Remembering the past: Afghan veterans reeling from Taliban takeover

This year’s Remembrance Sunday commemorations will be the first since last summer’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, events that have prompted many British veterans to question the value of their time in the country.

One of those is Rob Shenton, a former major who has suffered from bouts of depression and PTSD, and served two tours in the country before he was medically discharged by the army in 2016 after 25 years, after a period of poor mental health.

Five years into civilian life, the unexpected Taliban takeover in August prompted a fresh bout of soul-searching. “Deep down, it has affected me. I asked myself: was it worth all that effort, did it lead to my medical discharge?” he said.

It has meant that this year, the 49-year-old veteran, a spokesman for the Help for Heroes charity, isn’t planning to attend the Cenotaph or any other parade on Sunday – and is calling on the public to think differently about who British veterans are today.

“The number of world war two veterans is now diminishing. Today’s veterans are much younger, people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan; they could even be in their 20s. People who go to their local cenotaph should look around: there are going to be a few lost souls out there,” said Shenton, who served in the Engineering Corps.

Charities reported a surge in contacts from Afghan veterans this summer as it became clear that the west’s former enemies in the country, the Taliban, were staging a high-speed takeover, culminating in the capture of Kabul.

“My Afghanistan veteran patients are still fed up with the withdrawal,” said Dr Walter Busuttil, the director of research at Combat Stress, a charity that helps treat cases of PTSD. Many had now begun to come to terms with it, he said, but “the nature of the withdrawal will make remembrance this year even more difficult for some”.

Shenton worked as a community liaison officer in Musa Qala, Helmand on one of his tours in 2008, where he saw “post-suicide-bomb incidents – images that will always stay with you”. The tour as a whole was full of moments that were “heart-stopping, heartbreaking, heart-rending”, he added.

A particularly memorable episode involved Shenton arranging the transportation of the body of an Afghan whom they had worked with, who had been killed by the Taliban. “We made the decision to respect Islamic custom and ensure he could be buried before sundown,” he said, which required a helicopter to take the body to the family.

“It was not a difficult decision, but it was a difficult period. At the end of the day, he was a friend. What I just remember is, as local people were putting the body into a coffin, one of them shook my hand and said thank you.”

Shenton says he felt proud of the work that he did on that tour, working closely with Afghans, and the UK Foreign Office and Overseas Development Agency, engaged in post-conflict reconstruction, and arranging the employment of locals in rebuilding programmes.

“We always knew there would be a withdrawal, as long ago as 2012. But the surprise was what happened afterwards in terms of the Taliban takeover,” Shenton added, saying the events prompted an intense discussion among Afghanistan veterans at home.

“There were lots of different opinions. Some said we did our job, others felt a sense of total loss; many were somewhere in the middle ground. But we’ve got to honour those people that didn’t come back – the sacrifices can’t have been in vain,” he said.

However, for Shenton, the aftermath of August’s messy retreat has meant he will not be at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, where he has previously represented the Help for Heroes charity on parade, or any other formal memorial service this year.

Instead, the former soldier has chosen to take part in a veterans event at a military orienteering competition in Aldershot, where “I’ll be around the armed forces community, around people who understand. Because of what’s been in the news, it’s just different.”

Courtesy: The Guardian

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