For veterans trying to help their Afghan allies come to the U.S., it's a slow, frustrating process
Since the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan last year, some American veterans have been scrambling to help their Afghan allies escape the collapsing country. Though some have succeeded, most have not.
Retired Marine colonel Eric Terashima of Leland, North Carolina describes the last year as an “insane whirlwind” spent getting people out of Afghanistan. Terashima has been involved with so many evacuations that it takes him a while to come up with a total headcount.
“I don't have a hard count off the top of my head,” he said. “There was the first family of four, then a single guy, then a family of two, then the family of nine…”
He stops the tally at 35, but he’s not sure.
Terashima served as a forward operating base commander in Afghanistan until 2020. More than a dozen locals lived and worked at the outpost, and he grew close to several of them.
“Anytime anybody got injured… Afghans are very expressive emotionally. They were literally crying as we were evacuating our casualties. That's how much it hurt them personally. That brings a closeness when you're working together for nine months, as long as I was there,” Terashima said.
The threat to the Afghan interpreters was tangible. They would come to the base and leave in civilian clothes, and they sometimes had to refuse interpretation work if it involved someone from their village. Because of their involvement with the U.S. military, they risked being branded as traitors to their own country.
“When I left, I told them all that if they ever needed anything, they should just let me know,” said Terashima.
A few months before the U.S. pullout, Terashima heard from his former interpreter Manzoor, whose full name we’re withholding because he fears for his relatives' safety in Afghanistan.
The State Department allowed Manzoor to come to the U.S. on a special immigrant visa, a category reserved for Afghans who worked with American forces. But Manzoor couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars for airfare and medical clearance costs it would take to bring his family over.
So Terashima sent Manzoor the money and launched a GoFundMe to foot the costs.
“He asked me if I would let him buy plane tickets for me and my family members,” Manzoor said. "He said, ‘I want you and your loved ones to be safe,' and that wherever I plan to go in the U.S., he will help and support me to get resettled and find a job.”
“I was almost crying. It was like a miracle for me.”
Manzoor resettled in Dallas and now works as a cook and truck driver. Terashima went on to help other Afghans evacuate, and he became involved with several non-profit agencies that support refugees. He's also now running for the North Carolina state legislature.
But he hasn't been able to get all of his Afghan colleagues out, and some are now struggling to survive. Even before the Taliban took over, Afghanistan’s economy was deteriorating due to the pandemic, a severe drought, and other factors.
“A lot of my friends who are still over there don’t have the means to support themselves,” Terashima said. “They're contacting me telling me that they're basically starving. I'm not going to let my friends starve, so I’m sending them money.”
Many veterans are struggling to balance their own needs with feelings of obligation toward Afghans left behind.
“The thoughts and emotions that come to mind for them — thinking about leaving someone behind — someone that stood side by side with them on the battlefield — it’s really becoming a pretty significant mental health issue for many veterans,” said Kim Staffieri, head of the Association of Wartime Allies.
Over the last several years, Staffieri has helped Afghans navigate the special immigrant visa application process. She works alongside many veterans in that effort. Staffieri said some of them didn’t understand how difficult and time consuming the process could be.
“They came with true intent and good hearts and really wanted to help people,” said Staffieri. “A year later, most of them have not been successful.”
Advocates are calling on the Biden administration and Congress to allow more Afghans to come to the U.S. Many are now caught up in a visa processing backlog, while others don't qualify for special immigrant visas.
“Whether it's the SIV program or the refugee program, these are supposed to be life saving immigration pathways, and they are anything but,” said Chris Purdy of Veterans for American Ideals and Outreach.
Purdy said he believes reforms could help not only Afghans, but also the U.S. veterans they served alongside.
“We've lost people to suicide. We've lost people to health issues. We've lost people who just are burnt out and they can't do it anymore. The guilt and the shame that they feel for not being able to help the last three people on their list, for example, it's going to carry with them for the rest of their lives,” he said.
The Biden administration said it is trying to reduce the special immigrant visa backlog. In July, it increased the number of workers reviewing applications and cut some of the paperwork, among other things. Meanwhile, a bill before Congress could create more immigration pathways for Afghans.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.