Twenty years after the September 11 attacks, a new sense of grief and anger is being felt among many veterans of the War on Terror.
America’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan and the country’s return to Taliban control has added to the trauma felt on the anniversary of the attack on the American homeland.
“People are feeling it intensely right now,” says Dr. Shelley Amen, a psychiatrist who works with veterans. “They are feeling a deep sense of betrayal in many ways.“
The Veterans Crisis Line, operated by the US Department of Veterans Affairs, opens report a surge In calls and texts after the fall of Afghanistan. As September 11 draws to a close, many veterans say an already difficult date on the calendar is made worse by renewed questions about whether the war in Afghanistan was worth it.
They are haunted by the uncertainty of what comes without an American presence in the country.
“The truth is, I can’t get around the fact that I’m pretty confident that something bad is going to come back from that country in the next seven to 10 years,” says Tom Amenta, a US Army veteran who spent two tours. Served in Afghanistan.
When troops like the Amenta were first deployed, their mission was fairly clear. “We had a high-value target list of people who were directly responsible,” he says. “We were going to find them and we were going to either capture or kill them. That was it.”
After Osama bin Laden was found and killed by US forces in Pakistan in 2011, the US remained in the country and attempted to build the nation. Amanta argues that the original counter-terrorism mission was still successful. “The reality is that what we were tasked to do, we did it excellently for 20 years.”
The fear of fear is also prevalent in the families of the soldiers who died in the war.
Jill Stephenson’s son Ben Kopp was 13 years old on September 11, 2001. After seeing the towers fall, he decided to serve his country and was admitted when he was old enough. He was killed in a gunfight with the Taliban at the age of 21.
“I don’t think my son died in vain. I think it’s important for me to clarify that,” Stephenson told Reuters in August.
He described seeing the fall of Afghanistan as “tragic and paranoid”, especially as the September 11 neared.
“To add salt to that wound for me is that it comes on the heels of the 20th anniversary,” she said.
Dr. Amen says he has spoken to several people who are noticing signs of a post-traumatic stress disorder “flare up” before the anniversary.
“They have the honor of their service and no one can take it away from them,” she said.
He urged veterans to be up to date with an action plan for their mental health and wellbeing. “Set something on your calendar, maybe have some phone numbers in your pocket that you can call,” she suggested. “Healing is possible.”
Despite his concern about Afghanistan becoming a future breeding ground for terrorism, Tom Amenta has found comfort in the success of the US-led mission and by focusing on his personal service.
He recently co-authored twenty years war, interviewing fellow veterans of the War on Terror and documenting their stories.
“We kept the world safe,” he said. “Not only Americans, but Canadians, Australians, everyone in NATO, everyone who stepped into that country and said 9/11 would never happen again.”