At 11:12 pm on August 15, 2021, Worth Parker’s phone pinged with a message. Sir. I hope you are well, it began. By any chance do you know any Marines who are on the ground right now?
Parker did not. He was in his bed in Wilmington, North Carolina, 7,200 miles from “the ground” of Kabul, having retired from the United States Marines six weeks earlier. He was trying to stay as disconnected as possible, even shutting off notifications to all of his apps. But, as a self-described “49-year-old Luddite,” he’d accidentally left Facebook turned on. The message continued:
My brother, who was an interpreter with the Special Mission Wing, and my father, who used to be the fixed wing aircraft squadron commander until he retired and then he worked for an American defense contracting company as an advisor, are stuck in Kabul. Of course, my and my brother’s enlistment in the USmilitarymake them even bigger targets. I tried all the official channels but no one is responding.
The note was from Jason Essazay. A native of Mazar-i-Sharif, Essazay had watched US troops arrive in Afghanistan in 2001 when he was 12, and had spent the first eight years of his adulthood working with them as an interpreter and fixer. Alongside American special operators, he had engaged the Taliban in dozens of gunfights and survived three IED attacks, the last of which hospitalized him for a month. In 2014, after two years on the waiting list, he acquired a Special Immigrant Visa. He left his family behind, settled in Houston, and for 18 months worked at a gas station, then a Walmart, then a steel plant, before joining the Marine Reserves.
Essazay and Parker had been in touch only briefly, a year earlier, when Parker edited a blog post Essazay wrote for the tactical fitness brand Soflete, about how yoga and jiujitsu helped him cope with PTSD and the culture shock of living in America. (Disclosure: I first met Parker in 2018 while editing for Soflete.) Now Parker was Essazay’s last resort as he attempted to rescue his family from the Taliban, which had taken Kabul hours earlier.
Parker was sure there was little he could do. After 27 years of service, he had spent the first 45 days of his retirement trying to wash the Marines, and Afghanistan, out of his system. He had just returned from a monthlong cross-country RV trip with his 10-year-old daughter, after missing her birth and many birthdays. He was neglecting his regular fitness routine and letting his gray beard grow out. More than anything, he was trying to shed the title Lieutenant Colonel and become simply Worth.
Parker apologized, promised he’d do what he could, wished Essazay luck, and said to keep him updated. Then he fell asleep.
In April 2021, President Joe Biden announced that he would honor the deal struck during the Trump administration and complete the full withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan by September 11. The 20-year war, America’s longest, cost the lives of 2,325 US soldiers and over $2 trillion, stretching across four presidential administrations. In all, more than 176,000 people were killed, including nearly 50,000 Afghan civilians.