As a platoon squad leader in an area of Afghanistan known as a hotbed for Taliban fighters and drug traffickers, Tom Schueman was always positioned at the point of danger.
And next to him in each mission, he said, was his Afghan interpreter, Zak.
Zak, whose full name isn’t being used to protect his identity for safety, was then a 20-year-old school teacher who believed in a Taliban-free Afghanistan and had a thirst for adventure.
His services were critical in assisting and protecting not only to Schueman and his 1st Platoon, Kilo Company, but to the entire Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines — the Darkhorse Battalion — deployed in 2010 to the town of Sangin in the Helmand province of Afghanistan in what would turn out to be the costliest deployment for any Marine combat unit since Vietnam.
Schueman is now looking out for Zak, today a 30-year-old father of four, working tirelessly to get him and his family to safety as the United States prepares for a final withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, if not sooner.
“You have a guy like Zak who lives in an area the Taliban are seizing now,” Schueman said. “These are the guys that will be left behind.”
Zak was there when he questioned villagers about harboring Taliban, Schueman said. When a Marine stepped on an explosive device, Zak picked up the wounded man’s rifle, using it to protect him during a firefight. And, as Taliban fighters waited to ambush a platoon patrol, Zak rushed ahead, taking down one of the men lying in wait who he’d identified via radio chatter.
Even when the Taliban made it clear via radio communication that they knew who Zak was and threatened to kill his then young wife and infant son, he stayed faithful to Schueman and his platoon.
“They were trying to terrorize him and he continued to work with us even though he knew it could result in his death,” said Schueman, now a bronze star-decorated Marine major. “He demonstrated a conviction that he was willing to die on multiple occasions.”
When the 3/5 Darkhorse battalion left, Zak stayed behind and became an interpreter for an Army Special Forces unit, hired and paid by an American contractor.
And it is that arrangement that is holding up the Special Immigrant Visa that Schueman started helping Zak apply for in 2016, when the interpreter first called the Marine desperate to get out of Afghanistan after the Taliban again terrorized him with texts and cellphone messages.
“I have received several threats from insurgents who want to kill me and my family members as a result of me working with U.S. Forces,” Zak said in a recent interview over the WhatsApp messaging program. “I’m always thinking when and how will they kill me.”
To apply for the visa, the State Department requires proof of two years of service. But records that would document Zak’s time interpreting for the Army in the Kunar Provence from December 2011 to January 2014, can’t be found because that contracting agency no longer exists, Schueman said.
So Zak remains among thousands of Afghan interpreters who helped the U.S. military during its two decades of war in the country, but may be at risk once the Americans and coalition forces leave. At least 18,000 Aghans are in line for the special visa, State Department officials estimate — 9,000 like Zak likely meet the requirements, but are missing some sort of documentation.
Schueman said over the course of the last five years he has had spent hundreds of hours talking to State Department officials, lawmakers and dozens of lawyers.
And with Biden’s recent announcement of a final date for American’s withdrawal, Zak’s pleas for help have become even more desperate, Schueman said.
“Sir, you may better know the situation is the worst in Afghanistan than ever. I would be lucky if I get a chance to travel to the U.S. to save myself and my family,” Zak messaged Schueman using WhatsApp.
Within the last month, Schueman has found an attorney willing to help sort out Zak’s paperwork problem pro bono. He’s also started a GoFundMe to raise money for Zak to help with housing and transportation expenses if his visa is approved and the family makes it out. And, he’s lined up other interpreters he knows who now live in Texas and have offered to help Zak and his family assimilate.
“This is a major injustice,” Schueman said of the stall in Zak’s visa application, for which he wrote a letter of recommendation.
Schueman said he stayed in contact with Zak since his deployment mostly via Facebook.
“He is a brother to me,” Schueman said. “I make sure to communicate to anyone I fight with that our brotherhood doesn’t expire at the end of our tour. My Marines call me 10 years later if they need a reference or if they have a bad night, I’m there for them. Zak, I hold in the same regard, especially after all he’s done and sacrificed.”
For Zak, serving his “countrymen alongside foreign allies” is something he felt he needed to do for his country.
“I really liked being on the front lines with U.S. forces,” he said. “Though it was a hard job, I enjoyed the journey. I served my people who were in danger and we saved them. We worked hard to eliminate the terrorists. But, it was not easy.”
Since he stopped working for the Army, Zak said he hasn’t been able to find employment. His father is sheltering his family. Zak is being supported by a brother.
“There are Taliban on a mountain in front of our area and missiles hit our village every time,” he said. “They have a big influence in our province.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke last week during a forum at the Atlantic Council of helping those who fulfilled their contracts with the American military.
“We have people in Afghanistan who worked side-by-side with our diplomats, with our soldiers, as guides, interpreters, translators, put themselves on the line, put their lives on the line, put the security and well-being of their families on the line, and we owe them. It’s a simple as that,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to make sure that that program can move forward with the resources it needs to answer the demand that exists.”
Blinken said extra efforts are being made to “surge resources,” such as adding 50 more people at the State Department and more in the field to help with applications at the embassy in Afghanistan. The secretary also said he would ask Congress for more visa allowances.
Some Afghan interpreters already in the visa process will be evacuated, but to where is still to be determined, White House officials confirmed last week.
