These veterans from the United States have been fighting for freedom and democracy in Afghanistan, earning them a place on Forbes list of World’s Most Generous Countries. In their country they give back to those who gave so much to them by establishing hospitals, schools and houses for Afghans who need it most.
Former government and military officials are part of an informal network working around the clock to keep a promise to rescue Afghans who put their lives on the line for America.
19 October 2021
FREDERICKSBURG, Virginia (AP) – Rex Sappenfield has trouble sleeping. Mr. Sappenfield, a former Marine who fought in Afghanistan, is plagued by the fate of his translator, an Afghan woman with three small children who Mr. Sappenfield promised on the battlefield: “We will never desert you.”
Mr. Sappenfield, now a high school English teacher who attempts to inculcate a sense of morality in his pupils, has reflected on his commitment every day since the United States withdrew from Afghanistan on Aug. 30.
Mr. Sappenfield, 53, added, “We breached a commitment, and I just feel horrible.” “I told our Afghan brethren, ‘Hey guys, you can depend on us; you will be able to come to the United States if you want.’”
Mr. Sappenfield and many other veterans, on the other hand, have not left Afghanistan. He’s part of an informal network, which includes the retired general who once led his unit, retired diplomats and intelligence officers, and a former rural Virginia math teacher, all of whom are still working to keep a promise and save Afghan colleagues who have risked their lives in America’s long war in Afghanistan.
Since mid-August, the network has evacuated 69 individuals from 23 families from Afghanistan. However, it continues to classify 346 individuals from 68 different families as threatened Afghans, including the interpreter, whom Mr. Sappenfield considers a brother. “By informing us where to go, and where not to go,” he claims the interpreter saved his unit alive in Helmand Province.
Every day, Mr. Sappenfield communicates with the interpreter, who went into hiding after the Taliban seized control of the nation in mid-August and is only known as P, the initial letter of his given name, for security reasons. He hid in Kabul for about a month until the network was able to guide him to another city in Afghanistan through a grueling 15-hour bus journey.
P is being shuttled between safe places as of this week, waiting for a potential charter trip out. He wrote to Mr. Sappenfield earlier this month, “The Taliban may easily detect us in this location since we are not from this part of Afghanistan.”
When Administration Biden announced his withdrawal from Afghanistan, he said that he would not pass the problem on to another president or generation. He’d put the story to a close. However, many veterans’ estrangement has grown as a result of the bungled pullout and inability to remove thousands of now-threatened Afghans whose assistance was critical to the American effort.
Mr. Sappenfield’s emotions fluctuate with each communication from P, who attempted and failed three times during the American evacuation to reach the Abbey Gate, one of the Kabul airport’s major entrances.
Mr. Sappenfield remarked, “I teach my 11th grade pupils that they are the only ones who can betray their integrity.” “If they chose to lie or deceive, it’s theirs to give away.” However, in this situation, someone else breached my promise on my behalf. It just frustrates me to no end.”
Who will it be if not me?
Did our efforts make a difference?
As he composed a message to the men and women of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade who fought beside him in Afghanistan in August, the issue gnawed at Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson. “Nothing can take away from your selfless dedication to our country,” he added.
Nothing — not the Taliban’s sweeping conquest after two decades of war, nor the terrified Afghans being dropped from aircraft, not the shock that Afghanistan had surrendered overnight to the same enemy that the Americans had defeated 20 years before.
General Nicholson, who retired as a three-star in 2018, stated, “I felt I had to tell to the men, ‘Hey, get your heads up.” He wrote to his fellow Marines, recalling the 92 Marines who perished under his command in Helmand Province, the 2,461 American military men who died in Afghanistan overall, and the unfathomable riches lost:
“‘IF NOT ME, THEN WHO?’ you responded, raising your hand.”
The letter was sent on August 17th. Soon after, one of the recipients shared it on LinkedIn, and it swiftly spread to veteran’s chat rooms, where agonized questions about how the American departure could be reconciled with a key Marine creed: “Leave no one behind” were already being voiced.
General Nicholson’s message concluded with a suggestion that some Marines did, in fact, follow the code. He said, “You may be interested to hear that we are working via numerous avenues to ensure safe passage out of Afghanistan.”
