Brian Maccormack-Burt had just finished his midnight shift when he first heard of the attacks on the World Trade Center's twin towers on September 11, 2001. He was working in security at the United States Bullion Depository in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
"It's where they keep the gold. I was law enforcement," he explained. "We were called back into work. There at Fort Knox we pretty much worked 24-hour shifts for a couple of days. After 9/11, the Treasury Department and the military started working together a lot closer to secure Fort Knox."
When Nathaniel "Nat" Troy heard the news that the first tower had been hit, he was in his least favorite class at business school. He recalls leaving his marketing class and watching hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 crash into the second tower on a television set in Rice University's student union.
Meanwhile, Ryan Timmermans had just finished volunteering with an organization called Youth with a Mission in Mexico and transitioned to a language school in Guadalajara. He was giving a presentation when he was interrupted by the news that the U.S. had been attacked.
"It made me question safety. It shifted the paradigm to: You're not safe, really, anywhere," said Timmermans.
Twenty years later all three men are living in Taos and watching another historical moment unfold as the Afghanistan War that resulted from the 9/11 attacks has ended. Like for many other veterans, the way that military exit has played out has had a personal impact on each of them.
In an Aug. 31 story for Military.com, Patricia Kime reports that the Veterans Crisis Line "has seen a sharp uptick in calls since the Taliban took control of Kabul in mid-August." Kime writes that "texts to the hotline jumped 98 percent between Aug. 14 and Aug. 29, while chat messages and calls rose by 40 percent and 7 percent when compared with the same time frame last year, according to the VA [Veterans Administration]."
Maccormack-Burt puts it plainly: "It's been a blow to morale in the military," and he says this is true for veterans on both sides of the political aisle.
"In my opinion, we left too fast. It should have been in stages," he continued. "There are veterans just gutted about allies left behind after the withdrawal."
Prior to working for the Treasury Department, Maccormack-Burt served in the U.S military for eight years. He also worked as law enforcement for the U.S. Forest Service in Northern New Mexico. In 2009, after joining the National Guard, he was deployed to Iraq where he was a machine-gunner. He served as a military policeman attached to the 1115th Transportation Company headquartered in Ranchos de Taos until 2010, when he was honorably discharged following an injury. Maccormack-Burt's family is from Taos, and he has lived here since 2011.
While he did not serve in Afghanistan, many of his friends did. Through them, he befriended an Afghan man who worked for the U.S. military.
Maccormack-Burt says he has a good deal of respect for the Afghan interpreters and contractors who have worked alongside the U.S. military. "We had interpreters in Iraq we all really got close to, and we understand how valuable they were to the mission," he emphasized.
He recently heard from his Afghan friend. "He contacted me pretty much begging me to help him, to see what I could do," said Maccormack-Burt.
Since then, Maccormack-Burt has been in contact with both of New Mexico's U.S. senators, the U.S. State Department, and an organization that helps interpreters to come to the United States.
Meanwhile, his friend is in hiding with his family in Afghanistan.
"Right now, he's pretty much in panic mode because he was given notice last week that if he was caught, he would be killed. That is, a note was left on his residence. He is not staying there," explained Maccormack-Burt.
In his message to Sen. Martin Heinrich, Maccormack-Burt said if the U.S. government could get the Afghanistan family to the United States, that he would take responsibility for them once they arrive.
"To be honest, it's stressing me out. I'm invested in this mentally. And I would do that. I would host them here and help them get on their feet." said Maccormack-Burt.
Nathaniel Troy, owner of Lambert's Restaurant and an active member of the New Mexico Democratic Party, has also been working to get Afghan interpreters out of Afghanistan.
A graduate of Taos High School, where he studied Russian with Larry Torres, Troy went on to specialize in Central Asian Studies at Indiana University. He continued his Russian language studies in Kyrgyzstan as an exchange student and spent five months in Iran studying Farsi.
Troy said while he had planned to go into the energy business in Central Asia after business school, the 9/11 terrorist attacks influenced him to start thinking about using his language skills to work with Afghanistan.
As it turned out, Troy was employed in Afghanistan from 2010 through 2012 as a Department of Army civilian on a Human Terrain Team, which is comprised of personnel specializing in social sciences like anthropology, sociology, political science and linguistics.
Troy described what it was like to be in recent communication with his Afghan colleagues in real time on WhatsApp, trying to help them get onto a flight out of Kabul International Airport.
"At one point the interpreter called me to say he was 200 meters from the gate, but he was standing next to the Taliban who wouldn't let him and his family in unless the Marines came to get them," said Troy. "I offered to talk to the Taliban, but he said they didn't want to talk to me."
"I was calling one of the gate supervisors and they were crowdsourcing for an escort. It was definitely a high adrenaline moment," Troy continued. "Standing outside the gate was dangerous. This was one day after the ISIL attack."
In the end, Troy was told that the family he was trying to help could not get on a flight because only green card or passport holders were being allowed onto the planes.
