It was an elite female unit of the Afghan army. Now they’re fighting to stay in the United States
A spent a day crammed at Kabul airport waiting for an evacuation flight out of the country last fall. Now she and other members of the platoon are spread across the United States.
Crammed into a crowd waiting for an evacuation flight outside Kabul airport, a young woman thought of her family.
“I called my parents and said, ‘I’m sorry, because I didn’t [see] you guys, and I’m getting ready to leave, I’m leaving Afghanistan,” she said.
That was August 2021. She had then been in the Afghan army for five years, three of them with an elite all-female unit called the Women’s Tactical Platoon, known as the FTP.
His parents found it difficult to accept his work. She had dropped out of college to pursue her studies, and they were worried about her. This call from the airport was the first time she had heard her father cry.
Speaking now, in a Tempe apartment she shares with other ex-soldiers, A’s brown eyes are bright too. Emotion grabs him by the throat.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “And he said, I love you.”
It has been more than a year since some 80,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan after US troops withdrew and Taliban forces took control of Kabul.
A holds a mug made by Richardson commemorating the soldiers of the Women’s Tactical Platoon, or FTP, and the Cultural Support Team, or CST – a predominantly female unit within the US Army who worked with the FTP.
After hours of rushed messages, a long wait at the airport, and then weeks at US military bases, A arrived in Tempe. We only use his initial because part of his family is still in Afghanistan. They are the Hazara, a minority ethnic and religious group that faces an even greater threat under Taliban rule. She says talking about her work could put them in even more danger.
“I was in love with my job,” she said. “It was my dream job, being a soldier, helping my country.”
A little over five feet tall, with a round face and straight hair pulled back in a bun. As an FTP, she joined US and Afghan special forces on high-intensity nighttime missions, interviewing Taliban fighters and people suspected of being linked to them.
The female platoon did what male soldiers culturally could not do: seek out and talk to women and children. This made her a specific target when the Taliban took control last year.
“We assumed the FTPs would be part of the evacuation operation,” said Bill Richardson, a Navy veteran and retired police detective in Phoenix. “But then we found out they weren’t part of the discussion, there was no mention of them, they weren’t on anyone’s radar.”
Bill Richardson is a Navy veteran and retired police detective in Phoenix. A and other members of the platoon first lived with him and his wife in Tempe after arriving in the United States.
Richardson’s daughter worked alongside A and other platoon members as a member of the United States Army. So he was part of a disparate, months-long effort to get them out.
“A lot of it came down to the friendships that people had, the relationships by serving friends of friends together,” he said. “Or in my case, friends of friends of friends or call people cold and say, ‘Would you please help me?'”
He and other defenders helped bring out 39 women last year. Now they are spread across the United States, including some in the Phoenix area.
They are safe, but also stuck. Like thousands of other Afghan evacuees, the women are here on a temporary immigration status called humanitarian parole, which offers protection from deportation and a work permit for two years, but no path to US citizenship.
A wants to join the US Army now. Another platoon member who lives next door to her in Tempe wants to go back to school to become a nurse.
These aspirations are made difficult or impossible without permanent status. Richardson says he’s seen A apply for nearly a dozen different jobs, from packing groceries to working in fast food. She hasn’t been hired yet.
“You know, this is the land of opportunity, and they get the door slammed in their faces,” he said.
A laptop, book and pink soldier figurines sit on a desk inside the Tempe apartment where some former platoon members live. Richardson’s family gave A a book by Amelia Earhart after hearing about her plans to become a pilot herself one day.
Some Afghan evacuees are applying for special immigrant visas, known as SIVs, which are available to those who have worked for the US government, as interpreters, security guards and in other roles. A US State Department spokesperson said more than 18,000 SIVs had been issued by September this year.
But because the women’s platoon was part of the Afghan army, they are not eligible. They apply for asylum, but the process could take years.
A bill that could change that was tabled earlier this year. If passed, the Afghan Adjustment Act would expedite access to green cards for evacuees with additional screening, and could also allow people like A to apply for an SIV by expanding eligibility for the program.
It has since stalled in Congress.
Rebekah Edmondson, a U.S. Army veteran who worked alongside the Afghan platoon, says it’s a strange pattern of waiting that’s especially difficult for these servicewomen.
“You know, the fact that they’ve gone from pushing out helicopters under night vision to doing these high-profile operations. Now they are here, labeled as refugees,” she said.
Edmondson had long feared that day would come. She helped form the first class of platoon more than 10 years ago as part of the Cultural Support Team, a unit within the U.S. military made up mostly of women that served as the U.S. counterpart to the Afghan platoon. . She continued to work with them on her four tours to Afghanistan.
“In general, we have the same access to things, unlike these women,” she said. “But they took, you know, a very, very unique opportunity and a very dangerous opportunity and they rose to the challenge and thrived in that position,” she said.
Edmondson now works with the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, which helps fund English classes and other training for women in the platoon. She says she wants to make sure women have a way forward in the United States
But she also knows that it won’t happen right away. Beyond the legal uncertainty they face, she says many women struggle with being the only ones in their families who left Afghanistan.
“Essentially all the money they make is in turn sent back to their families, some of whom are starving,” she said. “And so it’s very hard to expect someone who’s going through all this mental and emotional anguish to thrive immediately, even if they’re logging into a job and all these resources, the majority really have to. wrong with that fact.”
A quit studying English at Arizona State University earlier this year. Funding has tightened. Plus, she says, the news from Afghanistan grabbed her.
She has a collection of framed photos of her family and work at home that she keeps in her closet, as well as a neatly folded Afghan flag. She says taking them out just brings a rush of painful memories.
“My job was to take care of people, to work for my country and to help my country, and unfortunately when I think about it, it makes me very sad and very angry because I can’t do anything for the people in Afghanistan, especially women,” she says.
Still, she says she’s moving on. She will resume English classes next year. And she wants to get her pilot’s license one day, she says it’s the closest thing to the job she once loved.
It won’t be easy, but she says she knows she can rise to the challenge. She’s done it many times before.