TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif., March 22, 2018 —
Imagine having to conceal your identity in order to feel safe and protect the ones you love. Changing the route you take to work, wearing disguises so you won’t be recognized or reducing the amount of vacation you take because you know it’s safer to be at work than not.
For many, this way of life would seem far-fetched or unrealistic, but for one airman it was his reality. Air Force Airman 1st Class Mohammad Javad, a transportation journeyman with the 60th Aerial Port Squadron here, used to be an Afghan national working as a head interpreter with U.S. forces at Forward Operating Base Shindand, Afghanistan.
Interpreter Work in Afghanistan
As the head interpreter, Javad was relied upon for his expertise, which meant he was on all the important missions.
“I would go out on missions and it was like I was actually in the Army,” he recalled. “I would go weeks without a shower. I would carry 100-150 pound bags of ammo, sleep on the ground, walk all day, climb mountains, and jump out of helicopters.”
Despite the constant diligence to remain in the background, in 2013, the locals somehow figured out Javad was working with U.S. forces.
“Once they knew who I was, my family and I were no longer safe,” he said. “My life was threatened by the insurgents. My wife was accused of helping infidels and was threatened with kidnapping. I knew after that, I couldn’t work here anymore.”
Then Javad began a courageous and remarkable personal journey that led him to America and enlisting in the U.S. Air Force.
Javad was born in Afghanistan during the war with the Soviet Union. His family fled to Iran because the war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan made it too dangerous to stay.
“We left in 1989 when I was two during the Soviet-Afghan War because it was too dangerous for my family to stay,” he said. “We came to Iran under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, so we were discriminated against.”
There were not many educational opportunities for Javad growing up in Iran because of his refugee status. His parents decided to return to Afghanistan in 2004 since it was safer.
Living in Iran, Afghanistan
“We came back to Afghanistan so I could seek higher education because neither of my parents had that opportunity,” he said. “They wanted that option for me. I got my education, my bachelors and a double major in chemistry and biology.”
After completing his education, Javad said he still found it difficult to find meaningful work.
“Afghanistan had a new government and it was corrupted,” he said. “It was difficult to get jobs unless you knew the right people.”
Javad had taken classes on computers and language and received a certification in accounting. This helped him find a job where he could now provide for his family.
“After graduating college, I worked for an accounting firm,” he said. “After a year and a half, I was promoted to general manager.”
Unfortunately, after a horrific motorcycle accident kept him in the hospital for six months, Javad lost his job as a general manager with the accounting firm.
“I knew that without knowing anyone in the government, I was going to have to start from the bottom again,” he said. “The only other option I had was to become a linguist with U.S. forces.”
First Linguist Job
Javad applied for a linguist position, along with over 200 other applicants.
“There’s a written and verbal skills test, interview and security background check,” he said. “Only 10 of us made it through those stages. Once you get through that, there’s another few months of security screening with the Central Intelligence Agency and medical exams.”
Javad’s first assignment was with the Air Force at Forward Operating Base Shindand.
“I was assigned to the Base Defense Operations Center for the Air Force,” he said. “I was translating all the daily, weekly and monthly security reports.”
While assigned there, Javad met Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Michael Simon II, who was serving on a 365-day deployment as a Mi-17 helicopter crew chief air advisor.
“Javad was assigned to the FOB as an interpreter, translating from Dari or Pashto to English,” Simon said. “We worked together on several occasions in support of the Afghan air force training and advising missions.”
What Javad didn’t know at the time was that Simon would play an instrumental role years later as he transitioned from Afghanistan to America. During his time at FOB Shindand, the Air Force was replaced by the Army, and Javad’s duties and responsibilities changed significantly.
“We were given the option to resign or accept new roles,” Javad said. “Sure enough, within a month I was riding in convoys outside the wire. Things were a lot different now.”
He spent three years at FOB Shindand and says he witnessed some horrific things.
“I saw Army soldiers get shot and killed. I saw Afghan civilians get shot and killed,” Javad said. “I was the head interpreter and was always going out with battalion commanders and other high-ranking officials.”
