September 11, 2001 changed the world forever. The United States of America was attacked by Osama Bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda Terrorist Network. They were provided safe haven and protection by the Taliban. Within weeks of the attack, United Special Forces – the Green Berets launched an offensive into Afghanistan backed by the power of the US Air Force. The Taliban was defeated in weeks.
Since then, the United States and the international community have built and supported the Afghan government and the Afghan military as part of the Global War on Terror. Now, 20 years later, the United States has left Afghanistan. The Taliban is back in control of the country. Thousands of Afghans are displaced and back under threat by an oppressive regime. An unknown number of American citizens remain stranded. And the world is left wondering both…how did we get here…and where do we go from here.
Host Fran Racioppi is joined by former Secretary of Defense Chris Miller, No One Left Behind Board Members Mariah Smith and JD Dolan, and Sonia Nawrooz – an Afghan immigrant whose family remains stranded in Kabul. Secretary Miller was one of the first Green Berets into Afghanistan in 2001. Mariah, JD and Sonia lead No One Left Behind and its mission to support the relocation, resettlement and humanitarian efforts to aid displaced Afghan refugees. Mariah and JD have each served in Afghanistan three times. Sonia is an Ambassador to incoming Afghan immigrants to the United States.
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About Christopher Miller
Mr. Christopher C. Miller served as the Acting Secretary of Defense, from Nov. 9, 2020, until Jan. 20, 2021.
Earlier in 2020, he Performed the Duties of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (ASD) for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict. He also previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism (SOCT). Mr. Miller was responsible for overseeing the employment of special operations forces in counterterrorism, Military Information Support Operations (MISO), Information Operations, unconventional warfare, irregular warfare, direct action, special reconnaissance, foreign internal defense, counter-proliferation, sensitive special operations, and personnel recovery/hostage issues as specified by the Secretary of Defense. Mr. Miller was sworn in as the DASD for SOCT on Jan. 6, 2020.
From March 2018 through December 2019, Mr. Miller served as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism and Transnational Threats at the National Security Council (NSC). In this position, Mr. Miller was responsible for strategic-level policy making and implementation, and support to senior NSC and White House leadership.
Mr. Miller was raised in Iowa City, Iowa, and is a retired U.S. Army officer. He was commissioned as an Infantry officer in 1987 through R.O.T.C. with a Bachelor of Arts in History from George Washington University. Mr. Miller began his military career as an enlisted Infantryman in the Army Reserve in 1983 and also served in the District of Columbia National Guard as a Military Policeman. In 1993, he transferred to Special Forces and served in numerous command and staff positions within the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
Throughout his career, he served within other special operations organizations, culminating with command of the 2nd Battalion, 5th SFG(A). Mr. Miller participated in the initial combat operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, in addition to numerous follow-on deployments to both theaters, and has extensive inter-agency and joint special operations experience. Upon retirement from the Army in 2014, Mr. Miller worked for over two years as a defense contractor providing clandestine Special Operations and Intelligence expertise directly to the Under Secretaries of Defense for Intelligence and Policy.
Mr. Miller possesses a Master of Arts degree in National Security Studies from the Naval War College and is a graduate of the Naval College of Command and Staff and the Army War College. Mr. Miller lives in Virginia with his wife. They have two grown daughters and a son in college.
About Mariah Smith
Lieutenant Colonel Mariah Smith is an Army officer currently serving as the legislative liaison between the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and US Central Command. For the past two years, she has been actively involved in the DOD legislative proposal process to support the increase of Special Immigrant Visas in the National Defense Authorization Act.
A military police officer and graduate of the FBI National Academy, she has worked in the legislative and policy realm for ten years. She was a Congressional Fellow for now-retired Rep. Steve Israel during his time on the House Appropriations Committee. Prior to her current position, she was a liaison between the House and Senate Appropriations Committees and the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Financial Management and Comptroller. She has deployed to Afghanistan three times: as a company commander in the 82nd Airborne Division to Khost Province, as a legislative liaison for NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan in Kabul, and as a Criminal Investigation Division battalion executive officer.
She also served in Iraq as a platoon leader during the initial invasion in 2003. Mariah received her B. A from Vanderbilt University and her M.A. in Security Management from Webster University. She is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations as well as part of the National Security Network for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. In her free time, she is an active volunteer with the USO, the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, and Boulder Crest Retreat for the Military and Veterans. She also writes for Search & Employ magazine on the process of transitioning from the military to the civilian sector.
About JD Dolan
John “JD” F. Dolan II is a Co-founder and Partner at LDR Growth Partners, where he describes his purpose as, “Building and leading high performing teams (Teams for the Arena), cultivating individual high performance (data-focused health), and forging long- term partnerships”. At LDR, his focus surrounds negotiating complex strategic partnerships, both domestically and internationally. Most recently, JD successfully sourced and led LDR’s invested partnership with one of the world’s most well-respected value investing firms, Fairfax Financial Holdings Limited (Toronto, CA), spearheaded the establishment of global innovation infrastructure and CVC arm (Corporate Venture Capital), developed and facilitated a multi-national leadership and performance curriculum, and researched & developed (through execution) data-focused corporate wellness and human capital optimization pilot.
Prior to LDR, JD served as an Army Infantry officer and later US Special Operations Commander, deploying four times in support of US combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he led one of the most significant battles in the War on Terror (in terms of effects on the enemy). JD earned a BA from Dickinson College, an MBA from Columbia University Business School, and after leaving Special Operations Command, served as the Assistant Professor of Military Science at St John’s University in New York City. A published author (The Soldier’s Financial Leadership Guide) and featured by publications including Entrepreneur, Success, Business, and American Express, JD often speaks on topics ranging from leadership and performance coaching to health & corporate wellness.
About Sonia Nawrooz
Sonia is an Afghan who arrived in the US in 2014 and is now working as an Ambassador for SIV holders in California with No One Left Behind to help other Afghans.
After the Taliban gained full control over the country for the first time, Sonia’s family found out about the English language courses that were being taught to girls in secret. Sonia and her sisters enrolled in these courses. After they finished, they taught English to girls and women during Taliban situations with very high risk. Right after the Taliban Collapse, Sonia got a Job with United Nations Children’s Fund in Afghanistan until she got to the United States in 2014.
Sonia came to the United States because of her husband’s work with NATO/ISAF/USAID as an Interpreter, Culture advisor, Communication, and media coordinator.
Sonia enjoys helping people, especially women and children, so as soon as she arrived at the United States, she helped the World Relief in Modesto with all sorts of interpretations, family issues, teaching women, etc.
Sonia knew NOLB was one of the nonprofit organizations that want to make sure every eligible individual should get his/her rights! She was very much inspired by the work they have been doing and wanted to have the honor of working with them. Her role is to work as an Ambassador for SIV holders in California and to make sure we provide the support they need.
September 11, 2001, changed the world forever. The United States of America was attacked by Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. They were provided safe haven and protection by the Taliban, a brutal extremist organization that occupied and ruled Afghanistan through a strict interpretation of Sharia Law. Within weeks of the attack, the United States Special Forces, the Green Berets, launched an offensive into Afghanistan backed by the power of the US Air Force. The Taliban was defeated in weeks.
Since then, the United States and the international community have built and supported the Afghan government and the Afghan military as part of the Global War on Terror. Over twenty years later, the United States has left Afghanistan. The Taliban is back in control of the country. Thousands of Afghans are displaced and back under threat by an oppressive regime. An unknown number of American citizens remain stranded. The world is left wondering, “How did we get here? Where do we go from here?”
In this episode, I’m joined by former Secretary of Defense, Chris Miller, No One Left Behind Board Members Mariah Smith and JD Dolan, and Sonia Nawrooz, an Afghan immigrant whose family remains stranded and Kabul. Secretary Miller was one of the first Green Berets into Afghanistan in 2001. He has since led at all levels of military command as well as leading the National Counterterrorism Center and serving as the Assistant Secretary of Defense to Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict.
Mariah, JD, and Sonia lead No One Left Behind in their mission to support the relocation, resettlement, and humanitarian efforts to aid displaced Afghan refugees. Mariah and JD have each served in Afghanistan three times. Sonia is an Ambassador to incoming Afghan immigrants to the United States.
Each of my guests shares their 9/11 stories, the impact, the attack had on them and how they have answered the nation’s call. We break down the rise of the Taliban, how our presence for over twenty years still resulted in a chaotic withdrawal, the situation in Afghanistan now, the next steps politically, diplomatically and militarily and how we can all get involved.
