An Afghan interpreter who became an American soldier has one final mission: Saving his family
“If the Taliban can’t find a guy who worked with U.S. forces, they will find his family and kill them. They’re in just as much danger as I am.”
Said Noor was hunting birds with a slingshot when he saw a man with long hair holding a grenade behind a tree near his home in Khost, Afghanistan. Though neither of them knew it at the time, the man would try to kill the 13-year-old boy just hours later.
As his feet kicked up dust toward Forward Operating Base Salerno, a U.S. military base only a couple miles north of his hometown, Noor wondered why he was going to the Americans about this.
He was sick of the Taliban dragging his mother out of the house in the dead of night to beat her for money, ripping clumps of her hair out, bloody follicles attached to the end of them. Noor and his eight siblings — two sisters and six brothers — could only watch helplessly.
And a few weeks before, Noor shook an American soldier’s hand. It didn’t smell bad like the Taliban told him it would. But they instructed him to wash his hands seven or eight times lest he be unholy from their infidel stink. He didn’t and prayed just fine. He was lied to.
These thoughts and their associated anger welled up in him as he reached the barrier a little ways off from the base. He told the Americans about the man with the grenade.
They accompanied him to his home in Khost to help rid the pest from his family’s tree like the birds he was hunting. As a teenager, Noor was about to be shot at with Americans by his side for the first time. It certainly would not be the last.
Nearly two decades after he first helped American forces in his homeland, Noor now has a U.S. Army Combat Action Badge, but it’s somewhere stowed away at his apartment in Houston, Texas. It serves no use to him in Kabul, Afghanistan where — as a U.S. citizen and U.S. Army veteran — the 31-year-old is desperately trying to get his family on a plane before U.S troops completely withdraw from the country.
“There’s a saying in Afghanistan,” said Noor, who allowed his real name to be used for this article despite fears for his safety. “If you get washed away by the flood, you will try to hold on to everything you can to get out of the water. That’s the situation I’m in and things are getting worse here. My family’s getting washed over by the flood.”
Around the same time that President Joe Biden ordered expedited evacuation flights for Afghan interpreters and other pro-U.S. locals eligible for a special immigration visa, Noor’s family had just reached Kabul after traveling five hours through Taliban contested territory in a taxi and a truck, the bed of the latter full of his family’s belongings. They negotiated several Taliban-operated checkpoints on the route.
“I told them to say that my mom was sick and needed to get to the hospital in Kabul. When they saw how many women were in the truck, they just let them through,” Noor said.
The trek illustrates a physical gap in the U.S.’s plan to relocate an estimated 18,000 Special Immigration Visa-eligible Afghans to Kabul and on a flight out of the country.
Even if the pipelines for Afghan’s and their families open up, asylum-seekers would have to travel hundreds of miles through Taliban-infested territory to benefit from it. With an estimated 650 U.S. troops left in the country, the idea of an escort seems unlikely to Noor.
As he waited for his family, Noor paced around his room in Kabul, unable to reach them and therefore unable to know if they were stopped by the many Taliban forces germinating across Afghanistan.
He’s glad his family is in Kabul now. But he doesn’t feel safe and he’s not confident he’ll be able to get them a flight before September. He wasn’t even confident he could get them the five hours from Khost.
Noor was frustrated and scared, maybe the most he’s ever been in his life despite having a Taliban target on his back for 20 years; his tenure as a U.S. ally and soldier is about as long as the war itself.
“I would just want them [U.S. officials] to put themselves in the interpreter’s shoes for a minute. Now imagine if they were in their shoes, being targeted by the Taliban all the time. The interpreters were the ears and eyes of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. I would just ask them to think, for just about a minute, just them being an interpreter living in Afghanistan, how much they would worry about themselves and their families.”
With U.S. Central Command now reporting a 95 percent drawdown and relocation destinations still unclear, Noor is wrestling with himself. Right now, there are two Said Noors — a U.S. Army veteran and a man trying to rescue his family from bureaucracy and the Taliban.