“We are on a time crunch,” said James Miervaldis, board chairman of the Virginia-based nonprofit No One Left Behind. “We are getting increasing anecdotal reports of more interpreters being killed. Mostly, that’s happening in the south, near Kandahar, where the U.S. has already pulled out.”
Since April, the organization, which was started by a resettled Iraqi interpreter, has received thousands of urgent requests via email and direct messages on social media from Afghans looking of help.
Active-duty military such as Schueman and veterans, who are also hearing from their former interpreters, are also looking to the group for help.
Along with providing financial assistance to the newly evacuated, No One Left Behind also helps with navigating the special visa process.
And it’s been seeing more awareness of the plight because of an unexpected source: A CBS sitcom.
“United States of Al” is centered on the lives of a Marine veteran, Riley, and his Afghan interpreter, Al, who has come to live with him in Ohio.
“We’re getting plenty of emails from people saying they had no idea the U.S. had help from interpreters there,” Miervaldis said. “It’s become a national topic.”
The show, which recently aired this season’s final episode, addresses issues resonating with Schueman and others who struggle with the guilt of relying on the Afghan interpreters while they were deployed and maybe leaving them behind in danger.
In the show, Riley’s service mirrors what the 3/5 Darkhorse battalion experienced in Sangin, said Chase Millsap, a Los Angeles-based Marine veteran who served three deployments to Iraq and is now a writer and consultant for the NBC series.
“We really examine the cost of war,” he said. “It’s a way to look back at the 20 years of war; moral injury is a big component.”
Millsap used some of his own experiences in creating the show’s storyline. In 2015, he helped a former Iraqi Army captain, whom he had fought with during two deployments in Iraq, to safety in Turkey after ISIS threatened the family.
“I took all of our savings and money for our honeymoon and helped him get set up in Turkey,” Millsap said. “The idea was to get him a visa. He’s still never got one.”
Millsap, who served with the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion out of Twentynine Palms, said he knows first hand what Schueman and others face in trying to get help for those who served with them as brothers.
“It’s that idea of Semper Fidelis — always faithful,” he said. “It weighed on me personally. The idea of moral injury, I just couldn’t leave it behind. It really took a toll on my mind and my soul. A lot of the vets are now getting these calls in the middle of the night.”
And, that’s exactly what Millsap and executive producer Chuck Lorre want to portray in the show.
“That weight, that idea of ‘Leave no man behind,'” Millsap said. “We start the show where Riley has worked years to get his interpreter Al to the U.S. That’s where the series goes and begins that process of healing together.”
David Castillo, a Marine veteran who also fought in Sangin with the 3/5 Darkhorse battalion during the 2010 deployment, understands all too well the risk Afghan interpreters took and has had to deal with his own healing process.
As a second squad leader, he relied heavily on his interpreter Abdul, a 19-year-old who had taken the dangerous job to provide for his family.
“Abdul would always be two or three steps behind me,” Castillo, of Corona, said. “The Taliban knew who he was and they would always try to take him out. They understood our chain-of-command.”
Abdul helped Castillo speak to the locals and find out where IEDs were buried, where weapons were hidden and in some cases, where the Taliban lived and hung out.
“It was very important; it’s the only way I could get my point across to the civilian population,” he said. “Otherwise, we’d look like we were terrorizing the people and we weren’t there to do that.”
The interpreters also helped with translations for the Afghan National Army, which joined the Marines on patrols as training for defending their own country.
“We were trying to show them how to combat the enemy,” Castillo said.
Over the months, Castillo and others in the squad grew close to Abdul, especially the younger Marines, he said.
“He was one of my favorite Terps,” Castillo said, using the Marine’s lingo for interpreters. “Not all of them are good. I trusted Abdul.”
On Jan. 1, 2011, Castillo, his squad and members of the Afghan National Army were on an early morning patrol through an alleyway in a rubble-torn village in an area known as the Fish Bowl in Sangin.
“I saw a wire hanging down and I told Abdul to tell everyone behind us not to step here,” he said. “As I stepped, I showed him the line and said, ‘Don’t step here!'”
He said, ‘OK, boss, I got you,'” Castillo said. “Then, as soon as I turned, he stepped where I told him not to step.”
Castillo was knocked unconscious, his eardrums were perforated and blood was running down his face.
“I looked for Abdul, and I see them picking him up and he’s just in pieces,” he said. “To this day, I can see it, taste it, feel it.”
Castillo, who was later awarded a Purple Heart, said he feels a tremendous amount of guilt for Abdul’s death.
“I feel bad,” he said. “To me, it was my fault that he passed away. To this day, I don’t think he grasped the seriousness.”
Castillo’s Marines also couldn’t shake what happened to the smart and funny interpreter with whom they had shared laughs.
“They felt the loss; he had been their friend,” Castillo said. “It put a damper into their fight. They felt bad because he was trying to help his family and he died.”
After Abdul’s death, Castillo said other interpreters refused to patrol with Marines because “they didn’t want to die.”
Castillo said he understands Schueman’s devotion to helping Zak. He sees it as something of a promise made by the American government.
“Not every single person deserves it because some didn’t fulfill their contract,” Castillo said. “But, if Abdul had survived, I’d be 100% for that. What he was doing was fulfilling his contract.”
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