‘Now is the time where you bend the rules’ — Inside a US Marine veteran’s fight to get his Afghan interpreter to safety
"Please, don’t leave them behind.”
As the situation in Afghanistan gets more desperate by the hour, one Marine veteran is working tirelessly to get his former interpreter and his family to safety.
For years, Ryan Schalles, 28, has been in contact with Omar, the man who served as an interpreter for his Marine Corps platoon while he was in Afghanistan in 2012. Now Omar — whose real name is being withheld by Task & Purpose to protect him and his family — is stuck in the country like so many other vulnerable Afghans, praying he can find a way out before the last American plane leaves Kabul.
“We’re just trying to get his name on the list to be evacuated,” said Schalles, who currently lives in Lubbock, Texas. “Because once the U.S. leaves — Omar has already told me [the Taliban] are going door to door, searching through people’s apartments, taking down names of people — once the U.S. leaves, it’s going to be a slaughter. They’re going to kill all these people.”
The situation on the ground in Afghanistan is on a rapid decline as vulnerable Afghans and their families scramble to get to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby emphasized this week that the Defense Department is working with the State Department to get Afghans who have helped the U.S. out of the country. But Kirby acknowledged on Wednesday that there were reports that Afghans couldn’t get to the airport because of Taliban interference. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Navy Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, is “in touch with … his Taliban counterpart,” Kirby said, to “try to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”
“We are in communication with the Taliban,” Kirby said. “We want to see this process go more smoothly. We certainly want it to go faster and with more capacity and we’re working on this very, very hard with our colleagues at the State Department.”
Currently in Kabul, Omar said through an email to Task & Purpose that since the Taliban has taken the city, life “is very terrible,” and the city has “gone back to the dark age again.” People are “living in fear and trauma,” he said, adding that he’s not sure how long he’ll be able to stay in Kabul before he feels compelled to hide elsewhere.
“I am counting every minute that they will knock [on] my door and kill me and my family,” he said. “Actually I don’t care about myself … but I have fear that they will kill my wife and two small kids in front of my eyes.”
Schalles, who was a 19-year-old corporal when he arrived at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, described Omar as “a really sweet guy,” who was soft-spoken, funny, dedicated to his Muslim faith, and passionate about bettering Afghanistan.
Omar was 23 when he was hired in October 2011 by Mission Essential Personnel (MEP), a defense contractor that helps provide language experts to the Defense Department. Throughout his employment, he told Task & Purpose he worked with Marines assigned to the Corps’ Force Reconnaissance Company; 1st Reconnaissance Battalion; 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion; 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment; and 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.
He said in an email that he chose to work with the U.S. to both help his family financially — his siblings and parents are still in Afghanistan with him — and to “help my country … reach a permanent peace and stability.”
Recommendation letters from Marines he worked with call him “instrumental,” “exemplary,” and “extremely valuable.” His work ethic “inspired the other linguists around him,” one letter said.
Lt. Col. Lucas Balke, Schalles’ former commander, wrote that Omar “served selflessly” and “put himself at risk during heliborne raids and patrols in Helmand Province,” and that without his service, “we would not have had the same level of mission success.”
“[Omar] served honorably and bravely, shoulder-to-shoulder with my Marines,” Balke said.
“[Omar] has gone above and beyond what was expected of him,” the platoon leader of 1st Reconnaissance Battalion wrote. “He not only accurately translated, but also volunteered to carry mission-specific gear that would reduce the combat load of the men in the platoon. He has served his country well and accepted great risk to fill the needs of his country during this dramatic time of change in Afghanistan.”
But in 2012 he was released by MEP, since the U.S. was drawing down the number of troops in Afghanistan at the time and letting translators go, as Schalles explained. A 2014 memo from the company verifying Omar’s employment history said he was terminated due to “no position available.”
“They didn’t need interpreters anymore,” Schalles said. “He didn’t get fired, he didn’t do anything wrong. He just got released. And that’s what fucked him.”
