For senior military and Pentagon leaders, this week's news was profoundly personal.
The photos and videos pouring out of Afghanistan hit a nerve, and triggered searingly vivid flashbacks to battles fought, troops lost and tears shed during their own deployments there. And in a response shaped by their memories and experiences in the war, they urged troops to check in on their buddies, talk to each other and seek help and solace if they need it.
The top two Pentagon leaders made it clear that the scenes unfolding in Afghanistan, as citizens frantically tried to get out of the country and escape the new Taliban rule, were tough for them to watch. And they knew that the visions of Afghans struggling to get on flights — so desperate that some clung to an aircraft as it lifted off — were painful for troops to see.
“All of this is very personal for me. This is a war that I fought in and led. I know the country, I know the people, and I know those who fought alongside me,” said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star Army general who served as a commander in Afghanistan in the early years and then led U.S. Central Command overseeing the Middle East wars as his final post from 2013-16. “We have a moral obligation to help those who helped us. And I feel the urgency deeply.”
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Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commanded troops in Afghanistan and has talked often about how deeply he felt the loss of each soldier under his watch.
“For more than 20 years, we have prevented an attack on the U.S. homeland. 2,448 lost our lives, 20,722 were wounded in action, and many others suffered the unseen wounds of war. To each of them, I want you to know, personally, that your service matters," said Milley. "As the Secretary said, for both he and I, this is personal. And I know it’s personal for each and every one of you.”
Austin said troops have a wide range of views on the issue and he urged them to work through it in their own way. “We need to respect that and we need to give one another the time and space to help do it," he said.
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Across the military, many senior officers have done tours in Afghanistan. They led troops in battle. They trained Afghan forces. And they relied heavily on the Afghan interpreters now at risk of violence from the Taliban, and begging for help to leave the country.
In recent days, those leaders have talked privately with their staffs and sent heartfelt public messages to their forces who they know are struggling with a range of emotions: frustration with the Taliban takeover after two decades of blood and loss; fears that Afghans they worked with won't get out safely; and questions about whether their time in the country mattered.
On Friday morning, Gen. Richard Clarke, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, addressed his entire headquarters staff about the situation in Afghanistan. Clarke, who has deployed to Afghanistan several times, has commandos who have done multiple tours in the last two decades and he noted this is an emotional time for them. Speaking over the intercom, he pressed them to reach out to their battle buddies and seek other resources if they need someone to talk to.
In a blunt letter to his force this week, Gen. David Berger, the Marine Corps commandant, said now is the time to come together. "You should take pride in your service — it gives meaning to the sacrifice of all Marines who served, including those whose sacrifice was ultimate,” said the letter, co-signed by Marine Sgt. Maj. Troy Black.
Berger, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 as commander of the 1st Marine Division, has also made sure his Marines have information to give interpreters they worked with in Afghanistan who are asking for help evacuating.
And he noted in his message that Marines may be struggling with a simple question: “Was it all worth it?” The answer, he and Black said, is yes.
Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, went to his Facebook page to post a note to his commando forces who have gone in and out of Afghanistan for the past 20 years. And he recalled the first troops he lost in battle.
“From the very beginning to the very present, I have been responsible for sending countless Airmen into harm’s way there, not all of whom returned to their families,” said Slife. “In November 2003, I sent home the remains of my teammates and friends in the aftermath of the first fatalities I experienced as a commander. In May of 2011, we killed Osama bin Laden. Highs and lows ... lows and highs ... I’ve felt it all.”
He warned of many hard days and years ahead as troops reflect on their Afghanistan experiences while dealing with physical, psychological and moral wounds.
“If, like me, you find yourself trying to put your own experiences into some context which will allow you to move forward positively and productively, I urge you to talk about it,” and seek out a wide range of resources for help, he said.
Gen. James McConville, chief of staff of the Army, wrote a letter to his personnel offering solace. Their sacrifices, he said, will be a lasting legacy of honor. And he also pleaded with troops to seek help and reach out to their comrades.
“I'd ask that you check in on your teammates as well as our Soldiers for Life, who may be struggling with the unfolding events," said McConville, who commanded troops in Afghanistan. At the bottom of the letter he scrawled in marker, “Proud to serve with you!”
Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, sent a message to sailors with a similar request.
“Reach out to those who may be struggling, and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to a grateful nation," he said. "I want to be very clear, your service was not in vain, and it made a difference.”
More than 50 organizations signed a letter offering help to those in need, and said people can call the Veterans Crisis Line and Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255.