During a deployment to Afghanistan Gonzalo Lassally, an Asymmetric Warfare Group integration troop sergeant major at the time, shares candy with children during an outreach mission. Lassally co-founded Tarjoman, a group to help Afghan, interpreters, and their families lawfully immigrate so they can live without fear of retaliation for the help they provided American forces. Tarjoman is also the Afghan word for interpreter. (Courtesy photo)
Continuing to serve: Former AWG Soldiers save Afghan lives
(Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series that shares the story of a group of former Fort George G. Meade Soldiers who leveraged their military training to help Afghans relocate to safe areas after American forces left the country.)
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. – A month before the Afghanistan government fell to the Taliban, the phone of a former Asymmetric Warfare Group Soldier was already ringing non-stop as desperate interpreters he once worked with reached out for help.
The retired sergeant major served several tours in Afghanistan where he relied on his interpreters to accomplish the mission, as it became evident the Taliban would assume control of the government, he feared for their lives and the safety of their families.
Gonzalo Lassally, a former AWG integration troop sergeant major, wasn’t the only retiree from the unit receiving frantic calls and emails from Afghanistan.
“I started reaching out to friends, we began sharing information, plotting points and moving people from safehouse to safehouse,” he said. “We all felt morally obligated to help. We felt like we had to.”
A network was quickly established, which included several former AWG teammates. The group, which operated at Fort Meade before it deactivated in 2021, provided operational advisory assistance to Army and joint force commanders with a goal of enhancing combat effectiveness to defeat asymmetric threats. The unique skills the retired Soldiers honed while assigned to the AWG provided them with an understanding of logistical matters and how to leverage available resources.
“We decided to start a working group; it almost turned into an operation cell,” Lassally said. “We were trying to help our interpreters get to the safest route possible to get to the airport with their paperwork in hand.”
The group used open-source metadata from social media posts, information and images shared from the people they were helping, and Google Maps to plot operations from Lassally’s dining room, which was now outfitted with several laptops and extra computer monitors.
“This whole operation was about trying to get these folks out and get them to a safe area,” said Freddy Gurwell, a retired command sergeant major who served as an AWG operations sergeant major. “It was very similar to the military mission. There was a lot of planning, a lot of operations.”
The group expanded to about a dozen members within a few days and began running support operations 24/7 leading up to and shortly after the last American plane departed Afghanistan. The operation tested the capabilities of a fledgling charitable organization named Tarjorman, which means interpreter in Arabic, formed by Lassally and two other retired Soldiers.
“We all kind of fell in and just started knocking things out,” said Gurwell, Tarjorman media relations officer. “Fortunately, because we were lifelong military folks, we had connections into other realms we knew less about.”
The group had an initial list of 31 people they were trying to move out of the country to safety. The process was not always smooth due to security concerns and at times a lack of access to the technology needed to complete the immigration documents.
“We spent a lot of time talking people through the paperwork process,” Gurwell said. “You have to remember, a lot of these folks they're in a village in Afghanistan and they don’t have easy access to a copier to scan documents. Most of their phones are not smartphones, they are the old push button phones.”
As the group worked past logistical and technology issues, they began to see successes. One such success involved moving a family with a nine-month pregnant mother.
“There were daily discussions, about if she was ok,” Gurwell said. “When we got her to safety across the border everyone celebrated. It's been extremely rewarding to see some of the success stories.”
During the first month of operations the group helped 33 comrades out of Afghanistan.
“It gave me purpose again,” said Lassally, a Tarjorman co-founder and chief operating officer. “I’m retired. I push paper now but be able to utilize those skills that I thought that I'd never utilize again. It gave me purpose.”
By Tammie Moore, Fort Meade Public Affairs Office