As shocking footage from the fall of Kabul played over and over, Afghanistan war veterans began calling Home Base, a Boston-based program that works to heal the emotional and psychiatric wounds of war.
The veterans had seen desperate Afghans falling to their deaths after clinging to a US Air Force transport leaving the airport. Taliban fighters posing for triumphant photographs in the abandoned presidential palace. American troops struggling to keep order as terrified Afghans scaled airport barricades and flooded the tarmac.
“I feel a combination of sadness and anger and fear,” said Jack Hammond, a retired Army brigadier general and Afghan war veteran who serves as executive director of Home Base. “This has been a triggering event for a lot of people. It’s now reopening the wounds of so many.”
While President Biden on Monday defended his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, veterans of the longest war in American history recoiled at searing images of the Taliban’s return to power, two decades after a US invasion had toppled their regime.
Marc Silvestri, the veterans service officer in Revere who fought in Afghanistan, said he has been fielding calls from Gold Star families, whose children or spouses were killed in the war, as well as from veterans who have been stunned by the Taliban’s lightning victory.
“Seeing it’s right back where we started 20 years ago, it’s hard to watch,” said Silvestri, who served at a remote Army outpost near the Pakistan border from 2008 to 2009.
“I always knew they would have trouble,” Silvestri said of the Afghan army. “But the fact that they just laid down their weapons and said, ‘Here, take the country,’ it’s a sad, sad moment.”
Paul Monti of Raynham, the father of a Medal of Honor recipient killed in Afghanistan in 2006, asked himself yet again whether the United States, which routed the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, had planned for what would follow.
“When you go in you need to ask: What’s the end-game? There wasn’t any end-game, and there weren’t any answers,” Monti said. “That’s what bothers me.”
As he watched the Taliban seize Kabul, Monti said, he felt badly for the Afghans who worked with US forces and now are trying frantically to leave. Monti’s son, Jared, had built relationships with some of them during his deployment.
“It’s a shame that people that tried to help us out are being murdered in the streets,” Monti said. “We are just leaving them behind?”
Bill Davidson of Beverly, who went to Afghanistan three times and served as Hammond’s command sergeant major, said his family has been shaken by the government’s rapid collapse.
”They sacrificed a lot. They look at this and say, ‘What was this for?’ ” said Davidson, who is married with two daughters. “I try to find some positive things to take from it, and we talked about it as a family. It just happened so quickly.”
Davidson, Home Base’s director of veterans outreach, said he searches for words of purpose, duty, and support when he is speaking with men and women who now are questioning whether their sacrifice was worthwhile.
“I tell the veterans, you served your country, and you did what you had to when you got called up. We built schools; we built wells. There were a lot of community projects,” Davidson said. “Still, it can seem that it’s all wiped out in about a week and a half.”
Veterans and Gold Star families gathered for a candlelight vigil at the Massachusetts Fallen Heroes Memorial Monday night in the Seaport District to support one another.
”It’s been just like a whirlwind of emotions,” said Nicole Lyon, 35, who served with the Army in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012. “Just coming together as a community with other veterans, it’s really great to reflect on those that have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country, specifically in the war in Afghanistan.”
Hammond, who was commanding general of US forces in Kabul Province a decade ago, said he is gravely worried about the future for Afghan women and girls. His soldiers built two all-girls schools there, as well as four elementary schools. Now, the education they had received for two decades is almost certainly to be denied under an extremist Taliban government.
“Much like you saw with ISIS” in Iraq, the Taliban “will take young girls as war trophies. Those girls will go through seven levels of hell — rape, murder, forced marriages,” Hammond said.
The retired general faulted US planners for failing to develop a long-term strategy for the country 20 years ago, and for former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s decision to cap the number of US troops there.
“Rumsfeld snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” Hammond said. “That’s where the problem started. They were going to fight it on the cheap.”
After US forces invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam Hussein, attention among Americans shifted even further from Afghanistan.
“It’s deeply saddening because we invested two decades of our nation’s greatest wealth — the young men and women who had gone over there,” Hammond said.
Although the United States achieved its initial goals of denying the Taliban and Al Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan and preventing more attacks on the American homeland, the threat was not extinguished.
“The flaw was: Then what?” Hammond said.
Any American faith that the Afghan army would stand firm after the US withdrawal was misguided, he said.
“They do not fight well unless we’re with them, shoulder to shoulder. They just melt away,” Hammond said. “They don’t like their leadership, and you have a minimum-wage force. They’re just basically fighting for money, and they’re not getting the money.”
Farah Pandith, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Taliban’s previous regime should be an indicator for what is to come.
“We have seen who they are, we watched their actions, their mindset, the way in which they ruled,” Pandith said. “There should be no question that it is going to be very similar to what we’ve seen before, if not worse.”
The US withdrawal and the images of Afghans clinging to a US plane will have broad diplomatic implications in the Middle East, she said.
“When you look at these stories that are going to be told about how America respects and cares for Muslim communities, we will not be able to get away from those images,” Pandith said. “We will not be able to get away from that sentiment.”
Hammond said the United States must use the 6,000 troops expected in Kabul this week to help provide “a ring of steel” at the airport and secure evacuation for the Afghans currently there.
“We as a country have to make a decision: Do we try to maintain a shred of integrity and get those people out?” Hammond said. “At a minimum, you have to take everybody who’s on that base. Otherwise, you’re turning them over to slaughter.”
Hammond scoffed at suggestions that the evacuation in Kabul cannot be compared with the fall of the US Embassy in South Vietnam in 1975.
“The ludicrous comment that this isn’t Saigon? When you see the pictures side by side, this looks worse,” Hammond said.
Globe correspondent Charlie McKenna contributed to this report.