Let's Talk About AfghanistanBy The Cove August 25, 2021
Cove team note: This handy guide was developed by 1 Psych Unit to assist commanders in helping veterans deal with the current situation in Afghanistan. We think it's a great guide and encourage everyone who participated in the Afghanistan conflict, or supervises some who did, to read through this to help keep our mates safe.
The ADF had a presence in Afghanistan since 2001 with military operations ending only last month when the CDF announced the cessation of OP HIGHROAD. The majority of ADF members have never known service without the potential for deployment on OP SLIPPER or HIGHROAD. For many of the ADF, huge portions of the last decade have been spent supporting those operations, either directly or indirectly. Our roles in this theatre have shaped our careers, and at times cost us time with family and friends. Of often greater impact, many of us have lost friends or colleagues – Australian and otherwise – in support of the mission.
The situation in Afghanistan as it is currently unfolding has seen much of the country now under control of the Taliban bringing an end to the almost 20 years of the US-led coalition’s presence in the country. Seeing this situation unfold after the decades of support, commitment and sacrifice will lead to a range of thoughts and feelings arising in ADF members, both in those still abroad and in those back home here in Australia. Whilst some might be relieved that the ADF is no longer in Afghanistan and in harm’s way, others might feel more challenging emotions regarding the decision to leave and what this means about the ADF’s service and sacrifice and for the Afghan people. These challenges may be stronger for those who lost friends or colleagues, served closely with Afghan individuals as well as those who served elsewhere in the Middle East or indeed in other conflicts. This document aims to acknowledge the nuances of this situation, and provide some guidance on how to manage these emotions if they become problematic for you or your colleagues.
There are no ‘right' or 'wrong’ reactions, and only you are the expert on you. Some members may not feel a large impact now that the ADF has left Afghanistan and the eventualities the Afghan people may now face, and there is nothing wrong with that. For those who are finding themselves impacted, some common reactions that might resonate with you are:
- Disappointment: The majority of ADF members join with an aspiration to make a difference overseas, and might feel that leaving Afghanistan does not align with their motivation or values. We are an organisation filled with proactive “do-ers” – to leave without having ‘done’ what we set out to do is likely to challenge our core beliefs.
- Guilt: Personnel might experience guilt due to feeling that they, or the ADF, could have done more and left too early – or conversely, guilt for becoming involved at all, only to leave without noticeable improvement. Feelings of guilt might be heightened if they have made social connections in locations where the ADF served, especially if those connections were distraught or confused at us leaving or are now in greater danger.
- Anger: Some individuals may feel that the decision to leave without achieving the planned end state reflects lack of regard for what we have lost as an organisation and as individuals. If so, they may feel increased irritability, or a sense of frustration with the broader organisation, other Coalition organisations, the Afghan National Army or Afghan Government, especially when so much effort was focussed on mentoring and training.
- Grief: Grief is what we feel when we experience an impactful loss. Whilst this typically surfaces when we experience loss of friends, families or relationships, it can also arise from the loss of opportunity and meaning. ADF members might experience anguish from loss of meaning – there may be a sense that the sacrifices we made (both in terms of people, and in terms of time spent in theatre and away from home) were for nothing.
All these feelings can cause varying levels of distress and discomfort. Depending on where we are – perhaps members are away from normal supports either because they’re deployed on operations or exercise, or in quarantine or lockdown – and what we’re doing – away in a deployed environment, watching the news of events in Afghanistan or just encountering the many varied reminders (some expected, some unexpected) in our day to day lives - will determine the likelihood and to what degree and how often our emotional response is triggered.
What to look out for?
Whilst it’s expected that these emotions will be effectively processed over time, occasionally they can impact aspects of your life for the worse. Some red flags to look out for (either yourself or your mates):
- Anger outbursts/heightened irritability: You might find yourself more ‘pissed off’ than usual, and might not be able to tolerate others as well as usual. You might not be able to ‘let go’ of things how you normally would, and might be feeling more outraged by small things than usual.
- Lengthy sadness: You might be feeling down for extended periods of time, possibly finding yourself teary on occasions.
- Numbness/apathy towards anything: If you find yourself disagreeing with the decisions of the organisation, you might find your motivation reducing and subsequently, find it difficult to complete basic duties. In some cases, this could lead into no longer enjoying anything, and finding it difficult to express any type of positive emotion.
- Constant worrying: Your mind might constantly go over the “what ifs” and “could’ve/should’ve/would’ves” of the situation, trying to find a solution to a past situation that can no longer be changed.
- Changes in appetite and sleep: If your appetite or sleep has dramatically increased or decreased, this can be a marker of needing to process some feelings or thoughts.
- Lack of emotional connection: You might start to feel numb towards people you normally care about – spouse, children, siblings, etc. This might look like avoiding talking with others or not wanting to socialise with family, friends or colleagues.
- Re-surfacing of old distressing memories: The focus on Afghanistan and these thoughts might bring up old issues that you thought you had dealt with. This might look like strong memories that seem to come ‘out of nowhere’, or nightmares.