Jack Britton Jr., a former Marine intelligence officer who served with General Nicholson in Iraq and went into corporate security in Texas, ran one of the lines. Mr. Britton had created a group named “Support-HKIA” on the encrypted messaging app Signal, which stands for Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.
He wrote, “#DigitalDunkerque.”
An unofficial rescue effort quickly formed, sometimes connecting with other unofficial networks. General Nicholson stated, “Jack was the master facilitator.”
Bruce Hemp, 67, a retired math teacher and grandmother who lives with her husband on a farm in Staunton, Virginia, was the master coordinator. In 2007, she met General Nicholson and was quickly arranging people to send up care packages for his Marines. She started throwing an annual picnic — or muster, as the Marines call it — at her property in 2011.
The folks who had collected there had now become the hub of an Afghan evacuation network.
“The most important message,” Ms. Hemp said, “is how betrayed they feel by the government’s failure to assist these individuals who have saved American lives several times.”
Ms. Hemp prepared a manifest of 400 at-risk Afghans with the help of the Signal group, which contained passport and visa application information, names of American sponsors, and phone numbers for Afghan mechanics, interpreters, and translators.
With phone calls and texts coming in, her property became a command center. The network operated with military and intelligence personnel on the ground in Afghanistan starting on Aug. 15, when Kabul fell. She handed The New York Times a list of Afghan names, including big families, with the words “GOT OUT!!!” written in purple next to a couple of them.
Mr. Sappenfield said, “She is the den mother with her Cub Scouts.”
Milk Tea in a Cup
The lowest moment for American military troops attempting to evacuate Afghans and others at Kabul International Airport occurred on Aug. 26, when a suicide bomber murdered 13 Americans and 170 Afghans.
Matiullah Matie, an Afghan man, waited by the Abbey Gate that day with his wife and six children, carrying a sign that said “Chesty Puller.” Chesty Puller was a Marine Corps hero for his accomplishments in World War II and Korea, thus that apparently weird name was not at all strange to them.
Mr. Matie was a businessman in Helmand Province who served as a facilitator and fixer for General Nicholson for a number of years. Maj. Mike Kuiper, an active-duty Marine who had been in Helmand, had given him the concept for the Chesty Puller sign.
A Marine stationed at the airport saw the message and pushed Mr. Matie’s family past the gates to safety. Mr. Matie and his family were then evacuated to Germany’s Ramstein Air Base, where they were kept in a tent for more than a month while waiting to be transported to the United States.
In a phone conversation, Mr. Matie stated, “When a Marine approached me in the throng, I had the password on my phone, which that day was a picture of a cup of milk tea.” “I was rescued by my Marine brethren.”
Mr. Matie and his family were transported from Germany to Philadelphia on Oct. 14. “Thanks to my American brothers and sisters who assisted me, I arrived safely at Philadelphia airport,” he said in a joyful greeting.
General Nicholson has been working closely with an Afghan American, Par, in a green community near Knoxville, Tenn., whose mother, brother, and pregnant sister had just arrived after a horrific voyage from Afghanistan managed by the Marines network.
Par worked for the US Defense Department in Kabul before coming to America in 2014 and joining the army reserve, where he is now a sergeant. General Nicholson assisted in getting his family to the Kabul airport following a 20-hour bus trip from Herat in western Afghanistan when Kabul fell.
Par’s brother put up an agreed-upon placard at the airport gates: “MY BROTHER WORKS FOR THE US ARMY.” They were easily welcomed inside by an American and stayed for four days before being taken to Qatar, Bulgaria, Germany, and eventually Dulles International Airport in Washington. Par was ready and waiting.
The American entrance stamp on their Afghan passports says, “Paroled.”
Par requested to be recognized only by his first name since he still has four sisters and a brother in Afghanistan, as well as his father. When challenged about the Taliban 2.0 notion, he chuckled, implying that time and diplomatic experience had softened an organization notorious for brutal suppression of women and mass killings.
“They’re pulling a fast one on us.” I find it hard to comprehend that some people genuinely believe them. My brother, who worked for the US government, is most likely to vanish and never be seen again.”
Before leaving Kabul, the US evacuated around 100,000 Afghans, although many of them had never worked for the US, while thousands of others remained. Many soldiers are still perplexed as to why no generals or presidents have been held responsible for a war that was lost. They wondered whether their friends had given their lives so that the Taliban might march into Kabul unchallenged.
