A psychotherapist who specializes in war-related psychological trauma, Elk was at Bragg Sept. 12 to deliver PTSD resilience training to Green Berets preparing to transition out of the military.
She was invited by an NCO she had worked with for years to discuss caring for special forces soldiers who struggle to cope with the aftermath of exposure to brutal combat and the other miseries of protracted conflict.
“As I walked in, he felt different,” Elk said of the Green Beret NCO, who were both authorized to talk about the situation. The Green Beret NCO spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive nature of the Afghanistan rescue efforts. “His presence was very different than I’ve known. Something was off.”
Later, Elk noticed another sight that made her wonder.
“We walked by the offices, to the conference room, and I saw a couple of cots set up,” said Elk, founder and CEO of the Elk Institute for Psychological Health & Performance. “I thought that was awfully strange, and was wondering if that is how they do things at this unit or was something going on?”
Having worked with special operations units around the country for years, Elk knew better than to ask questions. But she overheard snippets of desperate conversations, observed a high level of tension on the faces of those in the room and saw things that seemed out of place.
There were cots. A whiteboard with maps and photographs of people.
Afghans on cell phones, having furious conversations in Dari with people back home.
A Green Beret was at his computer. His hands were on his forehead as he had a hushed conversation with the man next to him.
“What if I miss one?” she recalled him saying. “What if I miss the name? Dude, what if I miss a name?”
The Green Beret tried to reassure him.
“Dude, your job is to do the best you can to keep track of what you can and do as much as you can with what you’ve got. Their souls are not your responsibility.”
The souls, Elk learned, were U.S. citizens and Afghan allies trapped by rapid advance of the Taliban. Their lives hung in the balance and 7,000 miles away, there was nothing the Green Berets at Fort Bragg could do by way of direct action to help them.
But despite the admonishment, the men felt a responsibility.
So day after day, night after night, with the implicit approval of their command, the small group of five Green Berets at Fort Bragg spent their off hours working to find and guide American citizens and Afghans to safety. They took turns spending nights in the office transformed into a tactical operations center.
And for men used to responding, Elk could see that as the Taliban captured district after district, the pervasive feeling of helplessness and hopelessness was taking a mental and emotional toll, even as they managed to help hundreds escape.
Hundreds more are still on their waiting list, a small portion of the tens of thousands wanting to get out.
The command is aware of the toll the rescue effort has taken on the Green Berets.
“Some of our people experienced a range of powerful emotions over the last few months because Army Special Operations is more than a job, and our soldiers care deeply about the people they have worked closely with on deployments,” said Army Maj. Dan Lessard, a spokeman for the 1st Special Forces Command said in an email to Military Times. “We implement U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s Human Performance and Wellness program to provide our soldiers and families a holistic array of resources to build resilience, improve performance, and mitigate the acute effects of stress over their careers in Army Special Operations.”
Elk’s visit to Bragg, arranged long before the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, was part of that program.
“Their hands are tied everywhere they go,” Elk said of the Green Berets. “And then they’re still watching all these people dying, that saved them half of the time, looked out for them, gave them information they needed, some interpreters for them. And now they feel they’ve left these guys in harm’s way. And that’s opposite of their ethos and just soul crushing.”
A day before Kabul fell on Aug. 15, the small group at Fort Bragg appealed to the chain of command to head to Afghanistan.
“We made a promise to these people that we’d get them out, and we knew exactly what would happen to them if they were left there,” said the Green Beret NCO. “It is happening. And so that’s what killed us the most. Because we knew if we were on the ground, we could speed those processes up. We actually tried to go over there. We want to go over there.”
But leaders rejected the idea.
“It’s just like, ‘hey it’s never gonna happen,’” he said. “The Department of Defense doesn’t want any more people to be responsible for over there, you know? It’s a Department of State thing. They do immigration, not the military and so they didn’t want anyone getting in the way of that. Our command supported it, but it was just never going to happen, especially in such a short timeframe. By time we got there. It would have been over anyway. It was just so frustrating.”
Instead, the Green Berets began working in an unofficial capacity because what they were seeing was anathema to their motto, said the NCO.
“What we saw happening over there was the opposite of De Oppresso Liber,” he said, referring to the Green Beret’s Latin motto meaning “to free the opressed” in English. “I’ll say it over and over again, it was De Liber Oppresso. It was legitimately undoing everything we have done for 20 years. Just all of a sudden it was, we oppressed all the people that we’ve been trying to free from oppression. And it was like a light switch.
“It’s been mentally challenging for a lot of people because, you know, how many people we buried,” he said. “And because of that place, because of going to war for 20 years all the funerals we went to, all the family members we had to say sorry to and notify, just think about that. I’ve been going there since 2005, and I’ve been to memorials every single year.”
The Green Berets were operating with the knowledge of their command.
“1st Special Forces Command (Airborne) is aware of the informal efforts by soldiers within the command to assist former Afghan partners and their families with evacuation from Afghanistan,” Lessard said. “Our soldiers have built lasting relationships with partners during deployments over the last 20 years, and some soldiers have used their previous relationships and networks to provide unofficial assistance to those partners in their time of need.”
“If you put a curtain over the window and not know where you were, you’d think you’re in Afghanistan running a mission,” said the Green Beret NCO.
The effort started with attempts to rescue family members of two Afghans. One of those Afghans is a Green Beret, the other a contractor who worked with the team. It became even more difficult after the Taliban takeover of Kabul on Aug. 15.
