As Afghan government collapses, Christians work to help volunteers leave
For 13 years, John and Jan Bradley have focused on…
For 13 years, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. John Bradley and his wife, Jan, built schools and hospitals to improve the lives of Afghans.
Then on Aug. 15, Kabul fell, the Taliban resumed power after 20 years, and the Bradleys, co-founders of the Lamia Afghan Foundation, began trying to get friends and partners out of the country — to save the lives of Afghans.
By Aug. 31, the self-imposed deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal, the Bradleys had filed 500 applications with the State Department and Department of Defense. They were assured those efforts would result in their people getting a call to come to the airport gate — and a flight to freedom.
But by mid-September, only two children — relatives of an Afghan-American friend in Virginia — and about a dozen family members of an Afghan-American physician in Houston had made it out thanks, at least in part, to the Bradleys’ efforts.
“We’re worried about our friends, about our volunteers, our partners, about women judges and journalists, and media people, interpreters … all those people who are still in the country in hiding.”
“We’re worried about our friends, about our volunteers, our partners, about women judges and journalists, and media people, interpreters,” Jan Bradley told The Christian Chronicle. “We’re concerned about all those people who are still in the country in hiding.”
“I’ve been a lot of bad places,” said the Distinguished Flying Cross recipient. He spent 41 years in the Air Force before retiring with his wife to the Nashville, Tenn., area, where the couple attends the College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon when COVID-19 allows.
“I’ve been to Somalia — Mogadishu in 1993 when the Blackhawk Down episode happened,” added John, who flew the first of his 337 combat missions in Vietnam. “I’ve been to Haiti, to Cambodia. … There is horrible devastation in all those places.”
But nowhere is like Afghanistan.
“I think Afghanistan is worse because they’ve endured generations of war,” he said. “A 40-year-old in Afghanistan has known nothing but war.”
The Bradleys’ faith — which they’ve shared since they first met at an Air Force base in Louisiana and married at the Blanchard Church of Christ in Shreveport in 1975 — motivates them.
“Top Gun meets Jesus” is how longtime minister Ken Durham, a former Bible faculty member at Lipscomb University in Nashville, describes John.
“He’s a man with a passion that comes right out of the heart of Jesus when it comes to helping people,” Durham said.
Retired Major Gen. Eric Overturf of Arlington, Va., who flew with John, echoed that sentiment.
“He’s a selfless servant leader who has dedicated himself to taking care of people,” Overturf said of John. “He lives the way he thinks — what would Jesus do? He never says it out loud, but he’s dedicated first and foremost to trying to do the right thing, whether it’s a wingman trying to get through bad weather or in Afghanistan.”
John Bradley’s first five trips to Afghanistan were to visit airmen under his command. The three-star general oversaw 75,000 reservists worldwide. On one of those trips, he joined a group of airmen and soldiers distributing humanitarian aid near the Bagram air base north of Kabul.
That’s where he met a 9-year-old girl who pushed through a crowd of boys to beg for boots, like the ones Bradley was wearing, to protect her feet during the cold Afghan winter. Her name was Lamia.
When he returned home and told Jan about the encounter, she began gathering blankets, clothing and other materials — 40,000 pounds of supplies — for the Afghans Lamia came to personify.
But before gathering the materials for that first shipment from thrift stores, discount stores and church members and before washing, folding and stacking everything in the Bradleys’ basement, the couple readied four boxes of basic provisions for Lamia and her family. They got boots in three sizes to be sure she’d have a pair that fit and Aveeno lotion for her wind-ravaged face. Those boxes were sent to Bagram with instructions to find Lamia. Then, on his next trip, the general took Lamia a bicycle.
With John’s retirement imminent in 2008, the Bradleys decided, in what John describes as a five-minute conversation, to spend the rest of their lives helping the people of Afghanistan. They created the Lamia Afghan Foundation.
In the years since, the foundation has collected more than 3.5 million pounds of humanitarian aid and ferried it to Afghanistan on a space-available basis through the Denton Program, which allows any U.S. nonprofit to send aid abroad. The foundation also built seven schools and clinics, sent an ambulance and an ultrasound machine, provided prosthetics for war-scarred children and built relationships with other organizations and Afghans who became the Bradleys’ partners and dear friends.
