Hope and help: Veteran-founded nonprofit assists struggling vets, rescues Afghan allies

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GA – Hope.  

Merriam-Webster defines this word as “desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment.”  

Hope can become the only reason to go on in trying circumstances, and it can prove incredibly difficult to come by when times are tough.

Hope is something that many of our veterans and military allies desperately, deeply need.  They need to believe that times can get better, that they will pass through dark times and find light on the other side.  But hope often proves very, very hard to find.

Flanders Fields is a veteran-founded 501(c)(3) volunteer-staffed nonprofit dedicated to bringing hope and help to veterans and military allies in need. 

This organization originated through the efforts of Army veteran Ben Owen, who spent several years helping, out of his own pocket, to meet the needs of veterans who were struggling with addiction and homelessness.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Flanders Fields (@flandersfieldsorg)

The impetus for this assistance, Owen told us, came from his own battles with homelessness and addiction, which left him fully able to understand the battles other veterans face, and what was necessary to get through them.

Owen said:

“There’s one way that we help, and that is, we address hopelessness, at every level we possibly can.  

“And having experienced it firsthand, addiction is the most hopeless place you can ever be, and addiction or substance abuse is behind 70 or 80 percent of homeless veterans, and, depending on the study you read, it’s behind 70 to 80 percent of veteran suicides as well.

“That 22 a day of veteran suicides that you hear, it does not count intentional or unintentional overdoses.”

In keeping with his mission to combat hopelessness in veterans, Owen and his veteran-supporting colleagues approached veterans on an individualized basis, meeting them where their needs were.  

For example, Owen would help cover transport costs to treatment, or cover uncovered drug and alcohol treatment costs.  He also partnered with drug court programs and rehabilitation facilities to get veterans into the care they needed.

After years of helping veterans out-of-pocket, Owen and his friend Robert Coleman, Quantico OCS graduate and dedicated veteran supporter, birthed the idea of creating a nonprofit to continue to help homeless and suicidal veterans. 

The pair joined together with Marine and Army veterans to create Flanders Fields, which was awarded its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status on August 15, 2021, the day Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.

The timing of this new status could not have been more significant, as Owen and his Flanders Fields team immediately turned their attention to a group desperately in need of assistance:  the trapped Afghan allies who assisted our military.

Owen told us:

“We went from this mission of wanting to help homeless and needy veterans and their families here in the United States to, now, having a situation where we have quite literally homeless and country-less, even, veterans around the world.”

Organizations and U.S. allies contacted the Flanders Fields team via Owen and Coleman’s digital marketing company, BlackRifle Company, in an effort to see whether BlackRifle could help make connections in Afghanistan.

Coleman told us that communication and data collection were instrumental in bringing hope to our Afghani allies, saying:

“We were able to use publicly available data to identify and vet, in many cases, some either hard-to-reach, missing, or unvetted families.

“So much of the effort was in opening lines of communication with these folks because there’s, obviously, scarce resources….

“Part of the big lift that I watched Ben and his cohort put together was just talking to these people, giving them the hope that they needed, to know not everybody on the planet was going to abandon them.  

“They knew we were going to work, and be diligent, and try and make an impact to save lives.”

In addition to utilizing data to find and vet allies in need, the Flanders Fields team has also used publicly available information such as contact information and social media profiles of allies to connect them with persons in the United States who can communicate with them and help coordinate and facilitate their departure from Afghanistan.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Perhaps the most-publicized impact that Flanders Fields has made in Afghanistan was the organization’s involvement in the rescue of an Afghani family dubbed the “Chesty Puller Family.”

An Afghan who had risked his life to help the Marines in 2009 was attempting to leave Afghanistan with his family after the fall of Kabul.  Through communications with the family, it was arranged that they would be recognized by Marines at the Kabul airport because they carried a sign with the name of legendary Marine “Chesty” Puller, and the date November 10, 1775, the birthday of the Marine Corps.

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts at navigating the crowds surrounding the airport, the family was indeed recognized by the Marines and allowed in at Abbey Gate at Kabul airport, literally moments before the suicide bombing took place.

The family survived the bombing but lost contact with Flanders Fields for a few days.  A persistent Flanders Fields team re-established communication, and the family was able to exit the country.

The “Chesty Puller Family” represents one of many success stories that Flanders Fields has helped write, but there are many, many more families to serve, and many challenges and obstacles to face.

The sheer numbers of families in need are overwhelming and number in the thousands.  Owen himself is a point of contact for approximately 150 Afghan allies, and he is volunteering 24/7 alongside his Flanders Fields team and other organizations to manage communications with them and move toward withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Another family in particular that has deeply affected Owen is one known as the “Stars and Stripes Family.”

He told us:

“They call them that because at the time [of the bombing in Kabul] they had a 30-day-old baby that, despite the entire family having a target on their backs because of one of the family members’ service to our nation, they are still dressing this 30 day old in American flag clothes, which I think is just amazing….

“This family, combined, has three decades of service to our nation.”

The family was present – on a video call with Owen – at Abbey Gate at the time of the bombing of the Kabul airport, which meant that the children in the family witnessed the bombing and its deadly aftermath.  They did not make it through the gate that day, and sadly they are still on the run from the Taliban, seeking refuge in safe houses.

Owen told us:

“The children are having nightmares and not doing well.  They are still stuck in Afghanistan despite all having served US interests.”

Flanders Fields is continuing to work strenuously and diligently to help extract the Stars and Stripes family from Afghanistan, while the family continues to be a target of the Taliban.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Indeed, one often tragic challenge that Flanders Fields faces is the race against time to get Afghan allies and their families out of the country before the Taliban marks them for death.  That race is lost at times, and Owen is hit hard whenever a contact loses his or her life at the hands of the Taliban.

