DENVER (CBS4) – Veterans worried about the mental health of those who served in Afghanistan and the impact the withdrawal of that war will have on them say more attention is needed for this community in the months ahead. Suicide is already a major concern among those who were in the military and it has only gotten worse in the 20 years since the U.S. entered Afghanistan, according to a nonprofit advocating for veterans.
“I feel very troubled, I’m worried, I’m worried about my fellow brothers and sisters who served over there,” said Brandon Young, a veteran of Afghanistan and co-founder of Applied Leadership Partners. “I’m worried about them conflating their identity and their service with the outcome here.”
Young served in the U.S. Army for 11 years including four combat rotations in Afghanistan. He was a special operator for the Army Rangers. He lives near Littleton and remains active in veteran issues including working with Mission Roll Call, to help share the stories of others like him. The initiative has 1.2 million members, according to its staff, advocating for the small fraction of Americans who are post 9/11 veterans.
“That’s a big sacrifice from 20 years at war from a very small population and they need help coming back from Afghanistan,” said Darrell Owens, the director of governmental relations for America’s Warrior Partnership. AWP launched Mission Roll Call. “It’s more important than ever that we make sure that they get taken care of when they come back.”
Owens says they use a high-tech and grassroots approach to reach veterans of an age range that prefer social media. Suicide prevention is one of the three priorities outlined by the initiative and Owens says it needs to be a top priority of the Department of Veteran Affairs. He says the suicide rate has only gone up during the war in Afghanistan and that the VA had a backlog in millions of appointments last year that likely prevented many veterans from getting mental health care.
“Veterans need to have a voice more than ever, they need to get that voice out,” he told CBS4 on Wednesday. “They need to be heard by the American people, and by Congress, and by the VA, and by the White House, to let them know what those sacrifices were and what they did it for.”
The MISSION Act is one resource Owens says the VA could be using to better serve veterans. At the same time, the stigma around suicide needs to be addressed. Young agrees and says fears over the impact mental health issues could have on a veteran’s security clearance and career also must be removed.
“It feels a lot like failure, it feels like you’re failing your team, it feels like you’re failing your country, your family,” Young told CBS4 on Wednesday. “That has nothing to do with us, we can be proud of what we did, we served with, you know, integrity, we served in earnest and disappointed with the outcome of this war.”
Young said he tried to hide his own mental health concerns when he left the Army and he became isolated. He also knows a fellow Army Ranger in Colorado who took his own life years after he ended his service. The training they receive in the military makes it difficult for them to accept they need help and ask for those services.
“It’s very hard and unrealistic to think that when you take off the uniform you just immediately take that off and you’re no longer in that mindset,” he said. “I did my job, I did the best I could with what I was given, it wasn’t perfect, but I was in an impossible situation.”
The shame and guilt some feel can lead to PTSD, some veterans struggle to get past the choices they made that were between two bad options. Young says these moral injuries also need to be addressed, with spiritual guidance and behavioral health services. He shared that he has found strength through his church and seeking out therapy. He has questioned the mission since 2003 and sacrificed much in the time he spent overseas, including missing the birth of his son who is now also in the Army.
“He was born on my first rotation in Afghanistan, I listened to him being born over an Iridium satellite phone,” Young said. “I don’t want my son to go to Afghanistan, I don’t want other service members to go and experience, you know, some of the stuff that, you know, my Ranger buddies and I experienced.”