Friends Old, New, and Soon to Be,
I started writing these notes to you just over a year ago, in May of 2021. They’ve since become a pleasure I look forward to each month. Even more pleasant are the notes some of you have penned in return. When originally approached, I anticipated a year of fishing, hunting, and writing. That’s certainly been the case, though less than I imagined.
The first hint that things might take a different turn came exactly one year ago as I write this, when the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan turned a planned three days of fly fishing on the Tuckaseegee River into two weeks of trying to evacuate desperate people from a country in chaos. Frankly, coming immediately on the heels of three decades spent in the crisis profession, it was one of the most simultaneously rewarding and soul crushing experiences of my life. Partially thanks to relationships I made in the process, it continues, though much more slowly.
I found myself trying to coordinate the movement of an Afghan family through Taliban checkpoints into the hands of Marines at Hamid Karzai International Airport. That same night, I met Major Thomas Schueman. Tom had been fighting since 2016, virtually alone, to help Zainullah “Zak” Zaki and his family immigrate to America under the Special Immigrant Visa program authorized by the U.S. Congress.
The SIV was designed to offer a means for Afghan and Iraqi citizens who worked directly for the American missions in those countries to come to America on expedited visas. In Zak’s case, that mission was months of the single most violent combat deployment of the Afghan war. 3rd Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment fought the Taliban so hard that the insurgents begged for a ceasefire. Along the way, they lost more Marines, killed or wounded, than any U.S. unit in the twenty-year war.
Having recently retired from the Corps to write, and having spent more than a year of my life in Afghanistan, Tom and Zak asked me to assist with telling their story. As Tom said at the time, “I won’t have to explain what a firefight is like to you.” The book we wrote together, Always Faithful: A Story of the War in Afghanistan, the Fall of Kabul, and the Unshakable Bond Between a Marine and an Interpreter, is now available from William Morris/Harper Collins. Meanwhile, Hollywood is looking for a director capable of bringing to life the script penned by the Oscar winning writer behind the World War Two classic, “Saving Private Ryan”. It’s both an exciting and challenging time for the two men.
It took the better part of six months for Zak to get to San Antonio, Texas where he now lives with his wife and five children (including a son who arrived last week). They are happy there, says Zak. “We all like San Antonio because we have our relatives here, our cousins and many other Afghan people. We go to each other’s house and we just really like this beautiful place. We are growing normally and enjoying it.” Tom, his wife, and their three children have covered a lot of ground too this year, moving from an assignment in Rhode Island back to Third Battalion, Fifth Marines at Camp Pendleton, California, where Tom serves as the battalion Operations Officer and is preparing to deploy once again. Along the way, they’ve learned a lot. On the one-year anniversary of Zak’s escape from his homeland, I sat down with Tom and Zak to talk about the last year.
Tom says he’s learned three things, “Sometimes, your friends and the relationships you build deliver when the system won’t, that Afghan hospitality is second to none, and when you’re a dad, you have to do what’s best for your family, no matter what, even when it’s not convenient.” That last is particularly true for Zak.
If I tell you Zak is a college graduate, an author, and the subject of a potential Hollywood blockbuster, you probably don’t imagine him driving a used mini-van held together with duct tape and prayers. You don’t envision a one bed-room apartment he and his six family members share. Working a construction demolition job, sometimes as many as six days a week, isn’t the immediate mental response. But Zak does not complain, he just puts his head down and works. That’s what fathers and mothers do.
In fact, asked about any help he needs, Zak says, “It is all about our life. My wife, my kids, my life. This is the only help we want from the US government and the American people. Just help us and keep us here so we can be safe and give us a legal way to stay here in the US. That’s the only help I need. Just keep us here.”
Tom is a bit more specific on Zak’s behalf, “The current pressing effort is replacing Zak’s mini-van. Zak wants a Toyota Sienna, but while Afghans will take a loan, they are culturally opposed to interest, so we have to pay cash, which is a challenge. Thereafter, getting into a two- or three-bedroom apartment is a goal. Most important is securing the visa. It’s a simple matter of keeping a promise made by the United States government.”
Of that promise, Zak notes, “It’s been six years since we started applying for the SIV. It was denied on March 23, 2021. I applied again, but I still have had no response and I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.” Tom and Zak have appealed the denial, which came for a bureaucratic formality, not a failure by Zak to fulfill his part of the bargain. If the appeal fails, an immigration attorney is preparing an asylum claim. Failure of that would likely mean deportation back to Afghanistan where Zak expects he would meet the death he cheated repeatedly in combat.
That reality is what leads Tom to answer a question about how Americans can help with a much broader answer than the question intended, “How can Americans help? One, be advocates of peace, so we don’t end up in wars where our allies have to take significant amounts of risk. Two, Americans can advocate for the Afghan people who are here as well as the 87,000 Afghan partners left behind a year ago. There is still plenty of advocacy to do through congress.” Tom offers his email address for anyone who thinks they can help.
Tom is a formidable advocate himself. In addition to the campaign Tom waged a year ago to get Zak and his family out of Afghanistan, in the last week he and Zak appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, NPR’s “On Point”, and countless regional and local television and radio programs as a means of making Zak’s case more visible. Zak says it is all a bit head spinning, “It is very exciting, but it was such a quick change in our lives. In two weeks, we left our village and province and went to Kabul and then left our country and went to the United States. Now we went to different TV stations and being on the radio? It’s like a dream I am seeing. Everything has changed.”
In addition to the advocacy he and Zak are doing, Tom founded a 501c(3) organization to arrest the epidemic of veteran suicide. The organization, called Patrol Base Abbate (in honor of fallen Marine hero Sergeant Matt Abbate, a member of Third Battalion, Fifth Marines who fought alongside Tom and Zak), is a “Veteran’s service organization and non-profit designed to help build connection and community in honor of the legacy of Sgt Matt Abbate. We offer a “Return to Base” program that brings people out to our headquarters in Montana where they participate in our three pillars: service, nature, and fireside chats. We also have local chapters built on the same pillars. Once a quarter we get outside for a service project and social event to build community and connection at the local level.” It’s proven to be a powerful model that has grown by leaps and bounds.
Hopefully, the book will also raise the organizational profile even further. Tom says of the book’s success so far, “We’ll just wait and see, I am just happy to receive a lot of messages saying it meant a lot to people and they really enjoyed it. It depends on how you define success. If it meant something to somebody, it’s successful. Commercial success? We’ll see.”
I am a man of place, particularly the southeastern US. I’ve written to you many times of my love affair with flooded forests in the Arkansas Delta, Spanish moss dripping from Georgia live oaks, the Appalachian Mountain chain in western North Carolina, and miles of low country marsh teeming with life. I think of that love when I ask Zak what he most misses about Afghanistan and he gives me an answer that could have come directly from my own heart, “I miss the nature of home. It’s the place where I was born and grew up. It’s my homeland. It’s where my friends and family and past life were. It’s impossible to forget your home, your past life, your village. I really miss it.” Still, when asked where he hopes to be in five years, Zak says without hesitation, “I hope for the rest of my life to stay with my wife and kids and spend our lives in peace here in the United States.” Me too, my friend. Me too.
Russell Worth Parker
Editor at Large, Tom Beckbe