He told us:

“I take it very personally, like I failed them.  It hurts.”

Other challenges include tackling the logistics involved in navigating the diplomatic process with our Afghani allies.

Owen told us:

“What’s really frustrating… is that we’re all civilians.  Just because we’re veterans doesn’t mean we have inside knowledge of how diplomatic processes work.  We don’t have any bureaucratic power.  

“We’re flying blind, essentially.  We are figuring out what works, and when we figure out what works, we have to figure out why it works, and then essentially replicate it.”

He continued:

“That’s been a challenge in and of itself, because everything changes.  The diplomatic situation changes, the regulatory system changes, the situation on the ground changes…. 

“The rules and regulations about when you can and can’t get out have been constantly evolving.”

Ironically, those who one would think would have better diplomatic access are the ones reaching out to Flanders Fields to help the Afghans.

Owen told us:

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“We’ve had everybody from former Secretaries of State, to current sitting Senators, a sitting Governor, active duty Major Generals, retired Major Generals, or heads of state, have reached out to us to meet personally, asking for help to pull out.

“I’m like, ‘I’m pretty sure this should be going the other direction.  I should be asking you for help.’”

The visa process itself has proven to be an obstacle to helping our Afghani allies.

Owen told us:

“The biggest challenge, I think, overall that we have is the Department of State currently is unable to support the SIV [Special Immigrant Visa] P1 and P2 interview process.

“So all these people that were processed to get visas to come to the United States are now essentially stopped, and without the visa they can’t move forward to the United States.”

A related challenge, Owen added, is that many Afghans have recently expired passports, since renewal of passports became a low priority for officials as Afghanistan began to fall apart.

He said:

“We have people whose passports expired in 2020 or 2021.  They can’t legally fly.  They can’t leave the country, and any effort to move them could constitute human trafficking.

“That’s frustrating right there, because you look at a potential very serious criminal charge for assisting somebody getting across a border, that’s dying to get across the border, and I mean that quite literally, those people are willing to die to escape.  

“But it might be a crime to go through with that action.”

An added frustration for the Flanders Fields team is the glaring differences between how already-vetted Afghan allies, who helped our military for years, struggle to cross borders, versus how unvetted, unvaccinated immigrants at our southern border are permitted entry into the United States.

Owen told us:

“None of the Haitians who crossed this border were vaccinated, none of them were COVID tested, they’ve admitted that, yet the Afghans who served our government … if we get them out of Afghanistan, they have to be COVID tested, they have to be vaccinated against any number of different things, and they they have to go through this insane vetting process.

“That’s what blows my mind.  The government was paying this person for the last six years or whatever, but now if you want them to come to the United States, they have to go through this elaborate process, when we’ve already got biometric data on them….

“We’re letting Haitians just literally pour like a sieve through our border with no vetting, no testing, no caution whatsoever, but people who absolutely put their life on the line and endangered their families’ lives to serve U.S. interests, they are looking at a years long process to get to America.

“Meanwhile, if you come here illegally, they’ll give you asylum if you come from Haiti or South America, or whatever the case may be.”

Coleman added:

“We’re punishing the people who help us, and rewarding the people who don’t follow the rules.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Owen also pointed out that our Afghan allies who helped the U.S. will bring with them loyalty and skills not necessarily evident in those who are pouring across our southern border, or even in those unvetted Afghans featured on the news who crowded onto planes shortly after the fall of Kabul.

He told us:

“The people we’re trying to bring over here, they fought with our soldiers.  They built airstrips for the CIA.  They were bodyguards for President Ghani.  These are people who absolutely put their lives, and their families’ lives, in jeopardy, because they wanted to serve the U.S. and they were promised a life here….

“We’ve got some extraordinarily educated people, with skillsets that America needs.  These are valuable members of society, if we can get them here.”

Coleman added:

“These are not just refugees.  These are men, women, children, families, that want to be part of this society, where they can contribute, and have demonstrated that through prior service.”

While navigating the challenges involved in trying to transport these vetted Afghan allies to the United States, Flanders Fields remains ever-focused on expressing a message of hope to those in need who are facing a life of extreme uncertainty and danger.

Coleman told us:

“Along with the series of logistical booby-traps that you try and navigate through, at the same time you try and give hope, trying to let these people know that we’re still here, we’re still working for you… that’s probably the biggest thing that Ben does right now, in my view, is delivering hope to people who otherwise just don’t have it.”

Owen agreed, saying:

“Yes, I would agree with that one hundred percent.  That is the biggest thing we can possibly do right now, is to keep these Afghans from giving up….

“That’s what we’re trying to avoid, and that’s why pretty much all of my time is spent talking to these families and trying to keep hope alive.”

The presence of hope is manifest in the pictures of Afghan allies Ben has seen on social media who, having heard of Flanders Fields’ successes in helping allies get out of the country, hold up signs saying, “BlackRifle Ben” in an attempt to reach out for help.

And Owen and his Flanders Fields team respond, doing everything they can to bring loyal, heavily vetted and skilled allies away from the constant and deadly danger from the Taliban, through the maze of diplomatic networking, and into the United States as they were promised long ago.

Interested supporters of Flanders Fields’ mission to bring help and hope to those who have served this country can visit the Flanders Fields website for more information.

Veterans and Afghan citizens in need can reach the Flanders Fields team on their contact page, as can interested volunteers who wish to lend their skills to help.

One-time and recurring donations for this worthy cause are graciously accepted at this donation page, and Flanders Fields t-shirts are also available for purchase to raise funds to bring hope and help to those who are in need.

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