Fran, this is awesome. Thanks for having us. Thanks for doing this. This is important stuff. Thanks for continuing to give back to the community.
I thank you for being here. This is an important episode here because this is our 9/11 episode. It’s been so many years since our nation was attacked by Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. It was the blue-sky day of September 11, 2001. Nineteen Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four California-bound airplanes.
American Airlines Flight 11 was flown into the North tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46. United 175 flown into the South tower at 9:03. At 9:37, the United 77 flown into the West side of the Pentagon. At 10:03, the United 93, believed to be bound for The White House or The Capitol, crashed in the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Two thousand nine hundred ninety-six people were killed that morning.
Before the dust settled, the fire stopped burning and long before the rescue and recovery operations were complete, our nation was at war so you were at war. The world was changed forever. Each one of us in this room, our lives were changed and the path that we chose for ourselves from that moment was defined. That’s why this is important.
There are certain events in our lives that set the course for the decisions we make in the future. We all remember exactly where we were at the moment I described. You remember where you were the ten minutes prior and you remember the actions you took right after that but you don’t remember the day before, I can guarantee you that. That’s why these moments are defined.
From that point forward, from the afternoon of September 11th, the United States embarked on what we call the Global War on Terror, the relentless pursuit of our enemies, both foreign and domestic, to ensure that we never woke up to another 9/11. Years later, we sit here, 7,000 service members and DoD civilians have been killed. That doesn’t even include the CIA, the FBI, the Department of State, other government organizations and civilian casualties. Coalition nation deaths are not even including that number.
The last few days, last few weeks, we’ve left Afghanistan. We’ve been there since October 7th of 2001. Now the final US personnel officially are gone. Chaos has ensued. More lives were lost. The Taliban, who we overthrew in October of 2001, is back in charge. Many years have gone by and we’re forced to ask ourselves the question, “Where did we go? What have we done? Where are we now?”
There are 122,000 Afghan refugees that have been airlifted outside of Afghanistan. There are unknown numbers of Americans still in Afghanistan. There are thousands of more Afghan refugees who need to get out of there because they’re being persecuted and hunted by the Taliban as we speak. Where do we go? As a nation and as an international community, we’ve got to figure that out. I say all this because it’s an important discussion. This group here is very well-positioned to have that discussion. I thank you for being here. I’m looking forward to getting into this and tell them the story for me from your perspective.
In a lot of ways, this story about Afghanistan starts with the Taliban. It ends with the Taliban possibly. They’re an occupying power. They’ve been there from 1996 through 2001 when we displace them. You commanded a Special Forces company and the 5th Special Forces Group that overthrew them, one of the first people in. JD and Mariah, you both served in Afghanistan three times and completed multiple tours there against Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS.
Sonia, I want to start with you because you grew up there. You were in a family where you had sisters and no brothers. The Taliban came in. They took power. Your father was an engineer. Your mother was a schoolteacher. I’m wondering from your perspective if you could talk about that and you can talk about the Taliban coming into Afghanistan taking power from the government and what was it like to have to grow up in that environment.
First of all, thank you for having us all here together and having this great and important discussion. It was scary. If I remember it or even when I think of it, I get scared. It’s very fearful. When the Taliban got first control of the country, we were in Kabul, Afghanistan. I was around thirteen years old. I remember it from the sad face of my father that everything is going to be bad especially for a family that doesn’t have male supporters. We were only three girls. With the situation and what was happening, it was scary.
To start with my own story, as a small family, it was challenging and difficult for us. My mom was a teacher and my dad was a supporter of education. For him, it was hard to not have his kids go to school and to not have his children well-educated and continue their education. It was sad for him. It was the time when he decided, “I have to have my kids learn and be educated.” That’s how we found some private courses that were teaching English.
We got a hand in there and we have been going privately to those courses to learn English. We were learning our own language and other general knowledge from my father. When it comes to attending courses, we were going to private courses that were organized only for females in private. All three sisters ended up going to all those courses and we luckily managed to complete all English courses through that private group of teachers that we had. Luckily, with the support of our family, we managed to become English teachers and teach English only for women and young but privately and fearful.
What would have happened if the Taliban knew that this was going on?
They would put you in jail. There were times that they would get into the course and they would say, “We’re here learning general courses like tailoring or the Holy Quran.” We had those courses, to be honest. Besides that, we had English classes as well. If they caught us, they would put us in jail. There was a circumstance that they caught one of the classes and they went right inside the class that they were teaching. My sister was in the same class the Taliban got into. In the class, they didn’t wear burqas because all were females. They had to go under one burqa, 2% or 3%, to hide them themselves. It was scary. Their teacher stood up for them and didn’t let them get the girls out of the classrooms but then the course has been stopped. It was challenging. When I talk about it, I still get anxious and disturbed.
Sonia, on September 11, 2001, where were you?
I was in Kabul.
The events that unfolded in the US, was it known in Afghanistan what was going on?
As far as I remember, the first thing we heard early in the morning is they have executed the former president, Mr. Najibullah. His body was strung up from a concrete traffic control post, which was close to our house where we were living. It was scary and people were fearful of what was happening. I could only still remember the sad face of my father and how fearful he was. I still remember him telling us that we will not have a bright future, which we did not for a couple of years.
Sonia, Chris Miller here. I’m sad and I’m sorry that we’d let you and your family down. It’s a horrifying story and thanks for sticking with it. Inshallah, we’ll get some stuff going and hopefully take care of some folks that need it. As an American, I want to say I’m sorry that your family is in this situation.
Thank you. My heart and my mind are after all women and girls who are trapped there and the families. I have been through that situation and I know how hard it is because I stepped on all those situations. History is repeating itself. No matter what the Talabani will say, they will not do what they’ll say. Honestly, they will not stand on their commitments. There will be examples of what they will do. My fear is what will happen to all those women and girls who were trapped there? What will happen to the families who work with the United States government who are left behind? I know everybody is doing a great job and I’m thankful but there are still many people who are looking for help.
Fran, you guys are veterans. Sonia has experienced real challenges. You’re all leaders. I remember being told by this old Vietnam that one time about the role of leadership at times like this is to keep hope alive. You’re like, “They never trained me. I never heard that when I was an officer in basic training.” That’s where we are. Keep hope alive. It’s hard. It’s been tough. We all knew the thing was undone. I started getting that feeling.
In your opinion, how did we get to where we are? It’s been many years since we’ve been there. We understand fundamentally so much about what’s going on in the country.
Were any of you all surprised that the Armed Forces fell so fast? I was as soon as we pulled off. Remember how you trained how you’re going to fight. Do you remember how we were always told that? We train the Afghan Army to have air support, fires, artillery, mortars, medical evacuation and logistic support. That’s the way we train them. We then pulled all that? We trained them to fight a different way. It was completely predictable to me. Was it to you? Am I just hallucinating?
You have to have the logistics in place. If you have the logistics in place then you can fight a war. If you don’t, you can’t.
I’m a little disturbed. What about you, guys?
We hoped that we would have more time. We were delaying the inevitable. We had begun flying translators out on commercial tickets in the days before Kabul fell to try and get more people here. We had a grant of $500,000 to fly as many families as we could. We were optimistic that we might have 90 days before Kabul fell. We all knew it was coming. I personally thought we would have more than the 3 or 4 days that we had.
The whole concept of a planned withdrawal and from early days in training, even learning the basics, it’s certainly reaffirmed that a planned withdrawal is the most critical part and certainly one of the most dangerous parts of an operation. The idea is that we could draw a line in the sand on a fairly arbitrary date and somehow miraculously achieve all the things necessary in an extremely complex operation under withdrawal. I would agree with you, unfortunately.
I’m a heretic. We took the country down with 200 special operators and paramilitary officers. I felt that’s what we have them for. That’s what they do. It’s not like they’re trained, equipped, paid to do low signature, small footprint and build visibility support. That’s what we were paying for. That’s what we pay all this money for. We could have put the enablers.
Remember in ‘73 in Vietnam Easter Offensive, I was eight years old and we only had three TV channels then. You’d come home and not want to do homework, “Mom, I’ll watch the news.” “Sure, watch the news.” I was a weirdo that way. In ’73, when the North Vietnamese made their “final offensive” we blew them back with small advisory teams at the brigade level, meaning 3,500 or 4,000 people. We provided them air support, logistic support and medical evacuation support. I don’t know how many Americans we lost during that. I thought we had a model that we could use.
