Vets Group Asks Biden to Recognize Moral Injuries Caused by Afghan War's End

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U.S. Marin assists evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul.
A U.S. Marine with Joint Task Force - Crisis Response assists evacuees at an Evacuation Control Check Point (ECC) during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 26. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla) 

A veteran-led group asked President Joe Biden to do more to acknowledge the distress caused by the messy end of the Afghanistan war during a call on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the U.S. military withdrawal.

Biden called the veteran leaders of the #AfghanEvac coalition and Honor the Promise on Monday night to "express his appreciation for the contributions of America's veterans toward resettling our Afghan allies and thank them for their ongoing partnership in this work," according to a statement from National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson.

The leader of #AfghanEvac said that he discussed with the president moral injuries -- emotional and mental trauma caused by a breach in someone's values -- suffered by veterans and others involved in last year's chaotic evacuation of Afghanistan while stressing that Biden should do more to recognize their pain.

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"I asked him about finding a way to recognize the impact that this has had on not just the volunteers that have been involved in this in the last year or the government workers, but folks that have been involved in this over the 20-year timeframe," Shawn VanDiver, a Navy veteran and president of #AfghanEvac, an umbrella organization for hundreds of nongovernmental groups that helped with the evacuation, said in an interview. "That's really important, and he agreed that it was really important and that we need to find a way to do this."

VanDiver and the #AfghanEvac coalition are looking into ways the government could increase mental health and other resiliency resources for veterans and others involved with the evacuation, including the Afghan refugees and civilian volunteers.

VanDiver told Military.com he did not raise the issue of resiliency resources with Biden, beyond commenting that the Department of Veterans Affairs "has been really good," since he "didn't want to get too into the weeds" on a call that lasted 23 minutes.

But the two "batted around" a couple ways to better recognize moral injuries, VanDiver said. For example, VanDiver said he mentioned how it hurt that Biden did not discuss Afghanistan in his State of the Union address earlier this year.

"That was really hard, and it sent an unintended message, and I think they understand that now," VanDiver said. "We're hopeful that we'll hear more about that from the president. He's the empathy guy, so I think he heard me loud and clear when I said that this was hard."

Exactly a year ago, the last U.S. service member left Afghanistan, formally closing a 20-year war that ended when the Taliban overran Kabul as the military was in the process of what Biden had vowed would be an orderly and safe withdrawal.

The Taliban's victory set off a scramble to evacuate as many vulnerable Afghans as possible, including interpreters and others who aided the U.S. war effort. The evacuation was marked by chaotic scenes of desperate Afghans flooding to the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, while veterans in the U.S. tapped their networks to try to navigate their Afghan allies onto evacuation flights.

The Biden administration has touted the evacuation as a success since 120,000 people, including 76,000 Afghans, were airlifted out. But tens of thousands of Afghans who helped the U.S. military and so are eligible to immigrate to the U.S. were left behind, while the veterans who helped with the evacuation effort say they continue to suffer mental scars because of their experience.

The National Security Council statement on the calls made no mention of the issue of moral injury, and when asked specifically about it by Military.com, the council sent only the general statement.

But a separate message to the broader military from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin marking the anniversary of the withdrawal acknowledged lingering wounds.

"As our country looks back on two decades of combat in Afghanistan, I understand that many people have hard questions about the costs of the war and what their sacrifices meant," Austin said in a message to the force released by the Pentagon on Tuesday. "These are important discussions, and I hope we will keep having them with thoughtfulness and respect."

The issue of moral injury and mental health resources was not raised on Biden's call with Honor the Promise. Lyla Kohistany, CEO of Honor the Promise and an Afghan-American who served as a naval surface warfare and intelligence officer, told Military.com that she knows other veterans groups are working on that and so she wanted to focus on the issues specific to her own work.

Biden's call with Honor the Promise, a nonprofit that focuses on helping former Afghan special operators adjust to their news lives in the U.S., centered more on making it easier for Afghan refugees to apply for asylum, protecting them from scammers and ensuring their skills are put to good use, Kohistany told Military.com.

She said she came away from the call believing "the administration remains deeply committed to ensuring that our Afghan allies that are now in the United States are being resettled in a manner that is respectful and with a long-term view with the support that will be necessary over the coming years."

Kohistany said she had three specific requests for Biden. First, she asked for Dari and Pashto versions of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum application to be made available online. While paper versions are available in Afghans' native languages, the easier online application is not.

Second, she championed public-private partnerships to ensure that Afghans' "talents and skills and experiences are being leveraged as part of our economy and as part of national security structure," potentially including employment in the government or military. Finally, she stressed the need to protect Afghan refugees from predatory lenders.

"I've already received follow-on communication from members of the administration, as well, so that to me shows that they are listening to the veteran community and that they are already taking action on our suggestions," Kohistany said. "Both the veteran community and the Afghan-American community, the Afghan diaspora, has stepped up in a very large way to create community for these newly arrived Afghans. And so it was very uplifting to hear from the administration that we were being recognized."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: One Year Later, Troops and Veterans Involved in Afghanistan Exit Grapple with Mental Scars

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