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His Afghani interpreter, Janis, saved his life. Now it was his turn to return the favor.
I paced the long hallway outside Customs at Reagan National Airport, scanning the faces of the weary passengers streaming past me. The flight from Kabul, Afghanistan, had landed but there was no sign of Janis Shinwari or his family.
I’d dreamed of this moment for so long. My final mission, to make good on a promise I’d made five years before to the man I called brother. The man who saved my life. Now, I believed, I would save his.
Had there been some last-minute problem? The Taliban knew who Janis was, what he’d done for the U.S. military. They’d stop at nothing to kill him.
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Again I looked toward the doorway. At last, at the very end of the line, I spied him, a tall man in a burgundy jacket, his wife beside him, pushing two kids in a stroller. Our eyes met.
September 11, 2001. Who will ever forget the live images on television? A jet crashing into the Twin Towers that cloudless Tuesday morning. Anger I’d never known before rose inside me. I was a pre-law student, a sophomore at an elite private college in upstate New York, 125 miles from where I grew up.
I didn’t know a thing about Afghanistan. All I knew was that I wanted to go after the bad guys. I went to an Army recruiting station. The recruiter persuaded me I’d be more valuable to the Army by completing my degree.
I joined the Army National Guard and ultimately earned dual master’s degrees in public administration and international relations. Graduated first in my class from the Army’s military intelligence officers’ basic training. In 2008, my unit was deployed to Afghanistan. Finally!
We were sent to Ghazni, a city of 141,000 people in the eastern part of the country, stationed at an Afghan Army base, living and working beside hundreds of native soldiers. Our mission was to train police officers, not for law enforcement, but as a paramilitary security force.
The hope was that one day the Afghans would be able to fight this war on their own. But it was a painfully slow process. I never went anywhere without an interpreter.
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They were invaluable–not just for language but to know who we could trust, the culture, the meaning of a gesture. Men who’d left their families to work for the U.S. military, risking certain death should the Taliban capture them. But inside the base we Americans kept to ourselves.
Barely a month in, we were driving back to the base after inspecting a district police office. Fifteen soldiers in three vehicles.
I watched through a slit in our 30,000-pound, 12-feet-tall mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle (MRAP) as the lead vehicle negotiated a fork in the road. BOOM! It flew through the air like a toy.
We scrambled to set up a perimeter, anchored by our .50-caliber machine gun. Everyone was alive, thankfully. Now we had to wait for the 101st Airborne and a wrecker. I watched for any movement in the distance, a head peeking from behind the ridgeline, sunlight glinting off the scope of a rifle, any–
BOOM! A rocket-propelled grenade. Behind us. Knocked us all to the ground. Machine-gun fire rained down. We scrambled behind one of the MRAP’s massive tires.
We returned fire, but it was like we were shooting at phantoms, the air thick with smoke and dirt kicked up by the shelling. A mortar exploded about 50 feet in front of me, leveling me.
I crawled to a ditch, firing my grenade launcher at a grove of trees to the west. The onslaught continued for more than an hour. It was terrifying. No way to tell who was alive and who was dead. My ears filled with the sounds of screaming, the ground erupting around me.
Matt Zeller is the founder of No One Left Behind, a community organization dedicated to ensuring that the United States keeps its promise to care for those who jeopardize their safety for our country.