Liz Hartman knew she was on to something when her inbox was deluged. Hartman, commander of American Legion Post 539 in New Bern, N.C., created and led a town hall-style forum for veterans of all war eras, servicemembers and community residents to share concerns about the situation in Afghanistan.
Among the emails she received was one from a Vietnam veteran who expressed his gratitude. “I really appreciate this,” he wrote. “I wish we had this when we were coming home from Vietnam. We’re really happy that you are stepping up to do this for the Afghanistan troops.”
While the current crisis in Afghanistan hits hard for those who deployed there, it has also brought up emotions in others who witnessed a similar occurrence, spanning from Iraq back to Vietnam.
“A lot of times Vietnam veterans haven’t spoken about their feelings for 45-plus years ago because they didn’t feel they had the place to,” said Hartman, a Marine Corps veteran and spouse. “They smushed it down and kept their feelings inside. It’s beautiful that this gives Vietnam veterans the opportunity to mentor and support Afghanistan veterans who are going through a very similar situation. I hope that hearing each side speak, each side will be able to take something from it.”
About 45 people attended the post forum, about one-third of which were post-9/11 members. It was an open dialogue. No judgment. No politics. Everyone was welcome to share.
“It was definitely a packed room,” she said. “There was a lot of candor. I had to be careful that we keep it apolitical. The emotions expressed were all over the place. There was a lot of anger for a lot of different reasons. Anger that it happened and also frustration and sadness.
“A lot of bridges were made stemming from the conversations.”
The emotions stemmed from the Taliban’s quick return to power, the concern over the remaining interpreters and other U.S. allies, and the concerns of some Afghanistan veterans who are questioning whether there contributions mattered.
But a common theme emerged: Not only did the post-9/11 generation keep America safe for the past two decades, it destroyed the terrorist network that masterminded the attacks.
“The mission in Afghanistan, the reason we went there in the first place is a success,” said Marine Corps Major Al Bellamy, a member of Post 539. “It’s important for those of us, like me, who saw a tiny piece of it to know that. We were there to take down Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida network and we did those things. The fact that the Taliban reigns supreme in that country is disappointing. But we can all take solace that the reason for the war in the first place was accomplished. It was a successful mission.”
Still Bellamy understands the frustration. He deployed to Helmand Province in 2014.
“It was rough,” said Bellamy, noting he does not have any injuries. “Our casualties that year were light. But unfortunately the reason for that was because the Taliban knew we were pulling out so they didn’t attack us that much. Pretty much that year was spent in frustration, not being allowed to do anything. Following that deployment, we knew the ground we had gained was essentially lost. We had hurt feelings even coming home from that deployment and questioned what we had accomplished.”
After the post meeting, Bellamy appreciated the connections and how veterans from multiple war eras — Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan — could share their experiences.
“People are drawing a lot of parallels between the fall of Saigon and Kabul, and rightly so,” he said. “There are a lot of similarities there. Also a ton of differences. I felt it was important for people to draw those parallels out in the open.”
Also noteworthy is that not all Afghanistan veterans share the same experience.
“Over 20 years that conflict took so many different forms,” said Bellamy, who is retiring in six weeks. “Your experience reflects on when you served, your mission, what region you were assigned to. My experience differed greatly from the Marines at Camp Lejeune who we relieved when we came in there in 2014. And likewise, the Army that took over our province when we left had a very different experience.”
Retired Army Lt. Col. Bob Brinson served from 1991 through 2019. While he did not deploy to Afghanistan, he did tours in Somalia and Kuwait.
“The town hall made me understand what those veterans are going through,” said Brinson, the judge advocate of Post 539. “It gave me the empathy to understand the emotions that some of them are having and thoughts that they are processing. It helped me be more supportive of them, and all the veterans who have gone through something similar to this.”
He points to his experience in Somalia, though there are stark differences.
“The parallel I drew from last night’s discussion was in my experience in Somalia with those guys experience in Afghanistan,” he said. “We only spent eight months in Somalia but didn’t do any nation-building because we decided that was not a viable option so we pulled out. But the difference is we tried 20 years of nation- and defense-building in Afghanistan and it didn’t seem to work. That was the frustration and disappointment that many Afghanistan veterans expressed.”
Brinson also pointed out many Vietnam veterans in attendance related to what the Afghanistan veterans are going through.
“The difference this time is there has been a lot of encouragement out of the VA, The American Legion and various other veterans organizations to get veterans to talk about it, share their feelings and get support. It’s a much more supportive environment for veterans this time.”
Looking forward, Hartman is encouraged to foster more of these conversations as part of regular post meetings. It’s an approach that will help continue to heal wounds and unite veterans of different eras.
“It was very supportive,” Brinson said of the town hall. “I appreciate what The American Legion does. It’s a big melting pot of veterans who have experiences and the level of credibility. It was very encouraging even though there was a wide range of emotions. It was non-judgmental, non-political. It was about the veterans and what they needed. It was an opportunity for older veterans to support younger veterans through current events. ”
How to create a similar event:
For American Legion posts wishing to hold a similar event, Hartman recommends:
• “Keep it apolitical. There’s no judgment. Everyone can share.” Hartman stressed that emotions were high but a moderator needs to help focus on the healing, not the finger-pointing.
• “Spouses need to be able to talk to. It was really important to me to be able to facilitate a space where veterans could speak freely in front of their spouses and open those wounds that they may have never shared before.”
• “Make it a community event. It’s equally important to have members of the community there because they are likely to be the first ones to save a veteran in crisis.” Hartman recommends not limiting it to just members as there are stakeholders from around the community. Her post is in New Bern, which is easily accessible to both Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, which makes it a strong military community.
• “It’s always about food and it’s always about veterans.” Hartman ensured that two veteran-owned businesses were in place to provide hot and cold brewed coffee, as well as biscuits and doughnuts, to serve before the town hall kicked off.
• Buddy Checks: This is an excellent time to conduct a wellness check on veterans, primarily in the Afghanistan era, in your community. Download and review the Buddy Check kit to get started.
• VA Crisis Line: For veterans who are struggling, the VA Crisis Line is available 24/7. Call (800) 273-8255 and press 1. You may also send a text to Text 838255
• More VA resources: There are a variety of resources available to help veterans, listed on this web page.