The Unanswerable.

When we bring purpose and intention to our actions in the aftermath of awful, we get a golden chance to still do something that counts.

I realized Thursday that I’ve had the clock on my phone set to Kabul time for eight years. In 2013, I made the change so that I could easily remember what time it was in Afghanistan. It made mental time zone math faster as I tried to coordinate communication while my husband was deployed. For three thousand twenty-two days I have kept time in an alternate universe.

Before this week, Afghanistan had been largely off of most peoples’ radars for quite some time. Headlines have been focused on other things. The pandemic.  Politics.  The price of meme stocks. The haunting horror of the Hindu Kush was out of sight, out of mind. For several years now it seemed to me we were still fighting a forgotten war. Many times while my husband was deployed when someone realized why he was gone I was asked, “Oh, wait. . . we’re still doing that?!” Yes, I thought, “we” are still doing that. I always swallowed my snark and gave a polite nod and patiently smiled instead. I got it. Most people have the privilege of being protected from the pain and price of war—it’s part of what we fight for. This chapter of our history was starting to fade quickly from the collective consciousness. Until Sunday.

I’ve experienced Afghanistan in multiple ways over the last decade of my life: sitting in a therapist’s chair, laying in my bed, standing beside a grave, and through the mind of a child. Each unique vantage point has given me a deep appreciation for the cost and complexity of what has been happening on the other side of the world. War is hell. It’s a nightmare most of us, thankfully, will never be able to begin to wrap our heads around. It changes you. It challenges you. It breaks some and transforms others.

Afghanistan across from a therapist’s chair

As a military psychologist, I sat across from veterans who shared their stories with me. I bore witness to their scars—those seen and unseen to the outside world. When you have to carry heavy garbage bags of bloody limbs, it fucks with you. It can’t not. Walking in boots covered with a thick, sticky, red substance that came from another human’s head will mess with yours. These are the kinds of things you don’t just silently sort out on your own. I spent several years helping some of the bravest people I know unscramble all of the things that the trauma of combat unearths. I tell people I have the best job in the world. I mean it. My work is an honor and privilege.

Afghanistan in my bedroom

I’ve lived Afghanistan from another place too. As a military spouse, I’ve slept over one thousand nights in an empty bed. I’ve also been awakened by the screams of war. The ones caused by continued terror at night long after someone returns home. Your body is finally safe, but your brain can’t stop registering risk. You can’t unsee, unhear, or unsmell. You never forget.

Afghanistan beside a grave

I’ve watched Afghanistan from a cemetery next to a casket. Frozen forever in my memory is the cold January day I witnessed a woman live one of my worst fears. I stood three feet behind my friend Dana as she was handed a folded flag. Moments later we watched her husband Dave disappear into the ground. I felt the grass beneath me, cognizant of how easily my feet could have been standing in her place. I remember collapsing in sobs, exhausted the night my husband and I left the wake. His arms wrapped around me, but so did a blanket of guilt. I had my spouse to comfort me. She did not. It was a complex dimension of survivorship that I never experienced before, and I hated it.

Afghanistan through a child’s mind

Most recently, I’ve needed to think about Afghanistan through my children’s minds. Trying to teach children about death is difficult. Explaining the realities of war to a toddler is really challenging. Shortly after Memorial Day this year, my three-year-old son looked up at me with his piercing blue eyes and asked, “Mom, why did Dave Lyon die?” In that moment, I had a thousand responses and no answers. As the US prepared to transition out of Afghanistan at the time of Reece’s query, I was conscious that my son was not the only person asking this complicated question. I knelt next to him and took his small hand. “Well, Reece. Uncle Dave died because some very angry men really wanted to hurt Americans and innocent people while he, Daddy, and Aunt Dana were deployed to Afghanistan.”

Reece thought for a moment. “Mom, was dad attacked?” I firmly believe in telling kids developmentally-calibrated truth. “Yes, baby. We are so fortunate that he came home safely. It was scary and sad.” At this point in the conversation, my eyes were welling with tears. Reece gave me a quick hug and proceeded to make a questionable toddler concoction in his toy kitchen with his twin sister. I soon sampled some stone soup, but Reece’s question has sat like a boulder in the pit of my stomach for months.

Some would say Dave died for Afghanistan. Many would say he gave his life for America. I know this: Dave died so that my husband would get to come home and become a dad. Without hesitation, he gave up the chance to ever hold Dana again, so that Philip could come home and embrace me.  Because at the end of the day, in the military, that’s how it works. You lay down your life for the person next to you. Greater love hath no man than this.

I never begrudged my husband going to war. I understood how strongly he was compelled to go. It was connected to his calling. Deployments were part of a purpose that lived deep in his soul. He needed to do this, so I threw my full support behind him without selfish hesitation.

