A common theme that those of us who have participated in national service and volunteering continue to espouse is that service can bridge just about any divide that exists in society. Skeptics say it’s hogwash and just another distraction from our real problems. However, the events surrounding the fall of Afghanistan illustrated this theme for me, and nobody will ever be able to convince me otherwise.
In July of 2021, I was finishing a series of fellowships and entrepreneurial programs in preparation for launching my additive manufacturing company when I received a call from Karen Kraft, who runs Veterans in Media and Entertainment, a non-profit in Hollywood focused on helping Veterans to break into the entertainment industry. I met Karen while participating in her AT&T-sponsored fellowship, where I hoped to gain enough knowledge to run my marketing campaigns. She asked me if I could help a Harvard Professor get 74 documentary filmmakers out of Afghanistan. Throughout the fellowship, she learned I had worked with the United Nations while serving in Africa. I didn’t do very much for the Professor. I sent him an email that connected him to some former colleagues in the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and his committee took care of everything. A week later, I was informed that they had successfully gotten the people out, and I went camping in West Virginia, thinking that I had done my good deed for the month. Upon returning from my trip, my phone began to light up with text messages and emails from Karen as soon as I got back into cellular service. The group had been linked up with an extraordinary young social media influencer, and they were raising funds to save as many Afghan refugees as possible. Everyone was going to meet near Fort Liberty (formerly Fort Bragg), North Carolina, and work for a couple of weeks to evacuate our Afghan allies
I knew practically nothing about Afghanistan. I didn’t fight there, didn’t know the geography, the demography, the culture… nothing. I thought about it while unpacking my camping gear, and then I sat down at my desk and wrote back to her and offered to help. I didn’t leave my desk for anything other than walks with my dog for the next six days. It has been nearly two years now, and my company remains mothballed on the shelf; I’ve oscillated between moments of utter joy and deep hopelessness. I am very nearly penniless, and my friends/family are concerned that I’ve lost my mind. However, the inspiration I drew from the spirit of service that is so evident around me each day is something that I will treasure forever. I also learned that service could bridge any gap.
Our endeavor started off as many of the Veteran led initiatives did, primarily staffed by Veterans who had ties to Afghanistan, military spouses, and the all-important Afghan interpreters who worked alongside the US military and the many non-profits who ran programs throughout the years. However, as the flight options began to taper off, many groups were forced to cease operations, leaving many passionate people committed to getting at-risk Afghans out without an umbrella organization. Many of these stalwart individuals turned out to be AmeriCorps Alums, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, Rotarians, United Way volunteers, etc. We even connected with a group of Peace Corps volunteers who had served in Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s trying to help people they knew or didn’t. Finally, the board and advisory group from the National Museum and Center for Service initiative got involved, and we found that we had assembled this incredible mix of extremely well-connected people who knew how to work without pay or promise of reward on incredibly complex problems that were halfway around the world.
Each group brought different skills to the communal table, and it was amazing to see how easily and flawlessly everyone could integrate and focus on the problem. The things that seem to create barriers between people in normal daily life (politics, race, gender, et al.) simply evaporated and we were all focused on the simple goal of trying to get people out of harm’s way. The networking was one of the most impressive things to watch. If someone didn’t have an answer to a problem, then someone else knew someone who knew someone who did. It happened with such regularity and consistency that one would have thought we had been working together for years. The camaraderie that grew from working together was as strong as I’ve experienced throughout my military career.
Veterans are good at figuring out how to blow a hole in a wall, dropping artillery on locations, clearing buildings, and creating airfields in the middle of nowhere. They are used to deprivation and a lack of creature comforts. This reality seriously hampered our abilities to empathize with those we were trying to help. And that is where those who had served in AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and other Service organizations shined. It was a returned Peace Corps volunteer who figured out how much SIMILAC was needed for nursing children on a weekly basis. It was a former AmeriCorps alum who set up a network of volunteers to help provide mental health support over WhatsApp. It was a returned missionary from Pakistan who knew which hospitals and treatment centers were reputable. It was a privilege to watch this all happen and be able to observe the complementary skill sets come together. It is something that ought to be replicated elsewhere in our society.
We are closing in on two years now, and we have been less successful than we had hoped, but we are not giving up, and that same sense of service that brought us all together continues to sustain us today. I know this has been the purest thing I have ever done in my life, and I am grateful to all those in my ‘service family’ who leaned in and offered to help.
That’s my story of service.