The Afghan embassy’s military attaché offered hope for his country, saying he is “pretty sure” that what the world is seeing unfold in Afghanistan “will be for a very short time,” as he thanked Gold Star families.
“The Afghanistan people — the Afghanistan new generation — will not allow [us] to go back to the dark age,” said Col. Abdul Hadi Barakzai, the military/defense attaché at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C. Calling attention to the military uniform he was wearing during a virtual TAPS webinar, he said there is no recognized government in Afghanistan right now, and his uniform doesn’t represent any government.
Instead, he said, the uniform “is representing the people of Afghanistan.”
Barakzai and a panel of experts offered comfort, advice and resources for Gold Star families, veterans, military families and others who have been affected by the heart-wrenching images of the chaos in Afghanistan. “I would like to thank the great nation of the United States for the tremendous support, the blood and treasure that was spent in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan people, the history will never forget,” he said.
He specifically thanked Gold Star families for their loved ones’ sacrifices, saying the sacrifices were made “to save a nation.” Afghanis will never let go of the 20 years of achievement “that we gained with struggle, with hard work and with dignity. We will keep and go forward,” he said.
Afghanistan is not the same country it was 20 years ago, he said. “We will definitely stand with all our force, with all our potential, with our dignity.”
Barakzai made the remarks during a webinar titled “Finding Meaning in Afghanistan,” which was organized by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors’ Institute for Hope and Healing.
‘Current events don’t change the past’
As Barakzai reassured Gold Star families and other military families that the military’s work in Afghanistan had made a difference to the Afghan people, others on the panel offered advice and resources.
“The current events do not go back and change the past,” said Dr. Therese Rando, a clinical psychologist in Warwick, R.I., who is the clinical director of The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss.
“Military service is noble, purposeful, patriotic and honorable. Current events cannot change those realities,” she said.
Re-evaluating one’s past based on information that’s only known now is unfair,” she said. “Your reasons for being in Afghanistan are as good now as they were then. What’s happening now doesn’t change those.” The right question to be looked at isn’t why those who served did what they did in Afghanistan, but “why what’s happening now is happening now,” she said.
“You can believe wholeheartedly in the mission and still experience loss and trauma when it is changed,” she said.
Reaching out to others is key, said the panelists, who were from a variety of organizations with a variety of experiences.
Kelly McHugh Stewart found out just how important that was. Her father, Army Col. John McHugh, died on May 18, 2010, in Kabul. “This week has been difficult for me and my family … watching what’s happening in Kabul, in the same streets where my father was killed,” she said.
There were many times when she was feeling angry, sad and helpless. Then she called Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of TAPS. “I realized how important it is to talk to someone else in this community,” Stewart said. “I hadn’t realized how much I needed it.”
Carroll founded TAPS nearly 30 years ago when her husband, Brig Gen. Tom Carroll, died in an Army plane crash in 1992, along with seven other soldiers. TAPS offers support and resources 24/7 for those who have lost loved ones on active duty.
Gold Star families can often feel isolated, Stewart said. She added she has been trying to seek out stories of hope, and has focused on feeling grateful for groups like TAPS.
Col. Barakzai assured Stewart that her father’s sacrifice will be part of Afghanistan’s history, and the Afghanistan people will never forget the sacrifices made on their behalf. As just one example, he said, more than 10 million children in Afghanistan — including girls — have been going to school and to universities.
‘Put your oxygen mask on first’
Ryan Manion, surviving sister of Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion, who was killed in Iraq on April 29, 2007, said she hopes, as Barakzai said, that this situation is temporary. She has a friend who is trying to get out of Afghanistan with his 3-year-old son and wife.
“The feeling for me is helplessness,” said Manion, who is president of the Travis Manion Foundation, a veteran service organization.
She received helpful advice from her friend and foundation Vice President Amy Looney Heffernan, the widow of Lt. Brendan Looney, a Navy SEAL who was killed in Afghanistan Sept. 21, 2010.
“She said ‘you need to put your oxygen mask on first’,” said Manion. “Make sure you’re dealing with your own feelings, then lean in to help others.”
They’re advising members to focus on their own personal sphere of influence. “Never underestimate the impact of that one phone call that you’re making, that one conversation,” she said.
Koby Langley, senior vice president of Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces, calls it “the power of one.”
Anybody can pick up the phone and call and check up on someone you know who served in Afghanistan, even if it’s been years since you last talked, he said. “It might be that one phone call that helps them through this difficult time.”
The Red Cross has other ongoing efforts, such as a reconnection effort to help those who may be trying to get in touch with a family member who has been displaced because of the crisis in Afghanistan: https://familylinks.icrc.org/en/_layouts/icrc.familylinks/FindSomeOne.aspx
‘An honor-based culture’
Family members need to realize the experiences of the 20-year-long war have happened to them, too, said Kathy Roth-Douquet, founder and CEO of Blue Star Families.
“We care about our service member, our veteran. We love them,” she said. “But we also had our own unique experiences. You have permission to experience those and reflect upon those, and to feel them for you yourself, whether the service member was killed, injured, or whether they are still in the world without diagnosis. … Feel your own feelings, and know you deserve them” she said. “You did something brave and honorable, too.”
“You are the person, probably, as a family member, closest to the service member who may be suffering, and you have an opportunity to be a conduit for them,” she said. She suggested asking open-ended questions such as how that person is feeling, and if there’s anything they’d like to talk about. “When they do share them, don’t try to fix them,” she said. Ask how you can help, or if there’s something they’d like you to do that would help them.
She said it’s also important to remember some differences about the military community and its values.
“We’re Americans, but we’re a distinct subculture,” as military-connected people, Roth-Douquet said. “One part of our subculture is that our values are slightly different.
“In the larger American society, self-actualization is the highest good — self-expression and achieving your goals. In the military community, we’re an honor-based culture. That means our highest good is meeting our responsibilities and acting with honor.
“Sometimes people in the larger community can’t understand that. It doesn’t serve your self-interest to do the things we do. So, there can be a disconnect.”
Roth-Douquet said veterans, service members and loved ones shouldn’t worry about explaining themselves to these people, and to understand that people in the larger society and pundits may be talking about what’s going on in a way that makes sense to them.
“The loudest people have no experience in this war and have never served. Don’t unduly take on board the noise. Because that’s what it is, noise,” Roth-Douquet said.
“The people who matter are often very quiet, and they’re often the people who know.”
♦ TAPS National Military Survivor Helpline, 800-959-8277, has TAPS staff members available 24/7 to answer calls and provide support. More resources at www.taps.org.
♦ The Veterans Crisis Line, www.veterancrisisline.net, and at 800-273-8255 (press 1). Responders, many of whom are veterans themselves, are there to answer calls 24/7 from veterans and service members. Also, text to 838255; or use the online chat feature.
♦ Military OneSource provides access to confidential military family life counselors in your community. Click the link or call 800-342-9647.
♦ DoD’s Psychological Health Resource Center is available 24/7 for service members, veterans and family members. Trained mental health consultants can help callers access mental health care and community support resources in their local area. Click the link or call 866-966-1020
♦ Tricare offers mental health care to its enrollees; military medical treatment facilities often provide mental health services.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.