Senior Airman Taylor Crul/U.S. Air Force/AP
U.S. Air Force crew, assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, assist evacuees boarding a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 21, 2021. As of Aug. 25, the Pentagon said 88,000 people had been airlifted out of the country.

Digital Dunkirk: With clock ticking, veterans race to save comrades

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An Afghan interpreter saved the life of Matt Zeller, a U.S. Army combat adviser, during a Taliban ambush. 

During firefights, Mr. Zeller would hear Taliban commanders telling fighters to shoot the interpreters first. “They knew the interpreters were our eyes and ears, and our cultural and linguistic bridge. Without them, we couldn’t do our jobs.” 

Why We Wrote This

What do we owe those who fought with us? America’s veterans are answering that question by working round the clock to save their Afghan comrades from the Taliban.

Now, Mr. Zeller and other veterans are working without sleep, trying to save their former comrades in an effort they've dubbed a Digital Dunkirk – with the Aug. 31 deadline for U.S. withdrawal looming.

As of Wednesday, the Pentagon said some 88,000 people had been evacuated from Kabul. Veterans interviewed share a deep sense of frustration at the chaos.

But then, there are individual victories.

When a group of West Point graduates got word that two of their former Afghan classmates were trapped, veterans “shot up flares” to their networks.

Both Afghan officers made it out, one by getting a former West Point professor on the line, then holding up his cellphone to the ear of troops at Hamid Karzai International Airport, who let him through the gate. “You can have an ambassador [pleading your case], but sometimes what you really need is a sergeant at the front gates,” says former cavalry officer Garrett Cathcart.

As Kabul was falling to Taliban forces, the phones and inboxes of U.S. military veterans across the country were blowing up with desperate pleas from their Afghan interpreters and partners in America’s longest war. 

“It was just gut-wrenching,” says retired U.S. Army Col. Mike Jason, who commanded a task force with special forces in Afghanistan, who was getting voice text messages from an Afghan military commando – a war college classmate now on the run.

The commando had stood his post to the end, but was now unable to get back to his family. “He was hiding out in a safe house. I’ve got those voicemails for posterity, but I can’t listen to them,” he says. “To hear the fear and panic in his voice – and the sirens.”

Why We Wrote This

What do we owe those who fought with us? America’s veterans are answering that question by working round the clock to save their Afghan comrades from the Taliban.

While he ultimately managed to pick up his wife and children, the Afghan commando had to pass through three Taliban checkpoints, only to be stuck outside Hamid Karzai International Airport with thousands of others.

Ultimately, he made it through the tightly packed sea of desperate people, with the help of NATO contacts inside the airport, and flew with his family to safety. “It was hugely emotional,” says Mr. Jason. “I was so happy and relieved.”

Those feelings were short-lived, however. Calls, texts, and WhatsApp group messages from other colleagues and military academy classmates – whose interpreters and former Afghan colleagues were also scared and stuck – started pouring in.

In the days since, Mr. Jason and hundreds of veterans like him have launched what they’ve dubbed a Digital Dunkirk, falling back on their military training and setting up ad hoc operations centers from their kitchen tables, working round the clock to get their former battle buddies out. 

“We’re all using our networks and our common language of military planning. We have groups that are very tactical – like just, ‘OK, how can we help them get through the gate?’ And a command group that’s, ‘Let’s think deeper – how do we get more planes to land? What laws and authorities do we need for that? Who should we be talking to?’” Mr. Jason says. As in most battles, they are getting by on minimal sleep – fueled, he says, by the customary soldiers’ diet of “rage and coffee.”

“It’s all an ad hoc system”

As President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that he does not plan to extend America’s Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline, the work of these veterans continues. Since late July, U.S. military and chartered airplanes have flown out more than 88,000 people fleeing the Taliban  – what officials call one of the largest and fastest air evacuation operations in military history. 