Despite the difficulties of his job and awful scenes he witnessed, he said he felt something for the first time.
“I was a local,” Javad said. “I wasn’t a U.S. citizen, but [the soldiers] never treated me like a stranger. They trusted me, they worked with me. That was a feeling I’d never had in my life before until I worked there.”
After his identity was disclosed and he knew he was no longer safe in Afghanistan, Javad applied for a Special Immigrant Visa so he could come to America. This wasn’t an easy decision because he was living as an upper middle class citizen in Afghanistan.
“I was a homeowner with lots of land,” Javad said. “I owned a car and motorcycle. Unfortunately, I couldn’t sell anything because no one would buy anything built with the money from America. I was choosing between my belongings or my life.”
Coming to America
In the summer of 2014, he took his pregnant wife with only the belongings they could fit in a suitcase — including the $800 they received for selling their wedding bands — and traveled to the United States to begin a new life.
“When we arrived in Colorado Springs, Colorado, we had nothing,” Javad said. “I needed a sponsor for my [visa] and Simon agreed. With the help of Simon, we were able to sustain some sort of normalcy until we could get on our feet.”
Simon got donations from his church and the local refugee service in Colorado Springs. Lutheran Refugee Service lined up a starter apartment with basic furnishings.
“My sister had coordinated with a group of close friends and churches to get a lot of items needed outside of the basics already provided,” Simon said. “Then, the rest was up to Javad and his determination to succeed.”
Despite having an education, Javad found it hard to find work.
“I had to find a job because I barely could afford a month’s rent,” he said. “Nobody would give me a job because I didn’t have a history of work in the U.S.”
After meeting a family who had a local business, Javad found some temporary work, but more importantly, lifelong friends.
“They ended up being like family to us,” he said. “They called me son and they were the only ones who came to my graduation at basic training.”
Working in a warehouse didn’t bring in a lot of money for Javad and he struggled to make ends meet.
“For the first four months, I didn’t have a car,” he said. “I had to walk four miles one way, work eight hours, and walk another four miles back, in the winter, in Colorado Springs.”
After a year in the U.S., Javad felt that serving in the armed forces would provide a better life for him and his family.
“I worked four years with the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and had a little sense of what life was like in the military,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of sacrifices you have to make when serving your country, but in the end, I wanted to give back to the country that helped me a lot.”
Joining the Air Force
Javad decided to enlist in the Air Force and entered basic training in February 2016.
“I wanted to be part of a really big picture,” he said. “I did it mainly because the U.S. military saved my life and I wanted to do my part.”
Simon said Javad’s decision to join the Air Force did not come as a surprise to him because Javad’s commitment, dedication and hard work align with the Air Force’s core values.
For Javad, to start from scratch with just a suitcase and dedicate his efforts to providing for his family is the true American dream, Simon said.
“To say I’m proud of Javad would be an understatement,” Simon said.
A week before graduating basic training, Javad received an unexpected gift.
“I was notified that I was officially a U.S. citizen,” he said. “I was overwhelmed with pride. When I saw the flag being raised at graduation and we saluted, I couldn’t stop myself from crying.”
After basic training and technical school, Javad arrived here, his first duty station.
U.S. Citizen, Airman
“My unit treats me like any other airman,” he said. “They don’t see me as a person from Afghanistan — they see me as an airman.”
Javad has yet to deploy since joining the Air Force but said he would like to return to Afghanistan as an airman and citizen of the U.S.
“I would be happy to deploy to Afghanistan because I know the mission over there is important,” he said. “I would love a special duty assignment as a linguist and use my language skills to help my fellow airmen.”
Javad’s short-term goal is to help his parents get to the U.S.
“My parents had to escape Afghanistan and flee to another country,” he said. “I feel responsible because I come from a culture where your kids are your retirement, so now they are struggling until I can find a way to bring them to America.”
Once Javad brings his family to the U.S., he plans on achieving his long-term goal, which is to become an Air Force officer.
“I couldn’t become an officer when I enlisted even though I had the education because I wasn’t a citizen,” he said. “Now that I have my citizenship, I will pursue officer training school and get my commission.”