TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The veteran who founded the Tampa-based Project Dynamo, who rescued thousands of Americans and allies from Afghanistan and Ukraine, is opening up about his experience that earned him a Purple Heart.

“There’s planes flying into buildings, now we’re at war,” founder Bryan Stern said.

The story behind the donor-funded, non-profit Stern started in his living room to rescue Americans left behind in Afghanistan began on September 11, 2001.

“I’ve never prayed for death in my life other than during the collapses,” he said.

At 22, Stern was serving as an Army intelligence officer in New York City. He recalled what he saw when he arrived for work at the World Trade Center on that Tuesday morning.

“There was a big hole in tower one and everyone was looking up,” Stern said.

Stern said he was helping an older man when the second hijacked plane flew into the second tower.

“The exit wound of the tower, all of us were right at the base of that and all the stuff fell on top of us and those wounds caused by an international terrorist organization called al-Qaeda met the standard I guess for a Purple Heart,” Stern said.

Already bleeding from lacerations, Stern said he was seriously injured when the towers collapsed.

“It was like a tsunami,” he said, “but it was a cloud of stuff screaming up the street faster than I could run.”

Twenty-two years later, he’s still reminded of his wounds from 9/11.

“I can’t hold a hot cup of coffee,” Stern said. “When I get coffee I have to double cup because my hands are so sensitive to heat.”

By the time Stern received his Purple Heart at a ceremony in Tampa in July 2021, he was a multiple-tour combat veteran of the global War on Terror.

Right before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, he watched the chaotic and controversial U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.

Stern said he felt compelled to do something.

In the two years since, his donor-funded Project Dynamo has evacuated 3,000 people from the Taliban-controlled country.

“Lots of other groups did really good work,” Stern said. “But they didn’t travel. They didn’t go. What made Dynamo different is we went and we stayed and we’re still pulling people out of Afghanistan to this day.”

Now with a presence in war-torn Ukraine, Africa and Latin America, Stern said Project Dynamo is preparing to expand even more.

“I’ve tried to turn Dynamo off three times and I’ve given up,” Stern said. “We’re here to stay. Our demand has never been greater.”

Taiwan could be next for Project Dynamo, Stern said. He told News Channel 8 companies there are already reaching out to him in advance of a potential invasion by China.

Ceremonies will be held nationwide Monday on Purple Heart Day to honor veterans who’ve received the award for being wounded or killed while serving in the U.S. armed forces.

Stern will be at Old City Hall in Tampa Monday morning at 8 a.m. to raise the Purple Heart Flag with Mayor Jane Castor, a Gold Star Father and other veterans.