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VIF: Combat veterans open up about the crisis in Afghanistan

Three veterans speak candidly with KRIS 6 News anchor Pat Simon about the crisis, their mental health and how civilians can help out.
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Posted at 2:08 PM, Aug 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-02 17:23:12-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — UPDATE (10:34 a.m. Wednesday): The toll-free line for the Vet Center is 1-877-WAR-VETS, not 1-800-WAR VETS, as shown in a previous version of this story.

'We just need time, patience, and I'm sorry that, at times, that’s an inconvenience for others to try to understand. So we ask: Try to understand.'
-- Local veteran

The constant disturbing images that we watch unfolding in Afghanistan, are creating new, invisible war wounds back here in the Coastal Bend. Many of these wounds are difficult to see and even harder to fix.

Just ask the crisis counselors at the The Vet Center in Corpus Christi. They are getting more calls to their hotline 1-877-WAR-VETS, ever since the deadly Taliban attacks and government takeover in Afghanistan.

Three local Operation Enduring Freedom combat veterans opened up to KRIS 6 news anchor Pat Simon about the recent crisis in the Middle East, the veterans' own mental health, and how they hope others can understand and be patient with them as they try to process recent traumatic events. The veterans all asked to be anonymous.

"I’ve been on three (combat) deployments," one veteran said. "A lot of people did a lot more, and coming home after my last one -- it's still sort of something that remains in your mind for such an extended period of time. It's not something you can just be like, 'OK, that's over. So I think a lot of regular citizens just may not understand that they can't wrap their head around it, they can't grasp how somebody would adapt and live that way and think that way."

Understanding trauma, veteran to veteran

'You know we had a lot of guys call and having questions, you know, 'Hey man, what was it all for? Why were you there? Just struggling with that, and just helping them walk through that.'
-- Local veteran

The Vet Center was prepared for the influx of veterans calling who were affected by the news that the established Afghani government was in exile and the Taliban had overtaken the country, bombing the airport in Kabul on Thursday, and questioning their roles in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.

“You know we had a lot of guys call and having questions, you know, 'Hey man, what was it all for? Why were you there? Just struggling with that, and just helping them walk through that, and coming alongside them and letting them know that 'Hey you're not, you're not in this alone, you know. You don't have to process this by yourself. You don't have to sit. . . . in a corner by yourself and try to make heads or tails of it, and we have people here with you that can help you walk through this.”

The other thing they realized was that the attack in Kabul wasn't only evoking recent trauma, but the Vet Center also was hearing from generations of veterans who had served all the way back in the Vietnam era.

"They came across similar historical similarities, and they're talking about, you know, the cross-comparison and what it brings up for them, and giving them the chance to kind of talk about how they process through their own stuff as well," one local veteran said. "So, it's, it's, it's interesting to see how it not only affects, you know, one generation but it goes all the way back to, you know, years and years and years past."

“Honestly, I don't really know what's getting me through it at this point. I don't know I just do what I've always done, that's, you know, get up in the morning, get dressed and go to work.”
-- Local veteran

A 'job' that doesn't stay at 'the office'

'I spent a very long time numbing myself from the pain of the things, the jobs, we had to do. It's, it's great serving our country. It's a real honor really is not all the things that we do are something to be proud of. And when you close the door, shut your eyes. This stays in your head.'
-- Local veteran

One veteran logically understands that what he and his unit did during their time in Afghanistan was carry out their mission, and he's proud of the work he and his colleagues did to this day.

"And, you know, we all did what we needed to do and came home," they said. "Eventually, that's, that's what we did, but it's hard for me to look at it from just that perspective because there's so much more that goes into it. I think about all the other people who signed up for the military and had gone over there (Afghanistan) and spent so much time and blood and tears and energy and, you know, leaving pieces of themselves behind whether that's physically or mentally, you know, and they just don't maybe ever get those pieces back."

