“We Have to Make the Afghan People Visible. They Are Our Family”

News, Blog | 08/17/2021

Many of our Tillman Scholars — and Pat Tillman, our foundation’s namesake and inspiration — made exceptional sacrifices for a safe and peaceful Afghanistan, and many more experienced the ultimate sacrifice of friends and family members they loved. It affects so many in our community deeply to see so much of what they worked for — alongside Afghan allies, interpreters, and others — in danger over this past week

Several of our Tillman Scholars committed themselves to creating a better future for Afghans, both in uniformed military service and as they’ve continued post-military service in a range of roles and sectors. As part of the living legacy of Pat Tillman, Tillman Scholars have committed to leveraging their experience, their leadership, and a broad community driven by values to support a better future for Afghanistan in any way possible. Tillman Scholars don’t back down; they embrace tenacity and compassion, and they refuse to accept the status quo no matter the intensity of the challenge faced. 

Our organization exists to identify remarkable veterans and military spouses, empower them to lead, and amplify their impact — and that’s what a number of them are doing today as people across the world grapple with the news from Kabul. Below, our scholars reflect on the situation in Afghanistan, what they want their fellow citizens to know, and how to support one another and the people most affected by the crisis.

Phil Caruso
2016 Tillman Scholar

“I did two deployments there, later served on the Afghanistan team at the Joint Staff from 2018 to 2020, and have been on the board of directors at No One Left Behind since 2019. I have helped lead our advocacy efforts for the Afghan Special Immigration Visa (SIV) program since 2019. And now I am the Air Force guy doing aircraft things for our evacuation effort.

Along with a core team of five other people, we are spearheading a private evacuation operation. As the leader in the Afghan SIV resettlement space, numerous other nonprofits and NGOs are coming to us to lead the effort outside of the U.S. government. Since Friday, we have raised millions of dollars, compiled lists and manifests of thousands of Afghans who need to escape, coordinated with State and Department of Defense (DoD) to get landing rights, and are chartering aircraft to save as many as we can by the end of next week. I personally am responsible for our aircraft and logistics effort. I am dealing with charter companies, shifty go-betweens, donors, State, and DoD to get whatever we can into Kabul to get whoever we can out.

Despite feeling the emotional and psychological impact of the situation myself, I’m forcing those feelings aside to do everything in my power to help while there is still time. Please do whatever you can to help those in need. Donate to No One Left Behind, make introductions to ‘superdonors’ who can commit large sums to back our aircraft effort, and help us find aircraft wherever possible.

We need to get people out ASAP.”

Heather King
2013 Tillman Scholar

“For 20 years, I have watched my friends get cancer, commit suicide, and go homeless. And for what? As an American, I feel sad. But I also feel a deep level of betrayal. There are people we swore to protect, if they helped us. They did. They did and we abandoned them. What does the United States have left if we don’t at LEAST have our word?

I wish people understood soldiers, sailors, Airmen & Marines are people. They spent time getting to know the Afghan people. They spent time learning from them. There’s so many Afghans who have become family members to so many people. If that doesn’t get at your heart, if you don’t understand this is more than just casualties of war and rules of engagement, if you don’t see the human connection, something is wrong with us as a society.

We have to stop with the political rhetoric. We as a veteran community have to unite. We all made sacrifices, no one has the market cornered on service and sacrifice. If our leaders are not going to keep promises, as veterans, we have to rely on each other like we have done for the past 20 years, and we have to make a change. We have to stand up. We have to show solidarity.

Call your representatives. Be there for your friends. Listen to them. Show empathy. Keep talking about it. From all the years I’ve worked in social media and public affairs, things die when people stop talking about it. We have to push the envelope and we have to do it now. We have to make the Afghan people visible. They are our family.”

Christina Fishback
2013 Tillman Scholar

“My husband deployed to Afghanistan in 2017. There was a fort outside of his base that was built by Alexander the Great. He spoke mostly of his interpreters and sent pictures back and told me stories about Afghan National Army soldiers. When I ask my husband about what he said he wished people knew about Afghanistan, he replied that “it’s a beautiful country with beautiful people.”

As Americans, we should know our level of entanglement in Afghanistan. We have people (other agencies, journalists, non-governmental organizations) spread out all over the country. The only way we could do what we’ve done for the last 20+ years is by working with interpreters and with communities.

We have been helping Bobby’s interpreter since he contacted us last year. Bobby has been writing letters and following up for several of the interpreters he’s worked with; there is so much bureaucratic bungling done by our government with the visa application process. I am so concerned for so many interpreters, women, and children that we are essentially abandoning.  I don’t plan on giving up on those who are left behind by the U.S. If they can stay safe and in hiding, I still have hope they will be able to get out of Afghanistan, even if it is years from now.

We can reach out to politicians, we can run for office and push legislation, we can volunteer to help nonprofits assisting with resettlement, we can educate communities where Afghans resettle. There is an endless list of things we can do as a country in the years to come. People also need to stay connected to current and former military as well as their families.

Keep talking to friends, to validate one another’s emotions, and to acknowledge what it means to be human and live in a messy world. Promote resilience and post-traumatic growth. My fear is that things are so fractious and there is so much hate and racism, that we will have to have more conversations around what kind of country we want to be. These are all issues of the existential variety, but things that need to be discussed for us to move on and define who we are as Americans.”

Adrian Kinsella
2012 Tillman Scholar 

“Most of us don’t have the words to describe the heartbreak and devastation we are feeling right now. Reach out. We don’t have the answers, and we don’t expect you to either. A lot of us may want space to deal with this, but even then, it helps to know you are there.

There are plenty of ways to get involved, whether it be contacting your representatives, welcoming the Afghan families lucky enough to get to America, or donating to charities that support Afghan refugees. Reach out to your local International Rescue Committee chapter, for example, and ask them if there are any Afghan refugees in your area. Get to know some of these people and help them navigate our country, just like they helped our troops abroad.

I served as a platoon commander in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2010. I was honored to serve with Mohammad Yousafzai, our platoon’s Afghan interpreter. When I returned home, I helped Mohammad and his family, who were in danger because of Mohammad’s service, obtain much-deserved U.S. visas. They are now living and thriving in America, and I am proud to consider them family. The local community that rallied around my Afghan family continues to support them to this day.

The Afghan interpreters we served alongside are heroes. Mohammad would have taken a bullet for me or any of my Marines, without hesitation. He started working because he wanted to help his country become a better place. The Afghan people are resilient, hopeful, and gracious.

When we met with local Afghans while on patrol, they always made an effort to welcome us into their homes, putting together the best meal they could, no matter their circumstances. They often told me how they hoped one day we could meet again, when their country was safe and at peace, so they could show us the real Afghanistan.

I hope that day might still come.”