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Leaving Afghanistan, Standing by Our Afghanistan Veterans

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So many of us this week, watching the unfolding of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent Taliban takeover, have been hit by strange memories—where we were on 9/11, and what unexpected fallout has transpired since. For myself, those memories have included the years I have had the opportunity to work among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, listening to their stories of deployment and homecoming. For many of my veteran friends and colleagues, those memories include the triumphs and losses of their military service in Afghanistan. 

For many of my veteran friends and colleagues, those memories include the triumphs and losses of their military service in Afghanistan. 

Veterans are speaking out across the country on their myriad experiences of the withdrawal, of watching the outcomes of all their effort and sacrifice, and it is my hope that they will continue to speak and write, to share their observations and experiences of the war in Afghanistan.

For though in many ways that war belongs to all Americans, it is the men and women of the US military who served in Afghanistan who continue to bear its burden. Suicide rates among US service members and veterans remain much higher than among civilians, and age-and-sex-adjusted suicide rates among veterans continue to increase. Veterans are most vulnerable in the first years following their transition out of military service and back to civilian life, during the period that has been called “the Deadly Gap”. 

For though in many ways that war belongs to all Americans, it is the men and women of the US military who served in Afghanistan who continue to bear its burden. 

Responding to this gap, one of the most promising developments in recent years has been the emergence of suicide prevention programs that aim to connect with veterans in their homes and communities. The Transitioning Servicemember/Veteran (TSM/V) Sponsorship Initiative is one example of this—a collaboration between community-based nonprofit agencies, including ETS-Sponsorship, and the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense. The program connects with service members before they leave the military, links them with a sponsor in their post-military hometown, and helps to ensure they have the skills and resources needed to achieve their educational, employment, and personal goals. Anyone—veteran or not—can sign up to become a sponsor, and although sponsors receive training in how to spot signs of suicide risk, TSM/V Sponsorship is more than a suicide prevention program. It is a program for helping new veterans to connect with their communities and build stable and satisfying post-military lives.

As we watch the resolution of a two-decade-long war, we have the opportunity to reach out to those who have given and sacrificed the most.

To sign up to become a sponsor for transitioning service members in your area, go to https://etssponsorship.com.

*Featured image: Morning in Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: Mohammad Rahmani.

Cover image of Fields of Combat. Click here to learn more about this book.

“There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings.”  Hilary Mantel.



Erin P. Finley is a medical anthropologist, implementation scientist, and Associate Professor in the Departments of Medicine and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio.

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