My deployment to the country in 2010 was a culture shock, but I realized quickly that my life depended on the Afghan interpreters traveling with our platoon.
I had no idea that one of these men would become one of my closest friends.
When Mustafa Aahangaran first introduced himself at our dusty base in the rural Helmand River Valley ― one of the most dangerous regions of the country ― his warm smile helped me feel at ease.
After that, we were practically inseparable. We ate together, shared stories, played cards and traveled on high-risk combat operations.
He would sit beside us in a bulletproof vest, then enter a village alone before the rest of us to talk to civilians. Through these conversations, he helped to locate buried bombs and stashed weapons.
Other times, he alerted us to imminent danger. He risked his own life to save our lives many times over.
Then one day, on a routine supply run, my world fell apart.
Mustafa usually rode in my vehicle, but that day, he happened to be in another car. A roadside bomb exploded on the route. In an instant, all went black.
I remember waking up in a helicopter, being medevaced back to base and then out of the country.
I discovered we had lost one of our men and many more were injured. I was distraught. I asked about Mustafa. Did he make it out alive? When I learned he was OK, I felt a wave of relief.
My injuries were severe, including traumatic brain injury and a broken spine.
After receiving medical retirement, I headed back to Buffalo, New York, to live with my dad.
I thought about Mustafa all the time and worried for his safety. I knew his work for the U.S. military put his life at risk.
Interpreters like Mustafa were being hunted by the Taliban or had their heads chopped off. He recently had started a family, and I could only imagine how much he wanted to protect his infant daughter.
Then in 2015, I learned he and his family could leave if they found an American sponsor. I wrote a letter describing Mustafa’s many contributions to our platoon to help with his visa approval.
I was shocked at how challenging the process was: the stacks of paperwork he had to file, the background checks, the seemingly-endless delays. I received word that his uncle, also an interpreter for the U.S. military, would be arriving in America with his own family ahead of Mustafa’s. I offered to host them. It was the least I could do.
In early 2016, Mustafa’s visa was finally approved. I was thrilled. I drove to the airport in a snowstorm to greet him. When I saw him walking through the terminal with his family, I began to cry.
We embraced for a long time. Six years ago, I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again; now my friend was alive and safe in America.
My mom prepared a big celebratory dinner and they brought gifts to thank her. They slept in my finished basement and a few weeks later, I helped them move into their new apartment in Buffalo, New York. We continued to see each other often.
Over the years, we’ve spent holidays together, hosted each other for dinner or gathered for summer cookouts along Lake Erie.
Mustafa and his family are thriving in America. He currently works for the Department of Labor, helping New Yorkers receive crucial unemployment benefits during the pandemic. His wife makes hospital gowns at a nearby sewing factory, and his daughters attend the local schools.
I’ve since moved to Florida, but we regularly talk on the phone. I’m overjoyed he was able to make it to America, but it hurts to know that more families like his are stuck in Afghanistan, hiding out and fearing for their lives.
When the country fell to the Taliban in 2021, only a small fraction of interpreters made it out of the country.
There’s much more we could be doing to help families like Mustafa’s.
The ones who already are here in the U.S. need resettlement support and our refugee services need additional funding.
The Biden administration could certainly establish a special program to expedite the visa process for anyone who’s able to cross a border into Pakistan or Iran.
These people are beyond deserving to resettle in the U.S. They’ve scarified more for this country than most people I know.
There are approximately 10,000 interpreters still at risk ― men and women who helped us and saved our lives.
It’s time we saved their lives in return.
Joseph Dietzel is a Marine veteran and studying network administration online at California Institute of Technology. He lives in Pensacola, Florida.
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