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Lt. Cmdr. John Ripley is a U.S. Navy Reserve public affairs officer. He resides in South Portland.
As of mid-January, through Operation Allies Welcome, the U.S. has resettled more than 57,000 Afghan evacuees placed in communities across the country. This accomplishment has been, and continues to be, the fruit of a massive effort between the U.S. Department of Defense, the Department of State, dozens of non-government organizations and thousands of volunteers, all led by the Department of Homeland Security.
It has truly been what we call a “whole-of-government” response and represents the best of what America has to offer. As a Navy reserve public affairs officer and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, it was an easy decision last fall to volunteer and join this mission.
Despite the immense scale of Operation Allies Welcome, we never forget what these programs and their progress represent. Each of these evacuees is a family member, a person, and each brings with them not only their personal histories but also their futures.
How many of these Afghan children will tell their grandchildren how they arrived in America in 2021? How many of these Afghan children will become part of the American story itself, like so many immigrants before them?
So, as government officials, we moved the needle, but as a public affairs officer, my colleagues and I also get to help tell the stories from safe haven sites all over the country where the evacuees are temporarily residing as they go through the resettlement process. It is both a profound honor and tremendous responsibility.
I often think of my dear friend Mozhda, a native of Afghanistan, who emigrated to the U.S. in 2015. When we met in 2013, I was deployed to the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, and she worked at a little coffee hut on the base. Like the rest of her family and other Afghans, Mozhda has seen a lifetime of war and lost family members to the brutality of the Taliban. Yet she is one of the most vibrant and courageous people I’ve ever met; she is truly a personal hero of mine, and I’m honored to call her a friend.
Mozhda and her family represent my personal metric.
In a photo I keep at my desk, Mozhda is with her sister and her family at a safe haven on a military installation in New Mexico. Next to Mozhda is her nephew, a toddler, with the innocent expression of an unsullied soul.
Thankfully, there is nothing in his demeanor to reflect how the Taliban flogged this little boy during one of their escape attempts as Kabul fell last August. The family was nearly killed another time and were always — always — in danger of being caught and slaughtered. I played a small role in helping them evacuate, and I don’t mind saying I cried when I learned they had safely landed in Qatar.
Thankfully, they are now all safely settled with other family members in the Northeast, where their story will continue to shape the American narrative. Think about it: so far, there are more than 57,000 stories like Mozhda’s — with more to come.
During my time in Afghanistan, Mozhda and other Afghans welcomed me with peace, love and respect. Now, nearly a decade later, we have the opportunity to return that spirit with Operation Allies Welcome.