The whole chain of command is relieved when two weapons are lost at the Camp Lejeune Marines training camp, according to one Marine who asked anonymity because he is still in the military. But you lose tens of billions of dollars in weaponry to the Taliban, 13 military soldiers (10 of them Marines) in a terrorist strike at Kabul airport on Aug. 26, and you lose America’s longest war, with no end in sight.
Recognize the Taliban’s Control of Afghanistan
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What exactly are the Taliban? The Taliban formed in 1994 after the chaos that followed the Soviet exit from Afghanistan in 1989. To enforce their regulations, they utilized public penalties like as floggings, amputations, and mass killings. Here’s more about their history as rulers and their genesis tale.
What are the names of the Taliban’s top leaders? These are the Taliban’s senior commanders, individuals who have spent years on the run, hiding, imprisoned, and escaping American drones. There is little information about them or their plans for governance, especially if they will be as tolerant as they claim to be. The organization wants to forget about its history, but there would be certain limitations, according to a spokeswoman for The New York Times.
“There is no common scar tissue from the wars among Americans,” said J. Kael Weston, a retired foreign service officer who served under General Nicholson in Iraq and Afghanistan and is a member of the network. “There was a cultural divide.”
Ms. Hemp and others in rural Virginia are still striving to rescue other Afghans. She doesn’t have to do this since she has three young grandkids, and many Americans have already forgotten or hardly noticed Afghanistan.
She said, “I was raised with the Golden Rule, an honor code.” “You don’t deceive people.” You follow through on your commitments.”
She gazed out the window at the rolling green pastures and her crab apple tree. “Today’s generation refuses to accept responsibility for their acts. ‘Choices have ramifications for everyone but me,’ has become ‘Choices have consequences for everyone except me.’ “Everyone is really enraged.”
Hell for bureaucrats
Mr. Sappenfield communicates with P, the translator, via Zoom on a regular basis. They share videos of their kids, but they mostly chat about their fears and frustrations. The Taliban is the source of concern. The source of his dissatisfaction is the State Department, which has been dragging its feet on his visa application for years.
In a Zoom call, P said, “They are not taking any action.” “I’m at a loss for words. I’m afraid I’ll be assassinated in front of my children.”
P has been entangled in the Catch-22 maze of the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, application procedure for more than a decade. He had previously had two visa interviews at the now-closed US Embassy in Kabul, on March 3, 2020, and April 6, this year.
However, a foreign service official wrote to Ms. Hemp on Sept. 21 saying P required another interview. “Obviously, it will not be occurring in Kabul,” the officer stated.
“Sorry this is so confused and jumbled,” he ended.
Ms. Hemp was forthright in her response. “Why can’t they perform an online interview in this day and age of online meetings, zoom conference calls, FaceTime conversations, and Messenger video chat?” she penned
Given the closing of the embassy in Kabul, the foreign service official verified with a colleague in Washington, who confirmed that P would not be able to receive another interview unless he managed to leave Afghanistan.
The official wrote, “Then the SIV case may be moved to that nation.” “It seems to be a Catch-22 scenario.”
Last month, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas said on Capitol Hill that just approximately 3% of Afghans transported to the United States following the American drawdown hold special immigrant visas.
Mr. Sappenfield’s unit was rotating out of Helmand at the time, thus P’s application was filed in April 2010. P would have gotten out of Afghanistan before it fell to the Taliban if the procedure hadn’t been so convoluted. He is now entrapped.
A State Department spokesperson said in an email that helping individuals like P was “very important,” but noted that “obtaining a visa to a third country” for a visa interview is “now incredibly challenging for Afghans.”
P isn’t giving up. On airplanes, there is a new term every day. So yet, no one has offered him a job.
Ms. Hemp, Mr. Sappenfield, Mr. Britton, and General Nicholson, on the other hand, have not given up.
“People are begging me to get blankets and warm garments for their family in Afghanistan now that the weather is changing,” Ms. Hemp wrote recently. “Of course, people continue to inquire about the evacuation of their loved ones. No idea, probably never, but I’m not going to tell them.”
“Haunted by the commitments I made but my government wouldn’t allow me to follow, I consider my own Judgment Day,” Mr. Sappenfield, a pious man, wrote lately.
“Perhaps irreverently, I’m hoping for a front-row seat when those guilty for these crimes against humanity face their day of reckoning.”