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.

This article appears in the October 2022 issue. Subscribe to WIRED Illustration: Eddie Guy

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.

Worth Parker (left), and Joe Saboe 

Photographs (left to right): Brian Hueske; Dave Carhart/Redux

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.

At the time of Biden’s announcement, some 2,500 US troops remained in Afghanistan, and several thousand American civilians and contractors lived and worked in the country. Meanwhile, about 81,000 Afghans who had worked with the US military during the war had pending applications for Special Immigrant Visas.

By early summer, Biden had set the official evacuation deadline for August 31. The Taliban inched closer to Kabul, capturing surrounding cities, regions, and entire provinces with relative ease. On August 10, a US intelligence report estimated the Taliban would take the capital within one to three months. Five days later, Kabul fell.

The city’s airport, Hamid Karzai International, immediately became one of the only escape routes out of the country. Within hours, thousands of people flooded its gates. Most were turned away, lacking the necessary papers. Many were tear-gassed. And several died after being crushed in a human stampede. Footage of two Afghans clinging to a departing US Air Force C-17 cargo plane and then falling to their deaths quickly spread across the globe. They were later identified as a 24-year-old dentist and a 17-year-old player on Afghanistan’s national youth soccer team and became symbols of the most chaotic evacuation since the fall of Saigon.

The night after Kabul fell, Parker was reading about the unfolding bedlam when he saw mention of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which was flying 160 of its troops from Kuwait to Kabul to assist with the evacuation. The unit happened to be commanded by Parker’s old friend Colonel Eric Cloutier. Suddenly, Parker had boots on the ground. He sent Essazay another Facebook message, telling him to send the names of his family members and any location data he had. About an hour later, Essazay responded with the names of his two brothers and his parents and their address in downtown Kabul, and Parker forwarded the info to a subordinate of Cloutier’s. He warned Essazay not to get his hopes up.

A day passed. On August 17, two weeks before the evacuation deadline, Parker drove west across North Carolina to a friend’s cabin in the Appalachian Mountains, where he planned to spend a few days hiking, scouting deer, and fly-fishing. By the time he reached the mountains, Tropical Storm Fred had descended. The rain was so heavy Parker could barely see through the windshield of his black Tacoma. When he arrived at the cabin, the power had been knocked out. He was disconnected from the outside world.

Around 10:30 that night, he was sitting on the front porch when the power flickered back on and his phone began to ping with Facebook notifications. His Marine contact in Kabul had been telling him where to send the Essazays. One of the final messages ordered urgent action: Get your people’s family to the airport now.

The message instructed them to head to the airport’s East Gate, make sure that no one else was with them, and give a password to marines manning the gate. The family would first have to get through a Taliban checkpoint, the message warned. This could go to shit. But they have a chance. Get them here in an hour. The message was 90 minutes old.

Illustration: Alicia Tatone

Certain it was too late, Parker called Essazay, who told his family to leave everything behind, not even packing a change of clothes, which might reveal that they were trying to flee. Knowing the Taliban wouldn’t search women, the family duct-taped some $13,000 in cash to Essazay’s mother’s body, hidden beneath her dress. Essazay instructed them to wipe their phones, including the messages with his instructions. Anything linking them to American forces could get them killed. “But if you stay home,” Essazay told his parents, “you’re going to die.”

Over the next few hours, as the family headed along seven congested miles toward the airport, Essazay and Parker shared Facebook messages. Essazay worked from a Middle Eastern café in Houston that stayed open until 4 am, drinking black tea as he relayed his family’s movements. Other regulars occasionally stopped their chess and card games to crowd behind his laptop. Parker, sitting on his friend’s couch in Appalachia, kept his marine contact in Kabul abreast.

The family arrived at the Taliban checkpoint and told the guards they were taking their elderly matriarch to the hospital. They were allowed to pass. By 1 am US Eastern time, two and a half hours after the original window had closed, they arrived at the gate. Essazay’s brother Omar pushed through the crowd to reach the marines manning the gate, insisting that his family was supposed to get through and telling the guards that his brother was a US Marine. When they tried to turn him away, he supplied the name of Parker’s contact inside the airport, and the password he’d been given.

