As the turmoil continues in Afghanistan and the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, veterans’ groups are banding together throughout Northeast Florida to work with soldiers who served in the Middle East.
With more than 1.5 million veterans living in Florida, including nearly 20,000 in St. Johns County, there is a push to reach out to check on the welfare of the men and women who served in Afghanistan following the United States’ pullout that left thousands scrambling to escape the Taliban-controlled country.
Leading the way is Jacksonville-based Wounded Warrior Project (WWP). According to CEO retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Linnington, the organization’s call center will reach out to its 40,000 registered veterans to “provide comprehensive support through our many programs and services, including free services in mental health, career counseling and long-term rehabilitative care for the post-9/11 generation.”
WWP serves veterans who’ve served since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. That means the overwhelming majority of its members have spent time in the Middle East, and it makes the disjointed pullout difficult to understand – especially for those who suffered physical, emotional and mental injuries in the line of duty.
“The last week has really elicited a range of emotions among veterans that have served in Afghanistan,” Linnington said. “Top of the list is concern – concern for the brothers and sisters in arms who served with them, concern for the Afghan partners they served with … and really concerned for the future of Afghanistan. I think there’s also a sadness and disappointment in the different things that have occurred in the last week. The uncertainty of the future for the Afghan people is something that makes our veterans sad.
“I think the announced withdrawal and the activities we’ve seen on TV in the past week certainly have exasperated some of our nation’s veterans. We are concerned about their well-being. We’re actively reaching out to all of them. We’re connecting with them on social media posts for Resource Center or mental health programs to help meet their needs.”
Local veterans, many of whom asked not to be identified, said they were more upset with the manner in which armed forces retreated from the region. The soldiers left first, leaving behind more than $80 billion in equipment and weapons and thousands of Afghan citizens who worked with American forces to bring stability. Although President Joe Biden said U.S. residents were wary of war – and polls show an overwhelming number of Americans were – the pullout didn’t seem to account for the fact there hasn’t been any fighting in the country for more than a year. In fact, no U.S. soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan in more than 18 months.
While WWP remains a nonpolitical organization, it’s clear it won’t allow the sacrifices made by its members to be taken lightly – or be forgotten.
Linnington said it’s never been more important to connect with soldiers.
“Support veterans right now by connecting with them and just telling them how much their service mattered – not just in Afghanistan, but, you know, over the past 246 years of our nation’s history,” he said. “We have a saying at Wounded Warrior Project: the greatest casualty is being forgotten. I think right now, our veterans need to know that the communities from which they came, when they raised their hands and said ‘take me,’ are there for them when they return. Reach out, check in, make sure they’re doing.”
Many St. Johns veterans served in Vietnam. Like Afghanistan, the withdrawal was complicated and disorganized. The withdrawal there was announced two years in advance, and yet soldiers, U.S. citizens and allies were forced to flee from the rooftop of the American Embassy as the Viet Cong seized Saigon.
Linnington said WWP won’t leave its veterans behind. They won’t be left to fend for themselves, to fight through terrorist roadblocks or worse yet, be forgotten.
“Our nation needed them then, as we need them today, and the service and sacrifice of the last 20 years … is not forgotten,” he said. “It’s greatly appreciated. We have an all-volunteer force, one of the few countries in the world that has an all-volunteer force, and it continues to be the strength of our nation and represents all of the values we aspired to be an American.”
WWP is increasing support available in its Resource Center and its mental-health triage team. The Resource Center is available from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Friday. To contact the organization, call (888) WWP-ALUM (888-997-2586).