Inside the Network of U.S. Vets and Operatives Helping Save People in Afghanistan: 'In No Way Is This Over'

"Afghans, family members — they keep calling us with these panicked messages," one advocate tells PEOPLE. "It's heart-wrenching"

US Troops in Afghanistan
The British armed forces work with the U.S. military to evacuate eligible civilians and their families out of the country on Aug. 21 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: MoD Crown Copyright via Getty

The crush of bodies at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan's capitalon Aug. 18 was nearly suffocating when one family — two daughters in their 20s, their mother and their father — attempted to navigate to a checkpoint outside the airfield in order to flee.

They were fearful but hopeful. They had to leave their home. There was no other option.

One of the daughters had been working for a high-ranking official in the Afghan government when, just days before their airport arrival, the Taliban took control of Kabul as the national government collapsed. The daughter was forced to resign from her position. Her employer, in turn, provided her documentation that explained they believed her life was in danger from the militants and she needed to get out of Afghanistan.

That paperwork was meant to guarantee her exit.

The family had arrived at the airport the night prior, having learned through an American relative that they were being told to get to a specific airport entrance gate out of the many that ring the facility. The family was told that once they passed all the required checkpoints — through Taliban guards on the outer perimeter and eventually through a screening by American troops — they would be put on board a flight out of Afghanistan.

After sleeping on the floor outside of the airport overnight on Aug. 17, they awoke hungry and more than a little nervous. Crowds had begun to build. It seemed that more and more people were frantic to leave a country now under militant rule.

As the family of four attempted to navigate toward the gate, the throngs of other people multiplied around them, choking off their view of the gate entirely and sending the father into what his nephew, Mansur, describes to PEOPLE as something akin to a panic attack.

Afghan evacuees
Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty

"My uncle is a very tough man, but he's claustrophobic. He was surrounded by people and just crying and crying," says Mansur, an electrical engineer and U.S. citizen who emigrated from Afghanistan as a boy and now lives in the Los Angeles area. Mansur has been working to get his aunt, uncle and nieces out of Afghanistan.

At one point, he says, his aunt went unconscious — fainting but not even falling to the ground as the crowd was packed enough to keep her standing upright. And then rumors began to spread through the crowd: "Tear gas," someone yelled.

There was no gas, but the crowd attempted to disperse at the mention anyway, knocking Mansur's youngest cousin to the ground and trampling her, he says — a deadly hazard would-be refugees have been braving at the airport.

Through the panic, the family sent messages back to Mansur in America, he says: "We give up. We're going home."

Mansur felt defeated. He — like so many others around the world, watching what was unfolding in Afghanistan and wanting to help — had been in contact with numerous organizations, government workers and lawmakers trying to get his family safely out of the country.

And now, they couldn't even make their way through the airport due to the chaos.

He resigned himself to the situation when, about an hour later, his phone glowed bright with a message. It was from Jen Wilson, an American coordinating efforts to evacuate allies from Afghanistan.

"They made it through the gate," Wilson's message read. "They're in."

A sense of relief washed over Mansur, but it was short lived.

After showing the letter from her employer to a soldier at the gate, and mentioning Wilson's name, Mansur's former government worker niece and her family were let through the gate, he says. From there, they passed through three checkpoints.

Then they were turned away at the fourth.

The family, whom Mansur says wish to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from the Taliban, was told the paperwork wasn't good enough. They would have to return home.

This account, based on interviews with Mansur and Wilson, has been all too common in Afghanistan in recent weeks.

Afghanistan evacuation
Jen Wilson
Jen Wilson. Jen Wilson

Tens of thousands of grateful people have evacuated, facing dramatic journeys to and through the airport. Many others haven't.

"It's just a jumbled mess," says Mansur, who also asked that his last name not be used.

Wilson concurs. "Afghans, family members — they keep calling us with these panicked messages," she tells PEOPLE. "It's heart-wrenching."

Wilson founded the nonprofit Army Week Association roughly a decade ago, with a goal of easing veterans' transition from military service to civilian life.

Though she's not a veteran herself, Wilson comes from a family of service-members and speaks in the shorthand of someone who has served (dropping casual references to "ops," for example).

