How a U.S. Marine and an Afghan interpreter forged a bond of friendship in Afghanistan
Zac Zaki was an interpreter for the United States Marines in Afghanistan. The memories of bloody battle are still with him:
“Sounds like whistling by your ear and the minefield that you’re walking through on it. You lost your friend, your partners,” he says. “You saw the pieces of people’s bodies.”
Tom Schueman was his commander.
“We were headed towards the village and Zac was monitoring the radio. And he could hear what the Taliban were saying and they said, ‘We’re going to start the ambush in just a minute.’ But we were in a minefield,” Schueman says.
Today, On Point: Zac Zaki and Tom Schueman joins us to talk about the friendship they forged in Afghanistan, and what it took to get Zaki out of Kabul.
Zainullah “Zac” Zaki, former interpreter with the Third Battalion, Fifth Marines during the war in Afghanistan. Co-author of Always Faithful: A Story of the War in Afghanistan, the Fall of Kabul, and the Unshakable Bond Between a Marine and an Interpreter. (@ZainullahhZaki)
Major Tom Schueman, active duty Marine. Co-author of Always Faithful: A Story of the War in Afghanistan, the Fall of Kabul, and the Unshakable Bond Between a Marine and an Interpreter. (@t_schue)
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: One year ago today, Kabul fell to the Taliban. It marked the chaotic end to 20 years of war and American occupation of Afghanistan, the longest war the United States has ever fought. Zainullah Zaki. He goes by Zac for short. He and Tom Schueman formed a lasting friendship over 16 months of the deadliest fighting of that entire war.
Zac was an Afghan interpreter for the U.S. military. Tom, a platoon commander with the third Battalion, fifth Marines. Together, they’ve just published a new book. It’s called Always Faithful. And Zac joins us today from San Antonio, Texas. Zainullah Zaki, welcome to On Point.
ZAC ZAKI: Thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: And Major Tom Schueman with us from Chicago, Illinois. Major Schueman, welcome to you.
TOM SCHUEMAN: Thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: Tom, can you first tell us the story of the first time you and Zac actually met each other in Afghanistan?
SCHUEMAN: Sure. It was October, beginning of October 2010. We were headed out on a patrol. Up to that point, I’d had a few other interpreters. Most of them were quitting because of how dangerous it was in Afghanistan at the time. And the only ones who were left usually either didn’t speak English, or didn’t speak the local dialect of Pashto.
So right off the bat I saw Zac. Healthy, young, fit guy who clearly had a solid command of English and knew the local dialect. And so we immediately connected just based on his competency or proficiency at being a translator. That was kind of the initial connection there. I was just happy to have someone who would go out on patrol, could interpret. And I wouldn’t have to worry about him becoming a liability. So that was the initial impression.
CHAKRABARTI: And what were the conditions like in the location you were deployed to at the time? In terms of the intensity of the fighting, or the number of times you needed to be in contact with locals? Tell us a little bit more about what you were experiencing and the kinds of things you were there for. You knew that your interpreter might experience.
SCHUEMAN: Sure. It was the most violent, kinetic, deadly place in the world at that time. Helmand Province, second district, Afghanistan. The IED threat, improvised explosive device, you can think of a mine, was intense. Every time you took a step, you thought maybe this would be the last time I put this foot down. Best case scenario, if I put this foot down, I won’t have a leg. Likely scenario, I won’t be alive. And that’s what we were thinking every time we were patrolling and fighting through minefields with the enemy ambushing us every time we went out.
And so it was extremely violent, extremely kinetic. But we also had a responsibility to provide security for the local people there. And so we would go out and engage with the villagers. I was also working with the Afghan army. So that’s where the interpreter comes in each day, is to help me understand what’s going on in the village. He also helps me to read the human terrain. He helps me understand the cultural nuances.
And so when I’m going into a village, Zac’s able to see things that I wouldn’t see from my perspective, based on his cultural understanding from being from the country. So he’s there to actually literally translate, but also he provided a lot more depth than just simply translating.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Zac, let me ask you, what made you decide to want to become a translator for the United States military?
