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Ex-Army soldier works to get his former Afghan colleagues out of Afghanistan

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Many Afghans who helped the U.S. during the long war in Afghanistan are still trying to flee their home country. They're being sought by the Taliban because of their work with Americans. The Northwest News Network's Anna King has this story from Washington state - one of the former Army Special Forces soldiers who's mustering help for his old colleagues.

ANNA KING, BYLINE: Tom Kasza watched the chaotic scene unfold at the Kabul airport last summer from his peaceful backyard in Tacoma. He'd recently left Army Special Forces. Kasza felt helpless seeing the desperation and knowing his former colleagues and their families were trying to get out.

TOM KASZA: Not being there in person for them is a lot harder than, you know, actually going to combat with these guys just because it's - just how impotent we are right now to, like, actually make a difference with these guys.

KING: In Afghanistan, Kasza worked with the Afghan men of Team 11, who went ahead of U.S. soldiers, sweeping the ground with metal detectors and probing for mines, sometimes with their bare fingers.

KASZA: It's an absurd amount of risk these guys were undertaking.

KING: Take the time in 2019 when they were on a hilltop. Kasza, who was a sniper, was about to set up his rifle. Then a Team 11 metal detector pinged.

KASZA: In my calculus, it wasn't worth potentially dealing with, you know, multiple IEDs on the hilltop. I just wanted to blow that one, call it a day and go back down the hill.

MOHAMMAD MAHDI HUSSAINI: We were working in places that was very dangerous, like Uruzgan and Kandahar.

KING: Mohammad Mahdi Hussaini - he goes by Mahdi - was a translator for Kasza's team.

HUSSAINI: It was scary because we were going through the minefields and in a village that was full of Taliban.

KING: While his former colleague Kasza watched and worried in Tacoma, Mahdi was at the Kabul airport.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE YELLING)

KING: Mahdi and thousands of others were gathering, men clinging to planes.

HUSSAINI: Yeah, it was horrible, those days. And I will never forget that.

KING: To help Mahdi escape, Kasza wrote the U.S. State Department, vouching for him. But Mahdi still had to get on a plane while carrying proof he'd worked for the U.S. military.

HUSSAINI: So in every checkpoint that the Taliban were stopping us - so I was worried. Like, if they find my documents, then what should I do?

KING: Mahdi did eventually make it out - first to Kuwait, then to Wisconsin for two months before finally arriving in Washington state.

KASZA: This is Mahdi right here.

KING: Hi, Mahdi. Oh, it's good to meet you.

HUSSAINI: Nice to meet you, too.

KING: Thank you for coming.

We all meet on a rainy winter day in Kasza's Tacoma garage, amid boxes of army gear and exercise equipment.

OK, OK.

KASZA: Do you want me to move some of these weights around to give us a little more space or...

KING: Now Kasza and Mahdi are thinking about their other Afghan teammates and their families. Kasza is especially worried about his friend Sam, an Afghan minesweeper.

KASZA: How do I get medicine or food to, you know, Sam's family, for example, who has four kids, all of them under 6 years old? There's, you know, 6, 4, 3 and 1. How do I help that family out, you know?

KING: So Kasza and Mahdi are working together to form a nonprofit called Save Team 11.

HUSSAINI: Like, the guys over there, they are, you know, looking for help now. Yeah. I'm so happy to help them.

KING: The same way Team 11 helped U.S. troops during the long war.

For NPR News, I'm in Anna King in Tacoma, Wash.

(SOUNDBITE OF FABIANO DO NASCIMENTO'S "MATRISADAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Triââ