“Thus far the Taliban have been taking steps to work with us so we can get our people out. But it’s a tenuous situation,” President Biden said. “We’ve already had some gunfighting break out. We run a serious risk of breaking down as time goes on.” 

Yet veterans who have been sounding the warning for years about the need to get Afghan colleagues out of the country express frustration at the chaos now making that task so difficult – even as they have found deep inspiration in the way veterans have come together in the endeavor to get it done. 

Susan Walsh/AP
President Joe Biden speaks about the situation in Afghanistan from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Aug. 24, 2021. The president has refused to extend the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline, despite bipartisan pleas for more time to save people from the Taliban.

“It’s cool, but it kind of [ticks] me off that it’s all an ad hoc system,” says Garrett Cathcart, who served in the country from 2010 to 2011 as an Army cavalry troop commander and has been working to get an Afghan engineer with whom he worked out. “He built my combat outpost for me. He built a school for girls. At one point, I had a vehicle get stuck in a ditch and roll so far that the U.S. military could not get it.” The engineer commandeered Russian-made cranes to do the job.

Mr. Cathcart notes that even a friend who was awarded a Medal of Honor, the country’s highest award for combat valor, has been unable, as of yet, to get his interpreter to safety.

The deep frustration is punctuated by moments of celebration. When a group of West Point graduates got word that two of their former Afghan classmates who had attended the academy with them were unable to get out of the country, Mr. Cathcart and others “shot up flares” to their networks, which rallied to work official and unofficial channels. 

Ultimately, both Afghan officers made it to an evacuation flight, one by getting a former West Point professor on the line, then holding up his cellphone to the ear of troops at Hamid Karzai International Airport, who let him through the gate. “You can have an ambassador [pleading your case], but sometimes what you really need is a sergeant at the front gates,” Mr. Cathcart says. 

Entire families on the line

A State Department letter, cited by vets, tells Afghan visa holders to push hard, be prepared to wait nine to 10 hours, and bring supplies of food and water and a fully charged phone.

Afghans also vitally need documentation of their service to the U.S. military or proof of the visas they already have. However, many have burned critical paperwork for fear of running into Taliban forces, who, though saying the right things at the moment, could later seek retribution against their families – or against them, if they fail to make it out.

U.S. veterans have been troubleshooting this particular problem, too. “We tell them to take pictures, upload everything digitally, clean your phone, and when you get to where you need to go, we’ll email it back to you,” says Mr. Jason. “We’ve basically become their digital cloud.”

This can-do drive among veterans working round the clock has nonetheless created stress when they feel like their efforts fall short. “I’ve had Afghans find me and send me the most desperate and heartbreaking messages pleading for my help, and I know there are countless veterans experiencing the same thing,” says Kristofer Goldsmith, a forward observer deployed to Sadr City, Iraq, who lost contact with his interpreter after the country’s invasion by the Islamic State and fears he was killed. Mr. Goldsmith wants to do what he can, he says, to spare fellow vets from the same heartbreak on behalf of those who “not only put their lives on the line, but their entire families on the line.”

That said, he adds, “a lot of veterans are near a state of crisis.” 

These concerns have prompted the Department of Veterans Affairs to post open letters in the wake of the Taliban takeover to those who might be “questioning the meaning of their service or whether it was worth the sacrifices they made,” and urging veterans to look out for one another. 

“What I’ve seen not just from vets but more importantly the VA is the recognition of the moral injury that some folks are feeling right now,” says Mr. Goldsmith, who last week pulled together a bipartisan network that includes organizations from the Lincoln Project and Human Rights First to veterans groups such as Vietnam Veterans of America to sign a letter to the president, asking to extend the evacuation deadline.

Now Mr. Goldsmith and others continue the titanic effort to get their comrades out. “I’m trying to remain optimistic. I think that the Taliban has every incentive to make sure that this goes smoothly, because they’re acutely aware that without international support, Afghanistan’s economy will continue to be in complete free fall.”

