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Safe at last for Afghan interpreter who aided Marine Corps major from Chicago, saved U.S. troops’ lives

Marine Maj. Thomas Schueman had been trying for months to get the interpreter to the United States. Over the past few days, he’s made it to safety in another country.

Zainullah Zaki, an Afghani translator who worked with the U.S. military, with his family just before they were able finally to get out of Afghanistan to safety after the U.S. pullout.
A young Afghan translator identified only as Zak and his family just before they were able finally to get out of Afghanistan to safety. Thomas Schueman, a Marine Corps major who grew up in Chicago, had been working to get Zak out of the country out of fear the Taliban would kill him.
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Marine Corps Maj. Thomas Schueman finally was able to type the words he’s been waiting five years to write: “They are safe.”

Schueman, a Chicago native and Marist High School grad, had been waging a frustrating battle to secure a U.S. visa for the man he believes saved his life and those of countless other Marines through his work as an interpreter for American forces in Afghanistan.

The visa never arrived for the young Afghan translator he identified only as Zak to try to help keep him safe and his family. But after three frantic attempts, Zak and his family made it inside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport this past week, somehow navigating Taliban checkpoints and the chaos of thousands of others trying to flee after the U.S. troop pullout. The Taliban had threatened to kill Zak if they ever found him.

“I don’t know their final destination. I do know that through an enormous effort by a few individuals, they won’t be executed by the Taliban,” Schueman wrote in Facebook post, later saying that Zad made it safely to another country he didn’t name.

Schueman served in Afghanistan’s Helmand River valley for seven months during which 25 Marines died and more than 200 were wounded during a campaign in 2010 against Taliban fighters. Schueman was awarded a Purple Heart after he and others were ambushed in a field on Nov. 9, 2010. His squad leader “stepped on an improvised explosive device, and he lost his leg,” Schueman, who remains on active duty but now teaches English literature at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., said in an interview in May.

Marine Maj. Thomas Schueman (right), a Chicago native, in Afghanistan. At left is Lt. William Donnelly, a friend of Schueman who was killed in action. Center is First Lt. Cameron West.
Marine Maj. Thomas Schueman (right), a Chicago native, in Afghanistan. The Marist High School grad had been trying for months to get an interpreter out of that country who he says helped save him and other U.S. troops. The interpreter has made it to safety in another country. At left is Lt. William Donnelly, a friend of Schueman who was killed in action. Center is First Lt. Cameron West.
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“This man — and many like him — literally put their lives on the line,” Schueman said then. “We owe him the opportunity to come to this country and to have some hope, some freedom to build a better life for him and his family.”

In an interview by phone last spring, Zak told the Chicago Sun-Times the Taliban had his cellphone number and had called him an “infidel” for working with the Americans.

Schueman helped Zak apply for a visa designed for Afghans under threat because they helped U.S. forces.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, recently brought the Sun-Times’ story to the attention of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said during a hearing in Washington that he’d read the story and that protecting interpreters and their families is a high priority of the Biden administration.

Still, Zak’s visa application has remained in limbo.

As Taliban fighters have swept across Afghanistan in recent weeks, Zak and his family fled from Kunar Province in the northeast to the capital city of Kabul, where they were staying in a “tiny” apartment, Schueman said.

Finally, last weekend, Zak and his family tried to make it into the airport. Schueman received assurances from U.S. officers and a local contractor that they would do their best to get him and his family on a plane. But Schueman said he lost contact with his sources in Kabul, writing on Facebook: “They have no food. No water. No bathroom. They are sitting outside an American access point to the Kabul Airport.”

Then, on Wednesday, Schueman posted a picture of Zak and his family in a car on their way to the airport. They had made it past an entry check point and were safe.

“That’s all that matters,” Schueman said. “He is with the Marines.”