Retired Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Praxades was working to get Afghan citizens evacuated when he was contacted by Marines on the ground in Kabul.
Praxades, whose evacuation efforts included numerous interpreters he’d worked with, was informed that the mother of Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Maxton “Max” W. Soviak had made contact with a heartbreaking request.
Rachel Soviak wanted to find and potentially adopt the little boy featured in one of the last pictures taken of her son before he was killed by a suicide bomber on Aug. 26 along with 12 other U.S. service members.
According to Praxades, sources from 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines — the outfit Soviak was working with in Afghanistan — said the child had ended up at the Abbey Gate of Hamid Karzai International Airport after his parents had been killed.
Praxades was told the boy had been escorted to the gate by locals before ending up in the care of the 22-year-old corpsman.
Troops who knew the young corpsman wanted to help Soviak’s mother, but “their hands were tied,” Praxades said, adding “mine weren’t because I was no longer active duty.”
Praxades reached out to Soviak’s mother on Facebook a few days later and received permission to put the request on social media. The subsequent Sept. 5 Facebook post quickly went viral, being shared over 11,000 times.
In response to comments on the post, Soviak’s mother reiterated her support for the efforts to find the child.
“To our knowledge, this picture was taken the morning before our son passed,” she wrote. “We feel in our hearts that Max was doing what he felt called to do. He was, in that moment, trying to keep these children safe.
“If Max was willing to put his life on the line to do what he was called to do, we feel we can continue where he left off and provide [the child] a safe, loving home … we are prepared to do that.”
Before long, offers to help began pouring in from around the globe.
“It was crazy,” Praxades said, “It was a total shot in the dark, we didn’t even have a name, just a picture. … There were people in Cuba, Norway, Germany and Qatar all offering to help. This was definitely a multinational, multiagency effort.”
“The efforts taken to find this kid were amazing,” Praxades said.
Praxades noted that for the Soviaks, who had 12 children and experience with fostering, there were two best-case outcomes.
The first, he said, would be to find the boy and bring him safely home to be adopted, the way Max would have wanted.
“[Rachel Soviak] told me that Max comes from a family that adopts a lot of kids, and that he was always around kids,” Praxedes said. “So, to her, it was only natural that he wanted to be a corpsman and be working this mission with the young kids.”
The second outcome would be the child would be found safely alongside his family and that they might be able to provide support in other ways.
That result, he said, is exactly what happened.
Praxades received confirmation that the child had been found by UNICEF workers within days of posting on Facebook.
“When I got the word that the kid was found, I was kind of still questioning it,” he said. “But I had another contact from Department of Homeland Security come out of thin air and work his contacts within the Department of State to help confirm this was the right boy.”
According to Praxades’ contacts, the boy had been reunited with a legal guardian in Afghanistan. Still, he remained moved by the Soviak family’s eagerness to help and their strength throughout the ordeal.
“[Rachel] told me that she felt called to complete that mission for Max,” Praxades said. “That’s the word she used. ‘Called.’ That if Max’s mission was to save these kids, and if this kid had no parents, she felt called to do this, to complete the mission that Max started.”
“They just wanted to do this out of the kindness of their hearts,” Praxedes added. “It’s inspiring.”
Soviak’s remains were returned to the family on Sept. 8. He was laid to rest Sept. 13 in Milan, Ohio.
The Navy posthumously awarded Soviak the Purple Heart and Fleet Marine Force Corpsman warfare badge.
Rachel is a Marine Corps veteran and Master’s candidate at New York University. She’s currently an Editorial Fellow for Military Times.