Northwest soldier tries to save Afghan teammates from Taliban
Winter is bearing down hard in Afghanistan. The country is heading toward famine. And men who worked for the U.S. government clearing IEDs are being hunted by the Taliban. This is the story of one Army Special Forces soldier from the Northwest who’s trying to help.
From his sunny Tacoma backyard with his dog Howie playing at his feet, Tom Kasza, 33, said it felt surreal as he watched – like many of us – as the troubled U.S. military evacuation from Afghanistan unfolded into tragedy last summer.
Men and women clinging onto the outsides of planes as they took off. A baby handed over razor wire. A bomb went off outside the airport.
All the while, from his backyard, Kasza used his computer, phone and connections to help get people out of Afghanistan during the Taliban takeover.
During his more than eight years in Army Special Forces, Kasza deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Not being there in person for them [my Afghan teammates] is actually a lot harder than actually being in combat with these guys,” Kasza says. “‘Cause of how impotent we are right now to make a difference with these guys.”
Now, what still stresses him out in the wee hours of the mornings is the fate of those people he worked with there.
“How do I get medicine or food to, you know, Sam’s family for example, who has four kids all of them under six years old – 6, 4, 3 and 1,” Kasza says. “How do I help that family out, you know?”
In Afghanistan, Kasza managed specially trained local minesweepers known as Team 11. They were the brave front line men who went ahead of U.S. soldiers and detonated IEDs. They would find IEDs by sweeping the ground with metal detectors or by probing for them with their bare fingers. Often that meant going into tunnels, up hilltops and being shot at.
“That’s an absurd amount of risk these guys are undertaking,” Kasza says.
Take the time in 2019, when the team was up a prominent hill in Uruzgan province. Kasza – who was a sniper – was about to set up his rifle to protect his teammates below. Then the metal detector pinged.
“He [the minesweeper] didn’t understand I wanted to go back down the hill and carry on with the mission,” Kasza says. “In my calculus it wasn’t worth potentially dealing with, you know, multiple IEDs on the entire hilltop. I just wanted to blow that one, call it a day and go back down the hill. Whereas Aman [the minesweeper] wanted to keep on pressing and clear the entire hilltop.”
Now Kasza is creating a nonprofit called “Save Team 11.” His left behind team mates are being hunted by the Taliban both because of their tribal affiliation and their work for the U.S. They and their families – a total of about 120 people – also must hide and survive the winter. It could take more than a year before their documents go through. Kasza’s goal: provide food, medicine, clothing and shelter.
Kasza and friends are also organizing a petition to help raise awareness of Team 11 within the U.S. government.
During the U.S. evacuation last August, Kasza was able to help several people get out of the airport – one was Mohammad Mahdi Hussaini, 27. Back in August, Hussaini was stuck outside the airport in Kabul without a plane ticket.
“Even I can’t believe that I am now here,” Hussaini says. “Because the situation was not that good in the airport.”
Hussaini’s brother was already in the Northwest and he knew Kasza might be able to help. Kasza emailed Hussaini letters of recommendation. But Hussaini still had to get on a plane.
“In every checkpoint that the Taliban were stopping us, so I was worried,” Hussaini remembers. “Like if they find my documents then what should I do? Yeah, it was horrible those days, and I will never forget that.”
Now Hussaini and his brother want to help their mother, father, grandmother and four other siblings now taking refuge in Pakistan – without documents.
“So, if they [are] caught by police they are going to send them back to Afghanistan,” he says.
Still, he feels fortunate that they have escaped Afghanistan.
Now Kasza wants to help the rest of Hussaini’s family, and others still waiting to get out. While he waits to get 501C3 nonprofit status from the IRS, Kasza is fundraising and sending money to members of Team 11, who he says are on the verge of starvation.
“So they need aid now, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Kasza says.
Kasza says he and his teammates would have faced more risk without the help of their Afghan comrades. Now, Hussaini is helping Kasza run Save Team 11.