The foundation’s seventh school was completed on the Friday before Kabul fell on a recent Sunday. On the Monday of its scheduled opening for 1,100 girls, the school sat empty.
“I’m hopeful things will be settled and the girls can go to school,” John told the Chronicle that Sunday. “I’m an optimistic person, but I’m not real optimistic about things there. I’m trying to be realistic.”
The Bradleys’ frustration with promises made by the State Department and Department of Defense to evacuate partners and volunteers is palpable.
“I’m deeply disappointed that the airlift ended,” John said. “A lot of people will review what’s happened the last few months, the last few years. People say we should have started the evacuation before we pulled troops out — that’s my opinion.”
Leigh Ann Kosmas, the Bradleys’ daughter, took more than a week off work from her job as senior communications director for a nationwide law firm based in Minneapolis, to help file the requested paperwork.
“One of the hardest parts for me,” Kosmas said, “was putting together the documents. I have their names, dates, date of birth, photos and what they’ll wear to the airport. And there are so many children, and I see their faces. And now, in hindsight, I know they don’t have a shot because it didn’t work.”
Two children did get a shot, not because of paperwork but because of an explosion that killed 13 U.S. service members and scores of Afghan civilians.
The children are the niece and nephew of an Afghan-American woman in Alexandria, Va. — Ferishta, whose last name is being withheld because of security concerns. She came to the U.S. in 2013, taking advantage of the Special Immigrant Visa program that helps people whose lives are in danger because of their employment, usually with a U.S. company or the U.S. government.
Ferishta and Jan Bradley became good friends through charitable projects benefiting Afghanistan.
The Bradleys had tried to help Ferishta get her brother’s family out of Afghanistan because she believed they were in danger. When the promised phone calls never came, the family took the papers they had and a letter from Bradley on his letterhead and went to the airport. A 19-year-old neighbor went with them.
After news broke Aug. 26 of a suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai international Airport, Ferishta called Jan, sobbing. She had spoken with her 14-year-old nephew. He believed his parents were dead. He couldn’t find his younger brother and sister.
Days passed before Ferishta learned from the neighbor what had happened. Even before the explosion, he told her, crowds began pushing and shoving. Someone lifted her niece to Marines, who brought the girl over the wall, then the younger nephew and their mother. The 14-year-old could not get over the wall before the bomb went off.
“At least my niece and nephew are in this country — they are in safe hands.”
The neighbor climbed the wall and began searching for the two young children. He found them in the medical facility with the injured service members. By morning, he and the children were on a plane to Ramstein air base in Germany. A few days later, they flew to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. The mother had died. The father and oldest son spent the night in a safe house, calling hospitals — trying to locate the two young children.
“At least my niece and nephew are in this country — they are in safe hands,” Ferishta told the Chronicle.
Tom Bradley, John’s brother, takes Ferishta each day from Alexandria to Bethesda — a 25-mile trip — for the allowed one-hour visit with her niece and nephew.
“I don’t know when the family will be united,” she said. “Even yesterday it was so hard for me, and I carried a strong face to hide the pain of knowing that their mother is no longer with them. … The kids still don’t even know.”
The other group the Bradleys helped get out was the family of a Houston doctor the couple met in 2008 when they took a woman to the hospital in Afghanistan where he worked.
The doctor was on call when they brought her in with a rare condition that required extensive tests and surgery. John Bradley told the doctor, whose name is being withheld because of security concerns, he would pay for it.
Afterward, they stayed in touch. The doctor moved to the U.S. in 2012, and the retired general wrote a letter of recommendation that helped him get a residency in New York.
Then in June, the doctor’s wife and five children, all U.S. citizens, went back to Afghanistan for a brother’s wedding. Their scheduled return flight on Aug. 15, the day the Taliban took over, never happened.
The doctor needed to get his wife and children home but also his brothers’ families, who were in jeopardy because of their work for American nonprofits — 18 people in all, 12 of them children.
“If my family was delayed by 12 hours, I would have no one by now.”