I agree the Taliban had won but I thought we could have brought this thing in for a controlled crash where everybody would have survived. I didn’t think we were going to have this cataclysmic, fiery, crash on the ground. I don’t think we needed to do it this way. I thought we have people that could have done some stuff that stiffen the spine. I’m a huge fan of the Afghan Army. We’ve been with them. We fought with them. They can get the job done.
There are thousands trained.
I remember where I was on September 10, 2001. I was working for a guy from the 10th Special Forces Group. It’s Fran’s old house. I was in the 5th Special Forces Group at the time.
Are you seeking guidance from them?
Let me tell you how it was because it was a zero-defect army, there was no money to train and it was an old-school culture that no one wanted. I didn’t want to be part of it anymore because it was negative and enervating. I went home that night and I told my wife that we were leaving the service on September 10th. I went home and sat down with my wife. At the time, we had three small children. We would always have a cocktail when I got home to catch up for the day and made a decision and I said, “These are small times for small people.” I’ve made the decision to leave the service. I had been in for fourteen years as an officer.
I went to physical training the next day and we went to Clarksville base, which is this training area. Each Army installation has one. I went for a run with the Company Sergeant Major I worked with, this amazing guy named Melvin Bynum. He ended up going to the 10th Special Forces Group to have a battalion as a Command Sergeant Major to the senior noncommissioned officer in a battalion. We went for a run on the 11th and I’m like, “I’m going to go put my resignation paperwork in when I got back.”
I got in the car and I’m driving back to work because it was about a mile and a half and there was this radio show called John Boy and Billy. At the time, it was new and it was like this redneck Howard Stern. They’re still on but they don’t get it done anymore. They were cutting edge then. I’m laughing and all of a sudden, the feed stopped and their news person came on and said, “We have a report of a plane hitting one of the Twin Towers.”
They had a comedic air and that wasn’t comedic. I was like, “Holy cow.” It must have been 7:46 in the morning. Our time was 8:46, we were Central Standard. I drove back to work, walked into the intel shop, the S-2 shop and they had the TVs on. The Intel shop was the only ones that were allowed to have TVs then because there’s no money, “We got to follow open-source reporting on ESPN, Oprah and stuff. I went in there and then the second plane went in. I was like, “Is that a replay?” They’re like, “No. That’s live.” I was like, “We are going to war.” We all knew it was Al-Qaeda. The higher said, “Take it easy. We need to let the Intel build.” We were the 5th Special Forces Group, which our area of responsibility was the Middle East. It was like, “Game on.”
I had to go to this meeting with the battalion commander of the 10th Group and the leadership. We sat down and they were like, “There’s nothing to see here. Take it easy. We need you to be calm.” We’re like, “Calm? It’s payback time.” We walked back. We had these crappy old barracks. The plumbing didn’t work.
We were an Alpha company on the bottom floor. Bravo and Charlie, all of their latrines leaked. It all came down through my office. Urine would be coming through on my desk. It was disgusting. I went back and we had this long haul and all the fellows are out doing their checks in their equipment. They’re like, “What’s going on, sir?” I’m like, “We’re going to war. Keep going.” Off we went.
How long after?
Did you ever have to do isolation? We only knew how to do Cold War stuff. Everybody goes over. The nicest building we had at Fort Campbell was the isolation facility.
It’s because they never got used.
The rebellion was funny because they’re isolated, “You’re going to isolate for 96 hours a week later.” People are like, “This crap. There was a rebellion at the gate because of all the Green Berets. We’re going home.” I think we put 6 to 8 teams into isolation. We’ve launched the first group. It went out the first week of October 2001.
You got out there. There’s an important point here that we want to make. The motto of the Green Beret and the Army Special Forces is de oppresso liber, to free the oppressed. That is an important term in terms of Afghanistan and the Taliban than now because this is an oppressive regime. This isn’t a regime that, by definition, oppresses its people. It’s from an actual mission of the Green Beret. This was a textbook.
This is what we created Special Forces for the Special Forces regiment. It was to go behind enemy lines, link up with insurgent surrogate forces and overthrow tyrannical regimes. We got to do it. We got to be part of it. About 200 people get credit for the initial invasion. It was like D-Day. You would get assault landing credit if you made it by 23:59:59 on the 6th of June 1944. I was the last dude that got assault landing credit. I didn’t get assault land credit but got credit for being 1 of the 200.
My role was this big. We linked up with Karzai who was running the South. We went down there and we captured Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban. We rolled in there and they hit a halt. They’d already taken off. We went in without a fight. I have a great photo where we’re in Toyota Tacoma. Ours had been blown up. There were three of them that got destroyed on the 5th of December.
We had this horrible event, a friendly fire incident. You can’t say that because the Air Force One admits to it. It was a 2,000-pound joint direct attack ammunition. A JDAM was dropped on our position and it killed three guys that were in the company I commanded. JD Davis was the team Sergeant. Dan Petithory was the camo guy. We had a signal intelligence guy there. Cody Prosser was attached to him. Twelve Afghans were killed. Tons of people injured all that stuff.
We went in there. The night before, they delivered these beautiful Tacomas. We cleared out the park. Every car sales dealership in Clarksville, Tennessee bought all the Tacomas. They finally got them there. They had three of these beautiful brand new Tacomas that were absolutely devastated when the bomb hit. We had these dudes that were good wrenchers only in Special Forces. It’s like, “I used to be a mechanic.” They put one of the trucks back together then we took Kandahar. The point I was trying to make is we take Kandahar. I remember there’s a Hilux next to me and I’m like, “That lady looks familiar.” They’re like, “It’s Christiane Amanpour.” She beat us to Kandahar.
Sonia, you talked about your dad and your dad’s feelings about the future and the next couple of months after the Taliban took over from September 10th to September 11th. A couple of weeks later, you have American Special Forces on the ground in Afghanistan. There are US Air Force jets all over the place dropping bombs and fighting the Taliban. From your perspective there, what was that like?
We were hoping for a bright future. We were under the impression that there will be a good change. My father was the one who was telling us that we will have a good future. We’re hoping that after all these happen, after the attack on 9/11 and after all these bombs and missions that are going on, the Taliban regime will be collapsed and we will be having a future. We were looking for a bright future. We had a good impression of the situation.
Those first few weeks and months watching what you were doing there on the ground, I was a junior in college at that point studying Broadcast Journalism. I wanted to be Tom Brokaw. Now I say that and people are like, “Who’s Tom Brokaw?” I’m like, “I’m getting old.” Everyone here still knows who that is. That period of time changed journalism because of embedded journalism, where we started putting reporters out into the field with military units.
What I saw during that time was folks like you going out there and what became the horse soldiers. They grew long hair, had beards, rode horses and were changing the world. My perspective said, “Why would I go report on this when one day I can go be one of these guys?” I said, “Forget it. I’m going to write out the next couple of years. I’ll finish this Journalism degree. When I’m done, I’m going to do that.” That moment in time watching you changed my perspective because that’s what I wanted to be.
I wanted to be you. I always wanted to be a photojournalist and not a broadcast journalist. The kids will know who Joe Rogan is.
Tom Brokaw, not so much.
They’re way different. Mariah, you spent three tours in Afghanistan over the course of 14 or 15 years. Sonia talked about the hope, the change and their perspective of being in Afghan and looking at the Americans coming into the country and seeing this bright future. Through your fourteen years, you saw an evolution having been there three times. Can you talk about the difference that you saw every time you went back and the growth of the country?
My first tour there was in 2007. I was a Company Commander in the 4th Brigade of the 82nd in Khost province. I’m a military police officer. At that time, one of the only options for MPs in the brigades was to command the HAC. I commanded the HAC for the 4th Brigade. At that time, that was one of those fifteen-month tours and we relieved the 10th Mountain Division.
It was the Forgotten War. Iraq was the focus. We went up from 1 brigade to 2 brigades and that was the only amount of conventional forces in the country at the time. That was a rough tour. That was a long tour. We had a lot of folks wounded. We lost a lot of our soldiers. Efforts to train with the Afghan National Army felt like they were in their early stages. We would go and train with the 203rd down in Gardez, Camp Thunder and Lightning.
It was still a lot of direct action, trying to fight, being attacked, IEDs. The police force in the Afghan Army didn’t feel as developed as when I went back for my second tour in 2010. That was the most hopeful tour that I recall. I was a major by that point. I went to work for NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan under the command of General Caldwell. At the time, I had come from a one-year fellowship with congress, which is how I got into that position with NTMA as their legislative liaison working under ISAF.
