The helplessness of being an Afghanistan War vet

Inside a clinic in eastern Afghanistan, a nine-months-pregnant Afghan woman shivered on an old metal bed as an Afghan midwife examined her. It was 2012, and the war in Afghanistan had already been going on for 11 years. The woman had just traveled from an outlying village along the Pakistan border, seeking a safe place to deliver her third child. After repeated miscarriages, her family was determined to make their way to the Afghan government’s sponsored clinic at the district’s center, where they had heard news about better maternal outcomes.

Part of my job, as a Cultural Support Team (CST) leader with special operations in the US military, was to inform families like theirs about the clinic. The midwives there could facilitate a safer delivery that might not have happened otherwise, like when the Taliban was in power during the 1990s. The pregnant patient would spend several days at the clinic, waiting out her delivery and returning to her village after recovering from labor.

When the Taliban entered Kabul and reclaimed control over Afghanistan earlier this month, I was at a baseball game with my son. I frantically scoured through news reports while fans cheered and my kid devoured ice cream. I worried about the many Afghans I worked alongside, like that mother and her family whom I had the honor of meeting. What will become of pregnant women and their children? What about the midwives, the clinic, and the district? Or the Afghan police and soldiers I served with? I felt simultaneously helpless, unable to do anything in the moment, and guilty for being at a ballgame with fans singing along to “God Bless America” while this other country I cared about was falling apart.

For 10 months in 2012, I was stationed near the Afghan-Pakistan border as a CST — a program created when the military realized that after nearly a decade at war, it was a problem that all-male combat units were unable to interact with the Afghan female population. Our team did a number of things, but one of our aims was to make it safer for women to travel to and from the clinic. We also went from village to village, informing everyone about the clinic’s capabilities — like how it could provide medicines, immunizations, prenatal care, and a safe place to deliver their babies and recuperate under the watchful eye of trained medical professions.

Our CST was mostly met with curiosity, since almost none of the locals had ever seen an American woman before. Only when insurgents were nearby were the locals distant. As a tribal society, the Pashtuns prided themselves on their commitment to the Pashtunwali, an ethical code and way of life defined by laws, culture, and tradition, of which hospitality is deeply valued. When we met with midwives most weeks, we sat knee to knee on a red rug that covered the clinic’s cold tiles, discussing the stories of the pregnant patients over cups of chai.

Our CST’s relationship with the midwives was critical because they had daily interactions and access to the female population, and knew what type of support the women needed from the government. Together, we’d talk about villages they and the women avoided, or which villagers never came to the clinic because they were too fearful of reprisals from nearby insurgents, which helped us understand the threats facing the women in the district.

But now that the Taliban control the country, I worry about these women and what will become of these clinics. While the Taliban are saying that they’ll respect women’s rights (within the context of Islamic law), their history of violence coupled with recent reports of women being forced into marriages with Taliban fighters and being attacked for trying to flee the country at the airport make me doubtful.

Like those of many citizens, veterans’ opinions about America’s involvement in Afghanistan vary. Many of my friends are upset about our rapid withdrawal and the lack of planning to evacuate those in need. Many of them have messaged me about how bleak and unreal the situation feels. Some feel utterly powerless. Their concerns echo my own frustrations and heartache. Since Biden announced the US was withdrawing from Afghanistan, I’ve been vested in helping our allies get out of the country. But once Kabul fell, I felt utterly dejected. I’ve found myself cycling through the various stages of grief: disbelief that the Taliban rose so quickly, anger in our nation’s lack of coordinated efforts to rescue and aid our Afghan allies, and depression at feeling like I’m too far away to actually effect change.

But I am choosing not to allow those feelings of hopelessness consume me. That evening, after holding back tears at the baseball game, I returned home, got on my laptop, and got back to work. For the past few weeks, I’ve partnered with an inspiring team of veterans and civilians to help our Afghan allies get evacuated. Together, we’ve filled out paperwork, applied for visas, and coordinated efforts to get people into Kabul airport and onto flights out of the country. There have been days I’ve broken down, crying at the sheer chaos of it all, like after hearing the news that 13 US service members and at least 90 Afghans were killed in a suicide bombing orchestrated by ISIS-K. Other times, I’ve been inspired by the work. All I can do is hope that our efforts ripple, reaching those who need it the most.

Jackie Munn is a West Point graduate and former Army captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. After her service, Jackie became a nurse practitioner and writer.

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