This is the first in a four-part series about Afghanistan Veterans and how they can get help through VA.
Part 2: Afghanistan: How Veterans can learn from Vietnam Veterans
Part 3: Afghanistan: How spouses, caregivers can support Veterans with PTSD
Part 4: Afghanistan: Resources available for PTSD
Major news outlets for the past few months have focused on the drawdown of our nation’s longest war: Afghanistan.
At its peak, there were more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2010; the number of troops have steadily shrunk over the past decade. While news coverage debates the decision to cease combat operations, the highest-ranking enlisted service member in the military said Veterans from the war should remember the positive to help reconcile their service.
“Our purpose for being there was to prevent further attacks on the homeland,” said Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramón “CZ” Colón-López. “We wanted to make sure that we denied Al Qaeda, specifically, of sanctuary, training ground and places where they could plan terrorism attacks. If you look at the past 20 years, that is exactly what we did. There hasn’t been a single attack on the homeland. They will think twice about doing it because of our actions over the past 20 years. For our Veterans, be proud of what you did, because you have kept the country safe over the last 20 years.”
Deployment and PTSD
Colón-López has lived the war for two decades. He was an element leader with the 24th Special Tactics Squadron on 9/11. Shortly after, he deployed to Afghanistan on direct action and combat search and rescue missions to capture or kill high value targets. He also provided security for Hamid Kharzai, who later served as Afghanistan’s president. Now, as the senior enlisted service member, he serves as an advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on all matters involving joint and combined total force integration, utilization, health of the force, and joint development for enlisted personnel.
Colón-López admitted getting to a place of being proud of his own service wasn’t easy. Serving as a special operator in Afghanistan, he’s dealt with tragedy and personal demons. He said one of his personal hardest moments was hearing the death of Air Force Veteran Scott Duffman, who died with seven others on a mission in 2007. He also faced repeated deployments, placing both physical and mental stress on his body. While stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, a July 4th celebration in neighboring Albuquerque turned traumatic. The combination of the desert, smoke in the air, loud noises and smell of powder triggered his PTSD.
Years of dodging his PTSD led to heavy drinking, moodiness, hiding his trauma during physical health appointments and engaging in reckless behavior. Once, while stationed in North Carolina, he left work for his 45-minute drive home. By the time he got there, he was in tears. He went inside and talked to his wife, Janet, about his PTSD. While talking about it helped him, he said the breakdown was simply “mitigation.”
Colón-López said a mountain biking accident in Germany led to an ultimatum from Janet to get help. He crashed his bike while seeking a thrill to replace his combat experience.
“She said, ‘you’re going to the clinic now,’” he said. “It was liberating by the time I actually went in there. I thought I could fix myself and that is not the answer.”
He now encourages every Veteran to get help for PTSD.
“The first thing I will tell them is there is no shame in doing so,” he said, citing 20 years of combat operations in Afghanistan, as well as Iraq, Syria and other locations. “We’re resilient, we know how to suck it up, and we know how to power through it. But there’s going to come a time to where you won’t be able to do that.”
Dealing with the end of combat
While some troops have reconciled their service, not all have. With the recent news and announcements over the end of the Afghanistan mission, VA facilities also started seeing an increase in Veterans seeking help. Two psychologists from the National Center for PTSD said they are starting to see Afghanistan Veterans bring up issues around their service.
“Reactions aren’t always what people think they are going to be, and that’s okay,” said Dr. Jennifer Vasterling, the chief of psychology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and affiliated investigator with the National Center for PTSD.
Veterans should be on the lookout for red flags if news of Afghanistan starts changing behavior, said Dr. Sonya Norman, director of the National Center for PTSD Consultation Program. These include isolating, using alcohol, drugs or any increase in unhealthy behaviors compared to normal. This could even include things like excess work or video games.
Another unsuccessful coping mechanism many Veterans use is avoiding the topic.
“It can feel really good in the short term,” Norman said. “In the longer term, avoidance breeds more avoidance. It felt so good that one time that you begin avoiding more and you start doing less. Your world becomes so small, time over time, as you avoid more and more.”
Norman said that numbness can spread and snowball, where people aren’t feeling pleasure or joy. She said people can feel danger in relatively safe situations. For those people with PTSD, replacing traumatic wartime memories with thoughts and activities that make them happier can be difficult without treatment and may feel reluctant to let the memories out.
“It’s pretty hard to do on your own without treatment,” she said. “If you actually let the emotions from the time of the trauma flow, they kind of do their thing and someone feels a lot of relief. There’s room to bring in other positive memories and experiences, which are just as real.”
As an example, she used an analogy of a 17-room mansion, saying the traumatic memory may still have a room, but there will be 16 other rooms for positive memories.
‘Be proud of what you have done’
According to Colón-López, one of those positive memories Afghanistan Veterans should be proud of is the fact that U.S. troops arrived home safe. The last U.S. combat death was Feb. 8, 2020, more than 17 months ago.
“We had been there for 20 years, and I know because I was one of the first people to go out there on the first rotations. What we have done from then to now is phenomenal,” he said, pointing toward the progress made in Afghanistan, including helping stand up a government and building a military force. Both of which denied safe haven to al-Qa’idah.
“For any Veteran out there listening, be proud of what you have done,” he added. “Our government has made the decision and we have followed lawful orders.”
Watch Colón-López talk about mental health: