Our Returning Troops: Rescuing His Brother in Arms

Our Returning Troops: Rescuing His Brother in Arms

Matt Zeller's Afghani interpreter, Janis, saved his life. Now it was his turn to return the favor.

Guideposts: Matt Zeller with his friend and interpreter, Janis

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.

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.

I was out of grenades. Down to my last 90 bullets. Through the haze I could see our attackers, scores of them, moving in for the kill.

I’m yours, Lord, I prayed. Comfort my family . Then out of nowhere, a truck. Thunderous, syncopated reports. A grenade machine gun. There was a heavy thump next to me, a body hitting the ground. The unmistakable sound of a Russian AK-47 firing next to my head.

I glanced to my right. An Afghani man I’d never seen before. Just a few yards behind me, two Taliban lay sprawled in the dirt, dead.

“Who are you?” I screamed.

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“I’m Janis,” he said. “An interpreter.”

Later I learned that a makeshift squadron of American soldiers from our outpost and a few of our interpreters, realizing from the radio traffic that air support wasn’t coming soon enough, had driven the half hour from base to rescue us.

They brought an MK19 grenade launcher, which can fire 60 rounds per minute and blow away light armored vehicles. That had turned the tide. Not a single soldier in my unit died. But all I could think about was the shots Janis had fired. The ones that had saved my life.

That night, back at the base, I sought him out, insisting we eat together. “Why are you doing this?” I asked.

“You are a guest in my country,” he said. “I will do my best to take care of you.”

“No, I mean why aren’t you shooting at us? Why aren’t you with the Taliban?”

“My mother would kill me if I joined the Taliban,” he said. “My mother can read. She’s educated. She would never let me side with these men who treat women like slaves. Or worse.”

My mother was a college professor back in New York. I thought about how she’d read books to my brother and me when we were young. How important it was to her that we got the best education possible. The conversations we’d had over dinner. Ideas, food and family, things my mother had taught me to cherish.

About Matt Zeller

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.

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