Before Schalles left the country in 2012, he added Omar as a friend on Facebook. When he returned to the U.S. they stayed in touch, and just months later in 2013, Omar asked Schalles to help him apply for a Special Immigrant Visa.
His application sat in bureaucratic limbo for years. Schalles said he’d forgotten about it by the time they received word that it was rejected on a technicality: He worked with the Marine Corps for 11 months, falling just 32 days short of the 12-month requirement outlined in the Special Immigrant Visa guidelines.
“You do not have the required length of employment by or on behalf of the U.S. government,” reads a letter from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Dec. 12, 2018, which was provided to Task & Purpose, telling Omar to apply for another visa only if he is able to “provide new evidence to overcome the basis for denial explained above.”
But as Schalles put it, Omar served with the Marines in Afghanistan longer than even he did.
“I only served six months in Afghanistan,” he said. “And I’m considered a combat veteran, I have all these benefits from the VA, I get my college paid for, I get the VA home loan. This man spent almost twice the time I did in combat, and he got nothing for it. Nothing.”
Still, the two didn’t stop working to find Omar another way out, and the need to leave Afghanistan grew more dire as Omar started a family. Today, he is married with two small children, a six-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter.
Schalles wrote to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in September 2018 asking for help. In the letter he provided to Task & Purpose, Schalles asks that Cruz consider “helping [Omar] to have the chance to come to the land that he risked his life for.” He didn’t receive a response. Then he and Omar brainstormed other options, like contacting other embassies or by trying to get visas to other countries, without success.
This summer, as the U.S. began withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Omar reached out to Schalles again with another potential escape route for him and his family.
“Bro US Government announced Priority 2 visa for Afghans can you help me out,” Omar messaged Schalles on Facebook on Aug. 2, according to screenshots of the messages.
The Priority 2 (P-2) designation under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program was announced in early August as a way to help permanently resettle former Afghan interpreters who did not qualify for the Special Immigrant Visa because they didn’t have qualifying employment, or because they didn’t meet the time-in-service requirement.
Schalles immediately agreed and asked Omar what he needed. Facebook messages over the next several days show Schalles and Omar going through Omar’s personal details such as his name, his work history with the Marines, and details about his family. While Omar’s messages included the occasional updates about what was happening in his country — ”The situation is very bad here if Taliban capture [sic] Kabul they will kill all interpreters” — he also apologized for putting Schalles “in headache.”
“I am very happy that for the time that I have worked with US I found good friends like you and that is enough for me,” he wrote on Aug. 3.
On Aug. 6, Schalles launched a fundraiser on GoFundMe with the intent to help raise money for plane tickets for Omar and his family to get to Tajikistan. For days the two kept in touch regularly, keeping each other informed about what they were doing and efforts to get Omar out of the country. On Aug. 9, Schalles told Omar the GoFundMe had brought in $6,000 and that he would be trying to send the money that day.
“Thanks a lot bro, thanks for everything,” Omar responded.
The next day, Schalles messaged that he’d sent $3,000 U.S. dollars to the bank Omar told him he could access; he could only send that much at a time, he explained, and he planned to send another $3,000 the next day. He told Omar to buy plane tickets and get visas “as soon as you can.” On Aug. 11, Omar confirmed he’d received the first half of the money. He also told Schalles that he’d been instructed to go to the U.S. embassy that Sunday, Aug. 15, to get visas for his family.
But by Sunday, it was too late.
“Hey man,” Schalles wrote on Saturday night in the U.S. “It’s Sunday right? So you can apply?”
“I have applied bro but all embassies are still closed,” Omar responded.
Schalles asked Omar if he needed more money, to which Omar said what Schalles sent him was enough.
“We were really hopeful,” Schalles said on Tuesday. “We raised the money and we thought we had until the end of this month. I was like man, we’re going to get him out.”
