Major news outlets for the past few months have focused on the drawdown of our nation’s
longest war: Afghanistan.
At its peak, there were more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2010; the number of troops have steadily declined over the past decade. While news coverage debates the decision to cease combat operations, the highest-ranking enlisted service member in the military said Veterans from the war should remember the positive to help reconcile their service.
“Our purpose for being there was to prevent further attacks on the homeland,” said Senior
Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramón “CZ” Colón-López. “We wanted to make sure that we denied Al Qaeda, specifically, of sanctuary, training ground, and places where they could plan terrorism attacks. If you look at the past 20 years, that is exactly what we did. There hasn’t been a single attack on the homeland. They will think twice about doing it because of our actions over the past 20 years. For our Veterans, be proud of what you did, because you have kept the country safe over the last 20 years.”
Deployment and PTSD
Colón-López has lived the war for two decades. He was an element leader with the 24th Special Tactics Squadron on 9/11. Shortly after, he deployed to Afghanistan on direct action and combat search and rescue missions to capture or kill high value targets.
He also provided security for Hamid Kharzai, who later served as Afghanistan’s president. Now, as the senior enlisted service member, he serves as an advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on all matters involving joint and combined total force integration, utilization, health of the force and joint development for enlisted personnel.
Colón-López admitted getting to a place of being proud of his own service wasn’t easy. Serving as a special operator in Afghanistan, he’s dealt with tragedy and personal demons. He said one of his personal hardest moments was hearing the death of Air Force Veteran Scott Duffman, who died with seven others on a mission in 2007. He also faced repeated deployments, placing both physical and mental stress on his body.
While stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, a July 4th celebration in neighboring Albuquerque turned traumatic. The combination of the desert, smoke in the air, loud noises and smell of powder triggered his PTSD.
Colón-López said a mountain biking accident in Germany led to an ultimatum from Janet to get help. He crashed his bike while seeking a thrill to replace his combat experience.
“She said, ‘you’re going to the clinic now,’” he said. “It was liberating by the time I actually went in there. I thought I could fix myself and that is not the answer.”
He now encourages every Veteran to get help for PTSD.
Dealing with the end of combat
While some troops have reconciled their service, not all have. With the recent news and announcements over the end of the Afghanistan mission, VA facilities also started seeing an increase in Veterans seeking help. Two psychologists from the National Center for PTSD said they are starting to see Afghanistan Veterans bring up issues around their service.
“Reactions aren’t always what people think they are going to be, and that’s okay,” said Dr. Jennifer Vasterling, the chief of psychology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and affiliated investigator with the National Center for PTSD.
Veterans should be on the lookout for red flags if news of Afghanistan starts changing behavior, said Dr. Sonya Norman, director of the National Center for PTSD Consultation Program. These include isolating, using alcohol, drugs or any increase in unhealthy behaviors compared to normal. This could even include things like excess work or video games.
‘Be proud of what you have done’
“We had been there for 20 years, and I know because I was one of the first people to go out there on the first rotations. What we have done from then to now is phenomenal,” he said, pointing toward the progress made in Afghanistan, including helping stand up a government and building a military force…both of which denied safe haven to Al Qaeda.
“For any Veteran out there reading this, be proud of what you have done,” he added. “Our government has made the decision and we have followed lawful orders.”