Waiting for a response, Parker recognized a long-dormant feeling. It was the closest he’d come to the exhilaration and exhaustion of combat since the years he had spent in the real thing. As the rain continued to pound the mountainside cabin, Essazay sent Parker one final message.

They are in. Semper Fi, sir.

19 Days Left

On August 12, three days before Essazay contacted Parker, Joe Saboe had just returned from a family snorkeling vacation in Hawaii. He was coaching soccer practice in Denver when his cell phone rang. It was his brother Dan in Phoenix, asking if he could help a friend and his family escape Afghanistan.

Dan explained that Abasin Hidai, a mutual friend of his and his wife, had returned to Afghanistan to help rebuild his country. Now he and his family were trapped. Worse, Hidai had worked as a water engineer with the US Army, and his brother had served on Afghanistan’s National Security Council. If they didn’t leave, they feared, the Taliban would soon kill them. Hidai, who had started the visa process years earlier, had no luck reaching the American embassy. He was desperately calling, texting, and emailing every person he knew with any connection to the US military.

Saboe, then 36, had been out of the Army a full seven years. He describes his tenure as a soldier as thoroughly workaday: ROTC at Georgetown; then a 2009 deployment in Iraq as an infantry officer, where for one year he helped build schools and hunt proto-ISIS insurgents; and finally teaching ROTC students back home before getting out in 2014. He got his master’s in education at Stanford and moved to Denver, where he was running a workforce education startup, coaching elite youth soccer, and raising two daughters with his wife.

Listening to his younger brother, Saboe was reminded of the end of his rotation in Mosul, where he was among the last troops to leave the city before it fell to ISIS. He thought of the Iraqi friends he’d made, many of whom had to flee the country. He feared the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul would be even more swift and brutal, and that all the work some 800,000 American soldiers had done in the country over the past 20 years might have been in vain. But he figured there was nothing he could do. He’d never even been to Afghanistan.

Still, that evening Saboe tried the closest thing to a Noncombatant Evacuation Operations tool he had: Facebook. He posted a note to his 1,400 friends that began, “Hey State Department, DOD, or politico friends—need your help urgently.” Without naming him, he explained Hidai’s predicament and asked anyone who might have “helpful information or a firm, strong lead” to respond.

By the following morning, Friday, Saboe’s post had received 32 sad-face and hugging-heart emoji, but also one direct message from an ROTC buddy he hadn’t talked to in nearly 20 years.

Call me, the message said. I am trying to get one out too.

The friend, who was still in the Army, working at the Pentagon, laid out a plan. He told Saboe to write a letter saying that Hidai and his family would come live with Saboe and his family in Denver, have it notarized, and send it to the American embassy in Kabul. After a quick discussion with his wife, Saboe wrote the letter. He walked two doors down, where his neighbor, a lawyer, notarized it, and then he sent it to the embassy via the fax number on the agency’s website. He also called someone at the embassy he had reached through a shared Georgetown connection. The person assured Saboe that Hidai would be receiving a call within the hour. A return fax never came, and the embassy never called. When Kabul fell on Sunday, US staff at the embassy shredded documents, lowered the American flag, and were airlifted out of the country.

Later on Friday, however, Saboe received another Facebook message, this time from a marine who was at the airport. The marine said the Hidais should head to the North Gate as soon as possible. Saboe relayed the information to Hidai, but as the family hid all their documents beneath Hidai’s wife’s clothes and prepared to rush from their home, Saboe got a message telling him to abort. Word had quickly spread that the gate was open, and now hardly anyone was making it through the crowd. Saboe had no choice but to tell the Hidais to sit tight and hope another opportunity to leave might come before the deadline dropped or the Taliban found them.

17 Days Left

Meanwhile, Saboe started hearing from several veterans across the country who’d seen his Facebook post. They were all in their thirties, each trying to get a single contact to safety. By Saturday, August 14, the day before Kabul fell, Saboe decided to link all nine of them in a WhatsApp group, where they could share what they were hearing and relay it back to the people they were trying to help. They posted furtively snapped pictures of the ever-changing and growing number of Taliban checkpoints, sent to them by families and military contacts scattered around the city. Soon, they had a relatively reliable picture of what was happening in real time. Several members of the group had gone into tech after the military, and they started building a detailed map using annotated images from Google Maps and Google Earth, updating it nearly hourly to reflect the movements of the Taliban and the airport’s access points. To mitigate confusion between similar or identical last names, they also assigned each potential evacuee or family of evacuees a “chalk number”—a term dating to World War II, when Allied paratroopers had their flight numbers placed on their backs in chalk. The Hidais were Chalk-0001.