ZAKI: First when an American landed in Afghanistan in 2001 after 9-11, they come to our province where I’m living. And when they landed there was a FOB next to our house. And they started helping people, and they started making government buildings, the government offices, and start building the schools. And start giving books, notebooks, pens to the children in the streets, on the roads, and they throw it … to the kids, so they can go to school.
That’s why I decided to go to school, and learn English and help our partners. … And that’s why I decided to go to help them, so they can help us better than they can do right now. They needed a language linguist, translator, and that’s why I decided to work side by side with them, and just also for the future of my country.
CHAKRABARTI: Zac, In 2001, late 2001, early 2002, when the United States first went into Afghanistan. How old were you?
ZAKI: I was 11 years old when the American come. And as I said, there was a FOB next to our house. When after school we come from school, we help American. I was a translator. I learned at that time, and I go there and help them out whatever they need. … And whatever they need, they call us and we just provide whatever they need.
We bring it to them. … And after, like in 2010, there was examination for the interpreters to hire some interpreters. … And I went … and just joined that examination and I get passed.
CHAKRABARTI: I see. So you were what, 18, 19 years old at the time?
ZAKI: Yeah, at the time I was 18, almost 18 year old when I took that examination and I get passed and … deployed to Helmand.
CHAKRABARTI: I asked that Zac because many of us here in the United States have sort of lost contact or lost a sense of perspective of how long the U.S. military was involved in Afghanistan. So hearing that you were 11 when the military first arrived and that you were 18, 19 when you took that examination to become a translator, we’re talking about, you know, half your life already. And so then when you were sent to Helmand Province, was Major Schueman the first Marine you worked with?
ZAKI: Yeah. When they sent me there was a big camp, it’s called Leatherneck and they took us there, then another FOB in second district. … And then they said, there is a team … and it doesn’t have an interpreter. At that time, some of the interpreter quit because of the dangerous place, that the place was too dangerous with IED and ambushes. And the interpreter there can not stay to put their life in the risk. So they send me … and I went there and met Tom Schueman.
CHAKRABARTI: So Zac, you know how I asked Major Schueman what he thought of you when he first met you? What did you think of him when you first met?
ZAKI: … When I saw him, he looked very good behavior, and looks very nice person. And I just get happy. So some of the commanders and the platoon commanders, they were very, very like angry people and pissed off all the time. And so when I see him, he was very good, a smile on the face and very nice person. And I like it. That’s why I stay in very danger. And accept everything for my team, for my platoon commander. And I stayed along.
CHAKRABARTI: So you know the reason why I asked you both that same sort of first impression question is that it seems to me, at the bedrock of a successful relationship between any member of the U.S. military and an interpreter, especially in a place like Afghanistan, is trust. Like Major Schueman, you had to be able to trust Zac.
And Zac also had to be able to trust you, especially given the circumstances under which this deployment was taking place. Major Schueman, as you described, I mean, your battalion, if I remember correctly, lost more people than any other during the entire 20 year war.
SCHUEMAN: Correct. It was the bloodiest battle. I would also offer that we killed more Taliban than any other battalion. But you know, when it comes to trust, I think trust is the oxygen for any relationship to grow or prosper. And it becomes particularly important to have that trust when it’s a life or death situation. So, yes, trust is always essential for relationships. It’s particularly important when you’re in combat.
CHAKRABARTI: So can you tell me a little bit more about the kind of situation that you and Zac were in? We’ve just unfortunately got about 30 seconds before the first break, so I’ll let you get started. But I understand that what Zac had been with the first platoon for just four days, there had already been several firefights.
SCHUEMAN: In the first 100 days, we were in 100 firefights. So every single day we went outside, we were fighting.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Well, we’re going to hear more about some specific instances within those first 100 days when we come back.
CHAKRABARTI: Zac, in the book, there’s a story about one of your first encounters with danger, as you’re sort of out in the field with the platoon. When I believe there’s a firefight of some kind going on and everyone dropped to the ground except you. You had stood there. You were frozen momentarily. Can you tell us that story.
ZAKI: Before this job, I’d been with one of the construction companies in my province, and they were in a very dangerous place … in Kunar province. And the Taliban come very close. … And, by the way, the Afghan National Army … we were very familiar with the gunshots, fire and bombs.
