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Last to Leave: An Alum in Kabul

A St. Norbert alum, one of the last to leave Afghanistan in the recent mass airlift, has been speaking about his experiences in the conflict-ridden country.

As a cardiologist assigned to the United States hospital at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Maj. Anthony Vande Hei ’10 had been ministering to the needs of servicemen and refugees when the U.S. government ordered the largest air evacuation in its history. The major was among the very last to leave the capital: His flight home would leave on the very last day of the evacuation.

Vande Hei spoke to WBAY’s Chris Roth from his current post at the U.S. airforce base in San Antonio, Texas. He explained, “We not only provided the best medical and surgical care that we could, but ultimately ended up transitioning to sort of a refugee mission where we were also assisting with providing basic necessities – food, water, shelter – as best as we could.”

When Vande Hei and his colleagues arrived for their tour of duty in Afghanistan in June 2021, the expectation was that a diplomatic and medical presence would remain in the country for an as-yet-undetermined period.

The unexpectedly hasty withdrawal that followed the fall of Kabul and the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan led to chaotic scenes as 124,000 people were relocated to safe havens overseas via the airport – the only non-Taliban controlled route out of the country. Thirteen U.S. servicemen would lose their lives through a suicide bombing and many others would be injured in the line of duty.

From northeast Wisconsin to Kabul – and the journey in reverse
Vande Hei grew up in Green Bay and attended Notre Dame Academy before continuing his Norbertine-inspired education at SNC. He told Roth, “While I obviously didn’t intend or plan on being put in the situation I was in, I think I received an excellent education, and ultimately it was the critical thinking skills that I developed from that education that helped me work with my colleagues and [us] succeeding to the best of our abilities while in Afghanistan.”

Vande Hei’s experiences have given him a special insight into the situation for the Afghani refugees now relocated to the Green Bay area.

“I don’t claim to understand everything that [these people] have gone through,” he told Roth. “But they definitely have different life experiences than what I had growing up in northeast Wisconsin. And so I think there’s going to be a lot of shared learning both from them to understand our culture, as well as us taking a step back and realizing what they went through to get where they are. And hopefully we can help assist them in meeting the needs and expectations that they have.”

Feb. 16, 2022