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La Plata County comes together for veterans as Afghanistan falls into chaos

‘They don’t have to go through this alone,’ says county manager and Afghan vet
Chris Burgess, an Afghanistan veteran, said he thought the military drawdown was the right move in May, but the way it has been handled has been a tragedy. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Chris Burgess, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, has spent the last few days distracted – he normally tries not to watch the news but now he can’t turn it off.

“I’m doing fine, but I can see how it’s definitely affecting others,” Burgess said. “I know a lot of my friends are checking on each other to make sure they’re doing all right.”

The Taliban has rapidly retaken Afghanistan amid the U.S. military departure. Since early August, the Taliban has taken control of major cities, and the country’s president has fled. Thousands of Afghan citizens are trying to flee, while more are left uncertain or fearful of what Taliban rule will bring, according to news reports.

A hemisphere away, Americans are grappling with what to make of their longest war. In Southwest Colorado, community members are reaching out to support each other, veterans and Afghani citizens.

“It’s an incredibly dramatic series of events that’s occurring, and something that I don’t think we’ve seen possibly since Vietnam. I know a lot of our vets lived through that,” said Chuck Stevens, La Plata County manager. “I was concerned they might have feelings of frustration, confusion, anger – even betrayal.”

The Taliban offensive in Afghanistan started in May but intensified in August after the United States left the Bagram Airfield, the key hub for the American war. Kabul was the last major city to fall to the Taliban.

News reports show chaotic scenes and shots fired into the air at Kabul Airport as families line up hoping to be evacuated. Concerns have been raised about the future of women under the Taliban’s enforcement of Sharia law.

In response to the events in Afghanistan, Stevens met with veterans among the county’s employees this week to show support. He reminded them of resources, such as the employee assistance program and the county’s Veterans Services Office.

La Plata County commissioners joined in with a statement of gratitude to veterans.

“We support you during this emotionally trying time and recognize the stress that the veteran community is under as events continue to unfold overseas,” the statement read Wednesday on Facebook.

About 10% of the county’s 400 employees are veterans, said Stevens, who served in Afghanistan for part of his 25-year career as a U.S. Marine.

He didn’t want staff members to go into the weekend without knowing they have resources and support available, he said.

“I just think it was important that our organizational leadership let all our veterans know we support them. We value their service; we’re here to support them,” Stevens said. “They don’t have to go through this alone.”

Grappling with Afghanistan

Chris Wood, a Marine veteran in Farmington who served in the Afghanistan War, was concerned in May that American troops were being pulled out before the job was done.

“I understand we were there for 20 years, but us leaving is just going to tumble that country back to civil war,” he said Thursday. ”Honestly, I think that would’ve happened anyway. So why were we there in the first place?”

The outcome of the military drawdown makes him feel “anxious, angry and pissed off,” Wood said.

It’s been on his mind almost all day, every day. He stopped looking at social media. He has a therapist through Veterans Affairs, but he doesn’t plan to go back anytime soon: Face coverings are required because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the masks cause flashbacks to wearing hot suits to protect against possible nerve agents during his military tour.

Instead of watching social media, he’s taking care of overdue yard work, he said.

“Personally, I’m covered. I’m good,” he said. “I have my family. I have my service dog.”

Chris Burgess, left, an Afghanistan veteran, shares a laugh Thursday with fellow veterans from left, Darrell Smir, Stephen Beck and Demetrius Lewis at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031 in Durango. Many Americans, including veterans, are grappling with chaotic events in Afghanistan. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

In May, Burgess thought the military drawdown was the right move, but the way it has been handled has caused a tragedy, he said.

“I understand that this could’ve happened. ... It is a tragedy, I think,” said Burgess, who served in the Marine Corps. “It doesn’t really negate anyone’s service, including my own. What we did over there was still part of our job. ... I think we should’ve started closing this up when we got (Osama) bin Laden. That could’ve been the end of it.”

In Durango, he feels like the community “has his back.”

“That’s part of why I love Durango. It’s a very solid veteran community,” he said.

Veterans of other military conflicts are watching out for their peers.

“I’m sad for my colleagues and friends who’ve suffered tremendous physical and emotional loss as a result of their service in Afghanistan,” said Tracy Roach, a veteran and La Plata County employee. “I’m worried about how triggering this is for my friends who deployed throughout the conflict.”

Coming together

During a difficult moment, taking action – even something as simple as having coffee with other veterans – can help, said Greg Dotson, a retired Navy veteran and a county Veterans Services officer.

If professional services aren’t the right fit, the Durango Veterans of Foreign Wars post has Wednesday morning coffee.

“It’s just a good time for a veteran to stop by and have a cup of coffee with fellow veterans,” he said. “Things like that where they can feel less excluded, more included, is always good.”

Maddy Glotfelty, 16, an Animas High School student, also wanted to take action. Glotfelty, her sister, Julie, and her friend, Roan Harvey, launched a GoFundMe to raise $2,000 for women in Afghanistan through the nonprofit, Women for Women International.

The trio wanted more people their age to take action.

“It can seem like we are extremely displaced and not at all a part of this conflict. Yet, if you are able to empathize with the people and what they’re going through, you realize you wouldn’t want anyone to think it wasn’t their problem,” Glotfelty said. “When people are being hurt, and women and children are being displaced, it’s everyone’s problem.”

For Roach, the county’s show of support and meeting with veterans meant a lot, she said. It helped her connect with other veterans. In turn, she wanted veterans to know the military did not fail, nor did soldiers. She urged veterans to check in with each other.

“Soldiers fulfilled their given duty,” Roach said. “I want them to understand that they did their job and that it did matter!”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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