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Operation North Star: The military veterans working to protect Afghan allies from the Taliban

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - AUGUST 21:  In this handout provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, a Marine with the 24th Marine Expeditionary unit (MEU) passes out water to evacuees during the evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport during the evacuation on August 21, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The U.S. military is assisting in the evacuation effort.  (Photo by Isaiah Campbell/U.S. Marine Corps via Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - AUGUST 21: In this handout provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, a Marine with the 24th Marine Expeditionary unit (MEU) passes out water to evacuees during the evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport during the evacuation on August 21, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The U.S. military is assisting in the evacuation effort. (Photo by Isaiah Campbell/U.S. Marine Corps via Getty Images)

When the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan last year, thousands of Afghans who’d worked for the United States military were left behind. They’d risked their lives and their families’ safety to be part of a new Afghanistan.

But now, the nation is in Taliban hands.

“It was only a matter of time till they found his name at the base and his picture. So I’m like, you need to burn everything but it’s still not going to be enough.”

But, the U.S. military vets they worked for have not forgotten.

Today, On Point: Operation North Star, and the story of American soldiers still working to save their Afghan colleagues, and friends.

Guests

David Young, volunteer with Operation North Star, a coalition of volunteers who are committed to protecting and evacuating Afghans who are at risk of Taliban reprisal. (@youngdavidh)

Missy Ryan, reporter covering diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post. (@missy_ryan)

Also Featured

Ghoaam, former interpreter in Afghanistan for the U.S. government.

Michael Tritt, volunteer with Operation North Star.

Duke, volunteer with Operation North Star.

Transcript: An Afghan Interpreter Finds A New Life In The U.S. Through Operation North Star

Ghoaam was just an 11 year old boy when the United States invaded Afghanistan in late 2001. With the Taliban out, for the first time in his life, Ghoaam went to a school where he learned English. A decade later, he put those language skills to use and became an interpreter for the United States Air Force.

GHOAAM: The reason I went to work as an interpreter first, I needed to find money to feed my family. The second was helping Americans, because we had to work with them to build our country. Shoulder to shoulder.

CHAKRABARTI: And he worked shoulder to shoulder with Americans like Michael Tritt. Mike had served in the U.S. Air Force from 2002 to 2008, four deployments to Iraq. As a civilian, he went to work for a private contractor when he came to Afghanistan in 2012. He and Ghoaam standardized airplane manuals for the Afghan Air Force. They quickly became friends.

MIKE TRITT: I could actually talk to him about things, philosophy, stuff, religion. You know, I could ask them questions about the Quran and you know, we can talk about Christianity, and it was just refreshing because you can’t even have those conversations in our country right now. He’s actually a poet in disguise. He’ll bring up obscure poetry from like the 13th century, knows most of it in his head. And he’ll go, look this up, this poet. He’ll have answers for you.

CHAKRABARTI: Ghoaam is just one of tens of thousands of Afghan interpreters who worked with the U.S. government over the span of 20 years. In that time, Mike returned to the United States. Ghoaam got married and had two children. In 2009, the U.S. government promised Afghan interpreters visas to the U.S. in case the Taliban retaliated or returned to power. Well, that return to power happened last year with the announcement of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Taliban swiftly took city after city, Ghoaam realized he needed to get serious about trying to get a visa to the United States. So he messaged Mike. Mike emailed the National Visa Center, but fell short, so Ghoaam went into hiding.

GHOAAM: I was hiding into different places as I figured out if the Taliban are getting close to the city. Then the first thing that they would do is just detain, and behead or killing the people who work with the Americans.

TRITT: It was only a matter of time till they found his name at the base and his picture. So I’m like you just need to burn everything, but it’s still not going to be enough.

