Victory after Marine’s tireless battle to rescue translator from Kabul
“He wasn’t just a translator, he was my brother, basically one of my Marines."
From his home in a quiet Rhode Island suburb over the last week, Marine Corps Maj. Thomas Schueman has worked tirelessly to get Zak, his friend and former interpreter, out of the chaos in Afghanistan, where he lives with his family.
Late Wednesday evening, Schueman learned that their mission was successful -- Zak, his wife and their four young children secured their passage to safety. It’s a happy ending to a journey that was anything but simple or easy.
As Taliban forces took over Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul Sunday, Schueman desperately tried to find a way out of the country for Zak, one of the many Afghans and Americans still trapped as the government collapsed around them. Schueman said he made countless calls, texts and social media posts to find someone who could help his friend.
“He wasn’t just a translator, he was my brother, basically one of my Marines,” Schueman told “Nightline.” “I have a lifelong commitment to the people I serve and lead.”
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Schueman continued his search for help as the hours turned to days.
Afghanistan fell less than one month from the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, after which the U.S. invaded the country. The invasion, dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom, led to nearly two decades of fighting.
Major Shueman was one of them. No stranger to the sacrifices of war, he earned a Purple Heart while serving and, like many soldiers, lost dear friends.
He said he met a young interpreter in 2010, who has been given a pseudonym -- Zak -- due to concerns for his safety. Schueman said Zak saved his life many times.
Major Scheuman has spent the last five years trying to help Zak obtain a visa to the U.S.
“I think it’s a very simple transaction. You serve with U.S. forces and we will provide you a visa,” Schueman said. “He served with U.S. forces, we did not provide the visa. I think that’s a betrayal.”
As the Taliban took province by province in just over a week, Zak spent days in Kabul working to get the documents he needed for him, his wife and four children -- all under 5 years old -- to escape. Meanwhile, Schueman worked from the U.S. to devise an exit strategy.
“What the Taliban does to people who work with the U.S., they execute them,” Schueman said. “So this is not a ‘what if’ kind of scenario, this is what will happen if we cannot get Zak to the airport and on a flight.”
Afghan refugees have found themselves in a nightmarish situation, where one call, one day or one moment could mean the difference between life and death. After hours of calls, Schueman said he got the one he was waiting for on Sunday night: Zak and his family were finally beginning the 80-minute walk from their home to the airport.
That glimmer of hope disappeared, however, when Zak left this voice message on Schueman’s phone: “We just are returning back to our apartment because there was gun shot fire everywhere.”
In a video diary late Sunday night, Schueman said, “We’ve exhausted every course of action I can think of -- it’s about midnight. We’ll stay with them throughout the night here and pray for them.”
Despite the setback, Schueman was still focused on finding a way out for Zak and his family. The next day, the family headed back to the airport in their second attempt to leave.
In video obtained by ABC News from that second attempt, Zak's daughters could be seen crying as a loud bang could be heard. Hours later, they returned home again without any progress
The Pentagon said that 6,000 U.S. troops have been deployed to Kabul, the country's capital, as the military races to evacuate people. Pentagon officials have said their focus remains on maintaining the airport perimeter and increasing the number of evacuees.
On Wednesday, ousted President Ashraf Ghani posted a video on Facebook confirming that he escaped to the United Arab Emirates with his family, leaving behind thousands of desperate citizens too scared to leave their homes.
Schueman, however, was able to work a miracle for Zak. He said he found someone at the airport willing to look for Zak’s family. He said the man messaged Zak, telling him to look up at a tower and to put his son on his shoulders. Forty minutes later, Schueman received a message: “Got him.”
After several attempts to make it to the airport, Zak, his wife and four young children secured spots on a plane headed out of Kabul.
The U.S. has evacuated approximately 9,000 people since Aug. 14, according to a White House official, with 3,000 people evacuated Thursday and double that number slated to be flown out in 20 flights on Friday.
Between 5,000 to 7,000 people will have to be evacuated daily to beat the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline, Biden told ABC's George Stephanopoulos Wednesday.
Zak and his family landed in Qatar on Thursday. As they await his wife’s passport paperwork, two of his children are now sick. The whole family faces a long road ahead, nevertheless relieved that they have escaped.
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