I need your help.
My dear friend John is on a phone call and can’t hang up.
After serving 22 years in the military during the longest war in American history, I’ve faced just about every leadership challenge imaginable. I’ve held fellow warriors in their final moments, escorted my fallen brothers home, and held their loved ones as they wept. But, on this Veterans Day, with the collapse of Afghanistan, I have a leadership challenge I’ve never faced before.
John needs help to put the phone down. And I’m not sure how to help him do that.
He served five tours in Afghanistan missing more birthdays and anniversaries with his family than he can count. As a Green Beret, he worked closely with Afghan Partner Forces for over a decade — recruiting, training, and leading them in combat. They risked their lives for him, and he for them. They became brothers in the truest sense of the word.
John lost many brothers in the war, both American and Afghan, and he blamed himself. When he retired, he worked hard to put the pain behind him. He moved far away from the Army and began working in a shipping company.
But apparently, he didn’t move far enough.
When the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, his nightmares resumed, and the phone began to ring.
“Sir,” began a desperate Afghan commando, “the Taliban are all around me. Our generals ran away, took bribes, and left the country.”
The phone rang again. “Sir, there are too many of them. Should I put my weapon down?”
And again. “Sir, I don’t want my family to be killed. I’ll keep fighting, but can you help my family? Please?”
It broke him. Bit by bit.
John asked himself, “Where is the Army I served in? Why aren’t the generals handling this situation?”
But there was no one.
Then, he reassured himself, “Sometimes the military moves slowly. So, I’ll just work this for a few days until they take over.”
At first, John was able to help hundreds make it through to freedom, but thousands weren’t so lucky. It wasn’t from lack of trying. John knew who they were and he knew where they were. And he knew that they all trusted him to get them to the airport despite their family having to endure beatings at Taliban checkpoints. They trusted him to use his relationships which would enable nervous U.S. guards to pull them from a sea of tens of thousands to enter the airfield and on to a new life.
John stayed on the phone, spending endless days leveraging their discipline and loyalty to get their families to airfield gates where they waited for 18 hours with no food or water. But the gates never opened.
John then organized the commandos and their families onto busses, engines running, just outside the airport boundaries. He coordinated directly with senior military leaders inside the airport so they could simply drive through. Once again, the gates never opened.
Mr. President, these Afghan warriors who fought until the last possible moment as others fled, watched our last C-17 fly away while they sat on those busses.
Then the nightmare really began.
The commandos were hunted. Using pay records the U.S. government left behind, the Taliban went door-to-door searching for them. The Afghan commandos and their families hastily stuffed belongings into plastic bags and fled their homes. Every day John received photos of children being beaten or videos of Afghan special operators being bludgeoned to death in front of their families.
These images are difficult for the most hardened warrior in a combat zone to see, but for my friend John, already racked with years of survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress, it was far worse. He watched these terrifying images from the sanctity of his own home — a place that was once his only refuge from the war he tried to leave behind. He witnessed this suffering at the breakfast table, with his wife and children watching the despair spread across his gaunt face. The familiar tension returned. They thought it had all been left behind when John retired, but they were wrong.
Relief never came. The military never came. There was no second shift. John is now a dispatcher on an 80-day 911 call being told “We’re not sending anyone to that address. Do what you can to keep their morale up.”
This was unacceptable. We never leave a fallen comrade. John has too many years in the fight to break that promise.
In the beginning, John called in sick at work. But no help came. As the days turned into weeks, he quit his job. No help came. All the pain he’d tried to escape came flooding back. Nightmares returned. Mood swings upended his family every time he watched a news broadcast. Thoughts of suicide crept in amongst the never-ending Afghan pleas for help.
Leave no one behind. This is John’s core ethos.
And now, he can’t hang up the phone for fear of letting them down.
We are on the cusp of a moral injury that could decimate our veteran population.
Moral injuries are the worst of all, for they are injuries of the soul.
You can help. You have the power to do this.
He won’t let go until you take this burden from him.
John should not be doing this mission, and especially not alone.
If the Department of Defense or the Department of State stepped in and handled this, he’d hang up the phone.
I know he would.
But he won’t let this go until he’s properly relieved.
He can’t let go.
And he is not alone.
There are hundreds — maybe thousands — of veterans trying to honor the promise to our Afghan partners. If you continue to let them carry this burden, with no assistance, what will happen when the bullets and screams echo on the other side before the line goes dead?
What happens when John’s Afghan family simply doesn’t call back one day?
How does he go back to his life?
How does he overcome that guilt?
Do you understand what I’m saying to you, sir?
Do you understand what has been done?
Our political and military leaders on both sides of the aisle have allowed our veterans to bear the cost of their institutional responsibility.
This Veterans Day, we urge you and the politicians from both party come together, across your differences, as our veterans did in this crisis to step up and assume the responsibility for helping our Afghan partners find safe passage. We will work with you every step of the way. Only then can we find a sense of peace.
Only then can John hang up the phone.
Scott Mann is a former Green Beret and the co-founder of Task Force Pineapple, a citizens liaison network committed to honoring the promise to our Afghan partners, with a focus an Afghan special operators and their families. Scott is also a playwright and performs in a recently released film he wrote and produced called “Last Out — Elegy of a Green Beret” that tells the story the Afghan war through the voice of the warriors and military family members who lived it. The film is available, for free, starting on Veterans Day 2021 at lastoutfilm.com. All proceeds donated to the film go to help overcome veteran trauma caused by the Afghan collapse.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.