Omar later told Schalles that he never received the second half of the GoFundMe money because the banks were closed.
The messages between the two grew more desperate as Schalles asked Omar if he could get into Pakistan — “Pakistan border is guarded by fence and they are not allowing people to cross and they are shooting on people,” Omar responded. He asked if Omar could drive to Tajikistan, but Omar told him northern Afghanistan was “in control of Taliban.” Schalles told Task & Purpose he was calling everyone he could think of, lawmakers in and out of his home state, embassies from other countries, even the United Nations.
“Man if you have to fly to one of the countries that you don’t need a visa and then I can get you money to fly somewhere else,” Schalles said. “Just get out of Afghanistan.”
Schalles asked Omar what he would do and where he would go if he couldn’t get out. Omar said he would “hide somewhere,” or possibly leave Kabul for the countryside. Schalles gave him his address in Texas to stay in contact however he could. Omar told him he’d be in touch.
The next message came on Sunday morning in the U.S.: “Bro Taliban captured Kabul.”
The two kept working together as Schalles told Omar he was applying for another program to get Omar out. Omar said he went to the airport at four in the morning but it was too crowded and the “Americans were not allowing anyone to come inside.” Later that day, Schalles told Omar he was going to a local news station to do an interview about his situation.
“If you could say anything to America for help. What would you say,” Schalles asked.
“I would say life is terrible for the people that worked with US forces … we have been left behind and that is the prize from US government,” Omar responded.
He messaged later that he was asking U.S. officials to “save us and our [families], please don’t let it happen that Taliban torture us and kill us just because of working for U.S. government.”
On Tuesday, Omar told Schalles he was safe, and that he and his family had been at home for three days “not interacting with anyone.”
Schalles said he understands pulling troops out of Afghanistan, but like so many veterans who served there, he can’t wrap his mind around the situation he’s seeing now. One of the biggest incentives for Afghans to work with the U.S. military was to come to America, he said, and now thousands of people are being left behind to “be persecuted by the Taliban.”
“Right now, the Taliban is seeking approval from the international community so they’re saying yes, we want a more inclusive country, and no, we’re not going to kill people,” Schalles said. “That’s such bullshit. They’re the same Taliban we’ve been fighting for 20 years.”
Recommendation letters that Marines wrote for Omar this month urge the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to save Omar and his family. Lt. Col. Balke said he can “think of no better way for our nation to say thank you than to offer assistance to [Omar] as the Taliban currently hunt for men like him.”
“I am staunchly and unambiguously advocating for he and his family’s immediate relocation to the United States — a country he has never even laid eyes on but has already fearlessly served,” former Marine Corps Sgt. Torry Tiedeman wrote in his recommendation letter.
“He unequivocally has earned the right to a life free of retribution.”
At the end of the day, Schalles said, the Afghans who worked with the U.S. are “human beings” with their “lives on the line.” Sure, Omar and other interpreters like him may not have served a full 12 months with the Marines, but it’s so easy to “just let it go.” The first time Omar applied for a visa, Schalles said, the Taliban “wasn’t knocking at the door, but now is the time where you bend the rules to save people’s lives.”
“People are willing to hold onto an airplane as it takes off because they’re so afraid of staying in Afghanistan,” he said. “That should tell you how bad it is and how fearful people are. Please, don’t leave them behind.”
More great stories on Task & Purpose
- Afghans are literally clinging to the sides of U.S. military aircraft to escape from the Taliban
- The Secretary of State said Afghanistan couldn’t fall from ‘Friday to Monday’, which it did
- The Air Force honored a maintenance captain for cleaning a toilet
- Here’s what will happen to US troops who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine
- Meet ‘Hoot,’ the legendary Delta Force operator of ‘Black Hawk Down’ fame
- It’s official: The Air Force will let airmen put their hands in their pockets while in uniform
Want to write for Task & Purpose? Learn more here and be sure to check out more great stories on our homepage.