This week, as screens and headlines filled with stunning news of the Taliban’s advances, Vince and Vance Moss looked at photos of children they have treated in Afghanistan over the last 15 years.
Children with infections, burns, birth defects. Children maimed by land mines. Children suffering measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases. Children who flocked around the identical-twin physicians, chanting “do ga na ge” — Pashto for same-face healers.
“Some of those children are now studying medicine and nursing,” Vince, a general surgeon, said wistfully Monday from Howell, N.J., where the brothers have medical offices.
He paused. “Now” ended on Sunday. That’s when Taliban fighters seized control of the capital, Kabul, cementing the militant Islamist group’s astonishingly fast takeover of Afghanistan, as its Western-backed government and military collapsed, President Ashraf Ghani fled, and America’s 20-year presence drew to a humiliating close.
“The opportunities women had a few days ago are gone,” Vince said. “We saw how the Taliban treated women and children and anyone who didn’t agree with their beliefs. There were a lot of beatings. Tying people by their feet and dragging them on the ground. Now, the hundreds of people we’ve gotten to know are vulnerable.”
Vance Moss, a urological surgeon, added: “It’s very confusing for soldiers like myself and my brother. I’m thinking: Why did it have to happen this way?”
Top American government, military, and elected officials are asking the same question.
But the Moss brothers, now 50, have a unique perspective, shaped by their passion for the military and, sentimental as it sounds, for doing good. As Army Reserve Medical Corps members, they have repeatedly been deployed in Afghanistan, most recently from December 2019 through last June. (Their return to the United States coincided with a different war — against COVID-19.) As civilian physicians, they have made three humanitarian missions — on their own time and dime — to treat the sick and injured, including the occasional Taliban warlord.
“For the past two days, I’ve been beside myself. I can’t work or focus,” Vance said. “We haven’t heard much from our network. I assume they are hunkering down at home. Their country is bordered by Iran and Pakistan. It’s not like there’s a sea they can go to and float away. The Taliban runs all the road systems.
“I hope,” he added, “our colleagues don’t look at me and my brother and think, ‘You’ve abandoned us.’”
In 2007, just months after the twins came back from their second humanitarian medical mission, they were profiled in The Inquirer.
They grew up in lower-middle-class Upper Marlboro, Md., with their father, a prison corrections officer and Vietnam veteran. From boyhood, the twins were overachievers, idealists, and inseparable. They both earned the Boy Scouts’ prestigious Eagle rank at age 14, then joined the Civil Air Patrol, the civilian auxiliary of the Air Force. They both graduated from Pennsylvania State University and Temple University’s medical school. They both chose surgical subspecialties, requiring years of grueling training.
After that profile, they became minor celebrities, but without major egos. ABC World News Tonight named them “Persons of the Year” in 2008. Oprah Winfrey interviewed them. They were invited to the White House by President George W. Bush, who had ordered the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. First lady Laura Bush gave them a shoutout in her bestselling book, Speaking From the Heart.
The brothers got married and became parents; Vance has a young daughter and son; Vince has a daughter and a baby son.
“Vince’s son was born while we were in Afghanistan last year,” Vance said. “We watched the birth on a satellite phone.”
The Mosses say they are “devastated” by the American military departure and the Taliban’s return to power. Still, they do not second-guess Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the Bush administration demanded that the Taliban expel al-Qaeda, the extremist pan-Islamist group, and hand over its founder, Osama bin Laden, a mastermind of the attacks.
“We were preventing further threats to the U.S.,” Vance said of the U.S. intervention. “We kept al-Qaeda at bay. And Afghanistan isn’t the only place. They’re in Africa, Syria, and the Philippines.”
Because of factors that will be analyzed for decades, America’s $1 trillion, two-decade investment failed to build a competent Afghan military. But it did improve the desperately poor country’s shattered infrastructure and tattered economy, while reducing oppression of women.
“Every year that we went back, we’d see paved roads and access to medical clinics,” Vince said. “We’d see women as teachers and children going to school. These are things we didn’t see the first time we were there” in 2005.
To help people in remote regions, the brothers collaborated with Afghan medical professionals, translators, drivers, and guards, building a sort of underground medical network. The Mosses are now asking U.S. senators for help evacuating one of their closest associates, an Afghan physician. But the risks are huge. To get to the airport, the physician will face implacable Taliban checkpoints.
“I believe,” Vince said sadly, “there will be revenge executions, whether because some Taliban leader wasn’t treated by our network, or just to show they are now in charge.”