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From His Porch In Rural Missouri, A Congressional Aide Helps Interpreters Escape Afghanistan

Kyle Wilkens works the phone outside his farmhouse near tiny Corder, Missouri
Frank Morris
Kyle Wilkens works the phone outside his farmhouse near tiny Corder, Missouri.

The increasingly desperate scramble to get Afghans who worked with U.S. troops out of their country is stretching the abilities of people from Kabul to Washington to a small farm outside Higginsville, Missouri.

Kyle Wilkens raises pigs and chickens on his farm in the rolling countryside of western Missouri. But his remote, rural spread isn’t as peaceful as it used to be.

Each night from about 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., Wilkens, his face and hands illuminated by his cellphone screen, sits on his porch in the dark while WhatsApp notifications echo across the farm.

“A text just came in,” says Wilkens, thumbing the screen. “That, that, that sound is...ingrained in my mind. And it really makes me perk up.”

Each notification means another person needs his help to leave Afghanistan.

Some have compared the all out attempt to get people out of Afghanistan to the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in World War II, where hundreds of civilians heroically streamed across the English Channel to rescue the trapped soldiers.

This time, instead of boats rescuers like Kyle Wilkens are using cell phones, and the most intense work happens in the middle of the night.

“And all I know is they're getting more desperate by the hour,” says Wilkens with weary concern. “They're scared. They don't want to be scared, but they know that we are really their only hope right now.”

Wilkens is referring to U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, and his staff. He works as a rural policy expert in Cleaver's field office in Higginsville, Missouri.

Years ago, Wilkens worked on Capitol Hill for the Armed Services Committee and developed contacts in the military and at the State Department. This month, he used those contacts to help an interpreter escape Afghanistan.

That success triggered a flood of calls to the office, primarily from Missouri National Guard troops and other service members, worried about the translators they fought alongside in Afghanistan.

Wilkens says the office has helped evacuate some 20 Afghans and is actively trying to rescue 150 or so more.

“These people would probably die or go through a very horrible existence if we can’t help them get out,” says Wilkens. “I don’t know the right emotions for it. It feels like the culmination of everything I’ve learned.”

During the day, Wilkens works in the office, entering data and coordinating with the State Department. At night, he plunges back into the personal crises happening more than 7,000 miles away.

Wilkens texts a man in desperate straits several times, but his texts go unanswered, so he calls the number. The man has been injured in a melee at the airport while trying to get his mother, himself and two other family members out.

Wilkens tells him to stay away from the airport, for now, and keep his phone charged while he waits for further instructions. There’s nothing else Wilkens can do.

The man on the other end of the call, who Wilkens asked not to be identified, calls Wilkens “dear brother” and heaps praise on him.

“The amount of appreciation is almost too much. But I know that... I just don’t think they have anybody else,” says Wilkens, after ending the call.

Wilkens works outside, so his kids can’t overhear the frightening calls. He doesn’t want them to confront these horrors.

"I’ve got three kids upstairs sleeping, and my wife’s in there," says Wilkens, fighting off tears. "We’re not standing at a gate, thinking that you know we might be dead."

Wilkens has worked around the clock for two weeks, driven in part by the specter of calls he’ll be forced to make when the airlift ends.

“It weighs pretty heavy when you have to talk to somebody and explain to them that, 'You know, we did everything we could, but we’re sorry — they didn’t get out.”

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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