"It was intense because these folks were depending on us for advice on whether to try to get to the airport, and how long to stay," said Troy. "Not being on the ground I was terrified of giving them the wrong advice. I felt helpless."
That feeling grew as the Aug. 31 deadline for the military evacuation came closer and the airport was closed to Afghan evacuees.
"It was heartbreaking telling them that that window of opportunity had closed," said Troy.
He emphasized that it's important to him for people to understand the situation these Afghans now face.
"This is something I want people to be aware of, and to have a sustained awareness of, because these were interpreters, translators for the most part, who were absolutely committed to us," he said. "There was a deal that was made. We promised that at the end of this we would give them Special Immigrant Visas to move with their families to the United States because we knew, and they knew, that as soon as they started working with us that their lives would be put in danger and their families would be put in danger."
Troy explained that many of the Afghan interpreters who are coming to the U.S. as refugees are from the educated middle class, and many are from cities, though their extended families may have lived in rural areas of Afghanistan. "They're really incredible people," he said.
Positioned in a rural part of Kandahar Province, Troy worked on a combined civilian-military team alongside U.S. soldiers. He said he used his language skills to communicate with Afghan civilians and security forces about issues related to military missions. These included topics such as agriculture, economics, and civilian perceptions of Afghan government officials and the U.S. military. Troy explained his role was to help the U.S. Army understand the nuances of Afghanistan culture.
As an example, Troy commented on how the irrigation systems fed by the Arghandab River are similar to Northern New Mexico's acequias. Ditch bosses, called mirab, serve a similar community role as mayordomos.
"It was just like in New Mexico, where people were on a set schedule for when they could access the water, and sometimes that would be in the middle of the night," said Troy. "These are the kinds of things that our team would make the military aware of, so that they wouldn't think that someone watering in their field was an insurgent."
Troy noted other similarities between Afghanistan and Northern New Mexico.
"Walking around some of the more populated towns, the architecture is very similar to the architecture in Northern New Mexico. I even found a lot of the smells are similar. The dry, earthy smell combined with burning wood and diesel. I'll be outside, especially in the fall when people are burning wood, but also burning trash, in Taos and it will invoke memories of some of the parts of Kandahar that I was in. … It was the green areas around the irrigated areas and the river that really reminded me of Taos."
Ryan Timmermans also remarked on the similarities between Taos and Afghanistan. The son of a Vietnam veteran, Timmermans served as an Intelligence Analyst and Psychological Operations Specialist in the United States Army. He completed multiple tours to Afghanistan as both soldier and contractor. Originally from North Carolina, Timmermans came to Taos to study at Mike Reynold's Earthship Academy.
"Afghanistan looks like Taos 100 percent," said Timmermans. "I came here in September 2015. My navigation took me through Pilar and up the road to Carson. … I got to the top of the mesa and there were tarantulas, sunflowers, purples, pinks, mountains all around. … It was paradise. I started to tear up because it reminded me of Afghanistan. Why? We're at the exact same elevation that I was at in Afghanistan. It's 6,900 feet in Carson and 7,000 feet at Bagram Airfield. The climate is the same - cold in winter, hot in summer, but not as hot as most of Afghanistan. It's very much like New Mexico down south."
After returning to civilian life, Timmermans bought 50 acres in Carson and formed Veterans Off-Grid in 2017. The nonprofit organization helps veterans to reintegrate into society by creating eco-friendly communities where veterans can live in exchange for volunteering two days of service a week.
Like other veterans, Timmermans has been deeply affected by the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
"I was really sad when I saw that Kabul fell. Because in my mind, Kabul couldn't fall," said Timmermans. "It has four million people in it. It never fell to the Taliban before. Why would it fall now? When Kandahar fell three days before that, I thought, well, that's Kandahar. Kabul won't fall. It's got too much government. Too much investment there."
"I generally sleep through the night with no problems," said Timmermans. "That night I woke up at 1:30 in the morning. I checked my phone and there it was. Kabul had fallen. It was surreal," said Timmermans. "I was in shock for three days."
Timmermans immediately started reaching out to all his friends still in Afghanistan and those he served with to see if there was anything he could do. He has been doing everything he can to help the interpreters he worked with get out of Afghanistan.
"We bonded with these people. They saved our lives," Timmermans said. "They're all dead if we don't get them out."
"The one I'm most concerned about - he was brave," said Timmermans. "He wanted to be a filmmaker and he had film equipment and he would put it in a coffin. He would tell the checkpoint guards that his dad had just died, so they wouldn't check the coffin. ... He recorded stories of normal Afghans and what their lives were like. … He loved storytelling. I learned about the kings of Afghanistan and Afghanistan history from him."
"I'd love to see my interpreters again. I hope one day I will. I hope one day they can make it out of that place, by land or by plane," Timmermans said.
A few days after telling this story, Ryan Timmermans reported that his friend, the Afghan filmmaker, had made it out of Afghanistan.
Brian Maccormack-Burt continues to do what he can to help his Afghan friend also get to safety.
All of the interpreters Nat Troy worked with are still in Afghanistan. He is working diligently to get them out.