“That was one of the horrifying things,” said the Green Beret NCO. “One of the Afghans that’s working with us, his wife is stuck over there. He’s an American citizen. So imagine him helping us get all these people out and his wife can’t. Right? Because she has pending [special immigrant visa]. I have to look at his face every day. Not being able to go get her, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t walk away every day, and go home and sleep knowing that. It was crushing.”
So the Green Beret NCO reached out to a friend in Kabul.
“He was like, ‘hey man, this is, this is how it works. These units are controlling these access points.’ And he said, ‘you know, reach out to see who’s there, build contacts with them, and then see if they’ll vouch for your people and get them in and that’s what we did.”
Soon, the Green Berets were in contact with the family members, offering advice and helping guide them past Taliban checkpoints, toward contacts at Hamid Karzai International Airport who would let them in. They helped move people to safe houses and transport them when the time was right.
But it wasn’t easy and not every attempt to reach the airport worked. Eventually, though, the families of the Afghan team members made it out of the country.
News of the initial success quickly spread.
“Once we were successful getting those people out, it started,” said the Green Beret NCO of a torrent of requests for help. “Everyone else was like, hey, my friend’s family is there. Or, some general or colonel would be, okay my interpreter is stuck there. And they just kept asking me if you can get these people, and the other people, and it just became the larger operation overnight.”
It wasn’t easy at first “because they were overwhelmed,” said the Green Beret NCO. “Everybody was doing the same thing. So it just happened to be like, who could get there? How we can identify them? And who would vouch for him. And we did that.”
The Green Berets at Fort Bragg also worked with friends in several private organizations trying to rescue American citizens and Afghan allies.
The pleas have become increasingly desperate.
“Those people are stuck in a bad situation because they can’t do it the legitimate route through the Taliban or they’ll be hunted,” said the Green Beret NCO. “And they’re currently being hunted and killed.
“We’ve got videos of it, proof of like all the atrocities happening, these people being, you know, shot with their families in their homes or [the Taliban] going door to door looking for people,” he said. “It’s happening 24/7. What I had to look at for the last two weeks, you know, it was eating me alive.”
Duty still calls
Even as all this was going on, the Green Berets had their day jobs.
For the NCO, it was running the transition workshop.
Elk was there to talk to the group about post-traumatic stress disorder and resilience, and then set up individual sessions for anyone wanting additional help. For the Green Berets at Fort Bragg, the timing could not have been better, and 17 Green Berets came forward.
“That’s unheard of to have that many people, during a couple-day period, reach out for help for behavioral health,” said the Green Beret NCO.
That response, he said, was the result of steadily building pressure on the force, exacerbated by the rescue effort.
“It was just like everything at once,” he said. “Transitioning our military is one of the most stressful points of your entire life. And then you had a pandemic and Afghanistan on top of it. So imagine that it’s just one relentless catastrophe after another, stacking up and all the other crap you’re already dealing with prior to it also. It definitely sent a lot of people over the edge.”
Elk treated those she could, but the slots quickly filled, which she said is typical for the SOF units she has been working with over the past decade.
“I am going to go back to help the others,” she said.
A very bad day
Meanwhile, there was more misery to come.
At Fort Bragg, as in so many other places, Aug. 26 was a day of sadness and grief as an ISIS-K suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. troops and 169 Afghans.
It was especially tense at Bragg, because there were families being rescued at the Abbey gate, the site of the bombing. And Marines who were working with the Green Berets. Two families at Abbey gate made it into the airport, but a Marine they were working with was killed.
“You feel helpless and hopeless that, you know, you can’t be there do something and like you know contribute and then you’re just sitting on the other side of the world, on a phone going out, you know, should have would have could have, so it was, it was horrible,” said the Green Beret NCO.
The mission continues
To date, the Green Berets at Fort Bragg helped rescue about 400 people, said the Green Beret NCO. But as the sleepless nights wear on, and the ability to effect change diminished with the withdrawal of U.S. troops on Aug. 31, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are hitting hard.
“I feel good getting the families we got out,” he said. “We did our part but now it’s like, there’s humanitarian crisis.”
There are still another 500 people on the Green Beret’s waiting list. But with no U.S. presence on the ground in Afghanistan, the messages are still coming, while the evacuation effort has wound down “to a slow trickle,” said the Green Beret NCO.
“It is finding any way necessary” to help them escape, he said. “Whether it was across land or by any type of aircraft that could fly out of Afghanistan, And we’ve only got probably about a dozen people out after that date, and then now it’s just like coming to a standstill.”
The challenge now is working under the legal framework for evacuation while still trying to help and not putting people at risk.
“You can’t support illegal immigration,” he said. “So, you have to do everything by the book. And we don’t want to be playing chess with other people’s lives over there. I mean it’s not a video game, it’s real life. So you’re not on the ground, you can’t see what’s happening so you have to trust what the people over there are telling you, and then give them the best advice possible but let them make the decision. We facilitate their decision making based on what we know and understand that come together with a unified decision of, are you willing to accept this risk but we’re not telling them what to do.”
The Green Berets have vowed to continue to help.
Elk says that’s one reason she is going to return to Bragg.
“Their values are ‘never leave a comrade behind,’ and ‘to free the oppressed’ but the situation created the opposite scenario,” she said. “It is easy to understand why things were different. Daily operations were being carried out at a high level of performance as always while in the background an existentially heavy 24-hour sustained mission weighed on the human hearts and minds.
“This incongruence, living against their ethos/motto, coupled with the understandable feelings of helplessness and hopelessness to directly act on or ‘right’ the situation, has potential to greatly impact their psychological and emotional health,” she said. “So it’s more important than ever to equip them with straightforward, operator-friendly resilience training to maintain their high level of performance.”
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.