My Afghan Interpreter Earned His US Citizenship. Then He Left.

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Afghan children Musa Qa’leh District, Afghanistan
Lance Cpl. Jeremy Correa, infantryman, Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, interacts with Afghan children while on a patrol through Musa Qa’leh District, Afghanistan, in 2012. Correa, from Elk Grove, Calif., was part of a patrol to disrupt insurgent supply lines and gain intelligence from locals. (Kenneth Jasik/U.S. Marine Corps)

We stood beneath the “Kiss Cam” in Times Square and jumped up and down until the heart zoomed in on us. The cause for celebration? The Afghan interpreter, nicknamed “HB,” who served alongside my squad of Marines, had finally immigrated to the United States.

“Welcome to America,” I told him. “You deserve to be here.”

We laughed our way past Elmo and Pooh and tucked into a musty Irish pub off Broadway. We joked about the chicken dinners we shared, our austere living conditions, and the ragtag band of Afghan National Police who were assigned to our remote outpost in Helmand Province. We reflected on our endless foot patrols and his Marine-like taste for expletives, explosions, and dead Taliban.

Marines with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit arrive in southern Afghanistan in 2008
Marines with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit arrive in southern Afghanistan in 2008. The 24th MEU deployed 2,400 service members under NATO’s International Security Assistance Force command to help Afghanistan National Security Forces in providing a safe and secure environment for the Afghan people. (Robert Piper/U.S. Marine Corps)

“When the Marines left, the Taliban destroyed the school we started,” he told me. It was something I knew was inevitable when we first repurposed a vinyl tent to open the classroom near our patrol base in 2010. For months, my Marines and I watched as HB volunteered to help a local villager teach dozens of students basic Pashto. Each day, he’d remove his body armor and teach the children how to write their names and read the Quran. Little boys and girls. In a country at war. Captivated by the hope of an education.

For the six months we worked together, HB did much more than inspire young children in his war-torn homeland. He went on every patrol with us. He helped carry gear and water. He stood watch and helped cook. He came to our aid the day four of us were wounded. We trusted each other. For all intents and purposes, HB earned the title of “U.S. Marine.”

During our meals together, HB often shared his dreams of immigrating to America with his wife. His curiosity fascinated me. He asked each of us about our hometowns and family members. What to expect if he ever arrived? Would he like the food? What was the weather like? Would he be accepted? Would his family be allowed to immigrate with him? While we didn’t have the answers to all of his questions, HB earned our love. At the end of our deployment, our entire 14-Marine squad wrote letters of recommendation to support HB’s visa application.

Over the next three years, I stayed in touch with HB over social media, but hugging him in Times Square felt surreal. His hair was shorter, mine longer. I had gained weight. He hadn’t. But the biggest difference was that we were both smiling more than we had during our time together in Afghanistan. His pursuit of the American dream had been realized, and I was elated to hear that he was on track for citizenship.

As time went on, HB and I settled into our daily routines and our conversations became less frequent. He was working at a food packaging plant and I was embracing entrepreneurship. But one summer, he called me on Facetime as he sped down the highway in the passenger seat of a sedan.

“I’m an American,” HB screamed, a smile stretching across his face because he was now a U.S. citizen. Just like we’d talked about in Times Square and Helmand province, HB was one step closer to his family living in the United States.

Afghan-American interpreter men’s detention facility in Lashkar Gah
Atiqualla Rahin, an Afghan-American interpreter, U.S. Marine Chief Warrant Officer Bruce Johnson, and an Afghan contractor walk around the grounds of a new building site for a men’s detention facility in Lashkar Gah in 2010. (Jennifer Franco/U.S. Navy)

In the fall of 2020, HB told me he had moved back to Afghanistan. His wife’s visa application had been denied because they had not lived together recently enough. Rather than abandon her, he left his home and job in Virginia and returned to Afghanistan to await her visa approval.

Now, one year later, as the United States withdraws and the Taliban reclaims Afghanistan, an interpreter-turned-U.S.-citizen refuses to be evacuated unless he can bring his wife. It’s an honorable decision—one fitting with his character and emblematic of the selflessness that earned our trust as Marines and our endorsements for his citizenship.

As I watch the headlines and witness Afghanistan fall to the Taliban, the feelings are reminiscent of when I watched the Islamic State group reclaim Fallujah, Iraq, a city I once fought in. Only this time, I don’t know where to focus my anger. On the elected officials to whom HB pleaded for help from as a resident of Virginia? On the embassy officials, who tell HB to wait in line? Or on the enemy I can no longer fight? The enemy that will rape and enslave HB’s wife, and torture HB because he is American.

As I write this, I do so with a pounding migraine—a recurring reminder of the day I was wounded, the day HB ran to my aid. But now, as I sit thousands of miles away from where we served together, I feel like I’m trapped inside the wire listening to my squad engaged in a firefight. I’m helpless to run to HB’s side, to do what he did for me.

“I will take the risk till I can bring my wife to America,” he told me as the Taliban began to infiltrate cities in Afghanistan. “It’s taking time we don’t have.”

This article first appeared on The War Horse, an award-winning nonprofit news organization educating the public on military service. Subscribe to their newsletter.

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