“I need help.”
This was the message I received from a female journalist named Fatema Hosseini at the gate to the airport who was evading tear gas, bullets and Taliban beatings. Moments later, I received a message from an interpreter whom I had worked with in Afghanistan, with a video of the conditions at the gate. It was grim.
It made me think of my time in the Marine infantry as a 0351 infantry assault man. I had been shot at, evaded a number of explosions and practiced being tear-gassed. That was in Fallujah. She was facing similar conditions on what was supposed to be a path to safety.
The path to guiding her and Afghan allies through the Hamid Karzai International Airport gates started when I joined the Marines 17 years ago.
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As Marines, we would sometimes do crazy things like run a marathon in full gear without practice. Fast-forward to 2018. I found myself in Afghanistan running around the base with fellow Navy veteran Jessica Serafin and a number of courageous Afghan women who were training for triathlons and competitive races. The sun was close to setting over the city and the air was slightly crisp, yet thick with pollution, and at times it felt like I was breathing molasses. Later that night, I was hunched over an air purifier coughing myself to sleep.
The Taliban tortured my colleagues. They risk their lives to report the truth.
'More stressful than being in combat'
I kept running with them because I was incredibly inspired by how, as role models for other Afghan women, they were risking their lives and health. I was now an officer in the Navy Reserve. Any hardships I felt on this deployment were unbelievably minimal compared with the dangers they faced simply for the freedom to run. Their dedication and bravery are matched by few.
With the Taliban takeover, sadly these dangers exponentially increase. Serafin told me some of the runners were beaten, their shoes taken away and graffiti sprayed on their houses. The race to get them and our Afghan allies to safety was on. Frankly, it was more stressful than being in combat.
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Serafin helped create Operation Sacred Promise, which focuses on Afghan former military allies. I helped create Evacuating Vocal Afghan Citizens (EVAC), which offers support for journalists and female activists.
Fortunately, we also had help from the Ukraine Special Forces (SOF) and Iryna Andrukh, who led the charge to put together a number of daring rescue missions. Andrukh left the safety of Ukraine and went to Afghanistan to personally oversee the operation. The Ukrainians' willingness to help, even with the ever-present Russian danger on their doorstep, is commendable. For this, I am eternally grateful.
Hosseini’s words, “I need help,” echoed in my mind. Finally, I got a notification from her that “the flag has risen.” After some initial confusion, I realized she had seen a glimpse of the Ukraine flag through her tear-gassed eyes, and I was able to guide her toward the SOF and safety.
A few days later, and after some gut-wrenching turns of events, the female athletes and journalists’ families were safely awaiting their flight to Ukraine – including Hosseini's family. Andrukh became one of only 320 Ukrainans to receive their medal for courage during special operations – and the only woman to receive it.
'The best of America and our allies'
It was inspiring to see so many veterans, active duty, reserve and other government officials use their personal time to come together regardless of politics to bring our allies to safety for days on end – with almost no sleep.
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I applaud President Joe Biden for having the courage to extract us from further conflict and evacuate over 120,000 people in such a short amount of time in adverse conditions. Yes, mistakes were made, and we should acknowledge what did not work. This is why after-action reports will be prepared. However, turning this crisis into a political blame game is a disservice to the tireless efforts in protecting our Afghan allies and plays into adverse narratives about our nation. The focus is best served by bringing everyone to their new homes and ensuring adequate resources once they arrive in America.
When I saw the photo of the women and girl athletes with beaming smiles of happiness once they reached safety, followed by Hosseini being reunited with her family, my heart melted and was filled with tremendous gratitude. The dedicated effort that got them and many more to safety represents the best of America and our allies.
Alex Cornell du Houx is a Marine combat veteran, a former Maine state lawmaker, president of Elected Officials to Protect America (EOPA) and political partner at the Truman National Security Project. The views presented are those of the author and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Marine veteran led women, girls to safety from Taliban in Afghanistan