CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- A Chesterfield couple who has worked to help restore peace and democracy in Afghanistan since 2001 said watching the hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops has taken an emotional toll.
"It's heartbreaking to me to know that Americans are left behind," Anne Smith says. "You wonder what's the end game? What was the sacrifice for?"
Between 2011 and 2012, Smith was living in Afghanistan, working as a civilian with the Department of Defense on programs to help advance democracy and conflict resolution among the Afghan people. Prior to that, she worked with non-profit organizations to achieve the same goals, including getting women into elected office.
Working in remote locations in small villages, Smith formed friendships, helped support the plight of women and children and reintegrated former Taliban members back into society.
"When I was there in 2011 and 2012, once the Taliban had laid their arms down there was a program that they followed to be reintegrated. They would take certain classes, they would take steps to get back into their communities."
It was in Afghanistan that Smith met and fell in love with her husband, Chief Warrant Special Officer Nelson Smith, who served in the special forces of the U.S. Army.
"My husband was one of the first teams there in 2001," Smith says.
Twenty years later, after sacrifice and personal loss, both say they are devastated to see the fall of Afghanistan as the Taliban regains control of the country.
"I definitely feared the Taliban would take over, I had no clue it would happen so fast," Smith says. "I fear most for the women and children. I fear for the women who suffer mostly in silence. I spent some time in Kabul in 2009 for the elections and we did a lot of training for women running for Parliament and running for various seats, and they were targeted then. I cannot imagine what they'll be fearing now."
Smith says she also fears for Afghans who worked with American allies and those who practiced Christianity or Buddhism. She says the hardest toll, however, has come from seeing Americans left behind.
"I picture myself, that could have been me, " Smith says. "I was in a remote area of Afghanistan that could have taken a long time to get to any military base. We left Americans behind and that's tragic to me that our own are there in the hands of the enemy."
As the Smith family watches thousands of Afghan refugees come to America, she says their hearts go out to the people who they've come to know and love.
"You're taking someone completely out of the life they've known, everything ripped from them in a traumatic and horrible way and then placed in an area and a community that is so different from their own," Smith says.
Smith hopes that Americans reach out to help integrate refugees into the community.
Both Anne and Nelson say they've seen Afghans successfully make a life in the United States after receiving visas.