Chris Kleponis / Kris Kleponis
On August 22, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin Called the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet To support ongoing evacuation efforts in Kabul. The Department of Defense needed help moving vulnerable American and Afghan citizens from military bases in Europe and the Middle East after the Taliban’s rapid advance through Afghanistan forced more than 120 thousand people to flee Country. 18 aircraft from six airlines were activated. Each flight is fully staffed by Air Reserve volunteers. Here are the stories of two volunteers.
Lauren George has spent the past 35 years working as a flight attendant with American Airlines. Every year, she signed up for Civilian air reserve fleet, a program in which airlines voluntarily assist the Department of Defense in times of crisis.
In the late night hours of August 23, her call finally came.
Like much of the world, George was aware of the chaos unfolding on the ground in Afghanistan. So, when an American Airlines female employee called to see if she still wanted to volunteer for the civilian reserve, she knew exactly where to turn. George was unable to go back to sleep after I hung up the phone. Instead, she wandered through her mind, imagining what the coming days would look like.
The American Airlines flight I took in New York the next day was empty – just her, 10 other flight attendants, and four pilots. The pilots gave a quick briefing before takeoff and the plane arrived at an air base in Germany about 9 hours later.
George explained that the whole experience sounded surreal, like something out of the movies. The refugees boarded the plane in an orderly manner and found their seats. Some carried a bag. Most of them had nothing. Some wore shoes, many were barefoot. Everyone was exhausted.
George remembers bringing an Afghan woman her first hot meal in over a week, an idea that still made me cry. “That was all for this woman,” said George. “It was story after story like the one we heard from those passengers. That’s what kept us going.”
The cabin crew worked non-stop to take care of the passengers for the next 27 hours. On board were much-needed supplies: diapers and milk; Amenity kits and clean clothes; Coloring pencils, coloring books and games for kids. While the parents slept, the children set out to explore the plane. Most of the people on board had never flown before boarding the military plane that took them from Kabul.
American Airlines / American Airlines
One of the children, whom George thought was 10 years old, spoke remarkably good English. The young man offered to help volunteers, ferrying cups of warm tea from the kitchen to the passengers, all while practicing his English with the crew.
George was amazed at the bravery of the passengers. Hundreds of people are crammed onto a plane bound for an unknown destination and an uncertain future.
“Having that kind of confidence on a plane without knowing where they’re going, it was another layer to do everything we could for these people,” George said. “I know moving forward if I have something difficult in my life that I can measure against their difficult path ahead.”
As George attempts to portray the lives left behind by these brave people, another Civilian Reserve Air Fleet volunteer is reliving the worst experience of his childhood.
Zach Khogyani is a 53-year-old pilot United AirlinesHe fled Afghanistan with his parents in 1977. He comes from a family involved in politics. His grandfather was a senator and a judge, and his father governed three provinces. Khogyani’s father, who left the country six months before his wife and son, decided it was time for his family to move out of the country, too.
Khogyani remembers the car trip to Kabul well. His grandparents and his mother drove him to the airport at night in secret. In his bosom is one bag. There are no games, family photos, or legacies linking him to his past. “Everyone knew this could be our last goodbye,” Khogyani said. “I have never seen my grandparents or my extended family again.”
He was 9 years old.
Today, Khogyani has 27 years of commercial flights under his belt. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife and 14-year-old twin children. And when he saw that the Pentagon was activating the Civilian Air Reserve Fleet, he realized this was his chance to help.
“It was very important to me personally, because I knew what these people were going through, what they were feeling and what was on their minds,” Khogyani explained. “A lot of them have nothing left, and it’s very hard for them to look forward because they have left so many loved ones behind. I know what that’s like.”
United Airlines / United Airlines
Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, wrote asking for an opportunity to help. A short time later, Khogyani found himself bound to Afghanistan, not as a pilot, but as an interpreter.
“Good AmidHe told the passengers to welcome them to Dari.
His words were met with confusion at first, then relief. Then, mostly smiling. Almost everyone on the boat shared the same story. As a translator, Khogyani was able to show a sympathetic ear. Help provide comfort and care for 1,002 passengers on three flights over nine days.
When he finally returned to his family’s home in Phoenix, he told Khogyani that his children missed him more than they let him in because of how long the hugs lasted. They weren’t at all surprised that their father would help. It’s who he is, an American with strong Afghan roots.
“Americans are generous with their hearts… [and] “They learned to be compassionate and accepting. Getting these people out is just the beginning of their journey,” Khogyani said.