Veterans Day is a weird day for me, and many other veterans.
“Thank you for your service” still means a lot, but with the high levels of division and distrust in America, coupled with the painful end to the Afghan War, it’s sometimes hard to make meaning from it all.
Let me explain.
The ‘Long War’ took a toll on me. It almost killed me, long after the guns went silent.
I wasn’t alone. My buddy Brad, a fellow Green Beret whom I served with in Afghanistan, struggled when he came home as well.
We would talk on the phone sometimes and share our frustrations with trying to adjust to the civilian world after combat in Afghanistan.
Depression, guilt, isolation, and lack of purpose put me in a closet holding a pistol.
Somehow, I found my way out. Barely.
A former NFL football player-turned-storyteller took me under his wing. Through his mentorship, I found a way to inform civilians on the cost of war, and ultimately re-connect with them across the vast civilian-military gap that was keeping me in darkness. I found a way to let go … and know peace.
I found it through storytelling. Warrior Storytelling.
My mentor actually talked me into writing a play about my experience in combat and those I served with. Last Out: Elegy of a Green Beret was born.
To complete my mid-life crisis, I learned how to act at age 50.
When we performed it for the first time to a Tampa Bay audience of just over 100 civilians and combat veterans, Brad sat proudly in the back row with a big grin on his face. He had driven all the way from Mississippi to see it. At the end of the play, Brad was the first to speak in our talk back.
“Scott, that scene when you were on the skype call when your base was attacked, that happened to me exactly like that.” He began to weep. “How do you explain something like that to your wife and kids? Gotta run guys … Daddy’s got a firefight to go to. Talk to you next week.”
Our all-veteran cast performed the play for a year in 16 cities with amazing impact. Our approach toward healing, validating, informing, and reconnecting resonated at a community level. We conducted story workshops, PTS interventions, and honored Gold Star Families. All with one major goal. To LET GO and know peace.
Each city we went to was hosted by a community volunteer. Brad was one of our first hosts. Bringing our humble, non-profit production to Brandon, Mississippi, he spent his own money to cover some of our expenses. He drove the team to and from rehearsals in a church van, country music blaring, with a sense of purpose I hadn’t seen in him since Afghanistan.
Shortly before starting our second tour season, COVID shut us down. We struggled for a year with no performances. The veteran populations suffered mightily, including Brad. There were times when he called me from very dark places. I wanted to do more. So, we raised the money and turned “Last Out” into a film that is now on Amazon Prime, VUDU, Apple TV, and Google TV. Brad texted me after he watched the film: “Please pass along my well wishes to the rest of the team. This new version had me in tears at the end.”
Then, in August 2021, Afghanistan collapsed, and the U.S. abruptly abandoned that country leaving our Afghan Allies to be hunted and killed. I stood up a group of veteran volunteers known as “Task Force Pineapple.” Brad was one of the first guys to reach out to me after seeing me talk about it on the news. ” Is there a way for me to get to a country close to Afghanistan and be on the ground to help get our people out? If you know of anyone looking for an extra gun to help get people out, I am ready.”
The Afghan withdrawal left many of our 775,000 Afghan War veterans and their families to wonder…what was the point of it all? Much like our Vietnam veterans, our warriors and families were hurting badly and seeking answers. Did it matter? Does anyone care? Will we learn lessons? Will we change from those lessons?
Brad wrote me, “I am sickened by it but not surprised. We never had clear strategic endstate given to us.”
As I saw the growing mental health toll on our post 9-11 veterans from the botched Afghan withdrawal and the rapidity at which the nation was closing the chapter on the 20-year war, my wife and I decided to put the storytelling craft of “Last Out” back together for a 2023 tour to heal, validate, and reconnect around the hard subject of modern war. We selected our cast and dropped into intense rehearsals.
Although the warrior storytelling was taxing on my 54 year-old body, I couldn’t help but get excited about performing the play in front of my old buddy Brad and his family. I smiled inwardly at the thought of his southern drawl ringing out over the talkback as he would share his experiences from the play and how it related to his lived experience in war.
It was on Thursday, October 27, 2022, that I learned that day would never come. The demons had caught up with Brad. He couldn’t hold them off any longer. He was another casualty of war long after the guns had gone silent.
Our team circled up upon learning the news of his passing and held a moment of silence. I committed then and there to take this play on the road in honor of Brad and the thousands of other veterans whose voices are muzzled in our divided nation.
This Veterans Day, I hope Americans will reflect on what we ask of this small percentage of Americans day after day, month after month, year after year. It’s a heavy cost that these warriors bear proudly.
Warriors like Brad are not victims. They are, in fact, the moral compass of our nation. They bring leadership potential and resilience that is sorely needed in these divided times. But, 20 years of war and endless deployments takes a toll, and when you wash it down with a moral injury of abandonment, “thank you for your service,” just doesn’t cut it anymore.
One of the most powerful paths to healing and reintegration of our veterans is through storytelling. Warrior storytelling.
That’s where I’ll be this Veterans Day, and every day for as long as I can. Telling Brad’s story from the stage.
Something tells me he’ll be there on the back row, cheering us on. I hope you will too.
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For 24/7, confidential crisis support for Veterans and their loved ones, dial 988, then press 1, or text 838255. You don’t have to be enrolled in VA benefits or health care to connect.
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Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Scott Mann is a former U.S. Army Green Beret with tours all over the world including Colombia, Iraq, and multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a warrior storyteller and the founder of Rooftop Leadership where he shares the rapport-building skills he learned in Special Forces to help today’s leaders make better human connections in high-stakes, low-trust engagements. Scott is the author of the instant New York Times Best-Seller, Operation Pineapple Express, a third-person narrative detailing the harrowing stories of the veterans, volunteers, and Afghan Allies who navigated the US abandonment of Afghanistan in August of 2021. He has since founded Operation Pineapple Express Relief, a 501c3 to help support the emergency needs of our Afghan Allies such as safe passage out of Afghanistan, plus unforeseen resettlement needs. Scott’s greatest accomplishments are his family; he has three grown sons which now gives him the newfound opportunity to chase Monty, his wife of 27 years, around their Tampa home as often as possible.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.