Like many American veterans who saw action on the troubled soil of Afghanistan, Retired Marine Colonel Eric Terashima is determined to help evacuate Afghan allies who fought and supported them against the Taliban in the last two decades.

The administration had seven months to put a well-thought evac plan to extract everything from the deployed American troops to millions-worth of weapon systems to allies. Still, the administration didn’t do anything until the very last minute—as everybody and the world saw it, it was a mess.

Terashima described last year, as he puts it, as an “insane whirlwind” of getting people out of Afghanistan that he eventually lost tally of the total headcount he helped. He served as a forward operating base commander in Afghanistan until 2020, and during his deployment, he met dozens of locals at his outpost, where he got to live and work; some of them he even bonded with.

“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 recalled in an interview published in WUSF Public Media.

Eric Terashima and other US Veterans Helps Afghan allies to flee the country
(Screenshot from WUSF Public Media)

Besides women and children, Afghan interpreters were among the at-risk people due to the nature of their work. It’s practically painting a target on your back because of their close involvement with the US military. So, when Terashima was scheduled to leave, he told them, “if they ever needed anything, they should just let me know.”

And call, they did.

The first one to reach out was his former interpreter, who contacted him a few months before the scurry evac. Manzoor was granted by the State Department a special immigrant visa but was, unfortunately, lacking in funds for “airfare and medical clearance” that would allow him to bring his whole family to the US. Nevertheless, the retired Marine didn’t hesitate to lend a helping hand and even launched a GoFundMe just to cover Manzoor’s needed expenses.

“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 US, 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 was among the lucky ones who made it safe to the stateside with his family.

Terashima didn’t stop there. He continued helping more former colleagues, partnering with several non-profit organizations to pull out and find safe resettlements for these refugees. But it wasn’t as easy as Manzoor’s. Most of Terashima’s friends were already sinking financially before the Taliban took over. Remember the Covid pandemic? Yeah, that and other factors that made immigration way more challenging.

The Marine veteran is not alone in this struggle though, as many other veterans, especially those who formed close bonds with the locals, feel obligated to save Afghans left behind from the miserable place. Kim Staffieri, head of the Association of Wartime Allies, confirmed these concerns saying that the thoughts and emotions that come to mind for veterans “…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.”

Likewise, Staffieri helped Afghans with application processing for their special immigrant visas for the past year, aiding veterans taking allies out of Afghanistan and into the US as much (and faster) as possible. Nonetheless, the process remains painstakingly slow and doesn’t always guarantee approval.

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“They came with true intent and good hearts and really wanted to help people,” said Staffieri, regretfully adding, “A year later, most of them have not been successful.”

Other allied troops, like Canada, are working tirelessly to bring refugees into the country in collaboration with their former interpreters.

“When we were unable to get them out a year ago, it was devastating. But since then we’ve come together, we’ve doubled down and been able to get 3,000 people out,” said Brian Macdonald, head of the non-profit organization Aman Lara, or “Sheltered Path.”

And like the American veterans, they too are experiencing a slow, frustrating, not to mention dangerous, process since refugees need to go through the Taliban to get a passport.

When the US forces and other allied troops withdrew from Afghanistan last year, it was thought for the Afghan government to at least stand for a couple of years (or months), but it didn’t even last for a week. Instead, it collapsed as quickly as it was left to run its own. It was a young democracy against a long-standing Islamic Movement, and with frightened citizens who did not fully trust the government capable of protecting them, the collapse seemed inevitable.

Advocates call on the current administration and Congress to allow more Afghans to come to the US and speed up the visa processing backlog.

“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. Moreover, believing that having to help the Afghan allies would also mean alleviating the stress of the US veterans who worked alongside these people.

“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,” Purdy explained.