Throughout all the recent events in Afghanistan, the world has seen the finest qualities of the UK Armed Forces community. From those deployed in Kabul to veterans in the UK, they have all gone above and beyond.
When the UK Armed Forces deployed in Kabul, they could not imagine it would involve evacuating British nationals and eligible Afghan nationals to the backdrop of a Taliban takeover. More than 1,000 military personnel, including soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade, worked tirelessly and under extremely challenging conditions to complete their mission.
As part of Op Pitting, 15,000 people were evacuated, including 5,000 British nationals and 8,000 Afghans vulnerable to persecution by the Taliban. The youngest evacuee was just one day-old, and approximately 2,200 evacuees were children. With more than 100 flights, this was the largest British evacuation since the Second World War.
The security threat increased as the deadline approached, making a difficult job even harder for the UK Armed Forces. This included the suicide bombing by ISIL-KP on the outskirts of Kabul airport on the 26th August. Although there were no British military casualties, 182 people died, including 13 US military personnel. In addition, flights were suspended.
The last British evacuation flight was on the 28th August. Despite the extraordinary efforts of the Army and RAF, they were unable to evacuate everyone and 100-150 British nationals remained.
Military leaders, politicians and the UK Government were unanimous in their praise of all Military Personnel involved with Op Pitting. They also recognised the contributions made by everyone who has ever served in Afghanistan.
The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson said: “I want to thank everyone involved and the thousands of those who served over the last two decades. You can be proud of what you have achieved.”
DUTY AND HONOUR
You might leave the Armed Forces but you never lose your sense of duty. With over 150,000 UK military personnel having served in Afghanistan, many have deep personal connections with the country and its people. In particular, they remember the courage of Afghans who risked their lives to help them, especially local interpreters and guides. Now that those Afghans and their families are at risk from Taliban reprisals, many people from the Armed Forces community are working hard to help them leave the country and find safe refuge elsewhere.
The Sandhurst Sisterhood is one informal organisation helping. The group has over 2,500 female veterans and they are using their networks to evacuate those people and their families at risk. They keep in contact with people in Afghanistan mostly via WhatsApp, but now the UK’s evacuation is over it has become even tougher to provide the support they need.
The Home Office has announced several resettlement schemes for Afghans. 5,000 Afghan nationals will be able to resettle in the UK, which will be increased to 20,000 in the longer-term. Priority will be given to women and girls, and religious and other minorities. There are also two relocation schemes for people who were locally employed by the UK Government.
However, Paul “Pen” Farthing believes we should also help those animals that supported UK military personnel. Pen is the founder of the charity Nowzad Dogs, which reunites Service Personnel with animals who befriended them while in Afghanistan. The charity also built the first animal rescue centre in the country and campaigns for animal welfare.
Pen, a former Royal Marines commando, refused to leave Afghanistan until safe passage to the UK was secured for the animals and charity staff. Dubbed Operation Ark, supporters raised enough money to charter a private staff. Although Pen and the animals left Kabul on the 28th March, the Taliban forced the staff to remain, as they were Afghan nationals.
MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT
Courage takes many different forms: for many military personnel and veterans, seeing Afghanistan fall to the Taliban has triggered painful memories. Over the last few weeks, they have battled with their own mental health challenges. But they have not faced them alone. From friends and family to formal mental health services, the whole Armed Forces community has provided support.
The UK Government has given the NHS an extra £2.7 million to set-up Op COURAGE: the Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Service. This mental health specialist service is designed to help serving personnel due to leave the military, reservists, armed forces veterans and their families. People can contact Op COURAGE directly or be referred either by their GP or charity.
In addition, the UK Government has announced Armed Forces charities to receive £5 million to support veterans, including those who served in Afghanistan. The funding will be awarded to projects that increase capacity in mental health charities, improve veterans’ understanding of the support available and deliver enhanced social support. The Office for Veterans’ Affairs will allocate the funding over the coming months.
The message from everyone has been clear: “Don’t suffer in silence.” If you or anyone you know has been affected by recent events in Afghanistan, please do not hesitate to get support.
The future of Afghanistan is uncertain. Nevertheless, the last few weeks provide further evidence of the extraordinary resilience, professionalism and courage of the UK Armed Forces. We must now support everyone who served in Afghanistan through their future challenges, from mental health to employment. The Officers’ Association is proud to be one of many organisations that is here to help.