As the operation formed, Saboe began working late into the night from his home office, directly below his 11-year-old daughter’s bedroom. Around 2 am Denver time on August 16, midday in Kabul, Saboe’s phone pinged with a message: Chalk-0028—a family of four—had successfully made it through the North Gate. He immediately texted another family, Chalk-0021, to head there. Minutes later, his phone rang—the family was calling on FaceTime. All nine of them, including four children under 10, were pinned down in a ditch no deeper than 18 inches, barely a dozen yards from the gate, bullets cracking over their heads. The Taliban were killing anyone that moved.

While the horror unfolded on Saboe’s phone, his wife, Nichole, sat huddled in the corner, listening to the children’s screams, the muzzle blasts, and a woman asking Saboe if he was trying to get them killed. Amid the shouting, he gathered a few details about their location, quickly cross-checked it on Google Earth, and determined that the Taliban were firing from a factory across the road. He told them to stay in the ditch and lie flat, face down. The call went on for nearly 90 minutes, Saboe doing his best to keep them safe while bracing himself to witness their deaths via FaceTime. Eventually, the bullets stopped. The Taliban seemed to have moved on. Surrounded by dead bodies, the family made their way home. Hours later, as his pounding heart finally settled, Saboe lay in bed wondering if he was doing the right thing.

The following day, the family approached another gate, only to return home again after being caught in a stampede that left the mother with a dislocated shoulder and two of the children and their grandmother with broken bones. Finally, on August 18, a friend in St. Louis named Zac Martin, who had served with Saboe in Iraq, returned from his day job in electric utility sales and secured the family a van that would be driven by a Special Forces operator. The van boarded a few miles from the airport and drove the family straight through Abbey Gate, where Chalk-0021 eventually boarded a cargo plane. They’ve since settled in Virginia. Meanwhile, Chalk-0001, the Hidais, remained trapped.

The number of potential evacuees was also ballooning. Saboe had received a call from Jim Webb, a reporter for The Military Times who was writing a story about the efforts of Saboe’s growing team. When asked what his group was called, Saboe fumbled for a moment, before blurting out “Team America.” Webb asked if there was an email to which people could send requests for help and tips, so Dan Saboe created a Gmail account on the fly. The story was published the following morning, August 17. At the time, Saboe’s group had 128 people on its list of potential evacuees. Within a day, teamamericaafghan­[email protected] had received over a thousand emails from Americans looking to volunteer and Afghans looking for help escaping. Saboe decided to take the next two weeks off work.

13 Days Left

On the morning of August 18, once his family had cleared Afghanistan airspace on their way to Qatar, Jason Essazay publicly thanked Worth Parker for helping them escape, tagging Parker in a Facebook post he shared with his 1,200 friends. Parker’s Facebook messages quickly began to fill with urgent requests for help from Afghans in and around Kabul. He was overwhelmed and, as most of them lacked the proper paperwork to board a flight, largely unable to help.

Later that day, while heading home from the mountains, Parker started receiving voicemails from other Afghan interpreters and fixers, asking if he knew anyone who could help. His phone number had leaked. Driving down I-40, memories of the months he had spent living alongside Afghans walloped him: watching hours of mindless TV with them after a long night supporting combat operations; his first deployment to Bagram Air Field when his daughter was born and the locals showered him with gifts to bring home to her, including a colorful velvet dress covered in tiny bits of mirrored glass.

Parker began calling people across his large network of high-ranking military officials to see if there was anything that could be done to get more people out. By early evening, he was back home and on a Zoom call with Army Lieutenant Colonel Doug Livermore, the national director of external communications for the Special Forces Association; Fred “Doom” Dummar, a retired Special Forces colonel; Anil D’Souza, a former Marine officer; and Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and retired CIA paramilitary officer. They too had been getting dozens of panicked requests from Afghans.

