-traditional enemy. We were supposed to learn that you have to take care of those veterans who return home as broken men, haunted by what they’ve seen and heard, and what they’ve had to do to survive.
I believe that “we” have learned those lessons, but unfortunately, many of those in charge didn’t, and today the situation in Afghanistan is far worse than it was 20 years ago. I can’t even find the words to express the sadness and anger I feel. It’s difficult to fight the feeling that everything our military suffered in Afghanistan and in the War on Terror, in general, was for naught.
But I must fight that feeling. Like many others, I pledged to never forget what happened that day. Part of never forgetting is making sure that those who answered the call and put their lives on the line in order to bring justice to those who plotted the horrific act and sought to keep such an attack from occurring again – and came home – are given the respect, empathy, love, understanding, and treatment they need and deserve, in addition to meeting their financial and medical needs. More than 50,000 veterans of the War on Terror were wounded, and one study estimates that approximately 400,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD or depression. Those veterans and their loved ones pay an extreme price for their service every single day.
I’d like to share a bit of a personal story about one such veteran, one I love dearly.
Readers who follow me on social media are probably aware that I lost someone very close to me, the person I consider my soulmate, nearly seven months ago, on February 22, 2021. He and I grew up together and had crushes on each other in junior high school (too shy to do anything about it, though) but lost touch for 20 years after high school, then dated for 9 of the last 10 years after reconnecting at our reunion.
After he graduated from Pepperdine University, he worked in the film industry and was a Vice President at a major Hollywood studio on September 11, 2001. But as soon as he saw the Twin Towers fall, he decided that that life was over for him. He served in military intelligence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and a few other places over the next 16 years. He physically returned from dozens of combat deployments, but every time he left, a bit of his soul didn’t return. He struggled to find happiness, peace, or the desire to live, and finally retired from that life about four years before he died. But the demons never left.
As a result of the things he’d seen and done, he had almost no faith in humanity. Near the beginning of our relationship, I remember him asking me if I thought there were good people in the world or if people are inherently good. When I replied that, even after working in criminal courtrooms for nearly 20 years, I still believed that most people in the world are good, he was quiet for a minute then softly said, “I wish I could see the world the way you do. Everywhere I look I see someone who’s trying to kill me.”
I had to get used to not knowing when he was going to be around and when he wasn’t; his specialized unit didn’t deploy with regular troops or on a regular schedule. Sometimes he could give me a heads-up that he was going to be gone for a bit, but not always, and I almost never knew where he was going, but we had a few code phrases we’d text so he could let me know if he was in an especially dangerous area or just to say “I love you.”
The worst text I received from him while he was out working came in late in the evening on my birthday one year. The first text said, “Happy Birthday! I love you!” which of course brought a smile to my face. I was surprised he was able to text openly – by then, I’d learned to not count on receiving any communication from him while he was gone. The next one explained why. “I got shot! It hurts like hell. I’ll be home in a few days and they’ll do surgery then.” I was dying inside – even though I was glad he was going to be fine I had a million questions I knew he could never answer, and it was a forceful reminder that his safe return wasn’t even close to guaranteed.
Even before that fateful trip (‘trip’ doesn’t sound as dangerous as deployment, or even assignment, so I liked that word better), I knew that the longer he was gone, the more affected he would be when he got home — and the longer it would take him to regain his bearings. He worked so hard to not let his emotions affect our relationship or anyone else, really, but that’s truly too much to expect of anyone. When he was at work he had to bury his emotions and normal human reactions in order to survive. He knew that keeping them buried when he got home wouldn’t lead to a good outcome, but struggled to express them and deal with them in a productive way.