And these things, RPGs. So when I get there, when I get to the Helmand and join … somebody attacked us from a distance. Our team, all the members just lay down on the ground, and I was looking for the person who did it. … Just looking for the enemy to show to my team and just target him.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, what did you learn in that moment then?
ZAKI: When it happened, our team doctor, the medic, he just grabbed me and in my body armor from the back and said, Lay down, man, you’re going [to die]. And then I learned, when after we get ambushed … I learned to keep myself there.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, Major Schueman, there’s another story in the book, because you had talked a moment ago about how many IEDs and mines there were in almost every place that you went. And you write in the book about how there was a moment where I think the platoon was heading, was moving forward in a particular direction. But there was a detection of some Taliban communications, radio communications, in preparation for an ambush of your platoon. Can you tell us that story?
SCHUEMAN: Sure. The platoon was moving from farm fields that were patrolling through towards the village. The village, it’s difficult, I think, to kind of picture what these villages look like. Because they’re just a cluster of 10 to 12 mud huts. But, you know, maybe 50 to 100 people living in one of these villages. As we were approaching the village, we were maybe 100 meters from the village, and we were monitoring the Taliban’s radio traffic.
Zac had a little radio that he could hear what they were saying, and as we approached the village, he could hear them saying, Start the ambush, get ready to start the ambush. And he turned to me and said, they’re saying they’re setting up the ambush, and you need to hurry up because they haven’t got everybody in place yet. So if you hurry up, you can stop them. But the issue is that you’ve got, you know, this young Marine, this 18 year old Marine out in front of the patrol who is walking through that minefield at the front. And so we all walk in single file line, behind that person to mitigate the threat.
And that person up front has a mine detector, a metal detector that they’re sweeping. It actually wasn’t very effective. That’s part of the reason we hit so many of those. But you can’t ask that person who’s proofing a minefield to go faster. And Zac, I told Zac, I said I can’t make him go any faster than he is. He’s already, you know, very dangerous job. And Zac took it out on his own initiative and said, We can’t wait any longer. They’re going to start the ambush.
And he sprinted through this area that was an uncleared minefield, that we knew that there were several dozen more IEDs and mines in this area. And he sprints through that field into the village, and he’s able to correlate where the traffic was coming from, where the command and control was coming from. And he enters the compound that he knew the Taliban commander was directing the ambush, and is able to tackle and detain that guy. As the rest of the platoon follows him into the village.
CHAKRABARTI: And Major Schueman, what did you think when Zac did that? When he made that sprint?
SCHUEMAN: We thought he was crazy. But I think it was one of many examples where it was clear that Zac was there to do so much more than just translate. That he was there to fight alongside us. And he went from someone who, you know, worked for the platoon to kind of just becoming another member of the platoon. And it was clear that he was willing to share the same risks, the same danger, and at times even more so than the rest of the platoon there. And so he was fighting for his country, too. And and it was clear, and that kind of courage really gained our respect, our appreciation. And he ultimately became one of us.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Zac, you didn’t have to do that, right? As a translator, you did not have to sprint ahead of the sort of mine detecting equipment and tackle a Taliban radio operator. So what were you thinking when you did that? How did you make that decision, in that split second, to take that risk?
ZAKI: … I accept the risk because they killing our people, they killing our partners, the U.S. troops, they come to help us and rebuild our country. And I stand up to go and fight against them. So, you know, everywhere they kill innocent people. They drop bomb on the street … on the roads. And … in the cities. … That’s why I served our risk, to fight against them, and to make a peaceful Afghanistan, especially for the whole world, make a peace and bring peace to the world. That’s why I accept the risk.
CHAKRABARTI: The book, Always Faithful, is full of so many of these very detailed moments. When the two of you and the platoon had to make those kinds of decisions in a split second. Tom, there’s another story about, again, just the massive presence of those IEDs. You had actually been knocked out by one, and Zac stayed with you. Can you tell us that story?
SCHUEMAN: Sure. It was November 9th. It was a day that started with Robert Kelly, a friend of mine, being killed, a great Marine and great man. And one of my Marines had been injured, and some of us went out to go help. And when we went to go alleviate some pressure with the squad that had the injured Marine, we got them back to base. But when we started to go back to base, we got ambushed. And during that ambush, my squad leader … stopped an IED and it blew up my platoon sergeant Tim Hanley and myself.