The group began to map out their connections, and within a couple of days they’d grown to nearly 30 members. Mostly retired and over 50, they named themselves the Graybeards. Soon the bulk of Parker’s days were spent trying to proselytize their work on Facebook and to the press before getting on the group’s nightly Zoom call. By 10 pm US Eastern time, Afghanistan, nine and a half hours ahead, would begin to light up. Parker and his teammates would work until 3 or 4 am trying to get Afghans through the airport gates, mediating between them and US personnel on the ground as Parker had done with the Essazays. Not 50 days into his long-awaited retirement, Parker apologized to his wife, Katy, and their daughter for deploying yet again, this time to the back of their home in Wilmington.

No one seems to remember who said it first, but someone suggested their nascent operation resembled a digital version of the Allied evacuation from the beaches of northern France in World War II. They christened themselves Task Force Dunkirk. Yet despite their collected résumés and hundreds of combined years running high-level combat and intelligence ops, they were unable to help on the ground in Kabul as much as they would have liked. Their connections were, in a way, too high up.

11 Days Left

On August 20, in a rare moment of downtime, Parker read Jim Webb’s Military Times story, which Webb had emailed him a few days earlier. He replied to Webb, asking for Saboe’s number. In Lieutenant Colonel Parker’s mind, he was going to call Saboe, the young millennial captain, flash his résumé, mention Doom Dummar and Mick Mulroy and all of Task Force Dunkirk’s sterling bona fides, and enlist Team America to support Dunkirk. On the other end of the call, Saboe remained guarded. Since Team America’s Gmail account had gone public, amid thousands of authentic cries for help they’d received dozens of scams. A socialite from Tampa falsely claimed to be an American ambassador. One person called himself The Russian Mercenary and claimed he could travel to Kabul and evacuate Afghans on Team America’s behalf, for a fee. Even members of the Taliban were reaching out.

But almost immediately, Parker realized Team America’s group was comically more tech savvy than the Graybeards. Saboe showed Parker the infrastructure Team America had built on Slack, with channels like #legal-resources-questions, where volunteers could quickly triage inquiries about immigration law and visa issues, and #resettlement, where they could discuss how to assist Afghans who had made their way to the US. He showed him the WhatsApp groups designated for each family and the growing database of Afghans that the team had put in a Google Sheet to organize the entire operation. Rows and columns were color-coded corresponding to a family’s documentation status. With one look, a Team America volunteer could determine whether a group was “gate-ready” or whether they’d be turned away.

Parker decided it was time to reject the chain of command that had been drilled into him from the minute he joined the Marines. By the end of the call, he had pledged Task Force Dunkirk’s services in direct support of Team America. Saboe realized he suddenly had some of the best-connected people in the US military and intelligence worlds at his disposal.

8 Days Left

Still, the Taliban were adding checkpoints to clog nearly every artery to the airport, and the crowds at every gate were unrelenting. Team America kept getting calls from Afghans who’d spent days making their way toward an escape, running out of food and water along the way, only to get tear-gassed or trampled yards from the gate. Task Force Dunkirk kept getting calls from commanders of the 18- and 19-year-old marines guarding the gates, saying they had no idea who they were supposed to pull from the sea of people.

Boiling with frustration one afternoon, Saboe left his desk and sat in the closet. When he looked up, he noticed the coat hangers dangling above him and remembered something he’d learned as a freshman ROTC cadet, a safety measure dating back to at least the Revolutionary War­—simple code words, objects, or devices that silently indicate who’s on the same team in a hostile environment. The military calls them “near recognition signals.” He ran the idea by Mick Mulroy, the former CIA paramilitary officer, who said that coat hangers wouldn’t be readily visible among the masses. Besides, flailing a wire hanger in front of a bunch of marines with M27 rifles wouldn’t likely produce the desired result. The signal also needed to be distinct and impossible for anyone to copy on the spot. Seven days before the evacuation deadline, they started with red scarves.

Abasin Hidai and his family were among the first to use the near recognition signal. Early on the afternoon of August 24, Team America texted Hidai to bring his family and a red scarf to meet a Special Forces operator at a location across the city. But by the time they’d arrived, so had the Taliban, which opened fire on their group, forcing them to run back home. Later that night, Team America arranged another meeting point, less than a mile from the North Gate, where another operator would be waiting for Hidai to wave his scarf. At 8:29 pm Denver time, Hidai texted the Chalk-0001 WhatsApp group. I have met Abu, he wrote, using the operator’s nom de guerre. We are together.

