GEORGIA, Vt. – As the effort to rescue civilians in Afghanistan and help them escape the country grows more deadly, a Vermont veteran has helped a family of the 15 escape the escalating violence, all from his home.
Three days ago, Greg Ziek, a veteran of the First Brigade 82nd Airborne Division, said three days was just a farmer in Georgia, Vermont. That changed when he got a message from an interpreter he grew close with during his service, who said his family was being hunted by the Taliban and they needed help.
“As soon as he contacted me, I started reaching out to old military friends I’ve had, and really anybody who I thought could help me,” Ziek said.
The interpreter, who Ziek referred to as ‘Johnny,’ was brought to the U.S. on an SIV program in 2015 in exchange for his work keeping Ziek and other soldiers safe. Most of his family, however, remained in Afghanistan.
“At night, me and Johnny would go back and forth, and he would tell me about Afghan culture. Teach me better words – ‘no, no, no, you’re saying that wrong… say it this way,” Ziek said. “This dude kept me and a lot of other paratroopers alive.”
As the situation in Afghanistan grew more unstable, Johnny’s family had been increasingly targeted by the Taliban.
In total, there were 15 family members. In the past two weeks, they were on the run, relocating to 10 different houses in that span. Ziek worked with Johnny to guide them to the Kabul airport, but their mission was a lot more complicated than that.
“I hit so many brick walls, from filling out stuff through different organizations that were getting people out really early, then airlifts were stopping,” Ziek said. “We basically had to get them to the gate and as close as possible so they could be seen by Americans.”
Ziek spent the better part of three days huddled in front of his laptop, running off minimal sleep. He got the word out about his mission, and quickly found that others were able to pitch in.
“People started coming out of the woodwork,” Ziek said. “People I went to middle school with, people I want to high school with saying ‘I am also trying to get people out, these were the channels I used, this is the way I went.”
While Ziek couldn’t discuss the specifics of the rescue effort, getting them out of the country was a race against time with danger at every turn. As he worked to help guide them to the airport, he also gathered their passport information and anything that would help ensure American soldiers would take them in once they arrived.
“We were rerouted five different times,” Ziek said. “They ran into the Taliban twice, and an Afghan national checkpoint they couldn’t get through because they shot at people’s feet trying to get by.”
He believed the family of 15 was going to die on several different occasions. He worked with Johnny and kept an open line of communication with the family as they continued to hit roadblocks.
It took 36 hours of working every possible angle, and as Ziek told us, some small miracles along the way. Thursday afternoon however, the work paid off.
“15 lives were saved, man,” Ziek said. “5 children, one child who is handicapped from the waist down. Their mom, everybody is saved now. They’re all going to be alive.”
When asked what was going through his head the moment he realized they would be safe, Ziek grew emotional before his answer:
“It’s really good, and I wish we could help more.”
He said as a combat veteran, it’s surreal to see the scenes of chaos in Afghanistan.
“It’s truly heartbreaking how this is going down, how we’re leaving the country,” Ziek said. “There’s so many people who need help. We’ve got to help more, we have to. There’s going to be thousands of people that have to flee this country in a very dangerous way.”
The Vermont National Guard is currently assisting near Kabul airport with a small contingent of soldiers that arrived earlier this month. In addition to helping with security and force protection of the airport, they’re also working to help transport travelers and assist them throughout the relocation process.
Major John Hearn spoke to the importance of that part of the mission.
“We’ve been watching the situation unfold in Afghanistan and a lot of us are eager to help in any way we can to assist in this process and help these travelers relocate outside of the country and help them and their families,” Major Hearn said.
Ziek said he wants to see additional support from large corporations and other entities in the rescue effort that have made money from Afghanistan.
“Every airline that got government contracts to fly troops to Afghanistan, send some planes” Ziek said. “Maybe small grassroots companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing Defense could donate a few dollars. This is unacceptable… It’s unethical.”
At the end of the day, Ziek wants other Afghanis to have the opportunity Johnny’s family will now have as they travel to America.
“We owe these people a lot, they’d make excellent Americans,” Ziek said. “And I wish we could save more.”