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'It Shocks the Conscience': Afghanistan Withdrawal Hits Home With Some Massachusetts Legislators

John Velis of Westfield in a file photo.
Don Treeger
The Republican / masslive.com/photos
State Senator John Velis of Westfield in a file photo

Massachusetts State Rep. Steven Xiarhos visited his son's grave Monday to remind the late Marine of his heroism. Xiarhos told his son he was proud of him, and honored his memory with a penny -- an act often used among military families to signify that a loved one has visited their final resting place.

Nicholas Xiarhos' grave adorned with pennies, an act often used among military families to signify that a loved one has visited their final resting place.

Nicholas Xiarhos was 21 years old when he died in 2009 while serving in Afghanistan's Helmand Province during Operation Strike of the Sword. After two decades at war in Afghanistan, the United States over the weekend rushed to evacuate American personnel and some allies in the region as the situation in the country quickly deteriorated and the Western-backed government gave way to Taliban control.

Xiarhos, a retired police officer and Barnstable Republican, said the images of the evacuation "were powerful to see and hear as an American, but especially as a Gold Star Father."

"My son died over there fighting for our freedom and their freedom. So for me to see that, it's very hurtful. So I try not to watch it and really, I try to turn it into something that is a way to reflect that, how brave our young men and women have been for the last 20 years," he said in an interview.

In Massachusetts, some state and federal lawmakers are hoping to build momentum to ensure the safe evacuation of Afghan allies who helped coalition forces over the past two decades. Xiarhos signed onto a letter authored by Sen. John Velis that calls on their federal counterparts to do "everything in [their] power" to accomplish just that, according to a copy provided to the State House News Service.

Velis, who served in Afghanistan from 2012 to 2013 and in 2018, worked with Afghan linguists during his deployments and told the News Service that he still has friends in the country. He said he is "absolutely horrified by what I am seeing on television and what I am hearing from people on the ground right now."

"It shocks the conscience," he said. "These are people that saved American lives. However many service members we have lost, around 2,400, that increases exponentially without some of these situations --- they were our eyes and our ears."

The letter, for which Velis was still in the process of gathering signatures, calls on the state's federal delegation to "make every effort to get our Afghan allies out." Seventy members of the Legislature had signed as of Monday evening.

"Their work has not only been critical to our missions, it has been essential to keeping our personnel safe and alive. Some of us know this from first-hand experience serving in Afghanistan," the letter reads. "These are local residents who signed up to work with us despite the risks this brought to themselves and their families. Their lives, and their families' lives, are still at risk. As our military forces formally withdraw and the Taliban regains power, that risk is severely heightened."

Several of the state's federal lawmakers have already called for an immediate evacuation of allies in the country. U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton called on officials to drop "onerous visa requirements where a typo can condemn an ally to torture and death, and the military must continue the evacuation for as long as it takes."

"To say that today is anything short of a disaster would be dishonest. Worse, it was avoidable. The time to debate whether we stay in Afghanistan has passed, but there is still time to debate how we manage our retreat," Moulton said in a Sunday statement. "For months, I have been calling on the administration to evacuate our allies immediately --- not to wait for paperwork, for shaky agreements with third countries, or for time to make it look more 'orderly.'"

Moulton plans to hold a press conference at his Salem office Tuesday at 11 a.m. to answer questions about the situation in Afghanistan.

U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley also called for a safe evacuation.

"What we are watching unfold in Afghanistan is gut-wrenching. As always we need to center the people," she said in a statement posted to Twitter Monday afternoon. "The U.S. should do everything in our power to safely evacuate advocates, refugees, and journalists alongside U.S. personnel and allies. Each person in harm's way matters deeply."

As pictures circulated in the media Sunday and Monday of Taliban fighters taking control of the presidential palace, Velis thought back to when he spent time in the building and the nearby international airport during his 2018 deployment. He said he frequently went to the airfield to travel on Blackhawks and the images of local residents storming runways were "sad."

"Many of us have lost friends, many of us have friends who got hurt, not to mention all the psychological and invisible wounds of war that so many of us deal with today," he said.

Xiarhos said he didn't turn on the television to watch the scenes of Afghans heading to the airport in an attempt to flee the country. Instead, he said, his mission as a Gold Star Father is to make sure other Gold Star families across the country "know their son and daughter did not die in vain."

"Senator Velis ... he has credibility and I think that's a key thing. We're not reading about it, he's lived it. I'm not reading or watching TV, I'm living this in a way, in a way horrible life of a gold star father," Xiarhos said. "Life is never the same but I've tried to find the reason why and the reason is, God saw Nick doing good things and he needed to take him to do great things."

After his first deployment, Velis said he was fortunate to sponsor an application for a linguist he worked with to travel to and live in the United States. The linguist still has brothers and sisters in Afghanistan, and Velis said the linguist last spoke to his siblings several days ago.

"He was talking about one sister who has spent the past many years, who has been going to school to be a lawyer," the Westfield Democrat said. "To do that in a country that historically there is not parity between men and women and she was getting educated ... and the realization that she might spend the rest of her life not leaving her home is devastating."

Rep. Patrick Kearney, a Scituate Democrat, is another active military member of the Legislature. Kearney serves in the U.S. Navy Reserves, and said Americans should not have stayed in Afghanistan for 20 years.

"Sometimes I would think that we shouldn't have been there at all," he told the News Service. "So I feel bad for some of the Afghans and Americans that have been affected by what's been going on in the last week. I think that we could have done a much better job of protecting the folks that had helped us out over there. And, I think we made a big mistake in not making sure that all of our allies were out of there safely before we left."

"But at some point, we had to get out of there," he said. "We can't fight a war forever."