Former war reporter steps back into familiar role in helping Afghans evacuate

I was still a relatively young reporter in The Washington Post newsroom when the US launched its longest war in history following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I came of age as a journalist in the 20 years that followed, becoming part of a generation of reporters who ended up on a battlefield, first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq.

Even as I turned my reporting attention elsewhere in recent years, trading my flak jacket and helmet for the life of mom and journalism professor, the stories I told from both places stayed with me like a discarded notebook I kept finding in the bottom of a drawer, with a few empty pages that I had skipped as I filled it with my messy shorthand.

In the weeks, then days and then hours before the US withdrew its last troops and diplomats from Afghanistan at the end of August, I found myself entrenched again in the story, volunteering with Allied Airlift 21–started by a friend and retired Army commander, in a desperate attempt to get the last Americans and our allies out before the Taliban solidified its power grip on the country.

The author on deadline in the middle of the battle of Fallujah in Iraq. (Photo courtesy of Jackie Spinner)

There are still thousands of people left behind, people who served alongside the US military, diplomatic and humanitarian mission in Afghanistan and who were promised a chance to escape the threats that now follow them because of their service, including former translators for the US military who are eligible for special immigrant visas. In spite of what the State Department still claims, there also are hundreds of US passport and green card holders with immediate family members who are trapped in Afghanistan unable to get on a flight to flee. I know this because I’ve seen their pleas, helped verify their documents, talked to their family members in America. This notion that people who want to leave have been able to leave is pure fiction.

It might seem like an unusual coda for a former war correspondent to be partnered with US veterans from the global war on terror in an effort dubbed “digital Dunkirk,” named after the World War II effort to evacuate British and other Allied forces from France. But for me, it was like stepping back into a familiar room that very few Americans have ever seen. It was comforting in a way. Less than 1 percent of the US population served in the conflicts that followed 9/11. During World War II, that number was 12 percent.

It is hard to measure the ways in which these last 20 years have shaped that small percentage of us. Over time the good and the bad have mingled into one experience, like a death of a loved one that sneaks up on you when you least expect it, the pleasant memories almost like a longing, overshadowing the painful parts. I mostly have channeled this now into teaching about war and advising our student veterans on campus. 

For me, the end of the 20-year war coincided with a small family vacation I had planned for my children, a vacation that will now be remembered as the one “mom spent on Slack.” In between bike rides and trips to the beach, I was collecting passports and GPS coordinates. One day, I hope my kids will understand why their mom, a civilian who went to war to collect stories, went back at the end–albeit from the privilege of distance–because it was a way to settle the score of all the stories she had taken, without seemingly giving anything in return. 

It was an extraordinary and intense few weeks as we worked mostly through digital channels to evacuate vulnerable Afghans, using Google maps to lead them around Taliban checkpoints, guiding them to gates at the Kabul Airport where we thought they had the best chance of getting in, listening to the gunfire and shouts, the desperation and exhaustion of people trying to flee.

I realized how valuable my skills as a war correspondent were in those moments, that ability to stay steely-focused on what was in front of me, to go without sleep, to record identification numbers on manifests without making a mistake. I also knew well enough when it was over–although I am still engaged with Allied Aircraft on a smaller scale, to show up each week for the mental health check-ins the organization offered, a hard lesson learned from 20 years of war and my own battles with PTSD.

To some extent, I am back where I was halfway through America’s longest war, when I was trying to heal but also make sense of what had happened, when I was trying to put into words what it meant to go to war and to survive. Survival is both a gift and a burden, something I am reminded of when I hear the pleas of Afghan-Americans whose families haven’t yet made it out. I hear it in the weariness of refugees starting over.

For them, the story hasn’t ended, which means our job, my job, isn’t done yet.

That, too, is a comfort after 20 years of war.

A version of this story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.

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