"I'm trying to do a small part. There's thousands of people like me," Cheryl Icenhour says

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Afghanistan Veteran Cheryl Icenhour
Cheryl Icenhour
| Credit: Courtesy of Cheryl Icenhour

Stories and photos of fleeing Afghans — running to cling to airplanes and lifting their children over blast walls into the arms of soldiers — have wrenched the heart of the world in recent days.

Cheryl Icenhour, a retired Air Force career intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan, has been so distraught over thoughts of her friends and colleagues who are still trying to get out of the region amid the Taiban takeover that she has taken leave from her job to work on getting them to safety.

In interviews with PEOPLE, Icenhour says that she has heard from a number of friends who were in Afghanistan before the country fell in mid-August who fear they won't be able to leave the country while it's under Taliban rule.

"I was actually on vacation in Croatia when things really started to deteriorate security-wise and the calls started — Viber calls in the middle of the night, and WhatsApp messages, and Facebook messages, and screenshots of what's going on, and frantic appeals for help," says Icenhour, 49.

Upon her return to the hotel, Icenhour canceled every outing she had planned, took leave from work and holed up, attempting to help as many people as she could from roughly 3,000 miles away.

Icenhour, who lives in Belgium but is originally from Virginia, began working as part of the Afghanistan Pakistan Hands Program (AfPak, for short) in 2009 while she was serving in the Air Force.

During that time, she focused on building relationships with Afghans — a focus she maintains today, albeit in a very different way.

She says she has been sleeping just three hours a night, praying for those who can't get out and trying to help them leave a country in turmoil.

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Afghanistan
Credit: MARCUS YAM/getty

"You really do get to know a lot of people ... you're shoulder by shoulder, and you're supposed to really work," Icenhour says, adding, "It was a really good concept and you built strong relationships."

She feels a moral obligation to help those same people get to safety.

"We're a team together, and we're allies, and now you have somebody who is looking to you to help them in a personal capacity, [and] you feel so helpless," she says. "I've been trying to do as much as I can. I don't know how much of a difference it will make."

In the wake of Thursday's deadly suicide bombings outside the Kabul airport — which killed 13 U.S. service members and dozens of Afghans — "that window to get people out is now even smaller, that's my fear," Icenhour says.

President Joe Biden and the Pentagon have vowed the evacuation operation (which has already rescued more than 100,000 people) will not be deterred. But the specter of violence has sent ripples of worry through refugees and those assisting them.

Two calls Icenhour has fielded in recent days came from translators she had worked with. While the translators were able to leave Afghanistan, they had to initially leave their families behind.

Later, Icenhour says, some of their relatives were able to follow.

Still, there are "others that I have not been able to get out."

"A lot of times their family members are in danger because they are related to somebody who was an interpreter. A lot of times, too, there are added layers. It's not just one factor that makes them high-risk. It can be a confluence of factors, that when you take them all together, can be really, really dangerous," she says.

Another of Icenhour's friends is an American citizen who became stuck in Afghanistan.

"She went to Afghanistan to take care of her mother who is very, very sick with COVID," Icenhour says. "While she was there, she actually had been advised to leave, so was getting ready to do so — was at the airport to catch her flight — when civilian air traffic was closed down. She got stranded with her toddler son, also an American."

Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants crowd into the Herat Kabul Internet cafe to apply for the SIV program on August 8, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty

That friend had been in touch with the U.S. Embassy, who advised her to come to the airport — "a recurring theme," says Icenhour, because it's not as easy as it sounds.

"I've been working with probably a dozen different individuals that are on the ground looking to get out ... One of the big things that I'm seeing is that the State Department is like, 'Hey, we have your info, and we want you to come to the evacuation place,' but what's happening is they keep getting caught in the crowds."

Icenhour says her friend who is an American citizen had tried three times to go to the airport and she couldn't get through due to the throngs of other people attempting to leave.

"The crowds are massive, and sometimes it's violent, and there is gunfire," Icenhour says. "I think some people, on the Taliban side, are trying to use firing into the air for crowd control, is what she was telling me."

Finally her friend braved one such frenzy of desperate people, getting trampled in the process but protecting her young son, Icenhour says.

The pair then traveled from Uzbekistan to Hungary to the U.S.

Another of her Afghan colleagues, says Icenhour, has been messaging her to ask for help with catching an evacuation flight out of Kabul: "He's trying to get out, and he's like, 'The Taliban came searching for me last night. I'm moving every four hours. Other friends in Kabul are talking about the Taliban doing searches of homes at night.' "

The deadline looms for U.S. troops to leave on Tuesday, though the Biden administration has taken pains to insist it will not abandon vulnerable Afghans. (The Taliban, too, claims those with proper paperwork will still be able to use the airport after the military withdrawal.)

"At that point, I think we need to just really shift to looking to helping people that have been evacuated and reuniting families and helping them figure out what the next steps are," Icenhour says.

By way of example, she notes, "Some of them left with literally only the clothes on their back."

"Some families who got separated during evacuation, they're asking me, 'How do I get back with my family?' I have one friend of mine, he's an Afghan who was evacuated to Paris and his family is in Qatar and he has no idea how to get reunited with them," Icenhour says.

Afghan evacuees
Credit: ARMANDO BABANI/AFP via Getty

Attempting to help her friends and colleagues in Afghanistan — all while she is working the phones from Belgium — is deeply emotional and oftentimes frustrating. "It's tough. You feel numb, you feel exhausted," she says.

She is still on leave and plans to travel to a base in Germany to assist.

"You just feel helpless. You feel absolutely helpless," she says.

But she catches herself: "I can't say I feel hopeless, because that would signal that I've given up hope and that they've all been left behind. I'm not willing to accept that at this point. I'm still on my computer day in and day out pushing to get as many out as possible and to help in any way."

While Icenhour is quick to clarify she doesn't think partisan criticism of the U.S. withdrawal is helpful, she admits that she's contemplated how the past 20 years in Afghanistan have contributed to the greater good.

"If I thought it was all a waste, that would just crush my soul. I have to believe that there has been, and there has been, goodness, that's come out of it ... On a personal level, I've seen how much influence we've had on a young generation that grew up not under the Taliban," she says. "Twenty years is a long time. There's a whole generation that has grown up not knowing the Taliban and being familiar with Western culture, Western ideals. It's painful to contemplate what happens to that now?"

Still, she will continue to operate on little sleep, message her friends in Afghanistan and do whatever she can to get them out. "I'm trying to do a small part. There's thousands of people like me though," she says.

"Amazing," she calls it, "that so many people are banding together to do something like this."

"They haven't been left behind yet."

If you would like to support those in need during the upheaval in Afghanistan, consider:

* Donating to UNICEF to aid Afghans in the country or

* Donating to the International Refugee Assistance Project to help those fleeing.