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Amid Afghanistan collapse, US veterans grapple with conflicting emotions

Afghanistan veterans are experiencing renewed devastation over the loss of life, limb, mind, and faith as the 20-year war comes to an end.
Retired Green Beret Herb Thompson told TODAY one of his biggest fears is that fellow veterans will think their service or sacrifice was wasted or in vain.
Retired Green Beret Herb Thompson told TODAY one of his biggest fears is that fellow veterans will think their service or sacrifice was wasted or in vain.Courteous Herb Thompson
/ Source: TODAY

United States military members watched over the weekend as a 20-year mission in Afghanistan crumbled within hours. On Monday, speaking to the American public from the White House, President Joe Biden stood firmly by his decision to withdraw troops from the country after the Taliban seized control of the capital. And now U.S. veterans are left wondering: What now?

"This was inevitable, but it was just the speed," retired U.S. Army Special Forces Master Sgt. Herb Thompson told TODAY. "There's anger and frustration. All administrations ... nobody's clean on this. I think myself and all the veterans I spoke with, we may not all feel the same, (but) there are these intense emotions and nowhere to point them at and no where to go with it."

Thompson isn't alone. Retired Col. Michael Foster said his emotions are all over the spectrum.

"I was in Afghanistan on and off for 14 years," the former commander of 1st Ranger Battalion out of Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia told TODAY. "We are better than this. It's disappointing when we fall short as a nation. It is absolutely gut-wrenching to think about what is going on to the citizens of Afghanistan."

Foster said that during his time as a senior military leader through the war in Afghanistan, he had to face Gold Star families who've asked if their loved ones died in vain.

"That is the most piercing question that I’ve ever had to answer, and I’ve had to answer it more times than I care to admit," he said.

Staff Sgt. Michael Simpson from San Antonio, Texas, was killed in Afghanistan in 2013 from injuries sustained by an improvised explosive device. Simpson was 30 years old when he died.

Staff Sgt. Michael Simpson pictured in Afghanistan hours before he encountered the improved explosive device that would take his life. Courtesy Krista Simpson Anderson

"One of the last things he said on the medevac was 'wife, kids, I love,'" Simpson's wife, Krista Simpson Anderson, told TODAY. "His mission was to go into a country and free the oppressed — that's the Special Forces motto — and that's exactly what he was trying to do. So is it worth it? Yes. Every day."

Simpson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, and Simpson Anderson said she is frequently asked about her late husband's ultimate sacrifice.

Michael and Krista Simpson with their sons shortly before he deployed in April 2013. Less than three weeks later, Krista received a call that her husband was killed in combat.Courtesy Krista Simpson Anderson

"Everyone is out there asking if it was worth it. 'Was this for nothing?'" she said. "I actually take a different perspective. Imagine you have this gallon of milk and you pour a big glass of milk, because you're craving it and you drink it down and it's amazing. And then maybe a few days later you pour a glass and it's sour. Does it diminish how good it was before? Do you go back to that first glass and say, 'That's not so good.'

"I don’t want today to diminish the value of yesterday — and yesterday it was valued. And if we allow that to happen, then it kind of gives (the Taliban) another notch."

Thompson agreed.

"One hundred percent it was worth it," he said. "Everyone can have their own opinion, but the facts are what they are. We haven't had an outside terror attack since 9/11. We brought people over here and gave them hope. The ones that were there, we gave them hope for a brighter future. It's not the end state we want, but (we did) the right thing and the honorable mission when we were on the ground. You can't control what happens when you leave. We did our mission and duty to the best of our ability. There were decisions and conditions above our level that have caused it to be what it is today."

On April 24, 2010, while on patrol in Afghanistan's Arghandab River Valley, Sgt. Michael Verardo, assigned to the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, was catastrophically wounded when he stepped on an IED. Verardo lost his leg and has undergone more than 120 surgeries since returning from war.

On Sunday, Verardo's wife, Sarah, posted to Instagram an impassioned message as Afghanistan's government became under siege.

"GUTTED that the very people (though they can’t possibly be called humanity) who inflicted such damage to some of our nation’s best - now controls Afghanistan," she wrote in part. "The very Taliban who took an old Russian land mine and connected it to two 15 gallon jugs of homemade high explosives, the very IED that ripped so much from our family."

Sarah Verardo told TODAY that her family is regularly reminded of the sacrifices made by her spouse and others who've served.

"The loss in my house is so ongoing and constant," she said, adding that she delivered the news to her husband last Thursday about what was unfolding in Afghanistan. "I didn't want him to hear it from anyone but me. It was awful. He really cried."

Some veterans are also worrying about the Afghan allies who have been left behind.

"It's heartbreaking," James Miervaldis, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, told TODAY. "We have a moral obligation to our partners and allies. That includes preparation and planning — none of that was done. It's very, very sad."

Miervaldis, chairman of No One Left Behind, which helps Afghan and Iraqi interpreters resettle in the United States, explained the dire situation on the ground in Kabul.

"We're receiving messages from Afghans who are at the airfield believing the United States will come and take them. Now they're realizing maybe we won't."

Miervaldis became involved in the mission after working for three years to bring his interpreter to the U.S. in 2016.

"There (are) no commercial flights," he explained. "We don't know how they are identifying people to evacuate."

Dr. Shannon Curry, a clinical psychologist specializing in war-related trauma and PTSD, told TODAY this is a "brutal" time for our nation's veterans.

"This has been the longest war in U.S. history, and the majority of service members have spent more than half their time of duty deployed," Curry said. War, she added, is one of the most psychologically stressful events a human being can experience and arriving at the site of war has been shown to have immediate and lasting psychological consequences — not only for our military members but also for their families.

"To make such a profound sacrifice — to forfeit the comforts of home, of holiday celebrations, of children's milestones, and of the assurance of a safe return — our service members ascribe to a purpose larger than themselves," she said. "They join our military with visions of honor and duty, and in the belief that their sacrifice will serve a larger good."

Curry recommended reaching out to veterans in a way that displays empathetic understanding, not judgement.

"You can let them know that you imagine this is likely a difficult time for them and that you're wondering how they’re doing," she said. "If you're concerned that they might not want to share, you can add that you don’t want to put any pressure on them to respond or talk about it if they don’t want to, but that you value their perspective and want them to know that you're here for them, whatever they may be going through.

"The greatest service we can give to those who have served us so well, is to allow for the full range of experience that may come from such a complex and devastating end to this story."