Twenty years after the Sept. 11 attacks, many veterans of the war on terror are feeling a renewed sense of grief and anger.
The hasty U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the return of the country to Taliban control, have exacerbated the trauma they feel on the anniversary of the assault on the American homeland.
“People are feeling it acutely right now,” says Dr. Shelley Amen, a psychiatrist who works with veterans. “They’re feeling a deep sense of betrayal in a lot of ways.”
The Veterans Crisis Line, run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, began reporting a sharp uptick in calls and texts after the fall of Afghanistan. As Sept. 11 has drawn closer, many veterans say that an already difficult date on the calendar has been made worse by renewed questions about whether the war in Afghanistan was worth it.
They are haunted by the uncertainty of what comes without a U.S. presence in the country.
“The truth is, I can’t get around the fact that I absolutely believe that something bad is going to come back out of that country in the next seven to 10 years,” says Tom Amenta, a U.S. Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan.
When soldiers like Amenta first deployed, their mission was explicitly clear. “We had a high-value target list of people that 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 U.S. forces in Pakistan in 2011, The U.S. stayed in the country and attempted nation-building. Amenta argues the fundamental counter-terrorism mission was still successful. “The reality is that what we were tasked to do, we did for 20 years excellently.”
A looming sense of dread hangs over the families of soldiers killed in combat as well.
Jill Stephenson’s son Ben Kopp was 13 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. After watching the towers fall, he decided to serve his country and enlisted when he was old enough. He was killed in a firefight with the Taliban at the age of 21.
“I do not feel that my son died in vain. I think it’s important for me to make that clear,” Stephenson told Reuters in August.
She described watching the fall of Afghanistan as “sad and maddening,” particularly so close to Sept. 11.
“Rubbing salt into that wound for me is that it comes on the heels of the 20th anniversary,” she said.
Dr. Amen says she has spoken to several people who are seeing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder “flare up,” ahead of the anniversary.
“They have the honor of their service and that no one can take that away from them,” she said.
She implored veterans to approach the date with an action plan for their own mental health and wellbeing. “Have something set on your calendar, maybe have a couple of phone numbers in your pocket of people 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 by focusing on the success of the U.S.-led mission, and his own personal service.
He recently co-authored The Twenty Year War, interviewing fellow veterans from the war on terror to document their stories.
“We kept the world safe,” he said. “Not just Americans, but Canadians, the Aussies, everyone in NATO, everybody who stepped into that country and said 9/11 will not happen again.”