The boy who watched ‘Rambo’
Five years after Noor and the U.S. troops dodged the grenade thrown by the man with long hair, the 18-year-old asked the soldiers at Forward Operating Base Salerno if he could interpret for them. He had finally become old enough for an official interpreter ID card and they told him his English was better. Noor had been practicing. Since he was a kid, he had repeatedly watched the 1998 action flick “Rambo III” — often at night with the windows shaded and the volume low. The Taliban had banned televisions in Khost, according to Noor, but he and his family were fascinated with the movie starring Sylvester Stallone. Part of it was even set in Khost.
Noor absorbed the language despite Stalone speaking very few lines in the movie. “I learned, ‘good morning,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘where are the Russians,” he said.
While Noor learned English, his mother learned about Americans. Or what she thought Americans were like. In 2002, when the Americans arrived in Khost with weapons that looked like those carried by the character of John Rambo, she thought they would all be slaughtered.
His mother’s fears culminated after Noor’s younger brother accidentally spilled hot tea on his infant sister causing severe burns. The Khost doctors had told his mother to cover the baby with toothpaste to cure her wounds. When that didn’t work, Noor brought the mint-smelling baby to the Americans up the road despite his mother’s protests.
“My mom said, ‘oh they’re going to keep her and do this and that.’ She still had misconceptions about U.S. forces,” Noor said. “But I took my sister there. And I showed her to them, the guy called the medic…and after that she was good to go.”
Noor’s mother became less skeptical as he made trips back and forth with his sister for aftercare. The infant got better and Noor got noticed by soldiers on these trips. His English was good even if he sounded a little like Sylvester Stallone.
Noor took Taliban contact once again when he went outside the wire for the first time with U.S. soldiers as their interpreter. He was wearing a face-mask and the soldiers around him called him “Gizmo” to protect his identity. When the Taliban started shooting, he didn’t know what to do. Dust was everywhere and the soldiers around him were screaming “Gizmo, get down!”
He translated for U.S. forces for the next seven years.
But Noor wanted to fight the Taliban with his face unsheathed and his own name bared against them on a U.S. uniform. So in 2012, he applied for a special immigration visa through the U.S. State Department in hopes of getting to America and enlisting in the U.S. Army. He said he accrued over 300 letters of recommendation from the soldiers he served with, from private to lieutenant colonel. “Everyone wanted to help me out,” he said.
One letter, from then-Capt. Michael Berenson of the 411th Civil Affairs battalion noted that Noor’s “information often led us to dangerous locations, and he didn’t shy once from accompanying us on any of the over 200 missions we conducted.” Berenson said Noor “was often asked to accompany us to hostile areas in which he had an increased chance of being recognized, thus jeopardizing his safety…In doing so, it separates him further from his friends and family out of the risk he brings in associating with them. Mr. [Noor] has taken great pains to support the United States at great cost to his personal life and his personal relationships.”
Other letters continued to tout the sacrifice of Noor and his family to help the Americans. Even then, it still took two years for his visa to get approved — on par with the average SIV processing time of 658 days.
“I was around the military the whole time,” Noor said. “I always wanted to be a soldier. I wanted to see how it feels. The United States did so much for me, they took me out of the danger and I wanted to at least pay them back.”
“I still have that internal feeling that I want to pay back the United States,” he continued.
When he got to the United States in 2015, Noor applied for enlistment into the U.S. Army. His background clearance took over a year despite working with U.S. forces for almost a decade. But Noor wasn’t a citizen and had already become used to the paperwork wait.
In fact, he’s become a victim of it.
“When something would happen quicker than that,” he said. “I was always shocked, right?”
An Afghan-American soldier
Noor finally enlisted in 2016 as a 09L, or Interpreter-Translator. He came into the Army at the rank of Specialist, one of the perks of knowing the Pashto language spoken by almost 50 percent of Afghans.
