Veterans of America's longest war worry about Afghans left behind This week marks one year since the abrupt end of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. U.S. veterans are still trying to come to terms with the collapse of the mission.

A year after the Taliban takeover, U.S. veterans worry about the Afghan people

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One year ago this week, the U.S. war in Afghanistan came to an end after 20 years. We've been hearing voices of Afghans who fled the country and also those who stayed behind. We've even heard in recent days on this program from members of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Today, NPR's Quil Lawrence brings us the voices of American veterans who are still trying to come to terms with the collapse of the U.S. mission.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Afghanistan was America's longest war. More than 800,000 troops served.

TIMOTHY BERRY: Every veteran's going to have their own perspective on it.

LAWRENCE: Timothy Berry deployed with the Army in 2015, advising Afghan troops at a base near the Pakistan border. He had no illusions that the U.S. could win the war for the Afghans.

BERRY: We can talk about, like, what we did and what the United States could do better, etc., etc., like, and that the list is long. But the Afghans are - at the end of the day, they're people with agency just as we are, and they have to be accountable to their own decisions as much as we do.

LAWRENCE: The American mission in Afghanistan was never clear. For Berry, his duty to his fellow soldiers was.

BERRY: So from my perspective, as long as the guys I was with - as long as they came back home safely, I was - I had done my part.

LAWRENCE: Many vets feel the same. A decade before Berry, Army vet Shaun So did a tour in 2005. Even then, it seemed unclear how the U.S. was going to build a new nation that could stand up after America pulled out.

SHAUN SO: I'm like, do we really think this would go any other way? You know, I wasn't surprised at all, to be honest with you. I was more surprised of like, you know, we didn't have a better plan of leaving.

LAWRENCE: But that exit is what is haunting so many veterans, especially those who formed close ties with Afghan colleagues. Shaun So says this time last year he spent weeks helping his former interpreter get out of the country. The rest, he figures, are beyond his control.

SO: I don't know. But if I try to care anymore, I'm going to drive myself mad, you know? And so kind of, like, you know, you get this apathy and this sort of, like, ugh. It's politicians.

LAWRENCE: How much veterans believed in the mission and how close they got with Afghan troops and civilians plays a big role. Christy Barry deployed as what was called an Af/Pak hand. As part of a counterinsurgency effort, she studied the language and culture of Afghanistan.

CHRISTY BARRY: I'm not naive in terms of understanding what the difficulties were in that environment and the corruption of a lot of Afghan government officials. There was just a lot of hope with the younger generation and that these ideals would take root.

LAWRENCE: Barry went back to Afghanistan as a contractor for another tour. Over the years, she helped two of her former translators immigrate to the U.S. and hosted them in her home until they got on their feet. When Kabul fell, she started hearing from Afghans she knows, and the appeals for help have not stopped for the past 12 months.

BARRY: And they're still stuck there and feeling abandoned and neglected. And I get these messages of desperation all the time, but I have no real way to get them out. It feels like I gave up almost two years of my life for what? And not only are they not better off. I feel like they're worse off. So it's just a hard pill to swallow.

KAEL WESTON: It's not so much an anniversary as I think a real big part of the scar tissue that all of us have.

LAWRENCE: Kael Weston worked for the State Department in Iraq and Afghanistan, spending years on the ground with U.S. Marines in combat. Even watching the fall of Kabul from thousands of miles away last year, he says, was crushing.

WESTON: You know, I had a Marine general tell me that what he and we all saw happen in Kabul was harder than anything we experienced in Fallujah.

LAWRENCE: Harder than Fallujah, the biggest battle of the Iraq war. Weston is talking about something called moral injury, the trauma of witnessing something that goes against your core beliefs. It's well known to veterans who are trying to help their Afghan friends left behind. It's about having a promise they made in uniform broken, says Weston, and seeing Afghans rushing the airport as Americans evacuated last year - it cut right down to their identity and their honor.

WESTON: It was also a bad reflection of what we like to believe we represent, which is a competent, caring United States of America. And I think what a year ago reflected was the opposite of that - incompetence, and it didn't seem like we really cared as much as we really should have.

LAWRENCE: More than 2,400 Americans died in the Afghan war. Twenty thousand were wounded physically. But the invisible scars left by the chaotic retreat of American forces, the abandonment of Afghan allies - those scars may be impossible to number.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

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