Germany’s Afghanistan veterans struggle with mission’s fate

Since the Taliban seized power, many Bundeswehr soldiers have felt that their deployment in Afghanistan was in vain. Traumatized personnel are suffering particularly hard.

Jenni Bruns found the images of the Taliban’s invasion of Kabul hard to bear.

“I’m not doing well at all,” the former soldier says on the phone. In 2010 she was deployed to Afghanistan. In an outpost in the north of the country, she worked doing water treatment. While there she witnessed attacks by the Taliban and saw comrades wounded and killed. After returning to Germany, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since then, she has suffered nightmares, insomnia, anxiety and panic attacks. “I sacrificed my health for this mission,” Bruns says.

The fact that the Taliban now appear to be undoing everything that international troops had achieved is a great burden for soldiers like Bruns. “I’m currently struggling with an enormous increase in flashbacks and insomnia,” says the 36-year-old. With PTSD, the brain reproduces traumatic experiences in flashbacks. “I often see a lot of blood again, I feel the heat, I taste the sand on my tongue,” she says. “I just had therapy, and we talked about ‘retraumatization.'”

Bundeswehr soldier Jenni Bruns in Afghanistan in 2010Bundeswehr soldier Jenni Bruns, pictured in 2010 by a burned-out US Army vehicle — she helped care for the two US comrades who were severely wounded in the attack

‘Thunderstorm of emotions’

Bruns is not alone in her experience. “The failure of the international military mission is a big setback for the traumatized,” says Bernhard Drescher. As a soldier, he was deployed abroad three times in the Balkans. Today, he heads the Association of German Veterans (Bund Deutscher EinsatzVeteranen), which advises and supports those injured in action.

Since the Taliban quickly regained control of Afghanistan, the veteran association’s phones have not stopped ringing. Many callers are stunned and angry. “Now they’re questioning the point of it: Was it all for nothing?” says Drescher. Many of the 160,000 German soldiers who were deployed in Afghanistan are currently experiencing “a thunderstorm of emotions,” he says.

A lot of people on the line just want to talk, let off some steam and then recover. “But it’s very bad for someone who is traumatized,” says Drescher. The feeling that all personal sacrifices were in vain could undo successes achieved in therapy. At the moment, the association’s volunteers are “at their limit” because there are so many inquiries.

But the association is committed to not leaving anyone alone to handle a mental health emergency. “If so desired, our volunteers are personally on someone’s doorstep within 48 hours at the very latest. And in even less time in large cities.”

A Taliban fighter in Kabul on August 17, 2021 next to a poster proclaiming the 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan'The Taliban retook control of Afghanistan on August 15

Anger and sadness after mission

Bruns finds it helpful to talk about her feelings and write down her thoughts. When she sees what’s happening in Afghanistan, what she feels most of all is anger. The withdrawal of the international troops was “completely hasty” and “very rash,” she says. “The fact that the Taliban are now going from house to house and searching homes makes me speechless, infinitely sad and angry.” Also on her mind are local staff, women and children who stayed behind.

The 20-year operation had a lack of foresight and sustainability, she says. One example of that is how the Afghan army offered little resistance to the Taliban as they advanced. “You want to see a meaning in what you’ve done. And I no longer see that with regards to this mission,” Brun draws the conclusion.

She has also found herself thinking of the families of comrades who lost their lives: “Of course you ask yourself: Were 59 German soldiers killed in Afghanistan for nothing?”

Lack of closure

The German Defense Ministry had intended to ask itself these very same and further questions in August. It invited politicians, experts and soldiers to an event where they could exchange views on the Afghanistan mission.

A military tattoo, or or display of armed forces, was also due to be held in front of the Reichstag building — a closing roll call for the Afghanistan mission. Bruns would have been a guest of honor there. But due to the tumultuous events in Kabul, both events were canceled.

Nevertheless, the processing and evaluation of the operation shouldn’t be put on the back burner, Afghanistan veterans have warned. Otherwise, the same mistakes could be repeated on other missions, such as the mission of the Bundeswehr, or German armed forces, in Mali.

Bruns is also calling for the military to candidly take stock of the two-decade mission in Afghanistan. And if that only happens after Germany’s federal election in September, those responsible should still be held accountable, she adds.

“Time has to be taken to do it, to be honest and admit mistakes.”

A lingering ‘second war’

The Association of German Veterans believes the Afghanistan mission will keep German society busy for a long time to come. Mental scars in particular often only manifest themselves years after an assignment, says Drescher, pointing not only to PTSD, but a broader range of mental illnesses.

Many of those affected are no longer with the Bundeswehr at the time of diagnosis, and therefore can’t rely on help from fellow troops. “They’re definitely going into a second war — the war of managing their well-being and caring for themselves.”

According to Germany’s defense ministry, some 300 soldiers who were in Afghanistan were newly diagnosed with mental illnesses in 2020. The Bundeswehr has long been running a trauma hotline around the clock for people affected by PTSD. And at the moment, there are no more calls than usual, a defense ministry spokesperson told DW.

This stands in sharp contrast to the veterans association’s experience. And according to Drescher, it’s only a matter of time before the number of those looking for help increases: “According to our observations, it takes five to seven years before people ask for help. That means there’s another wave from the Afghanistan mission heading our way.”

While you’re here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era./DW

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