US veterans mobilize to save Afghan interpreters from the Taliban
The distress call arrived on WhatsApp the same day Kabul fell to the Taliban.
“Gunny,” said the voice from afar, according to the recently retired Marine who received the call on Aug. 15. ” I need help. The Taliban are trying to hunt me down.
The appellant was an Afghan who served as an interpreter with his unit ten years ago, the retired Marine, who held the rank of gunnery sergeant at the time, told NBC News.
âWe became friends and stayed in touch after I left Afghanistan,â he said. NBC News is not identifying the retired Marine, who lives in California, to prevent the Taliban from connecting him to the interpreter. âHe said he was already receiving death threats and worried about his family.
Immediately he said: “I gave a boost and started calling other members of my unit” and soon found out that they had heard three other terrified “terps” who were also in danger.
âWe formed a group and started to ask ourselves, ‘Who do we know on the ground in Kabul that could help us? How do we get the four “terps” and their families to the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport, he said.
Such groups of veterans have appeared across the country since the shocking Taliban takeover two weeks ago.
Operating individually or in association with others, the groups used the skills they honed in the military and the social media knowledge they acquired as civilians to save their former Afghan interpreters and families from the Taliban.
Responding at lightning speed to frantic SOS calls, they quickly revived long-dormant escape networks to put these vulnerable Afghans out of immediate danger, if not out of the country.
âWe cannot leave them behind,â said the retired Navy.
Months before, when the Trump administration announced that it was withdrawing American forces from the country, the âNo One Left Behindâ association was already planning the escapes of thousands of Afghan interpreters.
The group, whose mission is to “make sure America keeps its promise to our interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan,” was already helping Afghans complete SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) applications, writing letters attesting to their service and bravery, and buying plane tickets to get them out of the country.
“It was our trumpet call,” Doug Livermore, board member and Afghanistan war veteran, told The Wall Street Journal.
But the schedule collapsed when the Taliban took Kabul without firing a shot, and within hours the association was inundated with desperate calls and emails from terrified Afghans and their American friends. looking for help.
In California, the retired Marine who spoke to NBC News said the “terps” his group was in contact with did not know each other.
So, using Zoom and Facebook Messenger, they arranged to meet the Afghans at the meeting point in Kabul and then walked to the airport together, he said. A dozen people showed up, the performers, their wives and their children.
âWe were following them on FaceTime as they tried to get to the airport gates,â he said. “We could see the chaos in real time, the children being gassed and trampled by the crowd, hearing the gunshots.”
Five times, he said, they sent their group of Afghans to the airport and five times the group was turned back at the gates.
At one point, the retired Marine said he had one of the Afghans show his cell phone to one of the Marines guarding the doors so he could directly implore the guard.
“I was like, ‘You have to let them in, these are our guys,'” he said. âBut he said he had orders and he couldn’t. And I understand, the Marines have to follow orders. But it was still disappointing.
Meanwhile, the Afghans were losing heart. One of the performers was almost knocked out when he was hit in the head with the butt of a rifle. They were all tired and frustrated.
âWe are Marines and we are so used to enduring, but the Afghans were crumbling,â he said. “You have to do this, we told them, or you will die.”
So back the group went to try a sixth time to enter the airport. And this time, one of the children in the group broke his leg when the crowd suddenly surged in and the child was trampled on.
âThey just pulled out and left and we didn’t hear from them for two or three hours,â the retired Marine said of the Afghan group. âI understand why they were angry. We were angry.
The mission, at this point, then changed to find a safe place for the group, away from the eyes of the Taliban. And that they were able to do.
âThey are safe at the moment, but they are in limbo,â said the retired Marine. âI have already asked for a military escort to help them get back to the airport and get them through the gates. But now there are more Taliban checkpoints on the airport road and who knows if they will let them through.
“We will continue to try to get them out,” he said.