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‘I started crying uncontrollably’: Dealing with mixed emotions over the pullout from Afghanistan

Two girls awaiting the return of their father from his deployment aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise after it launched bombing missions in Afghanistan in fall 2001. Nearly 20 years later, the last troops are to return home by Sept. 11  from the longest war the United States has fought.
Two girls awaiting the return of their father from his deployment aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise after it launched bombing missions in Afghanistan in fall 2001. Nearly 20 years later, the last troops are to return home by Sept. 11 from the longest war the United States has fought. (Mike Heffner/Getty Images)

President Biden’s decision to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11 might have been just another news story for many Americans. But for veterans, active-duty service members and their families, it was much more. “I started crying uncontrollably when I heard the news,” said Jake Wood, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan and is the author of “Once a Warrior.” When his wife asked why he was crying, he could say only: “I don’t know.”

“For people connected with the military, this situation is likely to trigger many mixed, conflicting emotions,” said Michelle Sherman, a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “And we can anticipate that distress and symptoms of PTSD, depression and other problems will increase for a while.”

On one hand, some veterans and their families are feeling relief that no more American lives will be damaged or lost, and even happiness that this conflict, which began as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and continued far longer than anyone anticipated, is coming to an end. On the other hand, there is disappointment, frustration and anger, all of which could be compounded by stress from the ongoing pandemic. Christopher Mancik, who was deployed as a Navy lieutenant in Afghanistan, said he was glad that the United States is leaving, because he doesn’t want others to “go through the similar experience.” But he said he also is upset that the withdrawal did not come sooner.

Those connected to the war in Afghanistan might also feel loss, sadness and guilt. “I feel deep grief for all the ones we lost,” Wood said of the more than 2,000 service members killed in the conflict.  “And shame that we didn’t define what a win would look like, so it’s unclear what the result is.” 

Gerald Gangaram, a retired Army major and former helicopter pilot, said he is dejected, because he feels as if the United States is abandoning the people it helped in Afghanistan. “I worry that we will leave a vacuum behind and that things will go back to being bad, especially for women,” he said.

Dealing with mixed emotions

Experiencing such a mixture of emotions can be disorienting and difficult. “This is often a confusing experience, as we don’t have much practice with mixed feelings and don’t expect them,” said Jeff Larsen, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee. “It’s important to give yourself permission to have all these emotions. The good news is that having at least some positive emotions in the mix can make it easier to deal with the negative ones.”

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Humans tend to avoid negative feelings, either consciously or unconsciously. We might deliberately distract ourselves through activities such as binge-watching, eating, drinking, Web-surfing and playing video games, or  less deliberately use  overworking to keep those emotions at bay. Unfortunately, avoiding sadness, grief, fear, anger and similar emotions only amplifies them in the long run. It’s better to acknowledge feelings, thoughts and physical sensations, letting them ebb and flow instead of trying to get rid of them. 

Naming your emotions is also helpful; research shows that the more specific you are in differentiating and labeling  your feelings, the better. Furthermore, writing a narrative of your experience — current or past — has been shown to improve psychological and even physical health. One well-studied method, called expressive writing,  involves writing for 20 minutes for four consecutive days about one or several topics that are troubling you. It’s important to write continuously and not worry about spelling, grammar, or style — after all, you will probably be the only one to see it.

Self-compassion also can help you cope with conflicting emotions and improve your quality of life. Think about how you would treat fellow veterans if they opened up about their reaction to the withdrawal news, then try to direct the same kindness and understanding toward yourself.

Finding meaning

One of the most useful ways to deal with stressful or traumatic situations is to try to find some meaning in the experience. “It’s hard to find a big meaning, because I’m not sure many of us know what it was all for in the end,” Mancik said. “That’s why we cling to smaller meanings: I am proud to have done my duty, and I’ll forever cherish the strong bonds we made as we fought and struggled together in Afghanistan. And maybe we made the world a safer place.”

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Wood also believes that veterans coming back with their honor intact and with pride for having done what the country asked them to do is what matters. “We didn’t choose the wars or how they were fought,” he said. “But we tried to be the best we could be.”

Difficult and even traumatic experiences can engender positive changes, such as figuring out what really matters in life. For example, studies  have found that going through an experience like war can lead some people to recognize and appreciate their own strength, to become more spiritual, to stop taking things for granted, to clarify their priorities and to deepen their relationships.

Connecting with others

The most helpful thing that veterans and military families can do is to find support. “Getting in touch with other veterans and service organizations is the obvious first choice,” Sherman said. Talking to others who went through an experience similar to his own is  what works for Mancik. “We can talk, remember and not be embarrassed to share the struggle,” he said.

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Others affected by the end of the war might find it easier to talk to their spouses or other family members, which can be equally healing. “Disclosure to supportive others helps people make sense of their difficult experiences and confusing thoughts and feelings,” said Steffany Fredman, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University who researches the interpersonal context of post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions.

If you are a veteran, a service member, or a family member and are isolated or struggling with psychological problems, the Department of Veterans Affairs has websites for help with mental health  (including crisis lines) and PTSD, as well as more general resources. The American Psychological Association’s division of trauma psychology and Rand also offer resources for veterans. 

How the rest of us can help

If you have family members, friends or co-workers who served in Afghanistan or lost loved ones in the conflict there, you may be wondering what to do after hearing the withdrawal announcement. “You should definitely check in, but respect if they don’t want to talk,” Sherman said. “Don’t push.”

If veterans and service members are open to talking, try to offer a “safe, accepting place where they can share complex thoughts and feelings,” Fredman suggested. “Be curious and nonjudgmental, and show them that you can help hold the stress and pain.”

Most importantly, remember the military families that might be hurting. “Sometimes, it feels that we are invisible, that America has moved on long ago, and it has left us isolated,” Gangaram said. When he returned from his deployment in 2012, a man at LaGuardia Airport in New York told him: “You shouldn’t wear your uniform; people will think we are still at war.” 

We are still at war, but, soon, we won’t be.  Instead of looking away, we should do our best to heal the visible and invisible scars.

Jelena Kecmanovic is the founding director of the Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute and an adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University. Find her @DrKpsychologist.