I got to see at the top level, at that point, how all the coalition of NATO nations had come together to develop the Afghan Army and police into a sustaining force and providing all those things that you described at the beginning of the show, the airpower, artillery, maintenance support and medical support, all those systems that had to be developed and supported to create an enduring force. That was a twelve-month tour. There was a lot of money, energy and hope. At the time, the Afghan Army was going to be able to be built into this enduring force that could secure their country once we ultimately left.
In 2014, I went back for my final tour. I was a senior major. I was a battalion XO for a Criminal Investigation Division. It was the Obama administration. We were seeing the drawdown. We were going from the 9,000-plus troops in the theater down to under 5,000. We participated in that drawdown. There was a lot less hope at that time. The equipment was being collapsed and pulled back to Kuwait and other places. Bases were being shut down and turned over. We were hoping that the systems that we had put in place for the Afghan Army and police were going to endure but we were already withdrawing some of our support.
The most striking difference I remember is on the 2010 tour with NATO Training Mission, we were buying planes for the Afghan Air Force. We were training pilots. We were putting all these systems in place. On the 2014 tour, we had to pay to destroy and cut up some of those planes that we had helped the Afghan Air Force purchase because they weren’t able to be sustained. The maintenance trail wasn’t there. When I retired in 2020, I wanted to stay involved. That’s why I ultimately joined the board for No One Left Behind.
Chris, I have a question about one of the points that Mariah made. You’ve been vocal about not bringing a large number of conventional forces into Afghanistan and that it’s a Special Forces mission.
I get talked into this regularly by the people that know better because they’re higher ranking or have better degrees than I have. I get a lot of pushback on that, not from the regiment. We were in Kandahar and the 101st landed. I can’t remember when it was. I’m standing there with his grizzled team sergeant named Steve Long and we’re at Kandahar airfield. He goes, “It’s time for us to go home.” We’re looking at this tent being built and I’m like, “Why is that, Steve?” He goes, “That’s the PX tent. Anytime the PX shows up, it’s time for the Green Berets to leave.” I laughed. I was like, “Steve doesn’t understand the big picture.”
I always look back on that and go, “He was right.” I still felt that if we would’ve kept that as a Special Operations theater and kept it as a small footprint then you wouldn’t have created that dependency. We did it again. We built an army in our image in a country. Why is that? We got to do some critical analysis on the way we’re doing our things in our national security and our strategy because when we came up with one, I have my opinion, we called it the last cavalry charge. The conventional forces had to get into it. It all came down to the bureaucratic. You don’t pledge affairs. You know how it is. It’s like, “We can’t let those crazy Special Operators get all the credit. We got to justify the 82nd Airborne Division.” I love your division, by the way.
It’s great. What’s the 4th Brigade called, the White Tigers or some crap?
Fury From The Sky. They also don’t exist anymore. They were stood up and then stood back down in the brigade combat team reshuffling.
Don’t you guys like that? I like that, Fury From the Sky, the devils in baggy pants.
We’ve got to go to the Ranger Battalion guy in the room though for a minute and talk about Fury From The Sky. JD, I’ll caveat this. We spoke with General Clay Hutmacher. It was episode seventeen. Clay Hutmacher commanded the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. My point to General Hutmacher was that there is no greater projection of combat power than the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. However, he’s still a taxi driver for you because they’re dropping somebody off in those aircraft, at least the non-attack aircraft.
Someone’s got to get off those and the 1st Battalion and the 75th Ranger Regiment are one of those units. You spent three deployments into Afghanistan and were involved in some of the most confrontational battles with the enemy there. Can you talk about your three tours there, the evolution you saw and also your 9/11 story?
It’d be an honor. I’ll try and keep the 9/11 story short because I tend to talk a lot about it. Like most of us, I remember not just hours but minutes. I remember the classroom I was in, the phone call I received from my dad and this corner cafeteria office we all huddled in to watch the news. The feeling that’s still intense now and I remember it like it was yesterday. It was this feeling of being helpless for the first time in my life.
I was fortunate. I was raised in a patriotic household. I love the country. My dad was an Airborne Ranger Qualified Infantry Officer in Vietnam. I grew up believing deeply in what our country did and could do. That feeling watching that screen like most of us, I felt this horrible sense of, “I’m standing here and watching this and there’s nothing I could do.” The next thought I had is, “Never again.” There’s never again going to be a time in my life when I could have done something and I didn’t.
For me, I would call it a fairly deliberate path. I grabbed a bunch of guys in a small private school outside of DC and had a couple of supportive teachers. One of which is still a legend in my eyes. He gave us the freedom to take some time off. Most kids weren’t in school for the next few days. We decided that we were going to go down to DC.
I gave all my friends my dad’s old fatigues from Vietnam. We wore black shirts and we had signs that said, “Support our nation. Honk for the USA,” etc. We carried American flags. This was our way of saying like, “We’re kids but we want to make sure those that are making decisions that are much more critical than ours are going to see that there are people out there that are behind them.” Subsequently, we found those same photos years later. The first time and only time that TV Guide has had a non-advertisement on the back was a picture of us with an American flag. I’m a Poli-Sci major and my textbook had a photo of me.
That’s why you went into the Army. You couldn’t do anything else.
College was the beginning of the end. For us, the path had been defined. I knew I wanted to be in the military since I was born. I wanted to be in a unit where I could wear an American flag on my shoulder. I didn’t want there to be any question about what unit I represented. We were going to find our way there.
Years later, almost to the day, I was on a mountain in Afghanistan leading a strikeforce of rangers in a significant battle. At that time, it was considered the most significant battle in the war on terror in terms of the enemy killed. For me, that was a defining moment where I knew I had achieved his lifelong dream of having an impact and being in a position to make a difference in something that I thought was important.
At that point, for me, it was a decision about what comes next. We’re going to spend some time on that later because the events have helped define for me what comes next, which, to be honest, I couldn’t have told you before. Reflecting back on the privilege of 10, 11 and 12. I was in Iraq in 2009 with the 10th Mountain Division. I had another opportunity to make my way over to the 1st Ranger Battalion, which is truly the privilege of my life.
I went from being what I would like to think would be a superstar stellar officer to being one of many walking among giants looking up everywhere, literally and figuratively. You could turn around, close your eyes, pick seven folks and they’re probably stronger, faster and more competent than you. That’s something that I’ll never forget. I can certainly say in the operations we conducted and because they were condensed, my experience was consistent.
2011 was certainly the most kinetic, not surprisingly, during a time when we were dedicating a tremendous amount of resources, particularly in the Special Operations community to operations. I was fortunate that this was my second time with a platoon. We were a fairly senior strikeforce so we had a lot of maybe outsized autonomy with respect to the Ranger Regiment and had a unique mission set. We went in earlier than the battalion and we stayed later. They had a designation for that. We were in a position to do some exciting things that I felt I did have an impact on the course of action in history.
You spoke about where we are now. I want to go there now because both you and Mariah have been in contact with a lot of people on the ground there and working to get them out. Can you speak for a few minutes about what that has been like? I’ve watched you as we’ve worked together and people say you’re tied to your phone. You’re communicating with people on the ground and they’re trying to get out and facilitating that.
Because of the nature of No One Left Behind, we’re in direct contact with a lot of our translators. We call them Special Immigrant Visa recipients or people that have an application in the pipeline. We were already flying some home on commercial tickets knowing that Kabul was going to fall. I live out in Winchester, Virginia. I have horses. I usually go out on the weekends and ride.
I was out riding with some friends and I started talking to them about it. When I arrived, it was finished. I went home and my parents were visiting. I started talking to them at dinner about how the fall of Kabul was imminent. I felt helpless and I started crying at the thought of what was going to happen to everyone. We were already trying to do something. Now is the time for action and to do as much as we possibly could.
Like hundreds of veterans and everyone who’s involved, the first few days started off. You set up your workstation in your living room and we were all talking on WhatsApp and Signal. None of us slept for days and days because it was a flood of Afghans begging us for help. Our military friends reaching out to us and asking, “My translator is still there. My friend is still there. What do I do? What do we do?” We’re trying to manage and figure out what the response could possibly look like. Most importantly, to find a way to account for and understand who was over there, help them capture their documents and those types of things. That’s where it’s been ever since.
For me, I feel like Mariah. I can certainly say a few more things. She’s humble but there is a small group, about half of our board, that had these deep ties and connections back to both folks on the ground and then certainly a connection to those folks begging to be evacuated. We were in a position to make a difference.
