Posted 10:02 a.m. Monday, Sept. 27, 2021
UWL alum coordinates daring evacuations in Afghanistan
A UW-La Crosse alum and former Green Beret with the U.S. Army Special Forces is helping rescue hundreds of Americans, Afghan soldiers and other U.S. allies from the oppressive grip of the Taliban.
Zac Lois, ’06, is a member of Task Force Pineapple, a volunteer group of veterans coordinating movements for U.S. troops and allies on the ground in Afghanistan as they attempt to navigate to safety, often under the cover of darkness.
To date, the team has helped evacuate more than 1,000 people, many of whom took flights out of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. However, thousands remain trapped in the capital city, which fell to Taliban in the days after the U.S. military withdrawal.
“The people we’re trying to evacuate … we’ve had relationships with them for a long time. Some of them are Afghan people we’ve served with in combat,” says Lois, who had deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan before leaving the military in 2015. “In the military, we say: ‘Leave no man or woman behind.’ That extends to this as well.”
Now an eighth grade social studies teacher in Syracuse, New York, Lois watched the upheaval in Afghanistan late this summer and knew he must get involved.
During his deployments, he had built many friendships with Afghan people, as well as a deep appreciation for Middle Eastern culture.
Teaching in a diverse school district, where many students have ties to the Middle East, served as additional motivation.
“There are so many groups represented (in our school district). A lot of the Muslim girls in particular, they’re some of my best students,” Lois notes. “When I saw the current situation in Afghanistan, I knew that I couldn’t stand in front of my classroom and look my students in the eye, knowing I could have done something about it.”
First, Lois approached Congress and the State Department for help, but he kept running into roadblocks.
That’s when he made a “Hail Mary” post on LinkedIn, hoping to recruit other veterans to join him. The post generated considerable traction, Lois says, and allowed him to link up with the existing task force of veterans.
Lois began coordinating evacuations in late August, working from a secure locaiton in the United States. He requested a leave of absence from teaching so he could continue into the fall. He doesn’t plan to stop, he says, until every U.S. ally is out of the country.
“We will keep going until every American is home,” he says, noting that additional funding is needed to cover flights and food. Donations can be made at www.operationrecovery.org.
Lois, a native of Burlington, Wisconsin, has long been passionate about history and culture.
He majored in history and was particularly influenced by Professor Víctor Macías-González — an important step to becoming an informed, global citizen, he says.
“Professor Macías-González was great,” Lois remembers. “He passed on a lot of confidence and historical knowledge.”
Lois’ background has served him well during the evacuation effort, which was modeled after the Underground Railroad that helped carry enslaved Americans to freedom in the 19th century.
“Having that understanding and knowledge of history has really helped me navigate this situation,” he says. In modern military history, “something like this has never really been done.”
Lois notes that those being evacuated are proven U.S. allies previously vetted by the State Department. Some, but not all, are being sent to the United States.
Whenever this mission ends, Lois hopes to bring the lessons he’s learned into the classroom.
“I do like to bring up my service in class — all the different cultures I’ve lived and worked with,” he says. “Those experiences show you that everyone is similar. Everyone wants the same things: good drink, good food, a better life for their children. At the core of our humanity, we’re really not that different.”