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Making sense of 'madness': How an American woman is leading an effort to evacuate Afghan allies

Since Monday, retired and active duty service members have been contacting Jen Wilson, COO of Army Week Association, nonstop, desperate for any help getting Afghans who served alongside U.S troops out of the country.
Image: Evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul
An evacuee holds up a peace sign after being cleared for a flight at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 19, 2021.Mark Andries / U.S. Marine Corps via Reuters

Jen Wilson has two 20-foot iPhone charging cords lying along the floor of her Upper East Side apartment. She has barely stopped pacing while talking on her phone as it charges since news broke of the Taliban’s capture of Kabul on Sunday.

“Friends of mine are like, ‘Jen, you got to get this guy out. You got to get this guy out. You got to get this guy out,” said Wilson, the COO of Army Week Association, a nonprofit organization founded to ease veterans’ transition from military service.

Meanwhile, her phone buzzes with an incoming text message from an Afghan interpreter waiting outside an entry point to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. “That was my guy at the gate,” she says, reading aloud his message. “Are you with me?” He's looking to Wilson for help getting on the evacuation flights that are taking some Afghans who supported U.S. military personnel to safety.

Jen Wilson in her apartment in New York City answering texts from retired and active duty service members desperate for any help getting Afghans out of the country.Courtesy of Jen Wilson

Retired and active duty service members have been contacting Wilson nonstop, desperate for any help getting Afghans who served alongside U.S troops out of the country. By Tuesday morning, Wilson said she had a list of 57 names.

In her current role, Wilson has spent a decade building a community of veterans that’s close-knit and widespread. So, when she posted a message on Facebook on Monday about how she was compiling lists of Afghans for extraction, many took notice.

Now, Wilson says her phone is flooded with pictures of passports and national identification cards belonging to the Afghans, including the names and ages of their family members and the letters they’ve been told to submit for the U.S. State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa process.

“The desperation is just palpable,” Wilson, 42, said.

For weeks, her veteran contacts had been texting her about the need to get the Afghans they served alongside out of harm’s way. But when the Taliban seized Kabul, time was clearly running out.

Wilson said she had been able to get a handful of Afghans and some of their families who served alongside American military personnel through the Kabul airport gate, which NBC News could not independently verify given the chaotic situation on the ground.

Hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 17, 2021.AP

How Wilson and her network are getting Afghans beyond the security perimeter is, in her own words, “madness.”

“Honestly I can't believe we've gotten it as far as we've gotten it, just like me and a couple of other guys that I know” through Army Week, she said. She told a Marine friend on Tuesday morning, referring to herself, “If we pull this off because this hillbilly redneck from Louisiana started getting on her phone and calling around and we're able to get your guys out, there’s going to be a story to tell.”

In some cases, Wilson said she is in touch with veterans and active personnel who are asking their own contacts, Afghan and American, at the Kabul airport to get a name and contact number for the guards at each airport gate. If they can’t, they take photos.

“We have them, every time they go to a new gate, take pictures,” she said. “We need to see who's guarding, what they're wearing, if you can get a picture of their patches. Show me everything.”

Then, Wilson said she sends those photos out to her network, and people share them with their own contacts in hopes of identifying the guard. In the best-case scenario, someone will text back with a name and a phone number. If not, she said the group works to identify the unit in charge based on the foreign guard's uniform, and then contact members of that unit. Some guards respond to phone calls from retired military brass, she said, while other Afghan guards have reportedly been taking bribes. But none, Wilson has found, are taking Venmo.

In one case, Wilson said a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel whom she had never met before worked with her to get a man who worked as his interpreter in 2010 past an airport gate with his family. Spotty cell service prevented the gate guard’s phone from receiving incoming out-of-network calls. So she said the interpreter called the guard from his own local phone, then patched in the lieutenant colonel via WhatsApp.

“It doesn't have to be active duty. They don't have to know who they are. They need an American with a rank that tells them to let them through,” Wilson said.

In another case, a Marine working with Wilson asked her to help protect the Afghan military tactician who pulled him to safety following a 2012 explosion in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.

“He saved my life, and we left him,” Wilson said her friend wrote to her. “We've got to get him out.” Hearing that his Afghan contact couldn't get past the airport checkpoint, the Marine started surfing Expedia.com looking for a commercial flight to Kabul with the loose plan of bribing the gate guards with a pocket full of cash. While the Marine did not end up buying a ticket to Kabul, the Afghan made it to a safe house and is awaiting paperwork to get out, according to Wilson.

In another instance, a contact linked Wilson up with an Afghan man living in Los Angeles. Wilson said he was seeking protection for his family in Kabul and sent her copies of their U.S. immigration paperwork, which he said had been processing for two years, and their passport photos.

Jen Wilson, the CEO of Army Week Association, a nonprofit organization founded to ease veterans' transition from military service.Courtesy of Jen Wilson.

The man was especially concerned about his uncle’s daughter, a young woman who worked for a high-ranking government official. “Her life and family's life are in danger,” he wrote. He included a signed and notarized letter from the young woman's supervisor confirming the threat made against her family.

“I just need to know how [my family] can get out,” she said he wrote, “otherwise, life here for me will be useless.”

But the information Wilson has to share is only useful once a person is at the airport. Navigating the Taliban checkpoints en route is beyond the capability of her network.

So far, the reality of the situation has yet to sink in for Wilson. Stopping to think about the stakes could derail the whole process. “It had to just be mission driven,” she said. “Because if I started getting emotionally attached to that kind of conversation, I would never be able to get through this.”

Wilson said the veterans she has spoken to are dealing with similar feelings.

“This is the most vulnerable time I've seen in the mental health of [Afghanistan and Iraq veterans] in a decade, at least,” Wilson said. “And I can't tell you how many of my guys have said, ‘If we can just get this guy out, it won’t have been for nothing.’”