After his initial training, he was sent to Fort Polk, Louisiana where he served with the 52nd Translator/Interpreter Company, 3rd Battalion, 353rd Infantry Regiment.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’m not gonna have any job,” said Noor, who was worried he wouldn’t be translating for anyone. There were not many Afghans in Louisiana, not that he knew of anyway. “I just don’t want to be that guy, just like wandering around not doing anything.”
But he was pleased to know he did have a job: Fort Polk is a combat training center where units all across the country come and learn how to fight in simulated combat conditions. He would teach rotating units the Afghan language and culture.
That spring, however, Noor deployed to Afghanistan with the 1st Security Forces Assistance Brigade out of Fort Benning, Georgia in support of Operation Resolute Support, the NATO-led effort to train and advise Afghan security forces against entities like the Taliban.
He was based out of FOB Chapman, only a couple miles away from his hometown of Khost.
For nine months, Noor flew around southeastern Afghanistan, over 11 different provinces, translating for high-ranking officials. In March, he helped translate in Kabul for Gen. John W. Nicholson, the penultimate commander for Operation Resolute Support. He even received a challenge coin from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she visited Kabul in 2018 for briefings on the progress of the support effort.
He also translated for Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the last American commander of forces in Afghanistan, during the country’s tumultuous 2018 elections. Miller returned to the United States this month, about two weeks after Noor landed in Kabul.
Then in August 2018, Noor was assigned as an interpreter for then-Col. Scott Jackson, the 1st SFAB commander. They had gotten word that the Taliban had launched an attack on the city of Ghazni in southeastern Afghanistan. The assault would become known as the Ghazni Offensive and would claim the lives of over 200 Afghan National Army officers and soldiers. It came at the end of a cease-fire between the ANA and Taliban, where, according to Noor, the Taliban had taken advantage of the quiet and stored weapons in the city in preparation for the assault.
Noor arrived in Ghazni by helicopter with Col. Jackson in the midst of the fighting. A rocket landed about 15 meters outside of the house he was translating from, spraying glass all over his face and arms.
The target on Noor’s back was larger than when he was a local interpreter. At the tail end of his deployment, Noor brought his translating skills back to Khost, but he decided not to visit his family. His leadership told him they could come to the FOB if he wanted them to, but it was too risky.
“In Afghanistan, if one family member worked for the U.S. like I worked for the United States Army as an interpreter,” he said, “the Taliban would come after your entire family. They don’t care.”
“So I appreciate my family for putting their lives in danger, but I didn’t want to put them at more risk.”
Noor would see Afghan officers he had known when he was a kid sometimes at the base. Lieutenants were now battalion commanders, and captains were serving at the brigade level.
“They were shocked,” he said. “They were like, ‘I remember you, you were really skinny. And you’re now big!”
And Noor said other Afghans noticed him regularly on patrol: “I feel it in my blood. It was a proud moment. The Afghan people and government officials would see me and feel proud to know that I went to the United States and did the training and came back as a soldier.”
When Noor returned to Louisiana it was six days before Thanksgiving. Everyone he deployed with was home, embracing the loved ones they had missed. He had just left his home and didn’t even get to see his family.
The decision to leave the Army was clear to him.
“While in the military you can’t go to certain countries to visit because of the risk against service members, so Afghanistan was one of those countries on the list to not visit while in service. I pretty much had no choice, my only choice was to stay in the military and never visit your family or get out to visit your family and help them out.”
‘I knew I was the target’
After Noor was honorably discharged from the Army in 2020, he moved to Houston and started going to college on the G.I. Bill. The first time Noor tried to get his family out of Afghanistan after his service was in September of that year. He was a U.S. citizen and the Taliban attempted to assassinate him. It was the first time he had seen his family in four years since joining the military and what was supposed to be a joyful reunion ended in death and shattered glass.