Team America now sent Hidai a second signal to flash to marines as the operator escorted the family to the gate—a text image with the word KING PIN. Then the group chat went silent. The gate was often a communications dead zone—the military had started jamming devices to prevent remote-controlled IED blasts. As the silence continued, a sleepless Saboe pressed for an update.

12:54 am: Hi Abasin—are you all okay?

1:42 am: Hi Abasin— did you all make it through the checkpoint?

2:53 am: Hi Abasin, are you in?

At 4:13 am, Saboe’s phone pinged with a message. Hello everyone. A bundle of thanks. I got in with the group. Love u all.

To stay a step ahead of the Taliban, Team America changed the near recognition signal almost daily. Six days before the deadline, it was pomegranates. Five, the Minnesota Vikings’ logo, loaded onto the evacuees’ phones. Four, another text image, the letters “PJ” written in fluorescent green. While Team America set and shared the signal to the evacuees in their Slack and WhatsApp groups, Task Force Dunkirk shared it with the soldiers on the ground. Consulting their crowdsourced map, Team America would then determine a specific location to send evacuees, often in the middle of the night, frequently in a sewage canal not far from the airport. Special Forces soldiers would meet them there, confirm the signal, cross-check their identifying documents against the information Team America had provided, and lead them through a gate as covertly as possible.

Then another Team America volunteer had an idea for further protection: Give each Afghan a digital fingerprint. Travis Boudreau, who served with Saboe in Iraq and is now a logistics executive at a Big Tech company, realized that assigning each of the thousands of potential evacuees a unique QR code would immediately remove human error from the equation. Team America began scheduling buses to be loaded miles from the airport, outside the Taliban’s purview. Each passenger had to present a QR code, which was printed discreetly within larger images of various objects and animals, invisible to the human eye. Then the bus would safely drive them through the gates.

Illustration: Alicia Tatone
The Final Week

What had started a few days earlier with Saboe taking a phone call from his brother on a soccer field now bordered on an organized military operation. But the number of Afghans pleading for help was growing exponentially, and the group was hugely overstretched. A $2 trillion, generation-long war was ending with Saboe posting free classifieds to Facebook and LinkedIn, asking for help, no military experience required. Volunteers had to personally know someone in the group, and—because phishing scams from Russia, China, and possibly the Taliban kept flooding the inbox—no foreign nationals were allowed. Team America soon swelled from 30 to more than 200 volunteers, nearly two-thirds of whom had never served in the military. They were Saboe’s neighbors, former classmates and coworkers, parents of the kids he coached soccer for, his wife, his dad, even his 12th-grade English teacher.

New members spent their first day learning to be case managers for individual families. While veterans were given the option to become Battle Captains, who managed the movements of Afghans in Kabul, civilians were tasked with managing the growing inbox, which in the final days was flooding with thousands of emails every hour. Trainees learned the rules for fielding emails: Only take in information; don’t click on anything. They were warned about what potential evacuees might send: a photo of someone’s father after he’d been shot in the head, a video of someone’s brother being shoved into the trunk of a car before it sped off.

As Parker spoke to CNN, CBS News, and The New York Times, evangelizing Team America’s work, word spread wide. The San Francisco–based collaboration software company Airtable reached out, and within two days had custom-built a cloud-based database to help streamline Team America’s process. Now case managers could more easily add gigabytes of photos and sort through different fields—green card status, say, or number of people in an individual family—in ways they were unable to with a Google Sheet. They could also share comprehensive data with the special operators on the ground. The Raleigh, North Carolina–based authentication firm Rownd got involved too, providing Afghans with a widget that allowed them to redact all of their data from Airtable at the press of a button before they reached a Taliban checkpoint, where their phones would assuredly be searched. Once they’d made it through, they could easily toggle back on, letting Team America know they were still awaiting help. Rownd CEO Robert Thelen, a veteran, became one of Team America’s chief technology officers. Because it wasn’t tax season, all 75 on staff at the St. Louis–based accounting firm Hauk Kruse & Associates joined as case managers for the final days, applying their skills at scrubbing W-2s and 1099s to scrubbing passports and green cards.