I’m a partner in a private equity firm. We called the company LDR, which is the military abbreviation for Leader. To suggest that my partners had a good appreciation for both what we did and what we need to do would be an understatement. They were supportive of us getting involved and doing whatever we could do at the time. That meant dropping everything and putting your life on pause, personally and professionally and finding a way to help.
As I reflected back on what did that mean, what is the organizational structure that somehow magnetizes volunteers from across the United States? Let’s call it what it is. Many of them are veterans. Many of them are some of the three million combat veterans that served in Iraq and Afghanistan that decided, “We do have a moral obligation in addition to a committed one. We are going to find a way to assist and that is with or without official support.”
Reflecting on that, I always look to Reagan when he said, “Let us ask ourselves what people do we think we are? Let us answer free people worthy of freedom and determined not to only remain so but to help others gain their freedom as well.” For me, it’s one thing for us to continue to be a beacon of hope for the world but that’s empty if we don’t have the means to get in there and do it. Whether we’re given that opportunity, given that coverage or we decide to take it, they’re both a moral obligation.
I used to make fun of the Air Force when they talked about the Predator and the Reaper pilots that would go to Creech Air Force Base and commute the war and how they would go do their twelve-hour shift and then go pick their kid up from soccer and the cognitive dissonance. I always made fun of them to tell you the truth but I have a whole new appreciation now for what they went through. Can you guys maybe tease that out a little bit? I’m making a statement and a question and you’re not supposed to do that.
In the past few days, I felt comfortable again. You’re leading your platoon or your company or you’re in the joint operation center and you’re comfortable. You’re like, “I know how to do this. I’m solving problems.” Those citizens that did not have our training, education and experience, that is tough for me when they would call in tears, “So and so is being beaten up.” We’re like, “Geez.” They don’t have our experience. Could you guys tease that out a little bit more about your feelings? You commuted to war and you need to get your two hours of sleep and even then, your phone’s buzzing.
As I’ve talked to other military friends that are usually ones that are saying, “I’m trying to help someone. What can I do?” There are ongoing conversations in my low moments. I would tell him, “This is the most traumatic thing I can remember experiencing even in the military. I’m not even in the military anymore.” I had that same thought about drone operators. I never got it.
We’ve been connected. I’ve never been digitally connected, that I feel like its memories are getting straight uploaded into my brain. We’re seeing the pictures in real-time. We’re having desperate conversations. There’s this flood of people needing help. I forget that I’m sitting on my horse farm in America or sitting in a conference room in a hotel. I don’t feel like I’m here. I feel like I’m there. The trauma is weighing on all of us. When I finally came home from the hotel where we had a little coordination cell, it felt like coming home from a deployment. I couldn’t process the reality that I was back at my house. I couldn’t unplug. It’s constant. It’s nonstop.
Sonia’s family is stuck there. Sonia, can you talk about what your family is going through right now with your sister, your mother, the communication you’re having with them and their fight to get out?
Everybody’s life is at risk. I don’t want to focus on my sister. When talking about them, they are more at risk because of us. Right after the Taliban collapsed, I got to work with United Nations. I worked with them up until I got to the United States in 2014. I’ve been identified as someone working with foreigners. My elder sister was a woman activist. She had received a direct warning from the Taliban in 2010 and that’s how she had to leave the country.
My husband, on the other hand, worked with NATO, ISAF and USAID for many years. We ended up coming to the United States and being US citizens. My sister who’s trapped in Kabul, Afghanistan, she worked with the United State Government too. She’s a target and more at risk from various points. Us being a US citizen and my sister being an Australian citizen, people noticed them.
I have neighbors five houses apart from us. They’re Taliban. They told me that they’re scared to death that they knew about everything about us. They’re trapped there. After they received all kinds of documents and everything, they went to the airport and they couldn’t get in. Now they’re hiding in a relative’s house. They don’t want to be identified and someone gets into the house to get them or something. They’re trapped there.
My voice is not just for my sister. My request and my voice are for all the people who are there and work with the United States of America with the US government. I want them to hear these people that are left behind. They’re in a critical and bad situation. They can’t go outside and can’t do anything. She is the one who worked. She has all the paperwork. I know everybody is doing their job. I’m appreciative. Everybody is trying hard but still, they’re stuck there.
You were telling me before that your cousin was beaten by the Taliban.
Yes. My cousin has been beaten by the Taliban. He is a taxi driver. He had four women in his car traveling to some places. He has been stopped at a checkpoint and has been asked, “Who are these women?” He said, “They’re travelers, passengers.” They were like, “Where’s the mahram? The man that has to be with them?” He said, “There is no mahram or man with them.” He was beaten to death.
They have sent his picture to me, which made me cry. The endpoint is Taliban hasn’t changed no matter what they say. On the ground, what people experienced, they haven’t changed. My request from the government as a US citizen is to please help people who are left behind. I know No One Left Behind is doing a great job. I’m proud to be part of No One Left Behind. Their work inspired me. That’s why I joined them. They’re doing everything they can to help everyone. I’d like to request help from the US government to please stand with them and don’t leave them behind.
Chris, what are our options? Where do we go from here?
JD, it reminds me of the Ranger Creed. Coming from the Ranger Battalion, you can certainly appreciate it. The fifth stanza of the Ranger Creed reads, “Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle for I’m better trained and will fight with all my might. Surrender is not a Ranger word. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.”
Whenever I get weak, I read that thing. I got a little weak there. I got a little weepy. Sorry, I couldn’t get my talking points out. I’m stunned that this is going on. We’ve all been in the military and we all know the capability. I agree with the administration. The people on the ground did a remarkable job. I don’t know about you guys but I was empathetic for those Marines, paratroopers and soldiers on the ground. The Sophie’s Choice decisions that they had to make, I cannot believe that our leadership put them in that position.
I’m preaching to the choir. Those people on the ground made chicken salad out of chicken crap. Fundamentally, our leadership failed them on the ground. I can’t get beyond it. I know the political rhetoric and we’re trying not to be political. There’ll be a time to talk about this later, but the time is now because I did agree with President Biden, Chairman Milley and General Austin. They went on and they said, “There’ll be time for lessons learned. After-action reviews later but the time is now.”
We messed this up. Any good Special Operations, noncommissioned officer or noncommissioned paratrooper could have planned a better NEO than this. We all know that and the American people know that. Something is wrong and we’ve got to figure out how to bounce back from this failure. We can blame the State Department all day long. Let’s not do that.
This is about the United States government. There are things called inherently governmental responsibilities. There are things that only the government is supposed to do. National security is the number one thing, by the way. A lot of private equity people would be economic policy. I know that. Fundamentally, it comes down to national security.
A non-combatant evacuation operation to me is the definition of an inherently governmental function that should not be outsourced to civilians that don’t have the training, the education and the experience. I don’t know whether it was by design or whether America stepped into the breach again, as they always do. I get a little down in America sometimes too because I watch too many of the shows. This has been something special to watch people come together and be outcome-focused. I’m disappointed that we let so many people down that have relied on us.
I’m not in a position to opine on what could have happened. Certainly given your experience, I’d love your perspective on how things could have been shaped. At least for me, reflecting on the most intense environment I’ve been in since leaving Afghanistan, it’s the amount of Americans that have stepped up. If there’s not something that is officially executed on behalf of a government entity or a former allied nation, we’re going to find a way or make one. This whole concept of their own accord, sua sponte, which is something near and dear to the Rangers, there’s no power as mighty as free people. This concept of being committed to a moral course of their own accord, nobody told them to do it.
The friends I have and I won’t name them by name here, decided that the best place that they could be was at a point of friction where they could make a difference and affect change. They didn’t ask. They didn’t say, “Can I do this?” They said, “I’m going to do this and I’m going to find a way there.” When they found resistance, they slid to the right or the left and found their way to the ground. Whether that’s forward, in some intermediary friendly allied nation or here in a luxury hotel in DC working 22-hour days for sixteen days in a row to try to make a difference, it happened.
At least for me, it’s the most inspiring thing I’ve seen since the military unequivocally. It gives me this deep sense of hope that it is not lost. There is a nation that remains the beacon of hope that is unequivocally committed to doing the right thing. Regardless of who you a talking head maybe or may try to signify. For me, that is the story and it has only begun.