On a VIP Gold live chat a few weeks ago with Scott Hounsell, Thomas LaDuke, and John Brodigan (three people I’ve known for eight or so years and who are all very close friends of mine), I went into more detail about our story, and made a promise to him and all of the other veterans who suffer in the same way and their families. I can’t share the video, but I cleaned up the story a bit and am sharing it because I know there are so many people who will identify with it and who are suffering today. I want you to know you are not alone and that we can get through this together. I probably shouldn’t publicly share the promise I made, but here goes:
“You guys know, and our writers and a lot of our readers know that someone that I dated for about 10 years died suddenly in February. What a lot of people don’t know is that he is an Afghanistan and Iraq vet. So when we first started dating, there were times that he would just be gone for a week or two or three, come back, would be in a bad mood. I eventually learned things, not a whole lot, because he did a lot of intel-type work and he couldn’t tell me a lot of specifics, but what I do remember are the times of the year where he would just be a complete a-hole for a week or two because it was the anniversary of something that happened, or if it was a particularly bad trip, you know, he was terrible when he got home.
“But he wasn’t always like that. There were the times he would look over at me as I got out of the pool and tell me how beautiful he thought I was even without makeup, and that I was just as beautiful as when he first fell for me when we were 14 years old. Or when he woke me up in the middle of the night during a cruise because there was lightning off in the distance and that was one of his favorite things to watch, and he wanted to share that with me.
“I never knew which mood he was going to be in, though – whether it would be the sweet, romantic mood, the quiet and distant mood, or the outright mean mood. Now I understand that he wasn’t comfortable enjoying life because of the guilt he felt, whether for surviving or for taking the lives he had to take.
“I remember the times where he had to put on a movie that would make him cry just so he could get his feelings out, something like Slumdog Millionaire or Saving Private Ryan, and holding him as his body was heaving, crying, talking about not wanting to kill those people that he had to kill.
“And the thing is, he wasn’t a killer. So, for example, his parents have this pool that mallard ducks love to hang out at with their ducklings at a certain time of year. Inevitably it was when he was housesitting for them. He would call me up at midnight saying, ‘Jen! This mama duck is just leaving her babies in the pool and they’re gonna drown and you need to get over here right now!’ He was seriously stressed that these little ducklings might die.
“But, the PTSD he had from his experiences is what kept us from having a good relationship and kept him from having joy in his life. He felt irredeemable and unworthy of being happy or having a loving family. I said to a couple of people lately, the war killed him before he died. It killed his soul 10 years before his body died. And Biden, that m’fer, gets up there and says ‘no regrets’? Eff you. How many regrets do these veterans have? How many of them have survivor’s guilt that you know nothing of, Joe Biden?
“You three in this chat have known me for a long time. You know when I’m determined to do something, it’s happening. Every single a-hole that had a role in this, of betraying our troops and our country, they’re going down. If it takes the whole rest of my life, they’re going down. When I have to sit there and see his mom, who I’m as close to as my own mom, six months later still barely able to function in life because of the grief she feels having lost her son in this way at age 49, no, I’m not forgetting that. When we have graduations, baby blessings, and other significant events in our family and he’s not there to share those good times with us, I’m not forgetting that. When my son texts me saying, ‘I went to text this joke to him, and then I remembered I can’t,’ and I know he probably cried at that realization, aw, hell no, I am not forgetting that.
“When I remember that he had finally started making some strides in battling the PTSD and repairing our relationship in the four weeks before he died, and felt hope that someday we could be happy – and then that was violently taken away from us – there is no forgetting and there is no forgiving the betrayal and mocking of his service and sacrifice by those at the highest levels of the State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House.
“But this isn’t just me and my family. We’re simply a microcosm of thousands of people who are dealing with this right now. I know there are others who are with me on this mission – those who surrendered to the Taliban, ISIS, you name it, they’re all going down.”
As Duke said during that chat, this is our watch. Even if the people who are duty-bound to be there for our veterans aren’t, we cannot let them down. Their efforts and sacrifices were not in vain. We will not allow that, and we will never forget.
(NOTE: For veterans, crises can be heightened by their experiences during military service. If you’re a veteran or service member and in crisis, these resources can help.)