SALEM, Ore. (KOIN) — In 2014, the NATO alliance’s chapter on the War in Afghanistan ended after 13 years of bloody conflict. The U.S. however, would keep fighting in the country for seven more years, becoming the nation’s longest enduring war.
As NATO forces left the middle eastern nation, Joe Mah was just arriving. Entering the U.S Army in 2011, his first deployment to Afghanistan was his only one. He spent it as part of the crew clearing hidden bombs and explosives along the roads. He recalls encountering 80 explosions.
“It was my job to remove the wreckage,” Mah said, “Thankfully, my entire unit came back.”
Though Mah says his deployment wasn’t smooth, he knew other tragedies that occurred to units deployed with his. It’s the tragic reality of war, he says.
“War is an unfortunate aspect to our lives,” Mah said, “As soldiers, we don’t really play much into how they start, really just how they go and how they end.”
Monday marked the first Memorial Day since the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan.
War was triggering for many veterans according to Kelly Fitzpatrick, the director of the Oregon Department of Veteran Affairs (ODVF). But if there’s a silver lining, it’s how the trauma troops go through is treated now.
“Sometimes we veterans are reluctant to seek help, but really seeking help and admitting that you need help is an act of courage,” Fitzpatrick said.
For Mah’s part, he’s familiar with the gap of care the government can leave the soldiers who fight for it. He currently works for the ODVF as a campus veteran coordinator, helping veterans connect with universities and colleges to get the most out of their G.I benefits for education and navigate the complex ways to obtain the benefits.
Though the number has recently been disputed, it’s been widely reported for years that an average of 22 veterans take their lives by suicide each day.
On a day meant to honor the lives lost, Mah agrees there has been a significant change in ensuring veterans who make it home from war can recover from the mental wounds they fight through while serving.
“In the years past, people just didn’t know about the real invisible scars and injuries that many service members come back from war with. Now that our knowledge and our medicine is catching up and that information is being disseminated, we are being more conscious and aware of when these situations arise,” Mah said.
Mah believes it doesn’t take a military career to serve one’s country and it can start with anyone just beginning the conversation and reaching out.
“Do more,” Mah said, “Check in on your veteran, make sure they’re okay. Make sure they’re cared about, make sure they know there are resources out there and there are people who may be sharing in their struggles.”
The Department of Veteran Affairs has created hub of mental health resources at https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/.