Fran, that’s why this podcast is important to do log form because I have to do all these shows where they say, “When Biden gets done kicking his dog and all this stuff.” You’re like, “That’s not helpful.” We need to have a more fulsome discussion. I’m going to go there if I could. You’re a poli-sci guy. de Tocqueville talked when he was in America 1800. He does his rounds of America and he talked about the secret sauce. America is the social and civil society, the social clubs, the libraries, the churches and the weirdo clubs.
We went through that phase. Bowling alone in America is insulated, everybody is looking at their phone and no one cares about their neighbor anymore. That’s where we’ve been for a while. This thing is the definition of de Tocqueville. This is a new type of social and civil society. This is my hope, at least. No One Left Behind and other great groups, you guys have formed what I hope will become a platform to move forward. It’s going to be your generation. My generation screwed it up enough. My generation has to bridge before you guys take over. I hope that something comes out. I hope that you guys continue with this and take this as a foundation to build something that can transform America for the better.
I know I sound like some political shill. That’s my fervent hope. Out of this dog-on tragedy of our end of the war in Afghanistan, we can build something that lasts and changes America. You guys are doing it. I’m like the appendix. If I disappeared tomorrow, no one would know. You’d have a little scar and they’re like, “That guy was bad. What happened?” You guys have been doing all the lifting. Watch you guys do the heavy lifting has been the only positive thing I’ve seen out of this.
There has to be an element of resiliency that comes from this group of leaders who have to emerge out of the next 12 to 24 months. If you were to put a timeframe on it, that’s what I would think. If you look back as a nation, we’ve gone through COVID, racial tension and an awful political cycle. I don’t care what side of the aisle you’re on. It’s a disaster from all fronts. Now we have this situation in Afghanistan, which has become polarizing and, in some ways, unifying. I don’t think anybody is going to stand up and say that what’s going on there is okay.
There has to be some level of resiliency. To your point, Chris, there has to be humility. We talked about the nine characteristics of elite performance as defined by SOF on this show. We have to look internally at the back end of this now and understand where we got it wrong. I agree with you. That can’t be led by those in the seats now. It has to be led by the next generation of leaders who say, “We understand where we are. This is why we got here. We have to move forward. We’ve got to do it together.”
I have a question for the group, I want to go around and talk about it. Two-thirds of the Afghan population is under the age of 25. That means that most people in that country only know Americans there, only know the international community. We’ve termed it nation-building. That’s a polarizing term. People get upset when you say that. If you look at World War II, the Korea War, we’re still there. We stabilized those countries.
We had a 50-year, 80-year view in Europe. We’re still in Germany and Italy. That presence created a calm that allowed those nations to focus on their economy on building internally. Look at Japan, the economic powerhouse in the world. They didn’t have a military for decades by nature of the treaty. Did we leave too soon? What are your thoughts on the fact that we put twenty years in but in terms of this conversation, twenty years is a blink of the eye? We’ve talked about it here. Twenty years ago for all of us, I feel like it was yesterday, standing in my apartment, watching the TV.
Personally because my connection and my years in Afghanistan were some of the most formative of my life, I had hoped that there would be a way where the international community and us, the US, would stay involved for multiple generations like you described with Korea, Germany and Japan. I think that would have been the answer.
I also recognize that you come up against an issue of national will like committing the money, resources, and losing people even if combat operations end and it becomes more of economic development and all those types of assistance. I wanted to be in it for the long haul because that would have been the only way to help them effectively develop this way over the next couple of generations.
I’d say something very similar. Unfortunately, many of us are seeing those of us that are not in the throes of supporting evacuation and what will come in resettlement. We’re seeing this almost inevitability of a return. It’s hard for those of us that spent time there, particularly fighting to fathom what happens in a vacuum. Sonia knows better than we do what that experience, unfortunately, maybe like and whether or not it would be inevitable that we will have a place in the future history of that country.
I acknowledge that it’s limited and not senior enough to have all the information around what we could do. We did a significant drawdown over the years. If that was diversified with other friendly nations that have an interest in the long-term future of a viable country then we could have done it. It seems, unfortunately, that it’s easy to point to politics around why we drew a line in the sand. Also, why we picked a particular date and forced a country and its military to somehow meet those totally unrealistic deadlines based on information that we now know is likely compromised. It’s horrific. There would have been a viable way of long-term stability without having an engaged combat force long-term.
Sonia, what about from your perspective?
It would have been great to still have some kinds of commitments or stabilities on the ground. It’s getting more into politics that I don’t have the knowledge of. From my perspective, in the early 2000s, people have gone through a lot of things. They made a lot of sacrifices. People lost their family members and they were still hoping for a bright future. What has happened is we’re in the same situation that we were in the early 2000s. All those sacrifices, work and missions ended up being in a situation where we were.
Fran, leadership matters. Sometimes that sounds so cliché because we were all raised in an environment where that was the coin of the realm and we almost got to the point where we stopped it. That’s been the biggest experience for me leaving the services. We took for granted the power of good leadership. If we had solid leadership that could communicate what we’re trying to do, the American people are compassionate, understanding and resilient. The American people are underestimated a lot of times by the leadership that somehow they have feet of clay and they’re weak. There’s nothing further from the truth.
My final thing is I would sit through all those classes on strategy and jab my eyes out with the dog-on pencil like Charlie Brown. Strategy matters. Somehow we lost our Moines in the last many years. That’s where I hope that people can come forward and figure some things out about how we can do this better in the future. That linkage of strategy and leadership, I respectfully disagree with people that say that we don’t have the will or the ability to do things long-term anymore.
There’s a lot of conversation where people are saying that it wasn’t worth it because we’re back where we started. There were a lot of good people who were lost on all sides of this thing since the early 2000s. How do we reconcile that? How do we tell people that it was worth it and was it?
I go to scripture, no greater love. That’s what I have to go with. I can’t talk about it.
For me, it’s easy. I would reference the beautiful story Sonia told. We’ve been fortunate to have some interactions with folks because the efforts of many volunteers are now on a path to the United States, which is something we can be incredibly proud of. That will change for generations. The generations of deserving future American citizens have done their part to support us when we needed it for a number of grave international issues. They are now going to be the next bedrock of the United States. That’s something that we can be proud of. For me, there’s no question about was it worth it. You need not look any further than our SIV Ambassadors and their families and certainly, the thousands that are going to be soon United States citizens and help redefine why this is important to remain committed to.
I absolutely believe it was worth it. It’s never a question of should you fight tragedy and should you fight evil? You must. I’ll go back to what Chris said at the beginning, our role as leaders is to keep hope alive. Despite all of this in the crisis that’s happening, I do have hope that more people will continue to be saved and there’s more on the way here that are going to be a new generation of leaders. I’m not giving up hope. I feel that it was worth it.
Where were you on 9/11?
I was already in the Army. I graduated from Vanderbilt in 2000 and I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the MP Corps then I went to Korea.
It’s the best rank in the Army.
I’d like to go back to it.
You have some level of responsibility but nobody expects you to.
I was 21. Because it was the end of the ‘90s, the beginning of the 2000s, the most exciting place you could go as an MP Lieutenant was Korea or Kosovo. I wanted to be a platoon leader. I wanted to be where it made a difference. Korea was a way to do that. We had convoyed up for an exercise at the DMZ and our platoon was waiting. We were sleeping in one of those Quonset hut hangars that they have up there at the DMZ. This exercise was going to kick off something in the early hours of the morning. Military policemen do battlefield circulation and control. We were going to do checkpoints like our enemy prisoner of war exercises.
You were going to hassle all of us that were driving too fast in our humvees.
You weren’t wearing your seatbelt or your reflective belt, Chris.
I do still owe a ticket to Yangsan for not having my seatbelt on.
You’re going on my list. I’m going to call it in.
Don’t confuse your rank with my authority.
It was the middle of the night there and all of our little Roshan phones started ringing simultaneously. People are answering talking to their families and I thought for a minute that it was the exercise kicking off, how they’ll give you like, “A terrorist attack has occurred.” I’m like, “This is the scenario we’re being given.” It took probably 5 or 10 minutes of us talking to different family members. People that had family in New York couldn’t get ahold of siblings or parents to realize this is real.
We were recalled to our base. It was a nine-hour convoy at the time because it was the Army of the ‘90s. We didn’t even have ammunition. You travel with your rounds and your blank adapters and everything. We had a couple of magazines of ammunition that we divided up between the trucks. If you remember all the rumors that were happening in the 24 and 48 hours after the attacks, more attacks were coming and more planes were missing. They said there was a plane missing out of Incheon airbase. All that was resolved but we didn’t know how global this attack was going to be.
