Twenty years after Canada first sent troops into Afghanistan, military veterans are watching the Taliban retake the country they fought to free and are asking one question: Was it worth it?
More than 40,000 Canadian troops were deployed in Afghanistan over 13 years, as part of the NATO mission that ended in 2014. The Canadian Forces lost 159 soldiers in the fighting, but many veterans say the toll wasn’t fully realized until thousands returned home broken and traumatized by what they had seen and done.
“I’m sick to my stomach watching this,” said Fabian Henry, a Cape Breton-raised former soldier who did two tours in Afghanistan.
“It was a nightmare over there. To look back now, and to feel like it was all for nothing, it just makes my stomach turn.”
Ottawa ministers vow to bring 20,000 Afghan refugees to safety
The Taliban are reconquering Afghanistan. How did we get here?
Who is to blame for the loss in Afghanistan?
Mr. Henry, who was medically released by the military in 2012 and diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, says many former soldiers spent years trying to get help, and are still struggling. He’s still in treatment for his own PTSD – triggered in part by a horrific Easter weekend in 2007 when six Canadian soldiers from CFB Gagetown, his base, were killed by a bomb buried in a road southwest of Kandahar City.
“We’ve still got guys taking their own lives because of Afghanistan,” he said. “We pulled out, and now we’re fighting our own war here at home.”
Trevor Bungay, a veteran from Newfoundland who spent 17 years in the infantry with four combat tours of Afghanistan, said thousands of Canadian lives were destroyed by the war. Many soldiers returned home with debilitating trauma that still continues to tear families apart, he said.
The human cost of the war is far less understood than the billions Canada spent deploying troops to Afghanistan, he said.
“I’ve lost so many friends to suicide I’ve stopped counting,” he said. “How many lives were ruined by that war? How many people will never work again? How many people will never smile again, or come out of their basement again? That’s the cost – and that’s the stuff that’s unmeasurable.”
Who is to blame for the loss in Afghanistan?
Exiting Afghanistan will go down in history as Joe Biden’s big blunder
Mr. Bungay is among more than 3,500 Afghanistan veterans diagnosed with PTSD. Many of them had to rely on an ad-hoc support system created by ex-soldiers, or take their recovery into their own hands, because they felt abandoned by the military when they returned home, he said. Many are still dealing with the rage, flashbacks, alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts caused by their wartime trauma, he said.
The former soldier, who became addicted to OxyContin and used to take sleeping pills to stop his nightmares before co-founding an organization that helps soldiers deal with chronic pain and trauma, says he did his best to help while there. He gave books to Afghan children and handed out toys from a box his parents had shipped over from Newfoundland.
But Mr. Bungay said he had doubts even then about whether peace in the region would last and the Taliban could be kept out permanently.
“Even the first time I went over there, I thought, ‘Are we really going to be able to do any good here?’ ” he said. “It was never our war to fight. For me, it’s saddening to see it’s all come to a head.”
Another veteran, Tim Laidler, was supposed to be peacefully houseboating for a friend’s wedding in rural B.C. this weekend. Instead, as he processes the news from Afghanistan, he feels as if he’s back in the thick of a mission. Now executive director of the Institute for Veterans Education and Transition at the University of British Columbia, the retired corporal served in Kandahar in 2008 in a convoy escort platoon, among other roles.
Watching the Taliban once again sweep across the country has dragged Mr. Laidler back in time with an unnerving intensity. “It’s triggering all the memories,” he said. “It puts your body into a high level of alert. It feels like I’m back overseas on operation again. There’s this level of stress, this cortisol pumping through my blood – I can feel it.”
Over the past few weeks, Mr. Laidler has suffered a lot of sleepless nights and can’t think about much beyond the crisis unfolding in the country he fought to keep free of the Taliban more than a decade ago. He knows this strain on his mental health isn’t sustainable. “It blasts out anything else that’s going on in your life,” he said. “My own experience with traumatic stress is, it’s not healthy to live like that.”
But far more than himself, Mr. Laidler is worried about the Afghans who worked with the Canadian military and are now in mortal danger of Taliban reprisals. The federal government has announced a program to resettle “integral” former Afghan staff from Canada’s military mission – but for those still scrambling to leave the country, while special forces reportedly hasten to evacuate the Canadian embassy in Kabul, government support has felt terrifyingly thin.
Mr. Laidler said the parents of an Afghan interpreter he knows recently had to “jump over the dead bodies of Taliban and police in the streets” after a firefight in their village, then watched their house burn down as they fled. “They know their names are on some [Taliban] list somewhere,” he added. (The Veterans Transition Network, a charity whose board Mr. Laidler sits on, is currently fundraising to help support interpreters and their families awaiting evacuation from Afghanistan.)
Mr. Laidler said he and many other veterans feel angry at U.S. President Joe Biden for hastily withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, a policy announced in the spring and scheduled to be completed by Aug. 31. It is “heartbreaking” to contemplate the millions of students whose education will be curbed by the fundamentalist Taliban, he added, and to think of all the infrastructure Canadian forces helped build that will now fall into the new regime’s hands.
“It’s going to be an absolute humanitarian crisis,” Mr. Laidler said. “It just kind of feels like everyone is shrugging their shoulders and saying, ‘Well, we don’t have the stomach to fight anymore, so we’re just going to condemn these millions of people to this awful existence – and many to death.’”
Amid his anger, frustration and sorrow at Afghanistan’s current fate, Mr. Laidler remains on high alert, as though he were back in Kandahar again. Other thoughts and feelings have been pushed aside. It’s the same for many of the Canadian veterans he knows, he said.
“Our minds are so preoccupied, we don’t even have time to grieve what’s happening to the country. We’re still in crisis mode.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.