As the United States leaves Afghanistan, veterans reflect on injuries, friendships and the unfinished mission

Cloe Poisson :: C-HIT.ORG

Army veteran Carlos Correa de Willimantic spent months in mental hospitals after his deployment to Afghanistan and now, with the help of local veterans organizations, he has learned how to cope with his head trauma and his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Army veteran Carlos Correa dreams of starting a business growing lettuce and tomatoes in greenhouses. But the traumatic injuries he suffered as a result of his service in Afghanistan prevent him from working. His wife is now looking after him at home.

Correa had thought he left Afghanistan unharmed because he was alive and unharmed. But over time, the survivor’s guilt, sadness over the issues the veterans he counseled at work, deep anger at a military superior, and uncontrollable emotions washed over him. He suffers from Traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His lowest point was when he decided to kill someone with a gun.

“It was going to end badly,” said Correa, 34, of Willimantic, a father of two. But something in him knew “it’s not me”. He asked for help and was immediately hospitalized. He spent nearly three months in residential psychiatric programs, was diagnosed with homicide and suicidal, and learned that his TBI was the result of trauma to his brain from explosive explosions.

President Joe Biden announced in April that US troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, 20 years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that sparked America’s longest war.

As withdrawal neared, Correa and two other Connecticut veterans reflected on the effects their deployments had on their lives. Alyssa Kelleher, 39, director of the Office of Veterans Affairs and Military Programs at the University of Connecticut, spent 26 months in Afghanistan during two deployments as a combat troop leader. She has witnessed the bloodshed and great poverty among the Afghan people. Fausto Parra, 38, from Trumbull, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said his military units have become family. He now works with veterans.

They were among the 830,807 American soldiers who served in Afghanistan, according to statistics from the United States Department of Defense (DOD). Of these, 2,448 died and 20,722 were injured as of June 4. Twenty-five Connecticut service members have died in Afghanistan or from injuries sustained there, according to data compiled by state and veteran advocates for memorials in Hartford and Middletown.

The DOD did not provide the total number of Connecticut residents who served in Afghanistan, but did release statistics on those sent by Connecticut-based units, such as the National Guard, Reserves and Naval Base Groton. between October 1, 2001 and September 30, 2020, as follows: 2,082 soldiers, 18 dead and 238 wounded.

The war cost the U.S. government $ 2.26 trillion as of April 15, according to the Costs of war project, based at Brown University and Boston University. The amount does not include the costs of caring for Afghan ex-combatants or future interest payments on money borrowed to finance the war.

Cloe Poisson :: C-HIT.ORG

As a combat troop leader, Alyssa Kelleher has witnessed bloodshed and great poverty among the Afghan people. She is now a mom and director of the Office of Veterans Affairs and Military Programs at the University of Connecticut.

Unique health challenges

VA Connecticut Healthcare System PTSD / Anxiety Disorders Team psychiatrist Dr Sara Rubin said deployments to Afghanistan presented unique challenges for troops due to the country’s rugged terrain, the smaller military units that served there and fewer resources than the war troops in Iraq. . She said the result is a feeling of isolation, which exacerbates PTSD. She pointed out that TBI, often associated with PTSD, is the “hallmark wound” of the war in Afghanistan. She explained that the damage occurs in the frontal lobe of the brain, which controls functions such as restlessness and rage.

Christina Savage, a VA social worker with the Post 9/11 Case Management Team, said other issues she sees in veterans of recent deployments include muscle aches, drug addiction, poor nutrition, poor hygiene, destroyed families and a general struggle to live without the military structure.

Correa said most of his problems arose when counseling veterans. “I was trying to help others. I thought I was doing a good job, ”he said. But at night, he lashed out at his wife in unprovoked fits of anger.

When he was hospitalized, he spoke for the first time of a long-standing anger. He had unsuccessfully requested an extension of his leave from Afghanistan to help his legally blind wife, who had been injured in a car accident. The situation escalated with his supervisor yelling at him and ordering him to do push-ups, and Correa hit the officer and was demoted, he said. “I felt betrayed,” he says.

Kelleher said his first deployment was extended because the unit that was supposed to replace his was sent to Iraq instead. “A lot of resources and focus were going to Iraq and not Afghanistan,” where conditions for troops were generally “remote and austere,” she said. And, the harsh existence of the Afghan people, many of whom have neither plumbing nor reliable electricity, “is something that stays with you,” she said.

Now she puts the issues into perspective. “Almost everything you come across won’t be as bad as a bad day there,” she said.

As a leader, she met many Afghan men who did not want to speak to her even though she had male Afghan interpreters.

She always knew where her troops were and had immediate access to information. But, back home, she panicked if she couldn’t reach people. “It took conscious work on my part” to figure out that they probably weren’t in danger, she said. Ironically, she recognized her anxiety during her training to be a counselor in an Army Resilience Program and used the program to help herself overcome it.

Cloe Poisson :: C-HIT.ORG

Fausto Parra of Trumbull, served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has dedicated his career to working for the veterans.

Kelleher of Willington has a 3 year old daughter and, in addition to her work at UConn, she is a lieutenant colonel in the Connecticut National Guard. She ended her relationships with people who showed no interest in her deployments, which she considered important parts of her life. But she maintains friendships with around 60 people from her deployments. “These are the beautiful things about the military – the people you’ve been through these things with – you stay in touch for life,” she said.

Parra said the people he was deployed with have become his family. Parra, who left the military after two deployments, mourns another soldier who had two more deployments and committed suicide. Parra linked him to the multiple deployments. “I can imagine,” he said, “that you can turn into someone completely different.”

While earning associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees, Parra dedicated her career to veterans, working for the VA, the State Department of Veterans Affairs, the nonprofit workplace, and now the DOD. “I have found no passion other than serving veterans,” he said.

End of the longest war

Correa expressed doubts about the planned troop withdrawal. The Afghan people “must be freed from the Taliban,” he said, adding: “The job is not done.

Kelleher took a similar position. She was an Army Platoon Leader on her first deployment and a Company Commander in the Connecticut National Guard on her second. The withdrawal is “hard to see because you were there and believed in what you were doing, and have a lot of personal friends who gave their lives for this cause,” she said. “There is always unrest. There is still violence. There is still mistreatment of women and minorities. These are things we wanted to help change, ”she added.

Parra expressed his relief over the withdrawal, a sentiment shared by the 25 military veterans of his deployment with whom he remains in contact. Some have children of service age and they are happy that their offspring do not have to go to Afghanistan. He said since Biden’s announcement, the group has reached out more than usual to verify each other.

For Correa, nonprofit veterans organizations gave her strategies to budget for and improve marital communications, fitness programs, peer support groups, social events, and gift cards for family movie nights.

Thinking back to his deployments where colleagues were injured or died, Correa said, “I didn’t get shot. I did not explode. They did it. Some people might take this as a blessing. For me, I should have hurt myself.

This story was first published on June 14, 2021 by the Connecticut Health Investigation Team.

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