So all three of us kind of were in the same blast. And when I regained consciousness, I see Zac is there holding security. Trying to make sure to protect me. And then I look up and I saw my squad leader who was missing his leg. And then I saw my platoon sergeant was extremely concussed, couldn’t stand up. I noticed that Corporal Leahy had stepped up and taken command of the control, and control of the squad seamlessly.
And it was one of the worst moments of my life, that two guys who I loved, my sergeant, my squad leader, my platoon sergeant, were both injured. But it’s also one of those moments where you see the worst in combat. You see the horrors and the maiming of these young guys. But then as we’re carrying Sergeant Humphrey off the battlefield, Zac’s helping us carry the stretcher, I’m carrying the structure, and he keeps turning towards me and saying, Sir, I know I’m heavy. You could put me down.
And he keeps encouraging the people that are carrying the stretcher with him to put him down. And he’s saying, you guys need a rest. Sergeant Humphrey would go on to die on the helicopter and need to be resuscitated. He died twice in flight. And to think that in the moments preceding his death, his thoughts were with everyone else. They weren’t with him. And this is what this book, Always Faithful, this is where examples like this, this title comes from. You know, Semper Fidelis.
It’s people who always put others before themselves. And where else, you see the horrors, but you also see these glimpses of heaven. These glimpses of what true love can can mean. And true love is saying, put me down so you can rest. You’re my brothers. And in the moments preceding your death, you’re only thinking about other people. And so that day, it was a tough one. And Zac, like every other day, was right there when I regained consciousness, and he was right there looking out after me.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Zac, can you tell us what you experienced that day from your point of view? Because obviously, you saw the IED go off.
ZAKI: … When I saw my friends, our unit members, like all of the soldier get injured or blew up. We all didn’t feel well … for a long time. I still remember that shooting when I get up in the morning and the whistling of the bullets, in my mind, in the morning, early in the morning. And whenever I remind that our people [were] killed, my friends. It makes me cry, you know?
CHAKRABARTI: And when you say our people, you mean your fellow members of the platoon.
ZAKI: Exactly. And all of the Afghans. Thousands of Afghans are killed and still no peace. They don’t have food. They don’t have government. Everything is gone. We lost everything.
CHAKRABARTI: I was going to wait until later to ask this question, Zac, but I hope you can forgive me if I ask it now. You’re exactly right about the current situation in Afghanistan. There’s a famine. Do you think your efforts, Major Schueman’s efforts, the lives of the Marines that we just talked about, of the Afghans we just talked about. Was it all worth it?
ZAKI: Yes, it is. You know, we made a lot of sacrifices, both American and Afghan. American troops, Afghan National Army, Afghan police. We hope we get to make a brighter Afghanistan, a peaceful Afghanistan. But now it’s just gone.
… I don’t know how I feel about that. The people, the senior people who are involved in this war and the mission of Afghanistan, it’s, I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that. What was it?
CHAKRABARTI: You know, Zac, I think that’s actually the most eloquent answer I’ve heard to that question. That you don’t have an answer to that.
ZAKI: Exactly. Exactly.
CHAKRABARTI: Major Schueman, what would you say to that?
SCHUEMAN: I think Zac, you know, he initially said yes. And for a moment in time, girls were in school. For a moment in time, there were some governance. There was some security for people who had never had those opportunities. I think that question, was it worth it, was answered in form by the men who laid their lives and limbs on that battlefield. That yes, in that moment it was worth it to them. Their answers have a permanence.
Their answer echoes for eternity. And so I think the question has to be reframed to a different audience. Because clearly we went there. We fought and we bled. And we did what our countries asked us to do. And that’s what Marines, that’s what our allies have always done, is we’ve gone where our nation has sent us. And we fought and we won the battles. Was it worth it? is a collective question for the American public to answer.
From ALWAYS FAITHFUL by Thomas Schueman and Zainullah Zaki. Copyright © 2022 by Thomas Schueman and Zainullah Zaki. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.