We convoyed home down the Peninsula and it was about 12 or 15 hours before I saw the images of what had occurred because we were being told but you can’t grasp it. They’re like, “Come back to the base. We’re standing up for Enhanced Force Protection measures.” I remember walking into our company day room, seeing it on TV and the horror of the scale of it hit me.
We went to Enhanced Force Protection. MP stands on gates. We stood on gates for the next six months. I thought Chris and his folks are all going off to Afghanistan. I thought, “I’m going to miss the war. Here I am stuck guarding the gate.” When I would look back twenty years later as I got ready to retire when I was sitting in Bagram, which was my sixth deployment overall and my third tour in Afghanistan, I did not miss the war, it has felt like the last good fight for me.
We got more fights in us. It’s a new beginning. I was watching the president one time and he said, “The War on Terror is over.” I looked at my wife and I said, “The new war has begun.” Chris, you had some statements about the Taliban and you said that negotiating with the Taliban was not a mistake. You said, “That’s how these wars end. You have to negotiate with your opponent. There was no ability to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield. There was the ability but we decided not to do what was necessary to do that, which I as an American, agree with.”
Our armed forces can do anything and that’s not a criticism of the political leadership but I felt that we can run across the ground and remove any living thing. The ground was salt so nothing grows there for 10,000 years but that’s not our culture as Americans. That’s what I was trying to get to. This narrative of, like, “You can never win,” no, you can always win militarily. As people in a nation, that’s not what we do. That’s what I was trying to say. I know that’s totally dorky and everyone is rolling their eyes like, “Move on.”
That’s the frustrating part. The frustrating part of this thing is that you watch the images. What you’ve dealt with, JD and Mariah and what Sonia has experienced with her family is that you see these images and you see these reports at HKIA and it says, “The Taliban is in control of the terminal.”
You guys have to be careful because you’re representing and rightfully so. 375 was sitting on the airstrip ready to go. We had 1,500 Americans and then the 82nd was more than willing to jump in any place. I did not think for a moment. I don’t know how that happened in your Monday morning quarterbacking. If these reports come out about these agreements with the Taliban, the biggest thing I learned from this one in terms of strategy and policy is strength does matter. I don’t think we needed to accept that.
How many of your buddies have you talked to and you war game it? I had a great one time. “There are three brigades in the 82nd. You could have dropped one in Kandahar.” I’m like, “Yeah, we could have done that.” That’s back to your point. What do you guys hear? Have you all gone through the planning process and going, “If you were a company commander and some of that stuff happened, you would have gotten fired, Mariah.”
We see the senior leadership. I don’t even see him on TV anymore. I get these vacuous statements. I’m into accountability right now and there has to be some accountability because this was mismanaged and that’s alright. When you’re in the ground and you’re in negotiations with the Taliban whether you’re in Doha or you’re outside the Abbey Gate, I got it. Doesn’t that say something about the way we train, educate and the experiential development of our leadership?
Remember Schwarzkopf in ‘91. He ended up having to cut a deal with Saddam Hussein. He’s like, “I’m the military guy. You’re the only one. Go cut a deal.” Didn’t we learn a lesson there? Shouldn’t our senior military leaders have more sophistication when it comes down to negotiations and how wars win? I got a lot of heartache on that one. That’s got to be my passion.
This is critically important because we talk about leadership. You’ve brought it up here a few times. Having the courage to make hard decisions and have difficult conversations that you don’t want to have with people that you don’t want to have conversations with is an important part of leadership. It doesn’t matter if you’re a military leader or a political leader or you run a company or a manager in a company. Can you stand up in the difficult times when everybody else wants to walk away and not say anything, speak, have a position, defend your position and take action?
If you are passionate and committed to your belief, that’s the definition of selfless service. You’re willing to be like, “I’m going to be out of a job but it’s alright.” People deal with it every day. This isn’t something you do every day like, “If I don’t get my way, I’m going to walk.” There are certain times in life where you’re counted. We all know that. It’s rare. There are only a couple of times in your career where you’re counted.
I can tell you right where they were. I felt like this was one that mattered where people should take full measure at that point. All the other stuff like, “Your TPS reports aren’t in on time.” Who cares about that? There are certain times in a career, professional life and personal life where you’re counted. It matters. I hope that we are going to look at this closely. That was my political way of saying, “What the heck?”
Relocation, resettlement and humanitarian aid. No One Left Behind is a critical component of carrying those three pillars forward. What’s the focus now for No One Left Behind on these things?
I can speak a little bit from my perspective and then I’d love to turn it over to Mariah, who’s one of the new originals for how we are possibly in the position we are now with an organization that is going to be important for the next decade. I’ve been fortunate I’ve known Mariah for many years but was reconnected when she reached out about the growth and reestablishment of the board of No One Left Behind. When she first approached me, it certainly is something that I could relate to given my combat deployments experience, reliance on our allies that are still there, hoping and wishing that they could come here.
Frankly speaking, I didn’t have the same emotional tie to what was occurring until there became a point of friction where we couldn’t get them and they were under serious duress and risk. The board, Mariah included, was doing incredible work for months all as a volunteer organization to try to bridge a gap that existed with the State Department Special Immigrant Visa program that took an average of 3.5 years.
Sonia can weigh in on this. The imminent risk that exists on a day-to-day basis, much less a month-to-month or year-to-year, thinking about families waiting 3.5 years average with some extending as far as eight years to get something that, frankly, we committed to. We promised to provide based on years of service they provided to us. For me, that rises above reasonable expectations. “Is this worth my time? Is this somewhere I want to dedicate personal and professional resources?” This becomes a moral obligation.
Mariah included, they were in the issues. They understood the nuances of government policy and the challenges at various government agencies, etc. I was aware of the issues and we were working on a number of advocacy initiatives but it wasn’t until we knew the nation had fallen. This went from something we needed to dedicate resources to and increase advocacy around to being a life-or-death issue minute-by-minute.
At that point in time, at least for me personally and there are a number of other members both the board, the staff, the volunteers, the community, etc., we realized now it’s not a question of, “Can I dedicate this amount of time on a volunteer basis?” It was, “If I don’t do this, who will perish because of it?” When you ask former service members, people that would have gladly stepped in front of others to save their life, it’s not even a question. It’s a moral imperative.
At least for me, that’s when I got even more engaged on the operational side. I don’t know the things that Mariah, James, Chris, Keith or others have worked on these issues for years. I don’t have that level of depth in the policy and in the advocacy but I know operations and the guys that I’ve served with in the past that have the ability to impact and affect change right now.
For me, that was why it was something that I knew I needed to do and my fiancé was supportive of it. My family and my business partners stepped out of the way and said, “Do what you need to do to get this done.” That was my contribution. I would love for Mariah to talk a little bit more about No One Left Behind and the reason that this is important to so many.
In the transition, when I was asked by some folks in the government who are trying to affect change in a positive way and I won’t name them by name at this point but this, in particular, was a senator who deeply cares. He said, “Tell us why this issue that is directly at the mission set of No One Left Behind is important for your generation.” I immediately went to veterans and I looked at what is the epidemic across veterans now. There are all sorts of challenges around emotional support and mental illness. Frankly, look at the suicide rate alone in the veteran community.
When you take people that are purpose-driven and selfless folks that wouldn’t characterize themselves as humanitarians necessarily but certainly would align them closely with humanitarians of a service aptitude. When you empower them, allow them to go change the world, make commitments and promises to people that kept them alive for years, some of them 15 to 16 deployments. When they come home and transition out, you tell them that all those commitments they made, the people they got to know who saved their life on countless occasions, we’re not going to abide by those commitments and honor those promises. It’s not because we can’t.
You look then and you see why this is becoming a challenge. The uproar has not even begun in the veteran community. We are in for a serious awakening if we think for a second that people are going to stay quiet about this issue. I could talk about this for a long time but I can certainly imagine that those of us in this room are hearing this in a profound way. I can assure you it’s just beginning. Mariah, if you wouldn’t mind, a little bit more on No One Left Behind.
I’ll talk about the mission of No One Left Behind and what it has been for years and then I would love to know Sonia’s perspective as one of our Ambassadors. JD touched on an important point. We’re all volunteers. This is a volunteer board. I’m the Director of Government Affairs for AI Government. My boss is a former Special Operations community and he’s been checking on me. He was like, “Take a week or two, you need to keep working on this and then take a few days for yourself.” I’m like, “I can’t start a new job by taking two weeks off.” He’s like, “You can. You have to do this. I get it.” He’s helped me make connections. He knows Chris. I made the right choice to join this company.
