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Reflecting on the Meaning of Service in Afghanistan

By Amy B. Adler, Ph.D. and Carl Smith, Ph.D.
Aug. 25, 2021

For many, the news from Afghanistan—the rapid withdrawal of the US, the Taliban's assumption of control, and the scenes of desperation at the airport in Kabul—is deeply disturbing. For service members who served in Afghanistan, these images may be particularly jarring. How do service members reconcile their sacrifice and the sacrifice of their families with questions like "Was it worth it?" and "What was the point?"

This moment in time is an opportunity for personnel working in the military context to be deliberately present with those they work alongside, support, and treat. As clinicians know, just listening carefully and standing with others can be powerful. This cornerstone of connection is important not just in a clinical setting but as members of a larger team. Clinicians may want to consider checking in with those around them, acknowledging that individuals may be thinking about the meaning and value of their service and that it may take effort to put recent events into perspective.

As senior leaders have reminded us, service in Afghanistan reflects military professionalism and dedication. Service members accomplished what they were asked to do, and that service is distinct from—not negated by—what is currently happening. Service members can take pride in knowing that they supported their teammates who were also in harm's way, that they contributed directly to the mission of combatting terrorism, and that their efforts successfully reduced the risk of a major post-9/11 terrorist attack. Their efforts also resulted in an entire generation of Afghans growing up in a freer society that allowed broader access to education, employment, and information. These societal changes may create a foundation that positively influences Afghanistan's future.

It is important to recognize that service members with teammates who died in Afghanistan may be experiencing a resurgence of grief, and families may question the sacrifice of their loved ones. Service members may find it helpful to reach out to the families of those who died or to teammates who were seriously wounded to convey that the sacrifice remains relevant and valued. Families may benefit from hearing that their sacrifice was for battle buddies with whom they served and ultimately meaningful.

Service members may also feel upset by the inability to secure the immediate safety of individuals who supported US efforts. Service members don't have to shoulder this concern alone; the burden of uncertainty can be shared by discussing these concerns with a therapist, trusted team member, or leader.

Beyond clinicians providing support for the military community, military leaders are essential in framing how recent events in Afghanistan are experienced by their unit members. Many studies, including those conducted by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), have documented the link between what leaders chose to emphasize and how service members manage stress and understand the meaning of their service. When leaders encourage and educate service members, acknowledge and normalize stressors, and lead by example, service members adapt better.

In the case of recent events in Afghanistan, clinicians may want to reach out to leaders—at all levels. Clinicians can make a difference by listening to leaders and also by offering consultation in how leaders might effectively frame the experience for their team members. All leaders, those who deployed to Afghanistan themselves and those who have not, can influence how service, the cornerstone of military culture, is understood and valued.

If you want more information about what leaders can do, WRAIR has developed a brief Leader's Guide.

Dr. Amy Adler is a clinical research psychologist and senior scientist at the Center for Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. She has published more than 160 journal articles and chapters, and edited 7 books on the psychology of high-risk occupations.

MAJ Carl Smith is a research psychologist and director of the Research Transition Office in the Center for Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. He leads efforts to transition psychological health and resilience products to service members.

Last Updated: September 14, 2023
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