As high-tech as Team America had become, escapes also often came down to luck. A few days before the deadline, Saboe got a call from Anil D’Souza, one of the Graybeards, who explained that a woman named Sumaia and her 3-year-old son were trying to get out and reunite with her husband, Raz, a former marine interpreter who had obtained a Special Immigrant Visa in 2015 and was now a truck driver in Wisconsin. Saboe contacted her and learned that she wasn’t far from a location where a marine working with Team America was meeting other Afghans to escort them through the gates. Sumaia would have to get there quickly.

Because she neither had time to go pack nor buy that day’s near recognition signal, a blue pen light, Saboe asked her to snap and send a selfie. He noticed a bright green folder protruding from her backpack and decided to make that her signal, which he relayed to the marine. And because she spoke only Dari, Saboe also recruited his wife’s friend, a fluent speaker, to call Sumaia and teach her how to pronounce one name in English that would serve as a password.

Sumaia waded some 150 meters through thick, knee-deep sewage, while Raz’s brother, who was also hoping to escape, carried his nephew on his shoulders. About an hour in, she’d become too cold to continue and they climbed out, missing the meetup time. Then she realized she’d lost her phone in the canal. Two hours passed as they lost their way in the crowd. The marine happened to be walking by when, across the canal, amid the sea of people, his eyes spotted a bright green folder, and a boy perched atop a pair of shoulders.

The marine crossed the canal and asked Sumaia who she was looking for.

“Pete,” she said.

Sumaia and her son eventually made their way to Wisconsin, reuniting with Raz. They were Chalk-0361. However, as the uncle wasn't on Team America’s list and didn’t have any documents with him, he had to say goodbye at the sewage canal. He remains in hiding with most of his family.

For every plane that boarded, Team America heard from many more Afghans looking to find one of the final flights out. Outside the gates, the melee turned deadlier when, five days before the deadline, a suicide bomb detonated at Abbey Gate, killing 11 marines, an Army soldier, a Navy corpsman, and 170 Afghan civilians. In response, US troops began welding the gates shut. Then, early on August 30, Saboe got a call from a high-ranking military official, with a heads-up: There would be no flights out on August 31. “You’re not getting the last 24,” the person said.

At 11:59 pm on August 30, Kabul time, a C-17 cargo plane cleared the runway. The final transport was gone. Team America sent texts to dozens of Afghans who’d made their way toward the gates, urging them to leave and go into hiding. Zac Martin got a call from a former interpreter now living in the Pacific Northwest; nine members of his family had made it a few yards from the gate. “They all fucking dead,” he screamed. Saboe called an all-hands, thanked everyone for their work, and advised them, for their own mental health, to look away from what was about to come. For those who didn’t get out, it was going to be very bad. There was sobbing on the Zoom call. In two weeks, Team America and Task Force Dunkirk had gotten just shy of 500 people out of Kabul. Over 30,000 Afghans remained in their database.

Aftermath

Team America spent most of September dark, with volunteers returning to the lives they’d put on near complete hold. By the end of the evacuation, Saboe had been working on the project 20 hours a day—taking calls on the toilet; coordinating movements with Afghans while dropping his daughters off on their first days of school; and running an ever-growing, multinational operation from his home office. In the weeks after, he wasn’t sleeping, his speech was slurred, his patience nonexistent. He seethed as he watched President Biden tout the “extraordinary success” of the American withdrawal from Kabul, knowing so many were left behind and watching his team’s database continue to expand.

Some of the Afghans reaching out to Team America were in grave and immediate danger. In late September, one frantically messaged his case manager while members of the Taliban pounded on his door, asking if he should kill his wife and kids before committing suicide so that they would at least be spared further abuse. The case manager pleaded with him not to do it. The man was carted off and beaten badly before being returned to his family. His fate remains unknown. Many other hopeful evacuees simply went dark.

The group wasn’t sure if it would resume operations. But as the pleas for help kept coming in, and with evacuations by the State Department at a virtual standstill since August 30, Team America decided to come back online in October. That month, through a connection with one of the Graybeards, they began meeting twice a week with officials from the State Department. The team’s crowdsourced database, far superior to the hodgepodge of Excel sheets the government was working with, essentially became the State Department’s de facto data set. Team America provided the names, photos, and visa-approval paperwork of the Afghans who were most ready to be evacuated. State would then give the group’s case managers the date when each person would have a seat on a transport out of Kabul.

