Rick handed the cell phone to his wife.
Pointing to Facebook Messenger, he said, “You don’t have to say anything to this group. But I need you to monitor this.”
That August day, as he went down to the field to coach his five-year-old son’s flag football game, Rick asked his wife, “If somebody dies or they get into the gate, I need you to come and get me off the sideline.”
It was that day, seared into Rick’s memory, that people got into the gate and got out.
Of the number of Americans who helped evacuate Afghan allies, Matt Carpenter and Rick Stockburger, both Ohioans and both veterans of the war in Afghanistan, were two.
Matt, with hair pulled back and a worried look that belies his intensity, is a middle school teacher. Rick — bushy beard, sleepy eyes, raspy voice, nervous laugh — is CEO of a business incubator focused on clean technologies. Rick and Matt were kind enough to speak with me for this week’s episode of Only in America, to be posted Wednesday.
Since August 15, some 50,000 of America’s Afghan allies have relocated safely to the U.S., settling in communities or waiting on military bases. Thousands more are at military installations around the world. An untold number remain in Afghanistan, hoping to escape.
For the Afghans who made it out, the evacuation is freedom. For Matt and Rick, the evacuation is honor and healing.
Rick’s dad had worked in a steel mill for about 20 years, “before, you know, the jobs left.” In a post 9/11 world with few job opportunities in northeast Ohio, Rick opted for the Ohio Army National Guard, thinking, “I’ll get to serve my country and have plenty of time and money to go to college at some point.”
But, he said, “I ended up deployed a lot more often than I was able to go to college.”
Although Matt and Rick grew up in the same region, they didn’t meet till 2007, during a deployment to Kosovo. Around 2009, Rick enlisted in a partnership between the Ohio National Guard and Hungary that deployed U.S. and Hungarian service members to Afghanistan to train local troops. Matt joined the program in 2010, and soon they were together at a base in a remote region of northern Afghanistan: Twenty-three Americans, 23 Hungarians, and anywhere from 200 to 400 Afghan National Army soldiers at a given time.
Whether training on the base or on combat missions, Rick believed, “communication is hands down the [deadliest] weapon on the battlefield.” And that communication was facilitated by “our interpreters, who wore an American flag on their shoulder.”
Then, the gravel of Rick’s voice dropped an octave.
“It’s important to note,” he said, “they fought alongside of us. They talked besides us.”
His pace quickened, “When we were in combat, there was an interpreter who believed in what America had to offer next to me.”
Now, as public attention dwindles, Matt said with frustration in his voice: “It seems to us like everybody that can do something about this just wants this to conveniently go away.”
These two men are among the 63% of veterans who say we have an obligation to resettle our Afghan allies in the United States, as found in a new report from More in Common, After Kabul: Veterans, America, and the End of the War in Afghanistan.
Moreover, 70% of veterans and 57% of the general public feel that America did not leave Afghanistan with honor.
Rick said, “To me, as a veteran, I feel like I have a moral obligation. You know, specifically to these interpreters and their families.”
Now, as Afghans begin to resettle into communities and schools across the country, Americans are welcoming and preparing to welcome them. Of course, given the times we live in, fears will be fanned, as nativists are sure to pounce on any misstep.
And, yes, those nativists will very likely align themselves with the Republican Party.
Rick looks away as he says, “Sometimes it’s hard to admit it, but I’m a lifelong conservative, a card-carrying Republican.” With that nervous chuckle.
“You know,” he said, “we’re literally an entire population of people that came from somewhere else that explored something new and, you know, a nation of entrepreneurs and cowboys. And it’s just mind-boggling to me to be afraid of somebody that needs help.”
“It doesn’t correspond with my Christian values, doesn’t correspond with my conservative values. If somebody needs help, you help.”
Matt, his intensity trained on the immigration system, the botched evacuation, the plight of those who remain, said, “The best way we can honor, or maybe the only way we can honor, this failed mission is to make something right of it. And one way we can do that is to honor these people, to help them, to help them get on their feet, to help them live a life.”
Otherwise, he said, “What the hell was all of it for?”
Matt Carpenter and Rick Stockburger left Afghanistan in 2010. They are both now fathers with young families. They could have moved on. But, with their “dad face” on, they are helping Afghans evacuate and resettle.
For Matt, the challenge is bigger than immigration. “This is a lesson for us,” he said.
“As a nation, we need to be more open-minded. We need to come together more and we need to start working as a more cohesive unit overall because we’re broken in so many different ways. This is just magnified here with this immigration issue right now.”
His intensity gave way to anguish, “But it’s a broader, it’s a broader, problem.”