Today marks the first Veterans Day in two decades in which the United States is not at war. But local veterans want the public to remember that while the war in Afghanistan is now over, it’s still important to honor and care for those who served.
While Paul Palya, commander of American Legion Post 51 in Uniontown, said most of the group’s members are from older generations, he knows younger vets who served in Afghanistan are struggling with the chaotic withdrawal from the country after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August.
“I don’t think that’s kicked in yet. They’re still trying to figure it out,” Palya said. “The ones I do know are going through some depression ever since the withdrawal out of the country. ... They’re in a bad state of mind, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Gino Ferretti, a spokesman for the Western Pennsylvania Chapter of Veterans for Peace, agreed that this Veterans Day does have a different meaning to many who served, especially those who fought in Afghanistan.
“It feels different only because we are fresh off of a withdrawal from war that was so chaotic and costly,” he said. “The physiological wounds are fresh on the minds and hearts of former Afghan (war) soldiers who have had to witness, in person or from their homes, the unnecessary loss of life and feelings of failure.”
His group, which is a national organization with local chapters that advocate for peace, is balancing its appreciation that the war is over with the way it ended in which 13 American service members and countless Afghans were killed Aug. 26 by a suicide bomber outside of Kabul’s airport during evacuations. The last U.S. soldiers exited the country on Aug. 30.
“Obviously any time war is not being waged is a good time for the world,” Ferretti said. “The way the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan and the unnecessary loss of more U.S. and civilian lives because of the reckless abandonment of the country should be a reminder of the perils of war.”
The war in Afghanistan officially began Oct. 7, 2001, less than a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. While the initial invasion was successful, the military operation slogged on for nearly two decades and spanned four presidential administrations.
Rob Doria, commander for the Fayette County committee of the American Legion, is glad it’s now over.
“Personally, I’m happy we don’t have any soldiers or sailors in harm’s way on the battlefield,” he said. “The war had to end sooner rather than later.”
Doria, who served in the Army from 1975 to 1978 and the Coast Guard from 1981 to 1986, said the focus now should be on helping younger vets who enlisted after 9/11, and he said the American Legion is trying to reach out to let them know the organization is more than “a flag pole in a bar.” He said there are various programs, events and support groups to offer them assistance.
Likewise, the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania is a nonprofit organization working to help veterans navigate their transitions back into civilian life. The Pittsburgh-based group offers help to nearly 6,500 veterans and their families with housing, career development, wellness and support services in 30 counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York.
Tim Martin, an Army veteran and the director of the nonprofit’s veteran services, said he is both heartbroken by the way the war ended, but also comforted by the strides made by American forces to improve the lives of Afghans over the past two decades. He thinks that will be the legacy of those who served.
“Every war must come to an end, but remembering the sacrifices will always continue and so will Veterans Leadership Program’s commitment to serving all those who have served,” Martin said.
Less than three months after the United States ended its longest war, there will be both celebration and reflection.
Ferretti said Veterans for Peace chooses to recognize today as Armistice Day, which is the original name of the holiday to mark the end of fighting in World War I on Nov. 11, 1918. It became a national holiday in 1938 and was later changed in 1954 to honor all veterans of war. Ferretti, a South Park resident who enlisted in the Army in 1998 and served in Bosnia, said the holiday is a reminder to his group of what is lost during war.
“War has no winners, as success is marked by casualty count,” he said. “Those who were lucky enough to make it fight debilitating mental and physical disabilities because of war. We always want to remember those who gave their lives for unjust reasons, but also remember to reach out to fellow veterans who may be struggling with their emotions as the country typically goes nationalist on holidays pertaining to veterans, and patriotism.”
Palya, who served in the Army from 1981 to 1990 and worked in military police in Germany, said Veterans Day this year will offer dual purposes. While it’s the first holiday after the exit from Afghanistan, it also will offer the community a chance to celebrate local veterans after last year’s Veterans Day parade in Fayette County was canceled. Palya said any veteran is invited to march in this year’s parade in downtown Uniontown, which begins at 10:45 a.m. today.
“We weren’t able to bust out last year,” Palya said. “It’s like getting a new breath of fresh air.”