Among them was Zia. Born and raised in Wardak, three hours east of Kabul, Zia (who asked that WIRED use only his first name) had worked with US forces as a logistics and IT specialist and applied for a Special Immigrant Visa in 2018. In January 2021, the US Embassy in Kabul assigned him an interview for July, then bumped it to early August. He traveled to the capital and got his visa, but as he was searching for a flight out for his wife, his younger sister, and himself, Kabul fell to the Taliban. He couldn’t find a flight or reach anyone in the US before August 31.

For months, Zia and his family moved from one relative’s home to another, spending most of their days locked inside. He stared out of windows, taking note of anyone approaching the house. He looked online for people who could help and found many purported volunteer evacuation organizations. He’d heard that some might be traps set by the Taliban, but he figured he had no choice but to try. He filled out more than 50 forms.

On October 30, Zia received an email from Tracey Meschberger Gifford, a Team America case manager in Colorado, asking for his passport number. He sent his number, his wife’s, and his 15-year-old sister’s. A few days later, Gifford wrote back, asking for a photo of Zia holding his open passport against his chest. Fearing that he might be falling for a Taliban ruse, he consulted with his family. Send the photo, they told him. On November 15, Zia got another email informing him that the three of them would have seats on a flight from Kabul to Qatar on November 27.

It wasn’t until he was added to a WhatsApp group chat and saw the +1 country code denoting an American phone number that Zia believed they might truly get out. On November 25, someone on the group chat told him to keep an eye out for another number—Afghan this time—of a person who would be asking Zia to bring them the three passports. The sun sets early in November in Kabul, which gave Zia ample time to move under cover of night to bring the passports to the designated drop point and then to retrieve them the next day. A subsequent message told him that his family would be on a flight the following day.

Before heading to the airport, Zia’s wife strapped everyone’s documents to her bare stomach. They made it through the checkpoint, then the gate, and boarded a flight to Qatar, then to New Jersey. They settled in the Denver area in February.

In November 2021, Saboe received an official memo from a deputy chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, thanking him for Team America’s work. It read, in part, “The way of warfare will never be the same. And even more so for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.” In January, Saboe stepped down from his role leading the team to return his attention to his company and his family. Still he keeps his eyes and ears on the group, continues a friendship with Zia, and in August his family had the Hidais over for qubuli pulao, the national dish of Afghanistan, days after the one-year anniversary of their escape.

Some 30 regular volunteers keep Team America running. Many are like Katherine Schuette, a former military intelligence officer who, after her day job in human resources, opens ­Airtable, where each entry is a life trying to find a way out, many of them in hiding. This spring, the group hit a late-era high when 37 Afghans boarded a single flight out of Kabul, thanks to information from their database. Some weeks, they get zero people out. In many ways, it’s now easier for Afghans with the requisite paperwork to get through Taliban checkpoints and board a plane bound for safer places. But the work is slow. An operation in which things changed in minutes and often seconds now works on a timeline of months, even years. It has become, as one Team America case manager called it, a “tyranny of paper,” where the proper documentation is more valuable than any safe house or near recognition signal.

To date, Team America and Task Force Dunkirk have gotten more than 1,500 Afghans safely out of Kabul. Schuette estimates that an additional 2,000 might eventually, via a green card status or Special Immigrant Visa, be able to board a flight to America and be marked “Mission Complete,” as five of Zac Martin’s former interpreter’s family now are. (The other four are still alive, it turns out, and still in the database.) In total, that is 5 percent of the Team America database. Some 65,000 other people—all of them hoping to escape a country where starvation is rampant, the economy has collapsed, and schools are closed to the vast majority of girls—will likely remain on the lists forever. It can be hard, the case managers say, to come home from work, open Airtable, and see the unending rows of names. Instead, they try to focus on a single row at a time and remind themselves of the motto Worth Parker and Task Force Dunkirk used as their rallying cry during the mad dash last August: “Just one more.”

Photo sources for illustrations (Getty Images)


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