OKLAHOMA CITY — Two Oklahomans who fought in Afghanistan say their optimism is fading after nearly a week of unsuccessful attempts to rescue the stranded family of a wartime interpreter who put his life on the line to keep one of them safe.
After learning that the family home of the Afghan interpreter had been “marked” by the Taliban, Justin Chizmar and state Rep. Josh West have been trying to extract the family of the interpreter nicknamed Sam.
As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Chizmar, of Grove, said he reached out to two wartime interpreters he’d kept in contact with following his tour in 2011-12.
Sam responded Friday night that he was safe, living on the East Coast, but his family faced a dire situation in Afghanistan.
Chizmar said he and Sam bonded during missions, as bullets whizzed by their heads, bombs and IEDs exploded nearby and rockets were fired at them. Sam, Chizmar said, stood by him every day, on every mission.
“He knew that it was a perilous job,” Chizmar said. “And he did it. And we promised them that we were going to be there for them and their families.”
He said Afghan families like Sam’s were targeted the entire time for serving as interpreters for the U.S. military.
“They live on the hope of getting to come to the United States one day and live in a free country,” Chizmar said. “And we promised that protection to them, and then we just abandoned them.”
CNHI Oklahoma agreed not to identify Sam by his full name because of fears it would worsen the situation for his family if he’s identified as an American sympathizer. Sam said when he signed up to work as a translator for the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines that U.S. officials told him he and his family would have support and safety. When he worked for them, American forces also collected information about all of his family members.
But when he applied for a visa to leave Afghanistan, American officials told him that his mother, father and siblings were not classified as family. Now with the fall of Afghanistan, Sam said his family is in hiding as the Taliban continues to search for people who worked with the U.S. government, Afghan National Security Forces and journalists.
“As somebody who put them in this situation and cannot do anything about it, it is making me feel very bad and making me feel sorry,” he said. “Because when I’m talking to my sister and my mom, especially these two, they are terrified. They don’t know what to do. They’re just asking me if I’m able to do anything for them.”
He’s especially concerned for his 18-year-old sister, saying that if the Taliban captures her she’ll be forced to marry a Taliban soldier.
The family lived in a small Afghan village where neighbors knew they were American sympathizers. They also know that Sam worked with the U.S. government and has lived in America since 2015.
“They might come (for) them, and who knows what they’re going to do,” Sam said.
With President Joe Biden pledging the United States will finish evacuations by Aug. 31, Sam said there’s just days remaining to get his family to safety.
Sam said some of his family still don’t have a passport or identification, nobody has been issued the necessary visas and the airports are closed. The American government is the only one left who can help, Sam said.
He said other Afghan interpreters are facing a similar situation, and are trying to find a way to get their loved ones to safety.
Bolstered by the conviction that America needs to do more to help families like Sam’s, Chizmar reached out to West, a fellow Grove resident who is a state representative. West, who served in Afghanistan in 2002, immediately started making calls to contractors he knew, the state’s federal delegation and even Oklahoma’s governor. By Saturday morning, they’d submitted the paperwork necessary to help Sam’s family apply for visas.
“We’re kind of at a standstill now,” he said, noting the State Department and Department of Defense are backed up with applications that are flooding in from other U.S. servicemen trying to help their interpreters.
West said evacuation efforts are complicated in part by rhetoric that the country is letting “a bunch of unvetted” people enter.
“That’s wrong,” he said. “These are people that are highly vetted and have been dedicated — some of them for 20 years — to U.S. forces and coalition forces,” he said.
But even if they do get visas to leave, Sam’s family still would need to risk their lives to get through Taliban checkpoints to Kabul, West said.
He said everybody expected that Afghanistan would fall at some point, but said no one anticipated it would happen so quickly. West said he doesn’t have an issue with having an exit plan, but said it was done backward. He said the country pulled out its troops, leaving thousands of U.S. citizens and allies over there.
“They pulled out all the military, all the security and left a bunch of civilians and people that were allies like our interpreters and intel people (that) we kind of promised that (if) you’re loyal to us, you’re dedicated, you help us out, we’re going to help you,” West said. “And we’ve kind of left them hanging.”
West said with so many U.S. civilians still stranded in Afghanistan ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline, he’s not optimistic that many of the Afghan allies who supported the American soldiers over the past two decades will be able to get out.