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How an unofficial military network helped 2 families of Afghan interpreters evacuate from Kabul

A family waits to board a U.S. Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Samuel Ruiz).

Hours before the deadly bombing attack at the Kabul airport’s Abbey gate, the 20-year-old wife of an Afghan interpreter and his mother made it through and joined the tens of thousands evacuating on flights before the U.S. completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Farid, 30, who had interpreted for American forces and is now a U.S. citizen living in Orange County, had flown back to Afghanistan in May to wed the young woman, Wajmah, immediately filing the request for her visa, but thinking there was time for the process. But as the Taliban gained control of the country much faster than expected, his bride was in danger because of his service to the U.S.

Retired Marine Lt. Col. Jamey Federico, who had previously helped his interpreter get out of Afghanistan in 2015, jumped in again to help find safe passage for Wajmah and Farid’s mother, who now had the appropriate immigration documents in hand, but had to pass through checkpoints and various dangers along the streets of Kabul to get to Marines waiting at the airport gate. (Only their first names and those of other Afghans interviewed are being used because of safety concerns.)

Federico, now the mayor of Dana Point, first tried official government channels, but ultimately relied on a network of veterans, Marines he worked with before — some on the ground in Kabul — and friends of friends to complete the mission.

While the State Department officials manning the airport where overwhelmed by crowds looking to evacuate, military veterans cut through the red tape and built their own networks using social media, encrypted phones, Google maps and military training to get hundreds of former interpreters they served with and other Afghans at risk to safety — people who had helped Americans and were supposed to be eligible for passage out of the country. Even after the Aug. 30 withdrawal, they continue to aid where they can.

“The whole network was just everyone trying to do what they can and see what sticks,” Federico said.

To get Wajmah and Farid’s mother to the airport, Federico and Farid worked from Federico’s Dana Point home for at least 12 hours straight. Using texts, emails and phone calls, they navigated through six people — including some of Farid’s relatives in Afghanistan — to get an evacuation plan in place and the correct directions to Wajmah. Dozens of people helped gather the information.

“Ultimately, we learned what gate was open, and where the Taliban checkpoints were so we could drive around them,” Federico said.

With the plan set, they woke Wajmah up at 2 a.m.

“We did a screen grab of Google Earth showing them where to go and avoid the Taliban checkpoints,” Federico said. “It was difficult to do when the person driving didn’t have a map and many of the roads have no names. It took them an hour to finally get to the gate. The first time, it was the wrong one.”

Farid’s mom had gone with Wajmah for support. She had no ID, passport or cellphone, but when Wajmah got to the Marines waiting to help, they asked if there was any more family.

“They made sure she got through despite the fact that she had only the clothes on her back,” Federico said. “Wajmah had her passport, copy of her husband’s passport and all the documents she submitted for the visa.”

Hours later, they flew out of Kabul headed for Qatar, Federico said.

“It was just such a sense of relief.”

Networks spring out of chaos

Despite 13 American service members killed (including three from Southern California and several based at Camp Pendleton), 17 more injured and at least 159 Afghans killed in the Aug. 26 bombing attack at the airport, evacuations efforts resumed almost immediately and the U.S. airlifted out more than 124,000 people, including 6,700 U.S. citizens.

“Of that number, the vast majority, 75%, 80%, are Afghans at risk,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a recent press briefing.

The State Department has come under heavy criticism for not doing enough and not acting quickly enough to get American citizens, legal U.S. residents and Afghan allies out of the country. More than 18,000 Afghan special visa holders feared stranding as the process got backlogged and mired in red tape and many sought help from the American service members they had worked with.

As the Taliban gained power and the Afghan government disappeared, many Americans were troubled by the images they were seeing. Military veterans resorted to the training and tactics they perfected during their service, adding on their social media savvy to coordinate with those on the ground who were working “off books” to identify eligible Afghans and pluck them from the amassing crowds with code words or other signals.

Among them was a group of veterans calling themselves Digital Dunkirk, a reference to the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Forces from Dunkirk as France was falling in 1940.

“That was a turning point of World War II,” said Gregory Daddis, USS Midway Chair in Modern U.S. Military History at San Diego State University. “It was seen by many as a humiliating defeat turned into a moral victory. I think the attempt to rescue Afghan allies from their war-torn country was a similar effort, not only to remain loyal to those who aided us, at tremendous personal risk, but also a way for Americans to demonstrate something positive out of a heart-wrenching withdrawal.”

Just retired Marine Lt. Col. Worth Parker — who served 15 of his 27 years with the Special Forces — joined evacuation efforts after hearing pleas for help.

One story that caught his attention on social media was Marine Maj. Tom Schueman, who was desperate to get his interpreter, Zak, out of Afghanistan. Zak had translated and guided the Camp Pendleton-based Marine, part of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines — the Darkhorse Battalion — that saw heavy fighting in 2010 to the town of Sangin in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.

“I just called Tom, and said, ‘You don’t know who I am, but I can help you move your guy out.'”

Saving Zak

Months ago, Schueman had set up a GoFundMe. The money was earmarked to help Zak and his family transition to a new life in the U.S. But, with the withdrawal imminent, Schueman had to make use of the money now and spread his quest out across social media asking for any help from those he knew or their contacts.

“This outpouring of public attention was a risk,” he said of the threats Zak had received over the years from members of the Taliban for helping the Americans. “I realized this was a life-and-death issue, and I didn’t have time to do this behind closed doors. Putting a character to the story was the only way I knew we could get support.”

