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Those Afghan refugees coming our way? They risked everything for us. We must step up for them

As they and their families resettle in the United States, we must welcome them, help them and — above all — be kind.

A female American servicemember wraps her arms around two Afghan refugees at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey on Sept. 27.
AP Photos

“Bad guy is going to come and is going to kill you, then us.”

So said one of the young children of Reggie, an Afghan national who witnessed firsthand the horrors of not only the two-decade war that ravaged his country but also the rapid takeover by the very forces he’d spent much of those years fighting.

Reggie, whose real name wasn’t revealed by NPR when it shared his story, worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military. Day after day, mission after mission, he risked his life to protect the lives of the troops around him, though they wore a different country’s flag on their shoulders.

One day, a suicide vest detonated in front of him, seriously wounding an American soldier, Capt. Flo Groberg. Reggie acted instinctively. He hurried over to Capt. Groberg to help staunch the bleeding, and he managed to do so — not caring that he also had been injured in the blast.

Nine years later, as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, it was Reggie’s life that needed to be saved. Aware that the Taliban would likely seek revenge on those who had aided American troops, he was desperate to get himself and his loved ones out of Afghanistan.

With Groberg’s help, amidst terror in the streets, Reggie was able to do just that — and now, thankfully, his family is in the process of relocating to the United States.

Reggie’s story is exceptional, but it’s not the exception. Over the past 20 years, thousands of Afghan translators and interpreters worked shoulder-to-shoulder with American servicemembers. They were willing to sacrifice because our nation had assured them that when the time came, we would look after them — just as they had looked after us.

When I served as a helicopter pilot in Iraq, our ground units relied on Iraqi interpreters every day. No matter where we flew, no matter the danger, they were on the ground with U.S. infantry, making sure landing zones were safe for us to touch down. They were our siblings-in-arms, right there in fighting positions alongside us.

They were there even when it meant putting a target on not only their own backs, but their loved ones’ as well.

There’s no doubt in my mind that my buddies and I wouldn’t have been able to complete our missions — and might not have made it home — were it not for the interpreters who helped U.S. forces. I know there are countless troops who served in Afghanistan who feel the same way.

Now it’s on us to ensure that the words in the Soldier’s Creed — “never leave a fallen comrade” behind — hold true even in this moment after we’ve left the warzone.

A few weeks ago, the last American planes took off from the Kabul airport, full of some of the thousands of Afghan nationals that managed to escape from Afghanistan during the recent military evacuation. They had done their part for us, time and again. And now, as they and their families begin to resettle here in the U.S., it’s time for us to do our part for them.

As a mom, I can’t begin to imagine having to pick my two little girls up in my arms and race into danger to get to an airport and safety, knowing that at any moment the Taliban could prevent us from leaving — or worse.

I can’t fathom having to pack my daughters onto a crowded plane in the midst of a pandemic, knowing that exposing them to COVID-19 might be the only way to keep them from facing the men with rifles if we were to remain in Kabul for even another hour.

And I certainly can’t comprehend the fear and worry that must come with having to rip my children away from their homes in favor of a faraway nation whose language they don’t speak, just because I, or someone I loved, tried to help the United States of America.

Now, as the world’s eyes are on Afghanistan, it is on us to help our nation keep its word to these heroes by helping them settle into our country. It is on us to remind the world that our nation is not just great, but also good. It is on us to show that while our nation will never be perfect, we are welcoming these allies and, in so doing, striving to move closer to that more perfect union our founders envisioned.

As a senator, I’ll be working to make sure we provide federal resources to the local refugee resettlement programs that are supporting these families as they start their new lives in the United States. I will also do all I can to ensure that we get out those Americans and at-risk allies who remain in Afghanistan so that they, too, can set foot on American soil and breathe free.

But outside the halls of the Capitol, I’ll also be doing whatever I can to welcome these Afghans and make sure they feel at home, and I hope each of you reading this will join me.

If you can, donate clothes. Help furnish an apartment. Vouch for them as they try to get jobs and get their kids into schools. At the very least, be kind to them.

Let them — and the world — know that America will always welcome those who are willing to sacrifice for our nation’s founding ideals.

For these families, who can still smell the dust of Afghanistan and hear the roar of the explosions that rocked their streets, the very least we can offer may just mean the very most.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat and retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel, has served as the junior U.S. senator from Illinois since 2017.

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