The doctor worked all day at the Kingwood hospital in suburban Houston, where he is an internal medicine specialist. Meanwhile, the Bradleys filed applications and worked the phones. Then, at the end of the doctor’s workday, it was morning in Afghanistan, so his calls would begin.
“We were all working 24-7, nonstop, with a lot of stress,” the doctor said.
A variety of circumstances, including efforts by the Bradleys, led to the 18 family members getting through.
When he heard about the explosion at the airport, the doctor said he knew his family had been there just 12 hours earlier. A friend told him, “This is exactly the spot. They had to cross the sewage canal — had to pass the kids from one side to the other in the middle of the night.”
“If my family was delayed by 12 hours,” the doctor said, “I would have no one by now.”
He worries about his three sisters and their families still in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban are very smart this time,” he said. “They can use smartphones. They can track people. It’s very dangerous.”
The danger is not new. The Bradleys have lost close friends and volunteers to Taliban retribution before. They quit traveling to Afghanistan themselves several years ago, not only for their own safety but because it endangered their Afghan partners to be seen with them.
A school, a job training facility for men and women and a medical clinic in western Afghanistan were built by Abdul Fatah Haidari, who was slain in his office.
The man who built the foundation’s first school and renovated the second, Sherwali Wardak, was a member of the Afghan Parliament. He died when an explosive detonated in the box that opened gates to his home.
A third man, the Bradleys’ closest friend in Afghanistan, was an American physician named Jerry Umanos.
Umanos and his wife relocated to Kabul after practicing for 25 years in an inner-city Christian health clinic in Chicago. He spent eight years at an Afghan hospital run by CURE, a nonprofit that builds hospitals in developing countries, and was killed by a security guard in 2014.
“He was the very best person I have ever known in my life,” John said. “He saved more lives in Afghanistan than any American ever has, teaching other doctors in five hospitals how to save the lives of women in childbirth.”
So much has gone badly, and not just in the summer of 2021.
“You can’t win a war by fighting. In order to beat extremism, you have to eliminate the desperation of poverty and illiteracy.”
Jan said she wishes that back in 2001 there had been a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan, a plan to rebuild a devastated country like the program that rebuilt Europe after World War II.
“You can’t win a war by fighting,” she said. “In order to beat extremism, you have to eliminate the desperation of poverty and illiteracy.”
John said he agrees. And because he was working in the Pentagon in 2001, he saw the focus shift from Afghanistan to Iraq. He saw the history before it was history. Generals understand such things.
“We should have not tried to set up a Jeffersonian democracy,” he said emphatically. “Everyone has tried to conquer Afghanistan. No one has been successful. No one ever will be.”
In 2011, the Bradleys made their case in Washington, encouraging lawmakers to provide funds for food, education and clean water.
“All the people at the top — it went in one ear and out the other,” Jan said. “Most had never been to Afghanistan, and if they had, they had not been outside the wire.”
Still, in 2016, the Bradleys were hopeful.
“Five years ago, there was great hope and promise in Afghanistan,” Jan recalled. “For women and girls, the country was moving forward. We were building schools, putting prosthetics on children.”
How the end came so quickly is difficult for them to understand. But it did. The work, however, has not.
“People have no jobs,” Jan said. “They’re hungry. They’re starving. So the funds we’re receiving we’re trying to get to Afghanistan to feed people.”
She’s been assured by the State Department that U.S. officials are working on a way to get money into the country. Meanwhile, John refuses to give up hope.
“I’m disappointed in a lot of things,” he said, “but you ask if we’re hopeful — I’m hopeful.”
“There are good-hearted Americans who want to help. And if we can, we’ll help them.”
John plans to use resources to help in Afghanistan if they can, and if they can’t, to use them to help Afghan refugees in the U.S. He knows not all will be welcoming. But many Christians have reached out, offering their homes and other support for refugees.
“There are good-hearted Americans who want to help,” the retired general said. “And if we can, we’ll help them.”
CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle correspondent who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. In retirement, she is enjoying freelance writing and consulting, especially with churches. Contact her at [email protected].
FOR MORE INFORMATION, contact the Lamia Afghan Foundation at lamia.org, 4014 Skyline Drive, Nashville, TN 37215, or call (817) 929-4252.
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