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One Last Mission: When Our Allies Needed Us, Veterans Saved Them

A year ago, Operation Pineapple Express in Afghanistan showed the best of America

spinner image scene at the military part of the Kabul airport
Scene at the military part of the Kabul airport. US and other NATO forces are evacuating thousands of refugees to safety outside of Afghanistan.
Andy Spyra/laif/Redux
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Getty Images/AARP

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Like so many veterans, the end of the Afghanistan war a year ago was devastating for me. As I watched Taliban fighters rolling into Kabul on U.S.-made vehicles, white flags of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan snapping in the wind, I thought, Twenty years of fighting and dying — for this?

Rather than succumb to despair and anger, however, I decided to do what my training and combat experience as a Green Beret had taught me — and what my patriotism as an American citizen demanded. I focused on the problem, gathered some allies, came up with a plan and worked to fix what I could.

Part of me was screaming: Don’t get involved. For a split second, I was transported back to that moment in 2015, when I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom closet, the door closed, room dark, a loaded .45 in my hand, tears in my eyes. Guilt gnawing my stomach lining. That was rock bottom. I had been ready. That was my time.

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Only, it hadn’t been. I was happily married and had three sons. The only thing that stopped me that day was that one of my boys came home early. I had survived, and despite my trauma, I was now thriving. The last thing I wanted to do was to jump back into the morass I had pulled myself out of.

But jump in I did. I sent out an SOS call, and soon I was reconnecting with special operations veterans who had deployed to Afghanistan year after year, in three trips, or maybe 10, or even 15 times since 9/11. Men and women who forged bonds with Afghans they fought and worked alongside, shoulder to shoulder, to whom they made promises.

We became the shepherds, forming a group that came to be known as Operation Pineapple Express, dedicated to getting Afghans out before the Taliban could kill or oppress them. Volunteer groups have always been an integral part of any successful civil society, and in the U.S., veterans are always at the heart of citizen action.

What followed was a desperate last mission in Afghanistan as we struggled from thousands of miles away to save people while the clock ran out. Tragically, we had to contend with carnage as the terrorists detonated a device by Abbey Gate outside Kabul’s airport, killing over 200 hundred people, including 13 U.S. service members.

Our group was just one citizen liaison network among many, made up of can-do Americans — most of us veterans — who looked at a humanitarian catastrophe and stepped forward to show our country, and the world, what could be achieved in the darkest of times.

We were working with limited information, limited resources and limited access. We were volunteers with experience and relationships who were using cellphones to address an “Uncle Sam–size problem.” Yet the 125,000 people evacuated would not have all gotten out were it not for the volunteers involved in the effort to get people to that airport and a plane to freedom.

When the evacuation effort was over, I wondered how many we had actually saved. There was Nezam, part of the Afghan National Army’s first group of American-trained commandos, a hero who had served in combat with me in 2007. Perhaps 500 more. Not enough. That much was certain. I was still discovering who had made it out and who hadn’t.

There were no high-fives or Pineapple memes. Many shepherds still bear guilt that we didn’t get more Afghans inside the wire. There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t think about those young girls and the other Afghans that were killed in the Abbey gate explosion, and what we might have done differently to pull them in.

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The story of Operation Pineapple Express is one of service and loyalty, of comrades who honored a promise in Afghanistan when others did not. For a fleeting moment, I believe, we and other networks defined the very best of America.

I feel sure that many of the Afghans we brought to our shores will become great Americans, part of the fabric of our nation for generations to come. Nezam now lives close to me in Tampa, Florida, with his wife and three children.

When there are challenges in the future, I know that it will be veterans who will lead the way in getting the job done.

Operation Pineapple Express: The Incredible Story of a Group of Americans Who Undertook One Last Mission and Honored a Promise in Afghanistan, by Lt. Col. Scott Mann (Ret.), will be published by Simon & Schuster on Aug. 30, 2022.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.