For Rick Stockburger and other veterans of the War in Afghanistan, their fighting ended when they came home.
But the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan meant many of the Afghan allies Stockburger and others made during their deployments would be left behind — possibly to face retribution including death, at the now-unfettered hands of Taliban fighters, who quickly regained control of the region.
Stockburger, now president and CEO of BRITE Energy Innovators in downtown Warren, his former Army comrade Matt Carpenter and another Ohio combat veteran coordinated from their homes with two other unnamed “foreign heroes," Hungarian special forces and other allies inside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport to help get about 150 Afghan nationals out of the country. All were combat advisers or Afghan National Army trainers who worked alongside U.S. forces in Baghlan Province for several years.
“We had to basically accept a ton of risk and we had to trust a ton of people that there was potential bad blood with all the time,” said Carpenter, another Afghanistan combat adviser who’s now a STEM teacher at Plain Local Schools near Canton.
“Every crazy thing I did, I had one of those guys I was trying to help get out of Afghanistan right next to me,” he said, discussing his deployment to the country. “We only went for one rotation. These guys did this mission year after year after year. They grew up and lived in a war zone all their life. This is all they’ve ever known.”
When Stockburger spoke to Mahoning Matters in mid-August, following President Joe Biden's address on the withdrawal, he was upset that more hadn’t been done to ensure safe passage out of the country for American soldiers’ native allies and their families.
Most “reasonable” people would think they were powerless to save them, Stockburger said. But with his experience in the region and his military connections, he’s not most people. He joined up with other veterans to organize rescue missions just like other teams of American combat veterans — including the one dubbed “Pineapple Express,” as reported by ABC News — or other impromptu teams who turned home offices into “ad hoc command centers.”
During Stockburger’s time as a U.S. Army combat adviser in Afghanistan, he and fellow U.S. soldiers patrolled known danger zones and “waited to get shot at” by Taliban forces so they could teach Afghan trainees how to fight back.
He and others in that same role during America’s 20-year War on Terror against the Taliban were often referred to as “embedded trainers.” Their fighting forces were largely native militiamen or Afghan national army or police.
Stockburger and other U.S. and allied fighters relied on their Afghan allies as interpreters, to help them navigate the complicated culture in which they were “immersed” for years. Through it all, they shared those dangers and their homes, often at Afghan bases like one in Baghlan Province, just north of Kabul.
“I can’t imagine anyone being more deserving of our admiration and respect as U.S. citizens,” said Stockburger.
To those combat veterans like him, battle bonds trump citizenship.
“These people risked their lives for mine, at the promise of a free country,” he told Mahoning Matters via text on Aug. 18, just days after Biden’s address. “They believed in us and I’m not going to let them down. [I’m] calling in every favor I’ve ever earned.
“Government can do what it does, infantrymen don’t leave anyone behind.”
About a decade after they’d left Afghanistan, they banded together for one more mission — one conducted entirely through instant messaging apps, all with militaristic efficiency. They held status briefings every morning, delegated tasks to each other, and had at least one person monitoring incoming messages, often 24 hours a day.
The team started with a small list of names — interpreters they’d worked with personally during their deployments, and those men’s families. One successful contact led them to another interpreter who was in danger.
Their list kept growing.
Of the 150 people Carpenter and Stockburger’s group helped evacuate over the course of a harrowing two weeks, many were interpreters but the majority were women and children, they said.
But this operation wasn’t under the American flag — rather, it was under Hungary’s. The interpreters who worked with Stockburger and Carpenter were contracted by the Hungarian government, part of a long-standing cooperative mission between the Ohio National Guard and Hungarian defense forces. This made it more difficult for them to qualify for special immigrant visas to the U.S., which were largely reserved for American contractors.
Many of those Hungarian special forces were still on the ground near Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport and aided their interpreters’ flight to safety, Carpenter said.
The morning of Aug. 23, the fleeing Afghans reported in: “We are safe. … We are in airport,” Carpenter said. They were some of the 540 people that Reuters reported were airlifted from the airport Aug. 26 and granted temporary asylum in Hungary, he said.
“I didn’t know if I could believe it,” Carpenter said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re in.’”
It was the same day a suicide bomb attack at the airport killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and 60 Afghans, the Associated Press reported.
Stockburger and Carpenter have since established a GoFundMe page to raise at least $5,000 the interpreters and their families, many of whom left everything behind when they fled the country. In just one day, 30 people pitched in to raise $5,100. As of Tuesday evening, about 50 donors had raised more than $8,100.
The funds will be distributed equally, Carpenter said.
“We’re talking about people that were professionals, that had careers and lives and houses and cars,” Carpenter said. “They left it all and just left with a bag, a backpack, maybe.”
Coming next: Expect a more detailed report from Mahoning Matters on the evacuation efforts coordinated by Stockburger and Carpenter's group.