An insurgent placed an improvised explosive device on a motorcycle in front of his family’s home. When he stepped outside, the IED detonated. His family’s blue-tinted windows exploded into the house and the tan front door with a porcelain sunflower on it blew open violently.
“I was not too close to the explosion, probably 10 meters away from it,” he said. “I sustained minor injuries in that explosion. It destroyed my house, the windows and doors and walls. When I was hit, I felt like it was the last day of my life, I couldn’t feel anything. It was the worst day of my life too. I still have the sound of the explosion in my head.”
Noor was only two months and two days out of the military before he had debris in his leg and chest. Most veterans would still be on terminal leave.
“My first thought was that I knew I was the target,” he said. His family drove him to the hospital in Khost where he was treated and returned to the U.S.
Five people died, and ten others — including himself — were injured, according to Noor. All were friends and family. When local reporters rushed to the scene, they saw musicians all around and incorrectly assumed that Noor and his family were celebrating a wedding. They were celebrating Noor’s return. He knew the musicians and the Taliban were there for him.
When President Biden announced the drawdown from Afghanistan in April, Noor’s urgency only increased. He had seen firsthand attempted withdrawals before, but this one felt different. His family had been trying to get visas for almost three years. And the Taliban were gaining ground: in April almost 50 percent of Afghanistan was reclaimed by the terrorist group, “their planned offensive was formulated well in advance, the Taliban waited for the United States to announce its withdrawal…before executing their campaign to regain control of the country…” according to a report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Perhaps worst of all, there was a date on the wall and the clock was ticking. Noor believed he had to go back.
What it’s like living in Kabul
Now in Kabul, Noor knows he could not return to Khost again, probably ever. He sits on a porch and occasionally looks left and right across the ledges adjacent to him. He lives in a house with his family; they pay the neighbors to bring them food sometimes because they’re afraid to go out.
“I am in danger here in Kabul, too,” he said. “I am stuck at home the whole time like a prisoner and can’t go out to the city.”
Noor’s younger brother sometimes goes to the grocer himself and Noor worries. He chats with his family most of the day, but when the nervous energy builds too much, he takes some sleeping pills he got from the Department of Veterans Affairs and naps, sometimes at odd hours.
Eid al-Adha starts at the end of July and his family bought a sheep to slaughter in celebration. Noor says he won’t join them for fear of shifting the Taliban target onto them again. He says everyone is worried.
Most U.S. officials are behind the cause, even garnering bipartisan support. Last week, leaders in the Senate Intelligence Committee urged President Biden to move quickly to help pro-U.S. Afghans escape from the country.
“Currently the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program offers one avenue for our Afghan allies, but its timeline – a years-long process with thousands in the pipeline – does not align with the pace of withdrawal and the rapid deterioration in security,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote in a letter to Biden.
“Abandoning these individuals,” the letter continued. “…would also be a stain on our national conscience.”
The Biden Administration is working with other countries to fly Afghans out of Kabul and into nations like Uzbekistan. The Defense Department recently opened Fort Lee, an Army base in Virginia, to 2,500 Afghan nationals, and are looking at opening more bases.
In June, the first of a series of bills worked its way through Congress, the aim to shorten the process for eligible Afghans. This one nixed the medical examination required to be taken in Afghanistan before qualifying for a flight.
On Thursday, the House passed legislation authorizing an additional 8,000 SIVs into the U.S.
Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, the Democratic congresswoman who represents Noor’s district in Houston did not return a request for comment. Since 2017, the South Texas Office of Refugees (STOR) estimates that over 1,000 SIV beneficiaries have settled in Houston, though Cress Clippard, community group leader of the SIVs and Allies Group, estimates that the number is closer to 2,000 with an average of 300 Afghans resettling in the city every year.
Although the effort is named “Operation Allies Refuge,” hardly any of it applies to Noor.
Noor is already a beneficiary of the SIV program, but those benefits currently only apply to children under 21 or a spouse — not his mother or the rest of his family, according to the State Department website. Yet, he feels that as a former soldier and interpreter, they incurred just as much risk as him.
