By Dillon Thomas

DENVER (CBS4) — For the first time since helping evacuate more than 130,000 refugees from Afghanistan, some of those who were called upon to help get the refugees to the United States are sharing their stories. In a CBS4 exclusive, a Denver-based soldier who was deployed to Afghanistan and a translator who was born in Afghanistan both say helping the Afghan refugees was their way of giving back.

In September, President Joe Biden enacted the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) for the first time in decades. The CRAF calls on commercial airlines to provide their fleet and staff to assist the U.S. government in times of distress.

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(credit: CBS)

United Airlines, Denver’s largest commercial airline provider, was among the few companies tapped to fly missions to the eastern hemisphere.

Within days of the CRAF being enacted, hundreds of United Airlines employees volunteered to participate in the mission. Pilots, flight attendants, grounds crews and more raised their hand to help the effort.

Among those selected for the 60 different flights which United flew, thus far in the CRAF, were two Denver-based United employees with personal ties to Afghanistan.

Aramis Lugo, who deployed to Afghanistan for 10 months with the U.S. Army, served as a medic on some of the flights.

Qais Nawaz, a native of Afghanistan, served as a translator for the flights.

Qais Nawaz (credit: CBS)

Lugo currently works as a ramp service employee at Denver International Airport for United. Nawaz is a Utilities Specialist Lead for the airline in Denver.

“When I heard about it I felt I was morally obliged to volunteer because I had been in Afghanistan and served with these people,” Lugo told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas.

Lugo said he formed a bond with Afghan natives during his deployment. A trade of M&M’s for warm food evolved into a friendship with many Afghans.

“I felt like I was indebted to them because they helped me out so much,” Lugo said.

Lugo said he saw participation in the CRAF as an opportunity to bring closure to his time serving in Afghanistan.

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“I didn’t know if it was going to bring back flashbacks,” Lugo said. “But, once I started speaking with them and hearing their stories, it really touched me.”

The civilian crews participating in the CRAF did not fly to Afghanistan. Rather, they flew missions domestically, and others between the United States and military bases in countries like Germany.

CBS4’s Dillon Thomas interviews Aramis Lugo (credit: CBS)

For Nawaz, the CRAF provided a perfect opportunity to use his native tongue to help people going through distress.

“I was born in Afghanistan,” Nawaz said. “(I speak) Pashto, Dari and Farsi. I was able to communicate those skills with the refugees.”

Nawaz said many of the refugees were confused, tired, concerned about flying and ill from malnourishment. By speaking their language, Nawaz was able to give reassurance and aid to the evacuees.

“They were happy that they had somebody that understands them,” Nawaz said. “A lot of them were nervous. They had no idea exactly where they were going to end up. Kids were barefooted. But, at the same time I was happy because I knew that they had a future ahead of them. Freedom to go to school, to educate themselves, and to be able to be somebody.”

Nawaz said a rewarding part of participating in the CRAF was helping the evacuees connect their electronic devices to the free on-board WiFi.

“They hadn’t had any good source of communication with their family since after they left,” Nawaz said. “Everybody was communicating and letting them know, ‘Hey, we are finally onboard to US.’”

United Airlines also partnered with outside organizations to provide meals, drinks, clothing and more to the more than 8,500 refugees they flew.

While heartbroken for the nature of the evacuation, and the trauma those involved experienced leaving their livelihoods behind, both Nawaz and Lugo said they felt accomplished in volunteering their skills to the evacuees.

“It was really sad. But, at the same time they were happy because they were going to a better place,” Nawaz said.

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“They get to come and live the American dream now, and start a whole life here,” Lugo said.

Dillon Thomas