Zak, 30, has a wife and four children under the age of five.

“We raised money to smuggle him out of Kunar, raised more money to get passports and lodging in Kabul,” Schueman said.

Seeing Schueman’s posts, Parker reached out to his own circle of sources. A network was forming. Once contacts fell into place, the efforts to help Zak and his family started rolling.

The first time Schueman got word that his contacts at the airport’s gate were ready to receive Zak, the family walked through the congested streets of Kabul and through Taliban checkpoints only for the gates to slam shut as panicked crowds breached them. Two days later, Schueman’s contacts were ready again. A British officer saw Schueman’s post. He referred him to an Afghan contractor he knew, Malad, who could help Zak and his family.

“He picked Zak up and drove him to the gate,” Schueman said. But again, the overwhelming crowd forced the gates to close almost in front of their faces.

As Zak sent Schueman a photo to confirm he was at the right gate, the Taliban fired shots for the crowd to disperse.

“It was a series of tragedies where we were so close,” Schueman said. “Malad kept the vehicle running and held his ground despite the Taliban shooting. What Malad didn’t tell me was that his father-in-law was murdered by the Taliban that day and he was still helping.”

Zak, though now terrified for his family, tried one last time. He was given a new name and password to use at the gate.

In the confusion, he went to the wrong gate. He was frozen and overwhelmed. Schueman, in real-time from his home in Rhode Island and looking at a map, told him to go 500 meters to the right. Thousands of people were pressing past him and he was in the middle with his family; he told Schueman, “I can’t go.”

Desperate, Schueman messaged a friend inside the airport now serving as an Air Force pilot.

“He was my ace in the hole,” Schueman said. “I messaged him to get Zak.”

Then Schueman messaged Zak to put his son, who was wearing a blue shirt, on his shoulders. Schueman’s friend grabbed another airman and went to the gate, picking Zak out of the crowd and jumping a wall to go and help the family through to those guarding entry to the airport.

“Over an hour later, we got the message they got him,” Schueman said.

Zak and his family were flown to Qatar and now are at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

“I’m so thankful for Zak’s persistence and for all the people who rallied around his cause,” Schueman said. “I’m just really thankful he’s alive.”

Mission not over

On the same day Zak got out, Parker also helped another Afghan interpreter through the gate. It was among his proudest moments as a Marine, he said.

“You join the Marines to do something great,” he said. “I’ve been fighting for 17 years. After you fight that long, to do something like this, that felt good and righteous. That felt like a Marine moment. That happened because Marines were talking to Marines, and Marines don’t quit.”

But, Parker realized there were more Afghans to help. So, he went back to again tap his network of retired and active Special Operations guys and CIA veterans.

“You’ve shed blood with Afghans; what are we going to do?” he asked them.

Within hours, Parker’s Task Force Dunkirk was officially geared up. The network contacted Team America, a group of 200 volunteers including active-duty and military veterans, State Department staff and social workers, that was running operations on the ground in Kabul. Parker also partnered with No One Left Behind, nonprofit helping Afghan interpreters navigate the special visa process.

By the time U.S. troops withdrew, Team America had helped evacuate more than 500 people, Parker said. No One Left Behind helped bring out 1,000 people.

With the U.S. withdrawal, Parker and his network continue to help Team America however they can to aid those still in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, he said. “It’s absolutely going forward.”

For example, for Afghan interpreters still stranded in Afghanistan, Team America is helping warehouse critical paperwork needed to get out.

“If you have documents showing you supported American forces that’s not to your advantage to carry around,” Parker said. “We can upload them to a secure space.”

They are connecting Afghans with legal and advocacy resources wherever they are in the world, and they are helping authorized Afghans leave their country without breaking any U.S. laws.

Joe Saboe, a former Army infantry captain who fought in Iraq and now leads Team America, said the mission remains critical. Each day, he receives hundreds of messages asking for help.

With the lens of scrutiny on the Taliban fading — few journalists remain in the country — there is less accountability, he said, and he fears the worst for those who remain behind.

Saboe said he has sometimes wondered about the cost of the war he lost friends fighting. But, the desperate evacuations at the airport underlined why his and other service members’ efforts really mattered, he said.

“These people were free for 20 years,” he said. “The fact that they had it and we are watching it become annihilated, it’s just devastating. I think back on my friends and their commitment, it did make the world better.”

A new chance at life

Zak and his family and Wajmah and her mother-in-law are now among 9,000 refugees in Germany waiting for permission to come to the U.S. A measles outbreak with more than a dozen cases stalled their flights.

Conditions are cramped, Zak said, but added once their paperwork is processed and the family flies out, “I will be extremely happy to see my brother, Tom, again.”

Farid said he is “super excited and can’t wait” for his wife and mother to get to the U.S.

“It’s her first time traveling and being locked up on a military base is not easy for anyone,” he said of his young bride. “But, she has to deal with it because she would have been in danger if she were in Afghanistan.”

Farid said he will forever be grateful to Federico and his wife — also a Marine veteran — for helping settle in Orange County. He considers them his parents.

“They held me in their arms and taught me how to live,” he said. “I owe them a lifetime.”

But, he also thinks about those service members who died — very likely some of them helped his wife and mother through the gate just hours before the bombing.

“I feel terrible about those warriors that lost their lives,” he said. “They were there to save the lives of others, but instead, they lost theirs. I pray for their families.”


(c) 2021 The Orange County Register

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.