‘Memory will be difficult’: Afghanistan veterans recede after Taliban take power | Memorial day

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

One of them is Rob Shenton, a former major who has suffered from bouts of depression and PTSD, and served two tours in the country before being 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 led to a new round of soul-searching. “Deep down, it has affected me. I asked myself: was it worth all the effort, did it lead to my medical discharge? “He said.

This has meant that the 49-year-old veteran, a spokesman for the charity Help for Heroes, does not plan to attend Cenotaph or any other parade on Sunday this year – and urges the public to think differently about who British veterans are today.

“The number of World War II veterans is now declining. 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 will be a few lost souls out there, ”said Shenton, who served in the Engineering Corps.

Charities reported an increase in contacts from Afghan veterans this summer when it became clear that the West’s former enemy in the country, the Taliban, was embarking on a high-speed takeover that culminated in the conquest of Kabul.

“My Afghanistan veteran patients are still tired of the withdrawal,” said Dr. Walter Busuttil, research director 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 the memory this year even harder for some”.

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

A particularly memorable episode involved Shenton arranging the transport of the body of an Afghan they had been working with who had been killed by the Taliban. “We made the decision to respect Islamic custom and ensure he could be buried before sunset,” he said, requiring a helicopter to bring 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 that when local people put the body in a coffin, one of them shook my hand and said thank you.

Shenton says he felt proud of the work he did on the trip, working closely with Afghans and the British Foreign Office and the Overseas Development Agency, engaged in post-conflict reconstruction and arranging the employment of local people in reconstruction programs.

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

‘There were many different opinions. Some said we were doing our job, others felt a sense of total loss; many were somewhere in between. But we have to honor the people who did not come back – the victims could not have been in vain, “he said.

For Shenton, however, 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 at the parade or any other formal memorial service this year.

Instead, the former soldier has chosen to participate in a veteran event at a military orienteering competition in Aldershot, where “I want to be around the defense community, around people who understand. Because of what’s been in the news, it’s just different. ”

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