- Any change from your status quo with no other cause: If you are an outgoing person, you might feel quiet. If you normally have energy, you might find yourself less self-motivated. Other people might comment that you ‘don’t seem like yourself’.
In the short term, these sorts of feelings and thoughts are a natural reaction, and one that will likely subside over time – particularly if you allow yourself to feel your reaction and talk it through with trusted family, friends and colleagues. However, sometimes we can become ‘stuck’ with these challenging thoughts and feelings – this can lead to us feeling overwhelmed, more irritable than usual, and can impact our ability to be a good spouse/mate/parent/colleague, etc.
If the feelings are overwhelming or negatively impacting us, what can we do?
Although the reaction is normal, we don’t want to feel this way forever. There are methods you can utilise to assist with processing them:
- Let it out: Talk about it, confide in a friend, colleague, padre or psychologist. If you do not feel like talking, write it down. Allow whatever you are feeling to pass – remember that like all feelings, no matter how strong or uncomfortable it is, it won’t last forever. Many ADF members use emotional suppression to manage challenging feelings – while this is a common strategy, in the long term it is not a successful one. Suppression means it will stick around under the surface and come back stronger each time - processing it means feeling it and letting it pass until it eventually does not return.
- Remember that honouring our friends does not have to mean torturing ourselves: Some people will tell psych that they don’t want to ‘feel better’, because to ‘feel better’ would be to forget the loss of their mate. The affection for your friend does not have to be reflected in the extent of your suffering. You can remember someone with affection while still moving on from the events of their death.
- Get a second view point: We are all guilty of ‘spinning one another up’. Remember to try to talk to people with a different perspective – you don’t have to agree with them, but seeing other viewpoints can help to reduce how closely tied we are with our own, particularly when it’s not helpful.
- Feel your feelings, but don’t live there: Negativity fosters more negativity. You can put all your energy towards hating something, and the only consequence is wasted energy and more negative feelings.
- Take a break from the noise. Give yourself permission to switch off from social media, news, radio or even from others who are creating stress. Replace it with things that can help you including doing things you enjoy, listening to music, spending time with family, exercising or meditation. When checking back in with media, limit your time and try focus on positive stories and reports.
- Take control of the little stuff to feel better about the big stuff: Look after yourself in a physical sense, keep up with your hobbies and interests, maintain exercise, and try to sleep and eat well.
- Know yourself: Sometimes these negative emotions can lead to us questioning our self-worth and how we perceive ourselves, causing doubt and a sense of failure. It’s important to know our own core values and moral compass, examining the 'why am I feeling like this'? If we recognise why something bothers us, it helps us to process our feelings. This might look like reflecting and noticing that “I hate this because it means I lost my marriage for nothing” or “My friend died but nothing changed”. These are hard thoughts to have (and not always correct), but are important to reflect upon if we hope to gain perspective and move forwards.
If the above issues are causing ongoing concern, remember that you can touch base with a wide range of support including psych for advice on how to manage them. While some reaction is normal, an ongoing reaction that impacts your ability to ‘feel like yourself’ indicates it may be time to talk to someone who is professionally experienced with these matters.
Remembering the positives
Regardless of what happens in Afghanistan in coming days, months and years, ADF members did their duty; we stood by our allies in their time of need, we prevented Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for terrorist organisations, we protected Afghans and taught them how to stand on their own, we built schools and other infrastructure that improved education opportunities and increased medical support. While it is healthy to acknowledge our feelings about ‘what went wrong’, we should also reflect on ‘what went right’ – we did make a positive difference to many individuals in Afghanistan and our Service will always matter.
When the ADF left East Timor after the INTERFET missions, many personnel felt little reason to remain in the ADF. Whilst overseas deployments are the reason many enlist, there will be plenty of different opportunities to help others in the future. Recently, we have seen the ADF respond to domestic operations with OP BUSHFIRE ASSIST and OP COVID-19 ASSIST, and continue to assist other countries through humanitarian efforts.
There will always be a requirement for ADF, and along with it, the opportunities to help others. Psych always encourages people not to make any big decisions – including career decisions – at a time of great change. While this may be impacting how you feel about your ADF career right now, you may feel differently in coming months, especially after affording yourself time to process and positively reflect on your contribution.
For further assistance please contact 1 Psych Unit
1 Psych Unit can facilitate command discussion on this topic. Requests can be directed to 1psych.ops [at] defence.gov.au or contact your local Detachment:
1 PSYCH - Brisbane 1psych.brisbane [at] defence.gov.au
1 PSYCH - Darwin 1psych.darwin [at] defence.gov.au
1 PSYCH - Perth 1psych.perth [at] defence.gov.au
1 PSYCH - Sydney 1psych.sydney [at] defence.gov.au
1 PSYCH - Adelaide 1psych.adelaide [at] defence.gov.au
1 PSYCH - Melbourne 1psychunit.melbdet [at] defence.gov.au
1 PSYCH - Townsville 1psych.townsville [at] defence.gov.au