This story was first published in the Military Times.
For Ty Edwards and Hakimi Quadratullah, the premise behind the new CBS series about a Marine veteran and the Afghan interpreter who becomes his roommate after saving his life isn’t exactly far-fetched.
“Marine veteran Riley (Parker Young), home at last after serving in Afghanistan, is happily reunited with his friend Awalmir (Adhir Kaylan), who goes by Al, the interpreter with his unit, after a long struggle to get him a visa to travel to the United States from Afghanistan,” the CBS show’s description synopsis reads.
In many ways, the sitcom, created by Chuck Lorre, David Goetsch and Maria Ferrari, mirrors the two men’s real lives.
Edwards, 51, is a combat-wounded Marine veteran whose life was saved by Hakimi, 33, during a fierce battle in Afghanistan’s Kunar province in 2008. After a five-year bureaucratic struggle to get Hakimi a visa, the interpreter finally made it to America, and for a short period in 2013, lived with Edwards and his family in Tampa Palms.
Though the men say the pilot episode of United States of Al that they watched at the behest of Military Times is far from perfect, it does capture some of the reality they experienced, particularly the opening scene, when Riley’s sister Lizzie (Elizabeth Alderfer) gives “Al” a hug upon his arrival at the airport.
“Well, once you’ve gone through life like what me and Hakimi did … you got a bond for a lifetime,” Edwards said. “So, I like what the sister said, ‘Thank you for saving my brother’s life,’ because that’s how my family felt, and how my dad felt. And … it was right seeing that.”
Truth is fiercer than fiction
On Oct. 18, 2008, Edwards, at the time a Marine lieutenant colonel, and Hakimi, his Afghan interpreter, were on a mission in Kunar province when things went terribly wrong.
Edwards stepped out of his Humvee when insurgents opened up with small arms fire.
“I saw him get shot,” Hakimi told me back in 2013, when I first began to write about efforts to bring him to the United States.
“I was scared. I was just 20 years old.”
Hakimi saw Edwards lying on the ground. For the interpreter and others still inside the Humvee, there wasn’t much time to think. Insurgents only 500 feet away were peppering the vehicle with small arms fire. The truck had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, knocking Hakimi out and sending searing shrapnel into his arm, leg and back.
“When I came to, everyone was out of the Humvee, which was smoking,” Hakimi told me in 2013. “I had a choice, stay in and be burned alive, or take my chances against the Taliban bullets.”
He opted for the latter, grabbing a Marine’s M4 rifle and running over to Edwards.
“I didn’t want to get taken alive,” Hakimi said. “They would have cut my throat with a wire. They would have made a video. My death would have been hard. They would make me suffer every second.”
Hakimi fired at the enemy until the magazine emptied. Then he low crawled over to Edwards, dragging the Marine behind a rock for cover.
“He was alive, but breathing heavy,” Hakimi said. After taking off Edwards’ helmet, Hakimi could see how badly wounded he was. He put a bandage in the hole in Edwards’ head.
“I told him, ‘Don’t die,’ and I started crying,” Hakimi said. “He needed help. He was dying in front of me, and when I got on the radio, I asked for help but it was all jammed up with people talking.”
Desperate for help, Hakimi used Edwards’ call sign.
“This is Sheepdog 6,” he shouted over the sounds of gunfire and friendly artillery exploding close by. “Officer down.”
Getting no response, Hakimi grabbed Edwards’ rifle and fired away at the enemy as he made his way back to the Humvee, where other Marines had taken cover and were engaging the enemy.
Another Marine and Hakimi, his uniform soaked with blood from his own wounds, crawled through the gunfire until they reached Edwards. With Hakimi providing cover, the Marine worked on Edwards, saving him until a quick reaction force arrived. The wounded were eventually taken to Bagram Airfield.
The fight to protect the ‘terps’
Over the course of the next five years, Edwards, confined to a wheelchair as a result of his wounds, and friends launched a campaign to bring Hakimi to the United States.
In 2009, the interpreter applied for a special immigration visa under the Afghan Allies Protection Act. Edwards and friends in Tampa contacted members of Congress and beseeched the State Department, but it wasn’t until 2013, after calls and emails from me while working at the Tampa Tribune, that Hakimi was finally allowed into the United States.
Hakimi and his brother, also an interpreter who eventually joined the U.S. military, are among the lucky few.
There are still nearly 20,000 interpreters waiting for visa approvals. In 2013, while embedded with the 7th Special Force Group in Kandahar province, a then-21-year-old interpreter named Naz Khalid told me about the dangers faced by he and his family, including threats that he was “working for the pigs.”
Even today, I still get several frantic messages each month from a former interpreter named Natasha, who is desperate to come to the United States because of threats on her life.
The program designed to help those who risked their lives to help U.S. forces is rife with problems, as my colleague Meghann Myers noted in a recent story.
A deep backlog of requests, combined with a lack of visibility on how many Afghan contractors have worked for the U.S. government and what has happened to them, has plagued the program, researcher Noah Coburn wrote in a paper published through Brown University’s Watson Institute.
“Many of these military interpreters and other civilian workers are no longer safe in their own homes, threatened by anti-government fighters and criminal groups,” according to the report. “Yet the U.S. visa system designed to save them is slow and inefficient, with a current processing time of over two years.”
The program, created in 2008, came as a response to concerns about the fate of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters and contractors who worked with American troops and government officials, but it has fallen into disarray as the wars in those countries have stretched beyond two decades.
In 2019, nearly 19,000 Afghans were waiting for Special Immigrant Visa approval, more than the total number who have received the SIV since the program began, according to the paper.
“At least hundreds of these Afghans have been killed already as a result of their alliance with the United States government,” Coburn wrote, “and the lives of thousands of others are at risk.”
Funny show, serious message
Hakimi told me he remains worried about those back home in Afghanistan.
“It’s dangerous,” he said. “I absolutely worry about every single person that served or helped the U.S. forces. I do feel like their life is in danger and somewhat indirectly or indirectly.”
And while Edwards and Hakimi said they will both continue to watch United States of Al, they do have some notes for Lorre and his team.
“I think it’s funny and accurate,” Hakimi told me. “They could have done a better job with finding the actor with maybe more of an Afghan or Persian accent. The actor is good but he has more of an Indian accent.”
It’s a familiar complaint, given that Kaylan is, in fact, of Indian descent and not Afghan.
Admittedly, the trailer made me wince when I first watched it. It seemed cartoonish, and Al’s accent bugged me, evidently a sentiment shared by many others. Still, the pilot does hit some realistic notes, both about veterans struggling to return home and the importance of the “terps.”
Edwards and Hakimi say they hope the show avoids cliches and addresses the struggles faced by former interpreters trying to gain entry to — and remain in — the United States.
“I was lucky and I had good friends like Ty and his friend Steve (Hemmingway),” said Hakimi, who now works as an operations manager at a distribution center in California.
“I know interpreters here that struggle. They chose different careers. They’ve worked minimum wage labor jobs. They went back to Afghanistan. But even those jobs are limited nowadays. So, I’m not sure how they’re going to showcase that in the TV show.”
So far, however, Edwards and Hakimi are impressed by what they’ve watched.
“Whoever was the story writer, I think they did spend time” in Afghanistan, Hakimi said. “It’s not someone who just heard stories. ... So for me, what I really enjoyed in that first episode was the relationship of him and the Marine’s dad. I could totally relate to that, how me and Ty’s father get along perfect. It was just so natural, like someone probably asked our opinion before writing the story.”
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