“We should monitor suicides and see if we see an upward trend,” wrote Bradsher on August 15. “The news triggers you.”
The pain, sadness, anger, and frustration experienced by former and current service members following the chaotic United States withdrawal from Afghanistan has turned White House Biden’s relationships with veteran groups, many of which are now with the President, on its head publicly blaming the mismanagement pulling down. That put the government, which has fought off criticism from Republicans and some Democrats about the end of the war, on damage control mode. Officials from the president down are now striving to quell a brewing backlash within a military community that in some corners was originally drawn to President Joe Biden’s experience as a military father who himself went through a history of family tragedies. The effort is a sign of the importance of this relationship with the White House and with Biden personally.
The latest overture: Biden’s surprise visit to wounded warriors at Walter Reed Hospital on Thursday evening. It came the day after First Lady Jill Biden visited a Marine Corps base in North Carolina. White House Senior Advisor Cedric Richmond, along with Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, made a video call to dozens of veterans organizations last week, and McDonough has personally called the heads of numerous veterans organizations since the fall of Kabul.
So far, it has done little to alleviate despair and anxiety among veterans.
“I haven’t spoken to anyone who isn’t angry or disappointed with how this was done,” said Tom Porter, executive vice president of Government Affairs with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), of the government’s handling of troop withdrawal in Afghanistan. IAVA is the largest veterans group representing the post-September 11 generation, with more than 425,000 members who have served in the wars in Iraq and / or Afghanistan. “Nobody thinks there was a plan.”
This is reflected in a summary of the influx of calls to the VA division’s crisis hotline sent to McDonough on Aug. 16. One topic: “Veterans are upset, angry, triggered and are experiencing an increase in their anxiety, depression and PTSD.” Second: their concern about dozens of interpreters who helped the United States, which are now threatened with reprisals from the Taliban.
“The veteran is grappling with the case of Afghanistan and is experiencing an increase in his PTSD symptoms. He feels worthless, experiences tantrums and anger, does not sleep and cannot eat, ”it said in a summary of one of the calls. Another said: “Veteran reported that it will be like 9/11 again.”
White House defenders have tried to portray the veterans’ outrage as anger over the US military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. But veteran groups say this is incorrect – it wasn’t that the United States pulled out of Afghanistan, it was that the exit was so badly handled.
“Frustration is just everywhere. Many veterans who called me directly blamed the president. Others aren’t sure if it’s the State Department or the Department of Defense – they just don’t understand how it could be, ”said Rob Couture, who has done two tours in Afghanistan with the army and is now the director of communications and public Affairs at Veterans of Foreign Wars, one of the oldest veterans’ organizations in the country. The VFW was among the groups that immediately called for a Congress investigation into how the withdrawal was handled.
“They want us to get out of Afghanistan,” said Couture of the VFW networks. “They just don’t understand how we left the Americans behind and failed to keep our word to our Afghan allies. That contradicts what we were rooted in our creeds and in our basic training. ”
Veterans groups say their grievances with Biden are non-political and praise his government for a communicative and responsive presence in McDonough, who phoned or emailed leaders of major veterans’ organizations on the day Kabul fell and offered resources.
They also blame the Trump administration for signing an agreement with the Taliban that originally set a departure date for May 2021, while failing to expedite special immigrant visa applications to allow Afghan allies to leave the country. This week, a State Department official admitted that the majority of SIV applicants were left behind after the troops withdrew, although the administration says it is still working to get more people out.
The White House recognizes that liberating the remaining Americans and Afghan allies is one of the veterans’ primary concerns.
“We have been in regular contact and will continue to work with a variety of veterans, military families, carers and survivor support groups,” said Emilie Simons, a White House spokeswoman. “The President has the greatest respect for those who served – and he knows how determined veterans of our military conflict in Afghanistan are to ensure that the Afghan allies who risked their lives to help our forces are brought to safety . “
A veterans’ organization that stands by Biden, the democracy-led advocacy group VoteVets, called negative coverage of the president off-base and called former Trump officials hypocritical for supporting Congress investigations into Biden’s handling of troops in Afghanistan.
“Let’s examine it. Let’s talk about the Trump deal with the Taliban, which was just a deal between the United States and not a deal with the Afghan government, ”said VoteVets Chairman Jon Soltz. “If we are to investigate Afghanistan, we have to look at 19 years of government, and there are about three months of that government. So let’s open this thing up and talk about it, because the person who is least guilty is this administration. “