At least 48 service members in the Army and Marine Corps are trying to help 509 relatives evacuate Afghanistan more than a month after a U.S. military withdrawal, a retired Marine Corps officer, working with several private veterans groups trying to evacuate Afghans, told Military.com.
Many of the troops are former Afghan interpreters who immigrated to the U.S. well before the U.S. evacuation in August and then enlisted in the military they once assisted. They are getting help from outside groups and congressional offices, which have morphed into coordinating cells for evacuation flights after being flooded with pleas for assistance.
"There is no recognition that this is the mother of a U.S. soldier who's putting his ass on the line for us every single day," said the retired officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern about being contacted by more people than they'd be able to help. "The one thing we always understand, and any branch of service you understand, is you always take care of your troops. To keep them in the game, you also assure them that no matter what, we're going to take care of your family as well."
The lawmakers' efforts on Capitol Hill specifically to help troops' families were first reported by The New York Times.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin "remains committed to do everything we can to get our Afghan allies who want to leave Afghanistan, to help get them out," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday when asked about the stranded relatives.
Kirby said the State Department is still working hard on evacuations, which have become dramatically more difficult after the military withdrawal, and that there is coordination between federal agencies and the private groups urging evacuations.
"The military component of our presence in Afghanistan, that is over, but the mission itself to try to get people out is not over," he said.
After the Taliban swept back to power in Afghanistan over the summer, the administration scrambled to evacuate as many U.S. citizens and vulnerable Afghans as possible before President Joe Biden's deadline to withdraw fully by Aug. 31.
The administration framed its efforts as a success after it airlifted more than 124,000 people. But a couple of hundred U.S. citizens and thousands more Afghans who helped the U.S. military or are otherwise at risk of Taliban retribution were left behind.
The State Department has pledged to continue facilitating evacuations on commercial and charter flights, including announcing Tuesday it appointed veteran diplomat Elizabeth Jones to coordinate Afghan relocation efforts.
But lawmakers in both parties have complained the administration has provided few details on how it will help those left behind.
Among the lawmakers working specifically to help service members' families flee Afghanistan is House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, whose office said it is in touch with five service members trying to get their families out.
McCaul was first contacted by an active-duty soldier in Texas who needed help getting his parents, siblings and some of his in-laws out of Afghanistan, an aide told Military.com. The office tried to get the family out, but was unsuccessful before the military evacuations ended.
Later, amid the military evacuation, McCaul also was approached by six people holding signs and wearing fatigues while he was hosting a press conference with actors and writers from CBS's "United States of Al," a sitcom about an Afghan interpreter. The group was composed of active-duty service members trying to get their families out, and McCaul's office is now working with them, too, the aide said.
In September, McCaul sent a letter to Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, asking for details on how many service members have families trapped in Afghanistan.
"These brave men and women have volunteered to risk their lives to protect our country," McCaul wrote. "Yet, now, when they need us the most, the federal government has turned our backs on them. If we abandon the family members of our service men and women in Afghanistan, they will certainly be slaughtered by the Taliban."
While lawmakers can prod the administration to do more, the retired officer who spoke to Military.com argued the biggest help would be to pass a law granting family members of troops special status since many do not fall into existing priority groups for evacuation, such as Special Immigrant Visa applicants or the Priority-1 and Priority-2 refugee programs.
"It is nearly impossible for me to ask a young Marine to put his life on the line and do exactly as I asked when he is thinking about his mom, dad, brother, sister being in harm's way," the retired officer said. "They're not even on a list of people we're even concerned about."
In addition to the 509 family members still in Afghanistan that outside groups are tracking, 129 people from eight families have been able to be evacuated on charter flights, the retired officer said.
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