They are hoping, too, that the deep respect the military is generally granted by their fellow Americans will rally others to the aid of their Afghan friends. “As veterans whose lives were shaped by these wars, we recognize that these Afghans have sacrificed more for this nation than anyone using hateful rhetoric,” Mr. Goldsmith says. “The trust that Americans have in our [veterans] community is great, and we want to wield that in a responsible and helpful manner.” 

“We’re doing this 24/7, we’re not sleeping”

Since 2014, veterans have been working in a bipartisan fashion behind the scenes with three administrations and five Congresses “so we didn’t have those who served alongside of us languishing,” says Doug Livermore, a career Special Forces officer who was deployed to the country multiple times and is now a board member of No One Left Behind, an organization to support the Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who served with U.S. forces.

“There have been a number of groups sounding the clarion call for years and years about the dangers to them and, more recently – for about the last year and a half – the actual need for an evacuation,” Mr. Livermore says.

Yet in their conversation with Biden administration officials, and with Trump administration officials before that, “there was a very big concern about the optics of the U.S. government sponsoring a mass evacuation while at the same time saying we had full confidence in the ability of the Afghan government to stand and fight.” 

Through it all, the organization has tracked the number of interpreters who have been hunted down and killed in Afghanistan. “We understand that there’s a real human cost of delays in processing these applications,” he says.

Its work has yielded successes: Two weeks before the fall of Kabul, the group and others succeeded in getting a bill led by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and a parallel House bill passed to streamline the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) process and help remove countless barriers created by clerical errors. 

Mr. Livermore cites an example: “We had a letter of recommendation for an SIV rejected because the signature at the bottom didn’t have a date next to it, even though there was a date at the top.” 

Today, its board of directors has been on “nonstop fundraising calls” and launched a GoFundMe page. “We’re doing this 24/7, we’re not sleeping, because there’s always another donor to be spoken to, another aircraft to lease,” he says. 

The group is raising money to charter planes; the cost is roughly $650,000 for a flight in and out of Kabul that gets between 170 to 300 people on the plane, depending on its size. The planes are often provided by sympathetic contracting companies that have generally been “absolutely amazing in doing operations at cost.” 

The vast majority of the organization’s donor money has gone toward financial and resettlement assistance once interpreters are granted an SIV and arrive in the United States. The group has SIV ambassadors in most major U.S. cities, and some job placement programs in place through Amazon, Starbucks, Uber, and Lyft, among other companies.

“We’re at the airplane with signs and American flags when families arrive at some ungodly hour because they’re flying from the other side of the planet,” exhausted and often with young children in tow, Mr. Livermore says. 

Still, despite all this, “by the time they arrive it feels like a homecoming, since we already consider them Americans who have made immense sacrifices for our country,” he adds. “They’re ready to embrace the American dream and weave themselves into the fabric of our society.” 

The founder of No One Left Behind, Janis Shenwari, was, in fact, an Afghan interpreter who arrived in America in 2013 with $3,000, all of his family members’ possessions packed in one suitcase each.

Mr. Shenwari endured Taliban death threats stuck to his car windshield, sheltering in safe houses, and changing locations every day before he got out. 

He was an interpreter for Matt Zeller, a U.S. Army combat adviser living on an Afghan army base while training its military. Mr. Shenwari saved Mr. Zeller’s life during a Taliban ambush. 

During firefights, Mr. Zeller would hear Taliban commanders telling their fighters over the radio to shoot the interpreters first. “They knew the interpreters were our eyes and ears, and our cultural and linguistic bridge. Without them, we couldn’t do our jobs.” 

The bonds U.S. troops formed with them are lifelong, he adds.

“I don’t think I can explain to people properly how strong they are. I want to suit up and personally get them out,” he says. “Their safety is as important to me as that of my daughter – and every vet I know feels the same way.” 

Editor’s note: Information about Kristofer Goldsmith’s interpreter has been updated.

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