Charles Hickey was flying out of Afghanistan in the middle of the night when he heard a loud crash from the cargo hold. Everyone was OK.
But about 20 minutes later, a thud woke the crew, who were all Americans in training for a type of fighter pilot known as a pilot’s license. They all knew what had happened, but without knowing what it was, the students froze.
“We turned on the lights. All of us ran for the door,” Hickey recalled in an interview with the American Forces Press Service (AFPS). “And I basically walked all the way out.”
But the two terrified friends who were headed for sanctuary to save their lives ran right into the unknown. They were walking by an airport with no sign of help. It took them 10 minutes to find a taxi, more than an hour to navigate the country to Kabul and then a night stranded in the air.
MORE: Veterans face brutal reality of homecoming on day of passage from Syria to Turkey
Within two days, Hickey and his two friends found a riverboat, which took them to what Hickey told the New York Times is a primary refugee center in Afghanistan. There, they were given a place to sleep and hot food.
At first, the young airmen were wary of what they saw. But what Hickey learned one year ago as a part of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel moved him to be an advocate for Americans in similar situations. The operation has coordinated the escape of more than 1,000 Afghan refugees over the past two years.
“For those reasons, I can speak very with compassion about the situation there and a focus on helping with refugees,” Hickey said.
The Defense Department estimates that around 75,000 Afghan civilians were killed as the Taliban came to power after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Taliban terrorized Afghanistan, attempting to cut off electricity, gas and water supply.
Hickey grew up in New Jersey. He is a retired Army colonel who flew missions in Iraq, became an Air Force Thunderbird pilot and is a flight instructor. He is a Member of the House Homeland Security Committee, where he serves as a member of the intelligence and operations subcommittee. He was awarded the Legion of Merit for Valor in 2004.