CHAKRABARTI: In mid-August, the Taliban captured Herat, Ghoaam’s home city. Now, Mike wasn’t the only U.S. vet watching what was happening in Afghanistan. So he reached out to a friend who was in touch with many other people who had worked in or been deployed to Afghanistan. They felt compelled to do whatever they could to help evacuate as many Afghan interpreters and other workers out of the country, and they called their mission Operation North Star. Mike and other Operation North Star colleagues determined that for Ghoaam and his family to get out of Afghanistan, they first needed to get on a bus from Herat to Kabul.

GHOAAM: On the way, it was very frightening. It was very scary. Taliban were everywhere. I passed like, maybe close, maybe more than 50 checkpoints. It was a really scary 24 hours. I got some bandages, and I just put them on my head, on my hand. And any time they were coming to the bus and stopping the bus, and asking and looking, I was just showing them, I am a sick guy and I’m going to die.

CHAKRABARTI: Ghoaam and his family reached Kabul. Mike told them to get to the airport and try to get on any airplane they could. Mike was at home in Arizona, sending Ghoaam intel on which gates to try.

TRITT: My VFW commander happened to be former NSA, and he [would] feed me some intel. I had a guy that was working some of the drones, showed up and then he was feeding me what intel he legally could. What gates had less people at it. So we’re trying to make runs for certain gates.

CHAKRABARTI: They tried for days. Mike received the intel. He texted Ghoaam, and Ghoaam would make a run for the airport. Once, Mike got a tip and sent home to a gate with some marine guards.

TRITT: And the minute I sent him to that gate, get a flash message saying, get him out. Shots fired. They close the gate. I’m like, Oh my god, I think I just got him killed.

CHAKRABARTI: Close calls with the Taliban happened again and again over the next month. Taliban militants found safe houses where Ghoaam and his family were hiding so he would flee or hide his documents in cracks in the ceiling. He’d message Mike and asked, Where could he go next? Mike would scramble to find a new safe house or a driver they could trust. Mike also had to get food to Ghoaam and his family. And cash. And he was trying to do it all from Arizona. At one point, Ghoaam had to sell his wife’s wedding ring. Finally, in mid-September, Mike and the Operation North Star team chartered a plane out of Afghanistan to Qatar, and Ghoaam and his family were on it.

TRITT: I  just started crying because I couldn’t believe it. So many nights of sleepless nights, he’s actually out of there. When it touched down, I’m like, OK, he’s not going back, they’re not turning the plane back.

GHOAAM: We got off the airplane and it was a fresh air. … I said, Oh, finally, you’re in the United States.

TRITT: I’m like, what would you think about coming to Arizona and you could be with me? And he’s like, I think I would like that. So I’m like, OK, we’ll make it happen.

CHAKRABARTI: Mike and his wife are now Ghoaam, and his wife and children’s family here in the United States. Ghoaam’s other family members are still in Afghanistan, and because of his work as a former interpreter, he still fears for their safety due to ongoing reprisals from the Taliban. So that is why we are not using Ghoaam’s full name. But life here in the United States isn’t easy, either. Mike had to help Ghoaam get a job, buy clothes, shoes, food, learn how to navigate the U.S. health care system.

GHOAAM: Life in America itself is hard, but living with Mike is easy. I am feeling I’m in my home. And there is not a single, strange feeling that I’m living with Mike and his wife. They’re right now, my family. They’re the best family I think I can ever have. And I feel very calm, and free and very happy, and actually we play sometimes with my kids into the house. We bought some Nerf guns for kids. And also there is an automatic Nerf again, which can hold 200 Nerf bullets. It’s automatically and it is really cool.

TRITT: My wife took a picture of me that she saved as her profile picture of me on her phone. And it was just me with my hat on backwards shooting a Nerf gun, and she just said, This is my favorite picture of you because you look so happy. I have never seen you look this happy.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s U.S. Air Force veteran Michael Tritt and former Air Force interpreter Ghoaam. Now, as you heard, Ghoaam was able to get out of Afghanistan with Michael’s help through something called Operation North Star. It is not an official operation of the United States government. Instead, it is a group of U.S. veterans and others who have come together to do what they can, privately, to help Afghans they worked with get out of the country.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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