“This Is the Time to Uphold That Promise.” A Q&A with Gretchen Klingler of Americans for Afghan Allies

Blog | 08/27/2021

Last week, several Tillman Scholars shared perspectives and called others to action to make a difference in the situation unfolding in Afghanistan. We’ll continue sharing stories, reflections, and calls to action from Tillman Scholars in the coming weeks.

Today, 2017 Tillman Scholar Gretchen Klingler joins us to discuss the work that she and fellow scholars Trish Carter (2011) and Heather King (2013) took on to support Afghan allies as the Taliban took over Afghanistan.

How did you get involved in supporting the current efforts to evacuate Afghan allies? 

Gretchen: My first deployment took me to Afghanistan, but my passion for the immigrant and refugee community came early in my military career, when I studied the Iraqi dialect of Arabic at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California.

Many of my instructors at DLI had worked with the United States in Iraq, either at the embassy or as interpreters, and came to the U.S. on Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) or as refugees. Their stories were inspiring, heartbreaking, and woven with a desire to make their country a better place. When their own lives or the lives of their families became at stake and bounties were put on their heads, they chose to make a new path for themselves in the United States.  This is no different than the experience of our Afghan interpreters.

Afghanistan is a small part of my own story, but an enormous part of what it means to have served following 9/11.  When we asked for allies in Afghanistan to support our mission, we promised them safe passage to the United States should their lives ever be under threat. This is that time, and it is time to uphold our promises

What’s one thing you wish people understood about life in Afghanistan?

For many veterans who served in Afghanistan, our coming of age and young adulthood was poured into an effort to affect change for a nation and people we came to genuinely care for.  We believed what we were told, that we were making progress even if we couldn’t see it from the ground and that we were making a difference – and to an extent we did, especially regarding education and economic opportunity for Afghan women and girls.  So many factors for the future remain unknown, but what will remain to me was the kindness of the Afghan people I had the honor to meet

You’ve launched a new initiative, Americans for Afghan Allies. Tell us more about how it came about. 

Fellow Tillman Scholars Trish Carter, Heather King and I connected and each of us expressed an interest in a space to connect people with resources to help and provide a meaningful contribution to the efforts underway around the U.S. to resettle our Afghans.  Americans for Afghan Allies is intended to be a national resource for those who are seeking ways to contribute to welcoming our Afghan allies and helping them establish themselves in the United States.  Currently, our page offers links to resources in more than 15 states as well as nationwide opportunities to get involved in or donate to the resettlement efforts

Trish, Heather and I have been working to make connections with resettlement agencies all over the country to provide the most up to date information they are able to give, with consideration that the environment is changing minute by minute.  We also want to share the efforts of individuals nationwide who are putting together local programs to help our Afghan SIVs, such as supply drives or coordinating volunteers.  If you or your community group, faith group, or veteran service organization (VFW, American Legion, etc.) are collecting donations or supplies for our new arrivals, let us know and we will share it

How can we best support the veterans and military families in our lives, as well as one another, as this crisis continues to unfold?

Reach out to the veterans you know, let them know you care, and that you’re available to talk if they need it. If your veteran friends aren’t in a space to talk, let them know you’re thinking of them and available if they need a friend.  Afghanistan veterans are processing their service and experiences in their own ways right now—some will be more open to talking or putting their emotions into words than others.  Call, text, invite them over for dinner. Make space for them in your life to grieve and process the end of the “Forever Wars,” because this is not what we were led to expect as the final act to our service

Encourage them to seek out a mental health provider. Therapy is an important tool our community needs to use openly and more often, and can help us do the introspective work to process our own  thoughts and heal

For spouses, family and friends of Afghanistan veterans who are not veterans themselves, the process of mourning the outcome of our service will be difficult to understand, and as much as you may want to try to cheer us up, do not take it personally if we are not in the mood for lightheartedness. My husband has learned that the best thing he can do for me during this time is to simply be there and allow me to process in my own way

What can individuals do right now to make an impact on the lives of those affected?

Afghan SIV holders and refugees need our support and open hearts. Many veterans considered these SIVs brothers and sisters in arms.  Many interpreters would have laid down their lives for our U.S. service members to keep them safe. Many have, and now we hold ourselves responsible to care for their families

Supporting the troops for many of us also means supporting those we care about, and we care about our Afghan SIVs and interpreters. You can make an impact on our Afghan allies as they become our neighbors in the United States by offering friendship, support, and assistance.  Volunteer with a resettlement agency in your state to help ease their transition. Donate to a resettlement agency or a supplies drive in your area.  Start a supplies drive at your local community group, whether that be a veteran group, faith group, or with a group of friends. Purchase an item from a resettlement agency’s Amazon wishlist.

Finally, like and follow the Facebook group created by Trish Carter, Heather King and I, “Americans for Afghan Allies” and share resources to help our Afghan allies get resettled in the United States with your friends and family.  You never know who in your extended friend and family group has resources to welcome our Afghan allies.

More perspectives from Tillman Scholars

In addition to to the work Gretchen, Heather and Trish are doing, a number of scholars have given interviews or written essays in the media — below, please find articles, op-eds, TV appearances and more to help make sense of the crisis featuring our scholars.

• 2021 Tillman Scholar Junaid Lughmani discusses his grief, anger and frustration for Newsroom at Berkley Haas School of Business

.• 2015 Tillman Scholar Jackie Munn and 2020 Tillman Scholar Safi Rauf were interview by CBS, sharing their thoughts on the withdrawal conflict.

• 2020 Tillman Scholar Peter James Kiernan shared his story about helping his interpreter escape with the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

• In USA Today, 2015 Tillman Scholar Jackie Munn wrote an essay on her experience as a cultural support team leader in Afghanistan—and her fears for the future of the girls and women she assisted near the Pakistan border.

•2013 Tillman Scholar Heather King spoke with the Independent about how Tillman Scholars and other veterans have banded together to activate their networks to support Afghan allies.

Kate Hoit also appeared on NBC Bay Area to discuss work she’s done to assist families arriving in the U.S. from Afghanistan.

Timothy Torres, a 2021 Tillman Scholar, launched A Voice for Two Nations, a platform to share stories exemplifying the bond between Afghans and Americans.

• 2013 Tillman Scholar Rae Anne Ho Fung spoke to CBS 58 in Milwaukee on how many veterans struggle with the mental health impacts of the situation in Afghanistan.

Read more of our scholars thoughts here and here