Her most recent goal — to get as many people out of harm's way as possible — has become a mission of sorts, though it's one she has conducted from her Manhattan apartment, where she admits she has barely slept and has subsisted on takeout and Monster Energy drinks.

Days ahead of the fall of Kabul last month, Wilson says she could "feel the anxiety growing in the veterans community."

After the Taliban took control, she adds, "It was panic-stricken."

The days since have been "a 24-hour-a-day operation, trying to get these guys into the gates, inside the airport." But even that, she acknowledges, isn't enough — as in the case of Mansur's niece and family.

"I've had a number of people I've been able to miraculously get through that godforsaken gate only to see them get inside and be tossed outside because of some bureaucratic red tape," Wilson says.

The infamously backlogged special visa program for Afghans — starved of resources well before the most recent turmoil — has drawn widespread scrutiny as well; while U.S. diplomatic officials have spoken bluntly of trying and sometimes failing to balance all the logistics of the evacuation.

The Biden administration says they are committed to helping get anyone else out of Afghanistan, following the war's end, and they tout the 120,000-plus people who were evacuated as a logistic feat, despite the criticism.

From the living room in her Upper East Side apartment, Wilson makes phone calls nearly all day, utilizing two different phone chargers: one so she can pace back and forth when she has nervous energy, ("I've walked holes in my floor," she says) and one long enough to reach her couch, so she can occasionally sit down.

Her efforts to rescue those stuck in Afghanistan started small, with her and her closest contacts in the veterans community. In the weeks since, it's grown to include what she calls a "massive coalition" — members of the American and Canadian militaries, contacts in the State Department and some who do what she obliquely refers to as "special government work."

Jen Wilson
Jen Wilson. Jen Wilson
Final Flights, Kabul, Afghanistan
Senior Airman Taylor Crul/AP/Shutterstock

"Digital Dunkirk," as Wilson refers to the group, even includes people she's never met — such as a retired older couple who saw her on TV and called asking how could they help.

Together, they divide and conquer. One of the heaviest lifts has been data-entry — filling out paperwork so those who are stuck in Afghanistan can get into the airport and, hopefully, get out of the country.

Then there are the requisite phone calls. "This morning I got a call at about 1:30 telling me that we had 42 Americans not being allowed in the gate at HKIA and asking could I do something," Wilson told PEOPLE recently. "Then it becomes all hands of deck: Who can I call at State? Who do I know on the ground who can personally escort them to the gate?"

In addition to ex-government workers and American translators, Wilson is laser-focused on rescuing persecuted minorities and other groups vulnerable to a resurgent Taliban.

Asked how many the network of veterans and others has assisted, Wilson estimates it as "tens of thousands."

"We were able to start moving buses of people into the airport. We're still moving people as I speak this minute, in various ways," she said Thursday. "In no way is this over."

She admits that the work of rescuing thousands is mentally trying — though she's numb to the emotions, for now. Instead, she is focused only on getting out as many as she can. Mansur's family is one of those priorities.

After their problems at the airport, the family moved to a safe house some two miles away. Mansur's nieces, aunt and uncle are armed with only an iPhone that runs on pay-by-the-hour Internet, which Mansur himself purchases via computer in America. He serves as the point-of-contact for his family, filling out paperwork and making phone calls to determine the best way to get them out.

"The hope would be for them to extracted by car, helicopter, something," Mansur says.

He says he has relayed the family's location to the State Department and has a letter from a U.S. Army colonel confirming that his niece's life is in danger, but he hadn't yet been given a concrete way of getting any sort of help to them.

"For me, hope is all I can hold on to right now," Mansur says, adding that his family is safe but remains in hiding following Aug. 26's deadly bombing and gun attack by Islamic State fighters outside the airport.

"I've been a U.S. citizen for 10 years. I have paperwork showing I can sponsor them," he says. "But it doesn't matter who you know, money doesn't make a difference. I'm just running on hope and faith."

Afghan evacuees

Projecting hope, Wilson says, is a big part of her mission, too.

"The people who want to get out — we are their only hope," she says. "The panic for them has never stopped. A big part of my work now is fielding calls — it comes in on Signal, Facebook messenger, Instagram messenger — it's a barrage on every mode of communication."

She continues: "They're begging for help and I'm trying to get them help. But another side of it is the therapist side — trying to keep them calm and not give up hope."

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.

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