“If the Taliban can’t find a guy who worked with U.S. forces, they will find his family and kill them,” he said. “They’re in just as much danger as I am.”
The bill passed by the House on Thursday aims to ease some of those issues, but even if made into law in the next two weeks, it is unclear if Afghans who are already SIV beneficiaries like Noor will be grandfathered in or how long it will take to unwind the threads of bureaucracy that have entangled this issue. In addition, it does not address how Afghans can get to Kabul’s airport from places as far south as Kandahar, the equivalent of driving from Washington D.C. to Connecticut, the latter, of course, with fewer Taliban checkpoints.
Three years ago, Noor attempted to get them to the U.S. with a normal visa through the National Visa Center. That program offers special exceptions like urgent medical treatment and occupations that would benefit the U.S. like engineers or doctors, according to Noor and the automated response he received from the NVC in August.
But Noor’s mom — who had COVID-19 last year and has other medical problems — never got appropriate medical documentation from the doctors in Khost — the same ones who prescribed toothpaste for her burned baby. There was no proof, really. And as a retired truck driver, Noor’s dad did not qualify either.
He and his family get replies to their constant emails saying their documents have been received and that NVC will work with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Noor says he hasn’t received help from either. The auto-reply he got in June even has a disclaimer, one that Noor prudently ignored:
“Please do NOT make any travel arrangements, sell property, or give up employment until you have received an immigrant visa from the U.S. Embassy/Consulate General.”
The bottom of the message instructs him not to respond. It’s automated. But it provides a link back to the NVC website, completing the paperwork circuit into a tidy, non-human, circle.
“It seems like nobody really cares there … it’s a one-way conversation, there’s no way you can reach them,” he said. “It’s just really hard to find someone to talk to.”
Between chatting and sleeping, Noor spends a lot of time thinking and daydreaming. It’s the only way to quell the jittery synapses in his mind from pinging off thoughts of the Taliban or harm to his family, he says. It’s the only branch he can grab on to in the flood. He thinks about the day when his family’s visa gets approved. Someone important has heard his story and calls him and says let’s get your folks on a plane immediately. The risk of telling his story was worth it. He thinks about the taxi ride to the airport, eyes shifting worriedly out the window for hopefully the last time as he says goodbye to Afghanistan. His mom is in the seat next to him and he grips her hand excitedly. He desperately wants to be on a plane so he can finally rest his eyes.
“I will move my family to Houston, Texas where there is a larger Afghan community too. I will do everything I can to finish school. My dream is to have my family in the United States and go to sleep one night without being worried and concerned about their situation in Afghanistan.”
Noor still remembers sitting in front of the TV with his windows shaded as a boy in Khost. It is late. He stares at one of the only things that gives him comfort, even though it is illegal.
In the final battle scene, John Rambo is outmatched by a company of Russian armor and close air support. When the Russians fire a warning shot at their feet, his friend, Col. Sam Troutman, turns to him and says, “what do you say, John?” He pauses and squints across the sand at the Russians.
“Fuck ‘em,” Rambo mumbles out of the corner of his mouth. Shooting ensues, the pair kill and destroy a commendable number of Russians, but are soon overwhelmed. When all hope seems lost, the Mujahideen rebels Rambo befriended earlier show up on horseback and lay waste to the remaining enemies with AK-47s and Molotov cocktails, the battlefield now a dusty plane of orange fire and dead bodies.
A little boy, not much younger than Noor, asks Rambo if he can stay in Afghanistan with him. He pauses, thinking, but only for a moment. “No, I’ve got to go.”
The child looks at Rambo longingly for a few seconds as he drives away. The hero does not look back. The movie ends and Noor turns the television off for the night. He goes to bed and wonders what happened to the little boy in the movie.
Drew F. Lawrence is the operations manager for Military Veterans in Journalism, a non-profit connecting military veterans to newsrooms. He graduated from The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.
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