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Florida veterans use technology, connections to help Afghans evacuate

Andrew Wilson, CEO and founder of Quiet Professionals. (Luis Santana/Tampa Bay Times/TNS)

The CEO’s fifth-floor office had a great view  of the blue waters of Tampa Bay. On a wall inside, Afghanistan glowed red.

The country was in chaos Thursday, 11 days after its capital, Kabul, fell to the Taliban, but the red dots covering the map on Andy Wilson’s wall monitor provided order. They represented nearly 3,000 Afghans on the other side of the world who still needed help escaping the new regime.

There were blue and yellow dots, too, for people “receiving help” or “awaiting transportation.” The 100-or-so green dots were the fortunate few who Wilson’s company, Quiet Professionals, has helped to evacuate, he said.

When it happens, their status changes to “Departed Afghanistan,” and their photos arrive in his text messages. That helps him keep going through the constant barrage of calls.

Wilson and his colleagues are part of a community of private citizens with military or intelligence experience that has formed in recent weeks to use its skills and connections to help Afghans evacuate. They work on screens thousands of miles away, but coordinate with people on the ground in the Middle East. Sometimes it’s the guards at the Kabul airport gates.

Quiet Professionals had a role in the escape of an official in the now defunct Afghan government, Wilson said, and helped identify a friendly gate at the airport where a woman was able to slip through with her 3-month-old baby.

A report in the Washington Post  said there may be thousands of people volunteering in such civilian efforts from U.S. soil. Some are calling it “Digital Dunkirk,” a reference to a famed evacuation of Allied forces from France during World War II.

Wilson said he’s a retired veteran and served in Afghanistan. The display cases of ribbons and patches and letters of thanks displayed in his Rocky Point office identify him as an Army sergeant major who served with Delta Force and worked in special operations.

The Tampa-based firm he founded after retiring employs 155 people, many of them veterans. They claim several government contacts, listed on their website, and also work with private-sector clients.

They provide technology and operations support. Part of that is organizing data and turning it into maps and other useful visuals. They also train people to use open-source intelligence — data available on the internet — to learn about others and protect themselves.

From the start of the company in 2013, some of their employees have been based in Afghanistan.

All that is to say, Wilson knows people — military people, government people, other government contractors. He started getting calls and messages as Kabul fell. Some were Afghans who needed help. Some were Americans who wanted to know if he could help their Afghan friends. Some were people with experience like his or resources, wondering how they might work together.

“Now, it’s like we’ve turned into a 24-seven operation center,” Wilson said. “The military folks involved in this company, they’re used to this. This is what we did in the special operations community.”

The company’s chief of staff, Leo Kryszewski, is a former Green Beret. He helped create a digital dashboard that pulls all of their volunteer Afghanistan efforts together. Quiet Professionals is providing free access to the dashboard for trusted partners to use in their own operations.

Kryszewski clicked through the dashboard tabs to demonstrate. One page listed evacuee data — name after name of Afghans, their phone numbers and emails, their locations and status. These were the dots on the map.

Another page listed resources and what they had available to help, whether it was planes, vehicles, equipment, boots on the ground. Another map of Kabul showed yellow symbols. Those, Kryszewski said, were Taliban checkpoints.

The next tab showed intelligence data and analysis. Lists of potential threats and their details were classified by type, with five visible on the first page: “terrorism,” “terrorism,” “conflict,” “terrorism” and “violence (reliability high).” The other half of the screen was filled with reports from sources including “British defence,” “US Gov” and “Quiet Professionals Operations.”

Many of the company’s intelligence analysts are doing the work for free on their personal time, Wilson said. He expects the evacuation to go on for another year.

Afghans who need help fill out an online survey that Quiet Professionals has provided in Pashto and Dari.  The number who’ve responded grows hourly, surpassing 3,000 on Thursday.

Most of those people have yet to receive help, Wilson said, but it’s a big step to have them all on a list.

As he explained this, his phone rang again, and he put it on speaker: “… so we’re doing an overland exfil, non-standard vehicles, basically a ratline out, and we have all the infrastructure taken care of this side of the border … .”

Wilson smiled as he hung up. It was the first time in an hour.

One of the first messages he received last week was from an Afghan man who interpreted for him when he served there. The man held a Special Immigrant Visa, but had been waiting outside the Kabul airport gate with his family for days. His sons had become severely dehydrated. Wilson, who was getting dozens of updates from the man each day, believed it was time for him to abandon the airport idea and get out of the country another way.

The man who had just called — a person with resources whom Wilson knows but won’t name — was going to help the interpreter.

To separate its business from its volunteer efforts in Afghanistan, Quiet Professionals this week formed a Florida not-for-profit corporation, Project Afghan Relief Fund. Details are at Donations to the organization are not tax deductible.

That fund will be used to help Afghans transition into American life and for evacuation efforts such as fuel, armored vehicles or aircraft.

Or it could mean, Wilson said, “10 ground-force guys that are willing to strap it on and go in” to get people out.


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