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WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs urged veterans Tuesday to seek mental health care if they need help coming to terms with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan — a country where hundreds of thousands of veterans served in the 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The Taliban’s rapid conquest of the country during the past week left some Afghanistan War veterans stunned and troubled. In messages to veterans, Republicans and Democrats in Congress, as well as President Joe Biden’s administration, listed available mental health resources, offered consolations and encouraged veterans to check on each other. VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the VA is “standing by and ready to help.”

“When our country was attacked, you and your loved ones made the heroic choice to run toward the fight. That courageous sacrifice matters and has made us safer, no matter what happens today or any other day,” McDonough said. “It’s entirely natural to feel a range of emotions about the latest developments in Afghanistan — and if you are feeling depressed, angry, heartbroken, or anything else, we at VA are here for you.”

Taliban fighters swept into Kabul on Sunday nearly two decades after the American military drove them out, ending the Afghan government’s rule of the country and forcing President Ashraf Ghani to flee Afghanistan. It also signaled the final stage of the U.S. involvement there, and staff at the U.S. Embassy evacuated.

Even before the takeover, the VA on Friday warned it had seen an uptick in veterans seeking mental health care. The department attributed the increase in demand to America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the upcoming 20th anniversary of 9/11. Nearly 2 million post-9/11 veterans are enrolled into VA health care.

In response to the news out of Afghanistan, the VA said veterans could feel frustrated, sad, helpless, distressed, angry, betrayed or morally stressed. Some veterans could experience increased symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep poorly, drink or use drugs or feel guarded.

“Veterans should be on the lookout for red flags if news of Afghanistan starts changing behavior,” said Sonya Norman, director of the National Center for PTSD Consultation. “These include isolating, using alcohol and drugs or any increase in unhealthy behaviors compared to normal.”

The department encouraged veterans to spend time with loved ones, practice self-care, stick to their routines and limit their media exposure. Veterans can also visit a Vet Center or access the VA’s mental health services at mentalhealth.va.gov.

Veterans in need of urgent help can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, text 838255, or start an online chat at veteranscrisisline.net.

The VA also suggested veterans reach out to organizations such as Together We Served, Student Veterans of America, Team Rubicon and Team Red, White & Blue.

Mike Linnington, the CEO of Wounded Warrior Project, urged veterans in a video message Tuesday to contact his organization for help. Linnington is an Afghanistan War veteran, and he said he was troubled by the news out of Afghanistan during the past few days.

“Reach out to a battle buddy today. Check in with them,” he said. “Now is not the time to go it alone. Please lean on us and one another to get through these difficult times.”

Disabled American Veterans, which comprises 1,300 chapters across the United States, said thousands of their trained service officers are available to connect veterans to available mental health resources if they’re having trouble finding any.

“For nearly 20 years, a generation of American warfighters has sacrificed life, limb and well-being for their fellow countrymen and the people of Afghanistan,” said Andy Marshall, national commander of DAV. “For many, witnessing the ongoing situation there will bring about strong and complex emotions that will be difficult to process.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., is shown in this undated file photo.
The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., is shown in this undated file photo. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)
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