A sign hangs out in front of a yard on Lee Highway near Sperryville asking that President Joe Biden extract all Americans from Afghanistan. According to news reports, the U.S. was not able to get out everybody who wanted to flee the country by the Aug. 31 deadline.

The last American planes flew out of Afghanistan on Monday night, ending the 20-year war, but for many Americans — including some in quiet Rappahannock County — the war lives on for a lifetime as families grapple with the tragic aftermath.

One Rappahannock resident thought of her late husband, a “true patriot,” she described him as, who died by suicide after returning from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The soldiers, a lot of them are voluntary, but the families aren't, and the families suffer a lot, a whole lot,” said the Rappahannock County resident, who wished to remain anonymous for the privacy of her family.

She said that after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, her husband joined the Virginia National Guard and was eventually deployed overseas, first to Iraq and then later Afghanistan.

Living as an army wife, trying to take care of children came with extreme challenges, she said, including having to accept that her spouse was fighting a war whose cause she did not believe in.

“But my husband was totally into it,” she said. “He totally believed in the mission. But the stories that he had, and I'm sure he didn't tell me everything of what they were doing on the ground in Afghanistan, was pretty horrible. The mission wasn't always clear.”

The U.S. and its allies first invaded Afghanistan in 2001 under Republican former President George W. Bush to combat terrorism after the attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, driving the Taliban from power weeks after the invasion. America would then spend the next two decades trying to rebuild the Afghan government and train the country’s military, while also allowing Afghan women rights they were not afforded under the Taliban.

Now, after President Joe Biden pulled the last of the remaining U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, the Taliban is back in full control and the future of women's rights in the country is uncertain.

The Rappahannock resident said she witnessed how the war changed her husband, saying he was almost a different person when he returned from Afghanistan in 2008. He was once a joyous person with a wonderful sense of humor, but after serving overseas, he carried a newfound sense of sadness.

“There was a real dark side and a very locked up private side,” she said of her husband. “There was a lot inside that was in there that he wouldn't let out. And there was anger, and there were a lot of irrational actions. It just kind of unbalances people in a way that only war can can do.”

There has been extensive news coverage of the events taking place in Afghanistan, with images of mothers handing their babies to U.S. soldiers out of desperation for their children to get out of the country before the U.S. exited and Taliban took over.

Katrina Powell, the director of Virginia Tech’s New Center for Refugee, Migrant and Displacement Studies, said that as Americans look at images of Afghan people clinging to U.S. airplanes and flooding airports trying to escape the Taliban, it’s important to understand the country’s complex history and multiculturalism. 

“There is often a lot of really highly politicized rhetoric about refugees and immigrants generally, and what particular people might be like from particular countries, and that kind of rhetoric can lead to misconceptions about people from a particular culture,” Powell said. “And I think what's really important to remember is that typical Afghanistan citizens come from a really interesting and diverse culture. The country is very diverse, multilingual.”

At the same time, Powell said that the images we’re seeing in the media are indicative of the sense of urgency some people in the country are feeling, especially for women and girls who have been able to work and go to school and may no longer be able to under Taliban rule, or for young people who don’t have memories of what it was like to live under a theocratic regime.

David Soroko, another Rappahannock resident, worked in Afghanistan for two and a half months in 2010 researching sustainable agricultural finance in the region for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). He said he had a security team and an Afghan interpreter accompany him all over the country while he interviewed hundreds of locals.

He found the people of Afghanistan to be very welcoming, open, positive and extremely cooperative.

“One of the most interesting things I remember during my time in Afghanistan was driving down the road, when schools were either beginning or getting out, and all the little girls that were were marching up and down the road in their school uniforms ... But all of those people have gotten used to that type of cultural phenomenon where everybody has access to education, or more or less everybody. So it's going to be very hard, in my opinion, for the Taliban to put that genie back in the box,” Soroko said.

While it’s unclear what the future holds for Afghanistan, Powell said there are groups working in the U.S. to help speed up the resettlement process for Afghan refugees — a process that is known to be slow and difficult.

“I think mostly people who are seeking asylum are worried about, of course, their own safety, but the safety of their children and educating their children ... And they want to make a living and take care of their families just like anyone else would,” Powell said.


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