Do you want to know what? He’s a heck of a great leader.
I’m going to shout out to Bill Wall. He’s a great leader.
Bill is the best. You summed up the characteristics there that somebody needs to know. I’m proud.
In my volunteer role as a board member of No One Left Behind, the organization for years since 2014 when it was founded by Janis Shenwari, who himself came over as an SIV and took the money that his former Army mates raised for him through GoFundMe, not to furnish his house and do other things but to start this organization. For years, our main mission has been to advocate who these translators are and what the process is like. The process is fraught with bureaucracy and it’s tragic that it takes so long to get their visas because more would be here if we hadn’t created such a bureaucratic red tape process. It can fail at multiple points for administration reasons, not the fault of the applicant themselves.
We were positioned to advise on the process. We were in touch with this large community of SIVs and translators. Our main mission before this has always been to help them once they’re here. There is an established government-funded resettlement process for immigrants to the US. We plug into that to understand who’s here and what basic benefits they’re receiving. In the past, we always helped them out with direct financial support once the resettlement benefits end or wherever the gaps are in the resettlement process. Things from major medical bills for children when they arrive because they didn’t grow up with the right type of care, car grants, car loans and those types of things to help them be successful.
That is what we are doing now. We did it for a few hundred every year while we still had a presence in Afghanistan and these folks were coming over on a regular basis. It wasn’t a crisis. Now we have grown 10-fold over two weeks. We need to grow 50-fold. We need to get ready to continue to help this resettlement process in the US.
Sonia, you’re an Ambassador of the No One Left Behind program. As we’ve moved 122,000 Afghans out of Afghanistan by airlift alone, they’ve got to go somewhere. There’s a lot here in the US and there’s a lot in other countries that are awaiting, processing and then onward movement to the US or other countries. One of the roles that you have is to welcome these people into the US. Can you talk about what’s on the horizon for you as we now begin and prepare to receive tens of thousands of Afghan immigrants into the US?
Allow me first to talk about my engagement with No One Left Behind. I enjoy helping people especially women and children. As soon as they arrived in the United States, I offered my help to World Relief and I was helping them volunteer in all sorts of interpretation, family issues, teaching women and all other sorts of family issues. No One Left Behind is one of the nonprofit organizations that want to make sure every eligible individual should get their rights. I was inspired by the work they have been doing and wanted to have the honor of working with them.
My role is to work as their Ambassador for the SIV holders in California. Our mission is to first help the SIV holders but if we get more support, we might be able to help others but it’s not a commitment that I can make. It’s only for SIV holders. As soon as they arrive in their state, specifically if they arrive in California, we have resettlement agencies that welcome them. After they complete all their process and if anyone is in need of help, they are referring to us. We are financially supporting them. We’re reviewing case-by-case. At least for California, I have more than 200 applications. They need help and they want to support.
I’m sure with the situation that we are receiving so many other new arrivals, we’ll be having more. Here is a good time. We have a great team of leadership. We have great veterans and SIV Ambassadors that are working round the clock. They want to help people. Here is the time that we request the US people to stand by us and help No One Left Behind to be able to help the new arrivals.
Fran, Chris, I’m not part of No One Left Behind. This is not a paid public announcement or anything like that but I’ve had the pleasure and honor of working with a lot of organizations. I met James because he’s a neighbor of my former battalion commander. I’ve met a lot of the organizations and in the groups and No One Left Behind is the one. There’s a lot going on out there. There are some fly-by-night places, let’s be honest, that want to exploit this situation.
No One Left Behind was here at the beginning and they’re going to be here for a long time. It’s a voluntary organization and their books are open and all that. I’m not part of them. I’m not even going to get a t-shirt out of it. There’ll be a conflict of interest. Sonia nailed it. This is the one that’s going to be here for the long haul and they need to grow. That’s going to create challenges for you guys but you’re way smarter than I do. You’ll figure that out.
At the end of every episode, I ask my guests about the three things that they do every day to be successful. I caveat it in a sense of the Jedburghs in World War II. When they parachuted behind enemy lines, they had to do three things every day as the foundational core skills to be successful. They had to shoot, move and communicate. If they were proficient in those three skills, they could focus on other challenges because their challenges were numerous.
I ask everybody what are the three things that you do every day to be successful. I do want to ask that to this group because of what each person in this room is charged with, not only up to this point in their careers but from this point forward. We’ve talked about action as leaders. We’ve talked about courage. We’ve talked about defining moments in 9/11 and a defining moment now. What are those three things that each one of you does every day to be successful? We’ll start with Mariah.
The three things that I do is one, I listen because I’m still being contacted by hundreds of people every day that need help on my LinkedIn and my email. They’re reaching out from everywhere, Americans and Afghans themselves. I listen to what they need, what they’re telling me and what their experiences are and then I connect. This problem is bigger than all of us. There are some amazing outpourings of assistance, advice and financial resources. All I can do is make connections and send out things to connect people as fast as possible. I hope that the effort continues to spread and ripple outward. The last thing I do is I speak, which is what we’re doing now and what No One Left Behind has done for years to advocate for the process and for what it takes to help our Afghan allies.
I was thinking if there was one thing and distilling it into three so one would be to serve in a connection capacity. I’ve done this in my early days. We were talking about Ranger School on the ride over. I joked about it because I could look to my left and right and most people were probably more skilled at every task. If I made them look better in some capacity, they took care of me and clearly, that served me throughout my life. I feel like my number one priority in all of this and it’s one of the reasons I got so involved is I’ve been fortunate to be connected with folks that are more capable than I at various tasks. I’m making sure that I identify what those are and plug them into the systems where they can have the greatest impact, so it’s to be a connector.
The two would lead with why. Make sure that those people are connecting, we’re putting in positions for them to take on an outsize role and they understand why we’re doing it. It’s not just the task condition standards thing but it’s deeply understanding why we’re in this and what it means to me so that they can understand perhaps what it means to them. The third one is moved to points of friction and be bold. There’s plenty of time and there’s plenty of people that are pointing fingers, looking over their shoulder and wondering what this may incur in terms of liability in the future. That’s not the way free people live. Move to points of friction and be bold because it’s the right thing to do.
Thank you. Sonia?
I’ll be concise. Stay positive and be helpful. Look forward and spread out the word about nonprofit organizations like No One Left Behind. Please help them achieve their mission. Also, look forward and save lives. This matters for the people who were left behind and for our mission, too.
If you think you’re a good leader, you’re not because every day is a new day. Anybody that says, “I’m a great leader,” they’re not because they’re not self-aware enough to know that this business is the toughest thing you’ll ever do. Every day you go home and go, “I wish I would have done it better.” Here are my three. I did listen, too but listen/learn, be empathetic and don’t ever quit.
I can’t thank everybody here enough for taking the time out of your busy schedules to sit with me. This is a truly impactful conversation. The situation that we’re in is real and dire. Mariah talked about 9/11 and having to see it 12 or 15 hours later and being like, “That happened.” This situation is happening. You’re seeing it on your phones, the pictures, in the news and in real-time. Sonia is living it through her family. Now is the time to take action.
I was preparing this and I received a note on LinkedIn that was timely. It’s important to understand how real this is. I received a note from an Afghan who worked with American Forces who’s stuck in Afghanistan. It’s fairly lengthy so I won’t read the whole thing but he explains who he worked for and he talks about his family.
He says, “The situations are strange for me and my family so I’ve shifted my house and my family from one city to another so that the enemy may not recognize me but they are still seeking to find me. I have the complete documents for my SIV case but the period to get my SIV is lengthy. That’s why I decided to send you this email for immediate evacuation from Afghanistan.” I received it at 8:26 AM. This is happening. Now is the time to take action.
Our nation, Afghanistan, collectively us, as nations, we’ve given everything to the War on Terror. As we talked about it, we fought the War on Terror for twenty years and we may have declared that it’s over but the new war has probably begun. The sooner we accept that, the faster we can tailor our actions and the next step as leaders.
On August 26, 2021, thirteen US service members and nearly 100 Afghans were killed in the car bomb at the Kabul Airport. These will officially be the last to make the ultimate sacrifice in the War on Terror. They will not be the last to make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our nation. Regardless of what the next chapter holds, we must forever remember those who protect our freedom. I thank you for joining me. Visit NoOneLeft.org to be involved. De oppresso liber.