But watching the chaos surrounding the end of the mission, they said, is frustrating at the very least.

"It kind of seems like the way that it ended (the evacuation process) -- it's kind of hard to see how that was allowed to happen. And for me to see all the sacrifices that people made. It's, you know, pretty disappointing. “

'“I didn't think I had choices. I didn't I didn't think I had other avenues. The stuff that's going on now (Afghanistan). It definitely makes it harder for us to believe that things get better. I know that for a fact.'
-- Local veteran

Getting help in whichever way works for you

'If you need to deal with it on your own, maybe you can write about it. Maybe you can talk to your dog about it. And so I think that people are going to deal with it in different ways.'
-- Local veteran

One veteran we spoke with said he didn't realize the kind of help places such as the Vet Center were around until he was forced to take it.

"And it wasn't until my second time in jail, that uh, that I was offered assistance through Veterans court, and then Veterans court introduced me to the Vet Center," they said. "The Vet Center introduced me to therapy, counseling to actual meet actual veteran counselors that have been where I've been."

And being able to talk to someone who has breathed the same air, whose boots have shifted under the same sand, and have seen the remnants of war on the side of the road more than 5,000 miles away from home has changed their life in a way they didn't think was possible.

"Today, I have choices," they said. "My life is so much better than when I started eight years ago, down this road.”

The veterans we spoke with have tried coping various different ways, and they know that places such as the Vets Center aren't for everybody.

“I think it's important to seek whatever resources that individual might need if they need to talk to somebody," they said. "Find those people find that group where you can go in and talk to those other veterans."

For some though, they understand that some choose to cope with their pain privately.

"If you need to deal with it on your own, maybe you can write about it," they said. "Maybe you can talk to your dog about it. And so I think that people are going to deal with it in different ways."

The key, though, is to deal with it before it overtakes you.

"And I think as long as we make sure that people have, or these veterans have the information about the resources that are available, you know, go to those veteran service organizations, even if you're not a member there," they said. "You can just go in there, talk to some of the other people that are there about what's going on.”

'Just that aspect of just being present and being willing and being consistent would have to be my main takeaway for anybody that has any questions about it (how to help a veteran in need).'
-- Local veteran

'Being patient and being kind goes a long way'

'We just were trained to do a job. We weren't trained to stop that job. We need to readjust (now back at home). And we're not all going to readjust at your pace, at your time.'
-- Local veteran

Talking about sensitive issues such as mental health isn't something a lot of veterans know how to do.

"It's kind of hard for your average citizen, who maybe doesn't know anything about the military or anything like that, to fathom how your mind needs to be in order to like make it through: day after day, week after week, month after month and year -- you know -- year after year," they said.

They all said that the mindset of someone who has been in combat is different than everyday civilian life, making it almost impossible for communication from people on each end of the spectrum to understand the other.

"There really is a stereotype, you know, if you're a veteran, you're crazy," they said. "If you're a veteran, you're off the handle. We are not. You know, we have to learn to reintegrate the screaming, the sounds, the smells -- they don't go away. "

'And so I think that's one part of it. But if somebody was wondering how to talk to you know veterans or, you know, we're experiencing different feelings about what's been going on in Afghanistan: I just think being patient and being kind goes a long way.'

Being patient and kind, but also being willing to keep the lines of communication open.

"Just being present and being willing, because, I mean, that's what a lot of guys (veterans) struggle with," they said. "It may take more than once. You know sometimes it's that consistency of ‘Hey man, I'm here. I'm not going anywhere. I can't promise and I can't, I can't expect to understand where you're coming from, but you know I care about you. I care about how this is affecting you and help educate me on what you're experiencing and what you're feeling and what I can do to, to help out in that process.’ "

The Vet Center is located at 4646 Corona Dr. Ste. 250. To get in touch with the Vet Center, call (361) 854-9961 or to speak with a counselor, call 1-877-WAR-VETS. This is Part 1 of a two-part series.