The cost of war is crippling. A new report estimates that the monetary bill of the 20-year war in Afghanistan for the United States is $2 trillion, a figure that will grow to $6.5 trillion by 2050 after interest costs. But there's one statistic that's harder to quantify: the mental and physical impact on American veterans and allies.
"Compared to other armed conflicts, the war in Afghanistan has been particularly difficult for service members," Dr. Shannon Curry, a California-based clinical psychologist specializing in war-related trauma and PTSD, told TODAY. "Even before Afghanistan was taken by the Taliban, frustration abounded in my therapy room from the service members who had returned from tour."
Curry underscored the importance of veterans seeking support from mental health professionals and that a big hurdle for veterans is making sense of what they've seen and done on deployments.
"Many avoid seeking mental health care in the mistaken belief that some therapist couldn't possibly understand their experience in Afghanistan," she said. "What I’ve heard in my office, over and over again, are stories of utter chaos, of inexplicable loss, and of cavernous disconnects between policy initiatives and the reality of theatre."
How to talk to veterans
For friends and family of veterans, Curry offered ways to help.
Reach out in a way that conveys empathy and understanding.
"Let the veteran in your life know you're here, let them know that you can't imagine what they're experiencing, and you're here for whatever it is. Let them share or not share," she said, noting that many veterans feel that only those who have been deployed can truly understand their emotions.
"If they choose to open up — whatever they're feeling — empathize. To do this, try to imagine yourself in their shoes and to feel the emotion that is conveyed by their words. This often requires that we let go of our own preconceived notions, judgments and beliefs about their experience going in."
Pay full attention.
"Many people don't describe their emotions but rather discuss situations, so empathy requires our full attention to the other's demeanor and story so that you can decipher the emotions underneath," Curry explained. "For instance, if a service member repeats a complaint about an aspect of deployment or the circumstances on the ground, you might reflect back to them, 'That sounds really frustrating.'"
Be OK with pauses and silence, and avoid attempts to redirect the conversation.
"It's uncomfortable to sit with another person's distress, and because we care, we will regularly encounter the urge to 'comfort' by cheering someone up or ending what seems to be a painful conversation," Curry explained. "Attempts to 'cheer someone up' are likely to backfire, leaving the person who is struggling with an added layer of loneliness as you move on to something else."
Where Afghanistan war veterans can get help
For veterans seeking help directly, Veterans Crisis Line offers free, confidential, 24-7 support from mental health professionals by calling 1-800-273-8255, texting 83825 or chatting online.
Give an Hour provides access to no-cost, confidential mental health care for veterans and their families. The organization offers services to active duty, National Guard, Reserves, veterans and their loved ones.
Semper Fi Fund provides programs and financial assistance to support wounded, critically ill and catastrophically injured members of the U.S. forces and their families.
How to help U.S. allies
Veterans are not the only people suffering. Thousands of U.S. allies remain in Afghanistan unprotected, and there are resources to support them too.
No One Left Behind is an organization helping Afghan and Iraqi interpreters resettle in the United States.
Women for Women International, which helps women survivors of war and conflict rebuild their lives, created an emergency campaign for women in Afghanistan who now face an uncertain future. One donor is going to match up to $500,000 in donations for that program, according to its website.
Hearts & Homes for Refugees is advocating for special immigration visa holders, which include Afghan translators, engineers, security guards, embassy clerks, logisticians and soldiers who helped the U.S. for 20 years.
Keeping Our Promise provides resettlement assistance, such as apartment furnishing and school enrollment, to endangered wartime allies who served the U.S.