USF Veterans Help Thousands of Afghan Allies

By Mary McInerney, USF News Posted Wed, 09/22/2021 - 15:20

Three veterans from the MA in Public Leadership program helped to evacuate more than 5,000 allies from Afghanistan last month before the Taliban took control.

David Pham, Alex Cornell du Houx, and Shawn VanDiver raced against time to save lives. Here are their stories.

David Pham MAPL ’22

“I’m in danger. Do you know anyone at the airport?”

The Facebook message came from an Afghan officer who served with Pham in 2012.

Pham, whose mother escaped Vietnam as one of the “boat people” six years after the fall of Saigon, felt a pull.

“I called everyone I knew — senators who I have built relationships with, contractors in Afghanistan. I called everybody,” said Pham, a reservist Marine Corps major who earned awards for valor and a Purple Heart during his active service.

As Afghanistan began falling to the Taliban in late August, Pham joined a coalition of veterans and others working to evacuate thousands of people from the country.

The Afghan officer who contacted Pham was considered at risk, a target of the Taliban fighters seeking revenge because of his connection to the military. Pham advised him to go into hiding until the group could evacuate him.

Pham’s group made maps of routes that Afghan allies, including families, could take to sneak past Taliban checkpoints and reach the Abbey Gate at the airport in Kabul, where U.S. Marines were stationed and letting allies through.

“We were able to sneak him in at night,” Pham said. “He left with his mother and six of his family members.”

During this time, on Aug. 26, a suicide bomb was exploded at Abbey Gate, killing 13 service members and at least 169 civilians. Pham and his group continued to evacuate more Afghan allies before the last U.S. plane left Kabul four days later. Pham is now working to raise money to support the evacuees as they resettle in the U.S.

“The only reason I am here is because of the kind Americans who helped my mom,” Pham said.

“It took a lot of people to save these refugees,” he added. “I love the Afghan people. They are good people who want to live in peace.”

Alex Cornell du Houx MAPL ’20

Cornell du Houx got a call from a female Afghan runner who said female athletes were in danger from the Taliban. Another friend, a journalist, called him from Afghanistan and said she and her colleagues were not safe there.

“I need help,” she wrote.

“I began to think, ‘What can I do to bring them to safety?’” Cornell du Houx said. “What started as two phone calls grew into an organization, along with the [Department of Defense], to bring as many Afghan allies to safety as possible. I had to get them out of there.”

Cornell du Houx served in the Marine Corps infantry for more than nine years, deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. He now serves in the Navy Reserve.

He was asked to join the Commercial Task Force, a group of war veterans, Afghan diplomats, donors, contractors, nonprofit workers, and others who were working out of a hotel in Washington, D.C. The task force needed his help leading a rescue operation in Afghanistan.

Cornell du Houx worked with several NGOs to charter buses and planes for hundreds of people, including U.S. citizens and green-card holders, Afghan military pilots, female journalists, a female athletic team, and employees of a Clinton Foundation initiative.

Using only his phone, he coordinated the movements of their bus convoys past Taliban checkpoints and directed them to airport gates controlled by the U.S. military.  When the buses were denied entry, he worked with members of Congress and with a Ukrainian special forces group to get them into the airport.

After graduating from the MA in Public Leadership program, Cornell du Houx founded a nonprofit coalition of veterans and elected officials fighting climate change. He continues to work to find placement for Afghan allies, some of whom he couldn’t evacuate last month.

“Why? Many of us became friends there. We ate with them and we went into combat with them,” said Cornell du Houx. “Many of them saved our lives.”

Shawn VanDiver MAPL ’21, MBA ’23

On Aug. 14, VanDiver, a Navy veteran who served for 12 years, heard from a good friend named Lucky, who was an interpreter when VanDiver served in Afghanistan.

“I’m on a mountain in Urgun, nine hours from Kabul, surrounded by Taliban,” Lucky’s message said.

“So I went to work,” said VanDiver. “Then the airport fell.”

He didn’t hear from Lucky and assumed the worst. Then, three days later, VanDiver received a text that Lucky and his family had made it to the airport only to wait 14 hours and be refused entry. A U.S. helicopter picked up the family and Lucky was evacuated.

While working on Lucky’s evacuation, VanDiver kept in contact with all of the different groups working to support Afghanis, including Cornell du Houx’s. VanDiver created a coalition of the leaders of the organizations, enabling them to share resources, learn from each other, and avoid duplicating efforts.

VanDiver, who founded the San Diego chapter of the Truman National Security Project, a nonprofit focused on national security and U.S. policy, organized twice-daily conference calls and created a secure chat room where information could be shared. His group also compiled lists of evacuees from numerous sources into a single document, streamlining the time it took to process them upon arrival at the Kabul airport. Today, he meets up with the Afghanis he helped evacuate. He took one small group to a baseball game.

"This is the most American thing that’s ever happened,” VanDiver said. “A bunch of well-meaning Americans who have some connection to Afghanistan banded together to help save lives."