Philip has spent the fourteen years of our marriage fighting two controversial wars. I try to avoid politics like the plague, so during the course of our time in service the “what” wasn’t something I’ve found myself preoccupied by—his “why” and the “who” has always been enough for it to make sense for me. I loved the people he was defending. Blood relatives,  my military family, our friends. A country of citizens who could spend years of uninterrupted freedom while they moved relatively carefree through their lives only plagued by first-world concerns.

I even felt okay lending my husband to another country for prolonged periods of time because I grew to have an affinity for the Afghan people. I remember the experience of celebrating Nauruz the first time while Philip was in language school to learn Pashtu. I still smile to think of the first chance we had to meet one of his Afghan interpreters in the US and take him to Chipotle. I got it. I could clearly see why people fall in love with that awful, beautiful place and the hearts of so many of the people who live there. To the Western outside, the culture may seem broken and backward – but it’s not. It’s just a very different version of life and way of making sense of the world. And at the end of the day, the people there are not dissimilar to people anywhere else on the planet. They want to love, protect something, and live lives of purpose.

When I first learned that the embassy in Afghanistan was being evacuated, my heart fell while I watched the country crash to the ground. I wasn’t entirely surprised, but it happened far faster than I could have imagined several months ago. I anticipated it would be bad but didn’t think it would look like this. Within days, the Taliban had taken over the buildings that, over the years, had become my husband’s temporary homes. These men now occupy the rooms where I celebrated years of Christmases, birthdays, and anniversaries through computer screens.

For a week now, I’ve toggled in quick succession between the life-and-death reality of Afghanistan and the Western first world. It can feel like emotional whiplash, but I became quite adept at these psychological and interpersonal gymnastics during deployments. Talk about gunfire, turn around, and talk about a girlfriend’s family vacation. It came back like old hat.

Saturday we started receiving panicked messages from some of the interpreters and commandos that my husband formed relationships with during his deployed time downrange. Over the years, Philip worked to help several of these men through the complex process of obtaining US citizenship and has assisted in securing visas for their families. Texts, DMs, and phone calls now poured in from men who were understandably beside themselves. They feared for the fate of their family members trapped in Kabul without them.

My husband continues to work tirelessly around the clock as he tries to cut through bureaucratic red tape on their behalf. Initially, he felt helpless and hamstrung by the familiar inefficiency of the system. Still, he did what a great leader does during times of crisis: summon your strength, protect your people, and press on. I’ve listened to him pass on survival tactics to scared women – giving similar reminders to young mothers that he gave to their husbands years before: “When you leave, make sure you have food and water to last for at least a day. Rest as best you can. Pay close attention to what is happening around you. If there’s gunfire, move.” I’ve watched him tell men hard truths through tears, “When your family leaves, you need to understand that none of you can never, ever go back. Ever. This is it.”

Right now the face of Afghanistan is a five-year-old boy whose head was sprayed with shrapnel right after his family was turned away from a flight for the fourth time. The sound of Afghanistan is the scream of the baby girl in the weary arms of her dehydrated mother who has been trampled, shoved, and tear-gassed after bravely trekking back and forth from the airport alone three days in a row. The scent of Afghanistan is the stench of war—blood, dirt, and sweat. The taste? The salt of so, so many desperate tears.

As humans, we like to psychologically arrange the world into a predictable place. We want to believe that good things happen to the pious and bad things befall evil actors. If these are the rules, we know what we must do to secure the results we want. The equation is clearly spelled out, and we are in control. In reality, this principle is a lie. Life doesn’t work that way. Often, when I treat someone who has experienced trauma, one of the things we need to dismantle is this “just world fallacy.” The universe in which we exist is not fair. The moral standings of our actions don’t always determine our outcome, and that’s hard to accept.

When we witness or experience pain, there isn’t always a satisfactory answer why. The difficult discomfort of tolerating questions without answers is our participation ribbon for the human race.

I’ve decided I’m not going to take the Kabul clock off of my phone. I suppose in some ways, politicians are closing this long chapter of my life for me, but parts of my Afghanistan era will live forever inside my soul. I will never be rid of the gravity of many unanswerable questions born out of that wild place. For instance, Why Dana and not me? Lots of people don’t get the luxury of turning the page to a new chapter so easily. The bereaved. The battle-scarred. The women and children of Afghanistan who overnight became invisible again. I’ll continue to keep time for them.

We tend to focus a lot on “why” in the wake of tragedy. “Why” matters little, “now what”—matters a lot. Time doesn’t heal all but it does march on, with or without us. We get to choose if we’ll use it or squander it. When we bring purpose and intention to our actions in the aftermath of awful, we get a golden chance to still do something that counts.

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